Thoughts on the police brutality and genocide studies

[Note:  This is not a “statement.”  In writing it, I am not trying to engage in or launch the important conversation about how the field of genocide studies, as practice if not in theory, own blind spots about race and power.  Rather, these are reflections on how my own experience with the field has led me to process this moment. – DS, 5 June 2020]

The field of genocide studies often seems to be a forum for legalism:  the term “genocide” was essentially coined as a legal term in the mid-20th century.  Genocide scholars spend a great deal of time and energy debating (often against one another) whether situation X – whether in present times or in the recent or distant past – meets the legal definition of the term as codified in the 1948 United Nations convention against genocide.  Insofar as such arguments are geared to produce a “Yes” or “No” answer, the line of inquiry is often disappointing – especially for those who might have preferred, intuitively, for the opposite of the answer given.  Nor is either answer the end of the story.  As a legal matter, a “Yes” leads to further questions of what individuals and entities bear what levels of responsibility for it, and in who’s jurisdiction.  A “No” simply deflects the line of inquiry to consider what other types of violations of laws may have taken place.

To ask, then, whether the violent death of George Floyd is indicative of genocide, or even some other atrocity crime, is of limited use. I suspect the answer would be ‘no’ – hate crimes, even those involving state agents, can be perpetrated in the absence of the convention definition’s crucial “intent to destroy” element, and something like widespread and systematic pattern of infliction would be required to infer it otherwise.

However, the field of genocide studies has a lot more to offer to the consideration of the current situation in the United States beyond legal analysis.  Three topics strike me as highly relevant for this moment.

The first is the central role of testimony in efforts to understand genocide.  Listening to survivors tell their stories helps us understand not just the dynamics of how persecution and violence against them unfolded, but also the dimensions of their pain and possibly the sources of their resilience.  Genocide scholars are finding there is more to learn about these same issues through hearing testimony from second and third generation survivors.

The second topic central to genocide studies that might shed some light on the current moment is the study of perpetrators.  George Floyd was killed when a police officer became a perpetrator by using his body wait to extinguish the life of a man beneath his own knee.  He was surrounded by several others who might have had an opportunity to intervene, but ultimately either assisted the lead perpetrator or stood by simply watching the tragedy unfold. Genocide scholarship on perpetrators has inquired into the mindset of people like those involved.  It has also sought to understand the sociology of perpetration – addressing how groups shape perpetrators views, choice sets, and choices. Genocide scholarship has shown time and again that perpetration usually not only takes place in groups, but also depends on the dynamics of groups and of sub-groups.  Many perpetrators find permission to engage in otherwise counter-normative behavior because within their group – be it a police battalion, a military unit, or a youth militia – lethal acts became acceptable. 

Finally, a rich realm of genocide studies scholarship addresses the macro-level politics in which violence and hatred become commonplace.  Genocide and other mass atrocities are the political projects of human agents, often desperate but always calculating.  At the core of the project is a strategy to divide society, to turn one part against another. In short, polarization. For agents of atrocity, the enemy is both those whom they identify as such (the direct targets) and those who are not the targeted group but would oppose a shift in norms toward singling out any group for persecution (the indirect targets, or the moderates). Resilience in the face of mass atrocity threats is not so much a matter of preparedness by the targeted group to fight back as it as a matter of the moderates to resist those threats. 

Each of these realms of inquiry opens a door to important perspectives about our current moment, even if the acts that frame the moment fall short of genocide’s legal requirements. Perhaps first and foremost is the urgent need to listen to the voices of the victimized, and of those most directly in the shadow of victimization.  We need to do so with empathy, but with awareness that empathy alone can never be enough and is no cure for the situation. 

Second is a recognition of the role of social dynamics.   The militarization of police forces inculcates a separation between force and society. Officers trained to think of – and train their hi-tech weapons on – segments of the society as the enemy edge closer to a normative world in which they believe they possess permission to do violence.  Vigilante groups of the type filmed roaming the streets in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia likely lack even the weakened constraints that the most normatively corroded of police forces do.  Their presence should serve as a dire warning, for the emergence of non-state armed groups is one of the surest signs of a proliferation of violence.

Finally, with respect to the political context of the moment, the climate of widening polarization in the United States is unmistakable.  Public health measures had already sparked myriad confrontations across the country, albeit generally in a manner more ugly than bloody.  The president’s stated desire to bring to bear military force against protests seems designed to exacerbate the differences. The target is not so much looters, as those protesters calling for change but not violence.  They face a choice: either appear to cast their lot with their radical brethren, or get out of the way. Soon, repeated efforts to escalate from one side will embolden militants on the other, and the space for moderation – peaceful, empathetic resistance – evaporates.

Where things go from here is not predetermined.  Most of the time, moderation does prevail over extremism.  Most of the time the impulse (by some) to persecute is overwhelmed by the impulse (by many more others) to live together, albeit imperfectly. That this time maybe one of those times is the best we can hope for. The final lesson I draw from genocide studies is that we should all be actively imagining what we can do –in our hearts and in or community – to make it so.