My proposal has been accepted for the 2016 Mini-Conference on Policing and Race (see below), January 29-30 in Cincinnati, Ohio. This paper is informed my ongoing collaboration with Ohio Student Association organizers on the ‘Breaking Consent’ action-research project.
Charismatic leadership as a technology of policing: profiling and the logic of group-centered leadership for contemporary racial justice organizing
Contemporary racial justice organizers in the U.S. are challenging a dichotomy in social movement theory and practice by pursuing neither a hero-centered movement that relies on a charismatic leader nor a horizontal or ‘spontaneous’ mobilization against injustice. Spokespeople for the organizations most active in racial justice organizing since 2013 (when George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin) have accordingly described their work as “leader-full.” This form of organizing is not without its detractors; indeed, some of the most prominent leaders of civil rights activism in decades past are explicitly dismissive. For example, earlier this year, Al Sharpton responded to suspicion that he would seek to be the face of the contemporary movement by saying, “What movement? Y’all ain’t got nothing to take over.” Young racial justice organizers disagree.
This paper explains the cultivation of group-centered or “leader-full” organizing in terms of the technology of policing (charismatic leadership) that it undermines. It presents findings from an ongoing action-research project with young racial justice organizers in the Ohio Student Association (OSA)—the group that drew national attention to the police shooting of John Crawford III in Dayton on August 5, 2014, four days before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Observations from the OSA organizer training retreats in Columbus, Dayton, and Cleveland, and testimonies from young participants in those retreats, are contextualized to understand the logic of cultivating group-centered leadership. The paper situates this form of organizing in a radical democratic tradition of the Black Freedom Movement, and then shows that, for these young organizers, the charismatic leader is understood to function as a technology of policing because it makes racial justice work legible for people invested in the maintenance of injustice. Young organizers challenge hero-centrism because the hero figure makes their work vulnerable to being profiled. In contrast, group-centered leadership is understood to suspend profiles given to the exercise of repressive state power.
Policing, in this logic, is defined in the broadest possible sense, compatible with some currents of contemporary political theory (Mark Neocleous, Jacques Rancière); policing is not restricted to officers in uniform but is extended to include disparate practices—e.g., the appointment and worship of a hero qua leader—by which governable social-spatial order is consolidated. For OSA, leader-full organizing demands constantly forging and reformulating political identities. It demands agitation to suspend the givenness of profiles and thereby create conditions for collective action. Such a challenge to the hero-centered form of organizing clearly carries with it a critique of recognition-based models of liberalism. For this reason, the paper suggests that some work now being done under the sign of racial justice organizing can be described as post-liberal.