Otherwise, Ferguson

Ashon Crawley

Otherwise. Otherwise than this. To begin here in the otherwise, as the otherwise, is to pose a question about tears born in dreams.

Ever wake with tears in your eyes? Or down your cheek? Those tears serve memorial. Those tears serve vestibule for hallucinated feeling. Just down the hall a bit, an echo of an impulse. An intuition. You sit up. Why am I crying? What was that dream about? Then the remembrance of a color or sound forces deeper reflection. She sang a song. He wore black. You ponder the word “black”: it resonates and reverberates and runs deeper, further and more expansive still. You’re getting somewhere, collecting some knowledge of the initiatory why. The further away from the dream event you are, the more you must ask: what are the reasons for this intuited – barely audible, barely felt – feeling? Feeling, after material response, is the foundational occasion for recalling dreams. Material response could certainly be tears. Or sometimes, panicked breath, heaving chest. Or convulsion. Or scream. Or sweat. Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., Esaw Garner, Sybrina Fulton and Tracey Martin, Monica McBride, Mamie Till Mobley. So many others. So many, many unspoken, unknown by some, others. We cry and panic and breathe hard and convulse and scream and sweat as if waking from terrible, vulgar dreams. Each moment awake from such dreams, we long for the otherwise, the otherwise than this situation, this truth, this reality. But longing for the otherwise, we also dig into memory: how did these tears get here?

Dreams are funny things. Poet Nathaniel Mackey might say that one isn’t necessarily “in” one dream and then another and that dreams don’t seem to ever “begin,” their origin difficult to locate. We just end up in the middle of them, in environments that seem to have sense, order, precision. We just end up hearing in the middle of them, some song or sound, bright or muted. Trumpet blare. Organ grind. Quivering voice. Lilt. But always, just over the edge of such precision, order and sense is a fuzziness, a blurring. The sound sharpens, swells, silences. Gaps and holes in sonic and ocular worlds. Precision now lacking, clarity receding. And with that, a realization. It does not have to be this way. This can change. We can be something other than this. In that recognition, in that desire, is a promise.

Dreams are funny things. Each dream the possibility for otherwise than this, than this mood of intense feeling found in tears. Each dream, no matter how vile, vulgar and violent – introduces the possibility of the otherwise – creates occasion to imagine that we might want to be something else. America, for black, brown, indigenous folks, has always been something of a nightmare, something of a confluence of political, economic and juridical violence that produces the ongoing desire for the otherwise than this.

With the accusations of police office Daniel Holtzclaw sexually assaulting eight black women, Michael Brown’s murder and the paramilitary police response in Ferguson, Eric Garner’s murder and the violence in Gaza this summer, it seems we’ve been abruptly awakened. So awakened, many have been attempting to reconstruct – through rhizomatic feeling – the dream that got us here. Many have been mobilizing the last sensation and emotion – of astonishment, of disbelief, of horror, of terror, of melancholy, of rage – because we know such feeling, if anything, remains. The last sensation and emotion is instrumentalized in the cause of producing justice, justice by remembering that from which we were awakened and thinking an otherwise possibility. We do not rehearse that Mike was on his way to college in order to humanize him, to make him acceptable and less threatening to white supremacist logics. We think his movement to college because such thinking prompts a feeling – despair and anger and rage and sadness, this boy, on his way somewhere; to grandmother’s house, to college – a feeling that gets us somewhere close to threading together the loose strings of six bullets that produced for us tears.

We use such feeling – made material through tears, laments, screams, protests, looting, flowers, teddy bears, hugs, newfound loves – to take us back into that which seeks to escape, a gathering and organizing of ephemera. This ephemerality, the desire to think the occasion of Mike’s murder and the subsequent paramilitary police response as singular and unique, as unrelated to the murders of John, Eric or Renisha or ongoing struggle in Gaza, is the effect of state violence. We all exist – from Gaza to Ferguson – in occupied territory. Ephemerality is the effect of the state. It wants us separated. The state wants for these various modes of violence to seem ephemeral, to seemingly be stable and fully contained in each enactment, wholly unrelated to any other act. This desired ephemerality is for a desired slipping away from our hands, minds and hearts the sociality that connects us to something real, that prompts within us a critique of state violence.

But allowing the tears to resonate, to sound out in and through us, we dive into remembrance. So, for instance, you wake up with tears in your eyes and you are astonished at such tears. The materiality of astonishment incites you to a feeling of loss and abandonment. As if some thing, some one, is slipping through your grip as so many grains of sand. That feeling of the gap and hole, of trying to hold air in your hand, leads back to the question: why do I feel this way? This recall, working from some such tear or smile or laugh or itch toward that which it hallucinates, then toward some question or general concern, further still to the even broader general field from which any emotion or sensation comes. We have awoken to the fact that police power and status quo politics simply delimit the thriving of we that are marginalized, we that have been refused citizenship in varied modalities in western civilization. Gather the ephemera. Dive in, deep. What was the content of the dream?

The idea of America, the idea born in dreams, is farce. The dream that all men are created equal, in its very enunciation, bespeaks the gendered nature of so-called equality. But veiled from the declaration of “all men” are the ways the concept is not only gendered, but racialized and classed as well. One had to be a white, landed male, in order to be considered one of the “all men” created through the ideology of equality. Though this is not the case any longer, the exclusionary logic of America remains intact. The America that we have, the one we’ve been given, is one that depends upon the ongoing creation of an Other, and then after such a creation, the Other’s exclusion. The America we have, in other words, depends upon a willful sleep, a comatose state wherein the dream plays over and over again, seeming precise while brushing up against the edges of its disorderly ephemera. It is from this dream, the American dream of picket fences and marriages and children and maybe a dog or two, to which we have awakened. It is from within this dream, the American dream of protected children and justice for the marginalized, that Michael Brown Sr.’s cry echoes.

Otherwise Ferguson

We know, for instance, that the current Prison Industrial Complex of the United States is but one iteration of the same old white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ordering of the western world. As old as 1492, though we know that date is spurious at best. We know that inequitable access to educational resources, to healthcare and food stability, are other modalities of that same old ordering. We know that sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism are deeply entwined in this ordering as well. The idea of America found in this dream is grounded in this ordering, the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ordering, for its elaboration. This ordering, which we may simply call western civilization, needs for us to think incarceration is distinct from sexism is distinct from homophobia is distinct from racism. It needs for us to think that these varied problematics are grounded in the individual who either receives or is refused rights, rather than the problematics emerging from within a system of inequities that are institutionally enforced. It needs these various strains of problematics to remain ephemeral. This ordering needs for us to not ever fully wake from sleep states – an awakening that would allow for the gathering of ephemerality – needs for us to believe that if we simply reorder who is allowed to flourish in the dream, that all will be well. It needs for us to think that an otherwise is impossible, that an otherwise than this is not desirable. It needs for us to return to its own logic and law as given and impenetrable, as axiomatic and unchangeable. The ephemera just over the edge of the dream, abruptly realized while now awake, are the varied modalities of oppression under which we exist.

America’s dream rests with its capacity for policing and governance, in its capacity to tell us what we can be and what we are allowed to do. Yet the idea of what America could be rests with those who have always exceeded its framework, those of us indigene, brown and blacks folks, those of us prisoner, poor and improper folks. We look to that which exists as excess, that which, in its excesses, is constitutive of the otherwise dream. What can we be beyond these myths of American exceptionalism?

To begin with the otherwise as word, as concept, is to presume that whatever we have is not all that is possible. Otherwise. It is a concept of internal difference, internal multiplicity. The otherwise is the disbelief in what is current and a movement towards, and an affirmation of, imagining other modes of social organization, other ways for us to be with each other. Otherwise as plentitude. Otherwise is the enunciation and concept of irreducible possibility, irreducible capacity, to create change, to be something else, to explore, to imagine, to live fully, freely, vibrantly. Otherwise Ferguson. Otherwise Gaza. Otherwise Detroit. Otherwise Worlds. Otherwise expresses an unrest and discontent, a seeking to conceive dreams that allow us to wake laughing, tears of joy in our eyes, dreams that have us saying, I hope this comes true.

It is shameful that to want peace from police racial profiling and brutality is the announcement of the otherwise. To want equitably resourced schools, access to healthcare that does not require huge out of pocket costs, healthcare that does not require huge amounts of money for vital medicines, is the announcement of the otherwise. To want access to free, clean, available water is part of a radical political vision, is the announcement of the otherwise. Yet this is where we are as a nation. Perhaps now is the time to ask what the efficacy of such a concept is, if “America” can so easily deny peace, allow violent brutality, deny water.

If Ferguson is a test case – and there is no way to think it is not – then we’ve gotta think about black life in the center and how there are all sorts of forces working against it. Paramilitary police power. Governance. Economy. Media. All these varied forces against black life crystalized in the murder of Mike. Such that maybe we can think another politics, a black political, that’s not wed to these forms of existence, that does not look to these varied institutions for solutions.

Mary Prince was enslaved in Devonshire Parish, Bermuda by birth, born in 1788. In her narrative, she recounts how her Mistress one day asked her, “who had put freedom into my head.” Mary Prince responded: “to be free is very sweet.” She did not answer the posed question but responded to the path on and through which she already traversed: thinking, conceptualizing, and yes, living free even against the brutality and violence of enslavement. Her answer, her reply, was a non sequitur, a black non sequitur. Mike and Dorian were told, by Darren Wilson, to get the fuck on the sidewalk. Their response: “we’re almost where we’re going.” Mike and Dorian are in the tradition of black non sequiturs, a refusal to answer to disciplinary power. Their performance of the black non sequitur acknowledged the presence of, without ever submitting to, the authority of the nation-state vested in Wilson. And disciplinary power doesn’t know how to deal with these various modes of non-responses, these responses that disrupt normative function and form. Disciplinary power of the state would rather obliterate than allow for these various non-responses to violent encounter. And the non-response is as true for Dorian and Mike, as true for Mary Prince, as it is true of the various vigils and protests, teach-ins and meetings held in Ferguson. Paramilitary responses to such being in the world, such non sequiturs, have been found in the various attempts to kill us.

A black non sequitur political vision, one grounded in knowing where we’re going, where we’re heading, is knowing that, yes, it will also create the occasion for violence against us. But this otherwise vision, this black non sequitur political life, is the mode of critique against the established political order. Refusing this otherwise is not a possibility. Because what would the alternative be? To continue to cower to the current order? To continue to speak about sagging jeans and baby mommas, and black on black crime as if any of these things are not rhetorical strategies used to keep things intact, to keep inequity proliferating?

Ferguson sets into relief the economy of occupation through policing in which we live, the ways policing, law and capitalism operate to administer various kinds of violence against those of us that seek justice, those of us that are marginalized. There are rumblings, not that police should wear cameras, not that voting registration is a panacea for new political life. No. There are rumblings about thinking otherwise alternatives of police, of the nation as the overarching organizing principle and strategy. Folks want something different. And we look to Ferguson to notice its enactment.

On the same line and frequency as Nathaniel Mackey’s “from a broken bottle, traces of perfume still emanate,” breaking the flesh of Mike only made more emphatic the sociality of blackness, its irregularity, its threat to the normative – which is also, the violent – order. The breaking of Mike’s flesh produced a quick gathering of tears, of laments, of protests, vigils, prayers and songs. The breaking of Mike’s flesh prompted movement, prompted desire to be together with others in the street – laughing, dancing, crying. This broken flesh produced the otherwise.

Ever dream about a crush, a beautiful partner, one that causes you to sigh in euphoria and relief? I have had such dreams, have had such crushes. And you perhaps have as well. I dream his smile. Dream his laughter. Dream his use of words, of verbs. All move me. Some think such fluttering feelings of butterflies are simply impossibilities, that having them is simply wallowing in bad feeling. Bad feeling, of course, emerging from such feelings of love seeming unrequited, impossible, only realized in dream sequences. Yet for me, it’d be much worse to be unable to have, or to repress, feelings of delight and wonder and imaginative flights. It’d be much worse, in other words, to think the otherwise impossible, so much so that the otherwise itself becomes unthinkable, unwished, unimaginable.

Ever awaken from a dream laughing, smiling? Ever wake from a dream desiring its extension into the known world, the realities in which we exist? Ever want to carry such desired feeling, such happiness and joy into your daily interactions, floating on what seems to be air? Ever dream the otherwise and with such dreaming, desire to live into it? Perhaps you have, like me, dreamt the love of a romantic possibility. Or perhaps the possibility for peace and justice, equitable distributions of financial, educational, health and food resources. And that is where we are, what we have, even through and yes, against, the brutality of this nightmare of an American dream. We have this small sliver of a chance to question the very structures by which we are governed and policed. We already have and are what we need and this idea has come into brutal clarity the past weeks, July 8 being for me at least, a major force of that clarity. The violent response of the state desires us to recoil because of its cruel capability without regard for the thing it purports to protect: law. And it is this chance, this opportunity, that we must seize with haste, with intensity, with clarity. Hashtags moved from Gaza to Ferguson, from LA and NYC and Detroit and Atlanta to Ferguson and back boomeranged, all creating loops, spaces of otherwise modes of sociality. Otherwise than this. Otherwise.


ashoncrawleyAshon Crawley is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside. He earned his doctoral degree in English with a certificate in African and African American Studies from Duke University. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist and Queer theories. He is completing his first book project, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which investigates the relationship of aesthetic productions to modes of collective, social intellectual practice.