Kevin Marinelli. Argumentation and Advocacy. Volume 54, Issue 3. 2018.
During the summer of 2014, Americans witnessed a resurgence of civil rights protest unparalleled in nearly half a century. Over the course of several weeks, thousands of protesters flooded the streets to demonstrate racial inequality in light of the perceived institutional disregard for Black life by repressive state apparatuses including law enforcement and the judicial system (see Althusser  2001). Between May and September, a record high 43 black persons were killed at the hands of police officers in the United States (Mapping Police Violence 2017). By August, a chain of racially charged demonstrations had erupted across the nation. The protests gradually assumed the formation of Black Lives Matter, a dispersed network of activists pushing civil rights issues back into the forefront of American public discourse. Ironically, the largest collection of civil rights demonstrations in nearly three generations emerged in the wake of what some had pronounced the death of racism (see, for example, McWhorter 2008, December 8). In that respect, the genesis of Black Lives Matter illustrates a sophisticated innovation by marginalized voices to disrupt the logics of post-racial discourse and reestablish a Black populist subject within the American public imaginary.
In the following essay, I examine the rhetorical formation of Black Lives Matter through Ernesto Laclau’s framework of articulation. I supplement that framework with greater attention to the mobilizing force of irony in light of what Catherine Squires identifies as the post-racial mystique. I argue post-racial rhetoric had engendered a climate of political stagnation in which demands for civil rights were thwarted by narratives of social progress and racial equality. In response, protesters temporarily displaced traditional popular demands, e.g. “Black Power,” with ironic slogans appearing to pay deference to the declaration of a post-racial America while simultaneously exposing its ludicrousness. Performative utterances such as “Hands up; don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” facilitated an ironic juxtaposition which became the locus, or “quilting point” (Laclau 2007, 105), through which race could reappear in a climate of “neo-colorblindness” (Squires 2014, 167). Only after these statements helped rearticulate the Black populist subject could more traditional popular demands for racial equality begin to recirculate within the mainstream of American public discourse. Politically, Black Lives Matter compels Americans to reexamine the dominant narratives of racial equality in the face of institutional racism. Theoretically, Black Lives Matter demands scholars to reconsider the rhetorical staging of populist formation within the racial constraints of neoliberalism (see Hohl 2015).
Civil rights rhetoric has long inspired theories of populist subjectivity. The emergence of Black Nationalism during the 1960s compelled many rhetoricians to heed Leland M. Griffin’s ( 2013) prescient call to consider the rhetoric of historical movements. Marginalized from conventional means of discourse and persuasion, civil rights activists created unconventional modes of discourse through material acts of protest, most notably, confrontation. According to Robert L. Scott and Donald Smith ( 2013), the confrontational tone of the civil rights movement became essential to its collective identity because it dissolved the lines between various forms of protest. In the same vein, I argue the ironic tone of Black Lives Matter dissolves the lines between respective grievances of racial injustice while simultaneously unifying a collective populist subject.
Since the civil rights movement, critics have increasingly emphasized the rhetorical contingency of populist formation. According to Michael Calvin McGee (1975), populist rhetoric functions as a filter of facts translated through beliefs (249). Likewise, the emergence of social movements is no less contingent upon the rhetorical discourse constituting and framing historical events than it is upon the historical events themselves. At the heart of McGee’s criticism lies fundamental questions concerning collective agency: what precisely constitutes the exigency for social change, and how may we identify it at such? Following McGee, some have argued the genesis of a social movement emerges within a broader struggle for hegemony, defined as the discursive capacity to constitute a group of people (see, for example, Charland 1987; see also McKerrow 1989). Others frame the issue in terms of concordance by emphasizing the negotiation of articulated interests (Condit 1994, 221). Despite their differences, these competing perspectives remain anchored by a concept of articulation that has become essential to examining populist formation in the contemporary political landscape (DeLuca 1999).
Theories of articulation mark the discursive contingency of social struggle (see Laclau and Mouffe 1985). As early as 1989, Barbara Biesecker introduced the concept to rhetorical studies by way of deconstruction. According to Biesecker, “[T]he deconstruction of the subject opens up possibilities for the field of Rhetoric by enabling us to read the rhetorical situation as an event structured not by a logic of influence but by a logic of articulation” (126). Still, such possibilities do not open easily. Ronald Greene (1998) argues the struggle to undo the logic of influence has subsequently facilitated an “uneasy alliance” between conceptions of rhetoric as persuasion and those of rhetoric as identification (23). Greene offers a Foucauldian escape from the “methodological straightjacket” (22) by imploring critics to “focus [instead] on how rhetoric distributes different elements on a terrain of a governing apparatus” (38). Similarly, Nathan Stormer (2004) aims to reorient critics from subject- to practice-oriented conceptions of rhetoric. Today, the project of articulation survives a multifaceted legacy. While it helps historicize populist formation on one hand, its disillusion with representation arguably undercuts theories of collective action (see Spivak 1984). Perhaps no one has recently done more to consider the rhetorical foundations of constructing a people than Ernesto Laclau in his later work on populist reason. Laclau serves as both a pioneer of articulation theory and its consummate curator up until his death in 2012.
Ernesto Laclau on Articulation
One may identify Laclau’s oeuvre as the struggle to find the conditions of possibility for constructing a populist subject, a people. For Laclau (2007), a people emerges on the terrain of concrete struggle in the form of a social demand (72). Laclau identifies two types of social demands: democratic and popular. Initially, the demand takes the democratic form of a request or grievance, as it implicitly acknowledges the institutional sovereign to which it is directed. If the demand is met, the issue is resolved. If, however, authorities fail to meet the request, one of two things may follow. Either the movement dies or advocates seek disenfranchised allies, combining their social demands to facilitate a chain of equivalence. In doing so, the relation marks a “widening chasm separating the institutional system from the people” (73-74). Here, the social demand transitions from its democratic to its popular form. In other words, the demand shifts from a specific request to an abstract claim regarding the marginalized status of a people. These two preconditions: first, “an internal antagonism separating the people from power” and second, an equivalential articulation of demands, facilitate the emergence of a populist subject (74).
Laclau situates his populist framework in rhetorical tropology. A politically marginalized group creates a popular demand to represent its absence of power (metonymy) while combining with other marginalized groups (metaphor) in the attempt to establish their emerging collective as the essence of populist struggle (synecdoche) (Laclau 2014, 93-99). The schematic builds on a long tradition of “master tropes” initiated by Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century (Marshall 2010, 215). Vico makes the decisive move to frame metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony as conceptual—not merely linguistic—apparatuses, implicated in the historical development of human consciousness and the origin of language. For Vico, the primary master trope is metaphor, which offers the conceptual source of all verbal tropes (Danesi 1993, 74). Twentieth century theorists such as Kenneth Burke and Jacques Lacan later combine the conceptual insights of humanistic thought with Freudian psychoanalysis to develop their own respective tropologies. Others, such as Ernesto Grassi (1994) and Northrop Frye ( 2000), prefer humanistic frameworks to psychoanalysis. Both perspectives identify metaphor and metonymy as the two primary master tropes (or linguistic poles, according to Jakobson  1995), but disagree on the question of primacy between the two. From the humanistic perspective, metaphor continues to serve as the “primordial” master trope (see Grassi 1994), whereas psychoanalysis privileges metonymy as the foundational displacement and constituent of meaning (see Lacan  2007). In either case, theorists typically frame irony as a higher order trope given its required state of reflection. Perhaps for these reasons, the formative potential of irony to facilitate populist subjectivity has been left underdeveloped. I return to that point later in my essay.
Next, Laclau examines the process of identification within the emergence of a populist subject. Marginalized individuals identify with one another insofar as they are mutually defined by a constitutive lack, or negation, of the dominant group or oppressor (2008, 40-41). To borrow from Ferdinand de Saussure ( 1998), a disenfranchised group exists only by virtue of its relation and opposition to its oppressor (22-23). When multiple disenfranchised groups combine under a single demand, or equivalential signifier, they metaphorically begin to construct a people. The logic informing the chain of equivalence is its quilting point. The quilting point typically takes the form of an ambiguous slogan around which the plurality of struggles can unite, the equivalential signifier. Laclau (2014) explains, “The name—of a social movement, of an ideology, of a political institution—is always the metaphorical crystallization of contents whose analogical links result from concealing the contingent contiguity of their metonymical origins” (63). The more ambiguous the slogan is, the greater its metaphorical capacity to invite “universal” struggle. Eventually, one particular demand is “overdetermined” as the equivalential signifier of the movement (Laclau 2007, 115).
Laclau’s populist framework has invited a range of praise and criticism. A notable point of contention remains Laclau’s concept of the social demand, which some argue facilitates a politics of closure. Christian Lundberg (2012), for example, advocates a Lacanian “politics of desire” to curb the efficacy of a politics of demand (316). The demand to change public policy, for example, can create the misconception of closure to social issues far more deeply entrenched into the cultural milieu that their subsequent policy proposals might suggest. Others argue the concept of the social demand is not quite rhetorical enough. Darrel Enck-Wanzer (2011) insists Laclau “fails to consider the rhetorical form or implications of the demand aside from characterizing it as a request or claim” (63). Benjamin Arditi (2010) criticizes Laclau’s ambiguous language in describing the pivotal transition of demands from a “feeling of vague solidarity” to a “stable system of signification” (495). Arditi states, “What we are not told is how to establish this if this structural condition has been achieved: how stable must a system of signification be in order to engender a proper popular identity?” (495). In the following analysis, I build on Enck-Wanzer’s and Arditi’s criticisms concerning the rhetorical form of the social demand and its capacity to engender a populist subject.
In the case of Black Lives Matter, one may first identify the democratic request to indict George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Although the demand was eventually satisfied months later, it also required immense public pressure, which began to articulate an antagonism between the state and people of color. The chasm widened upon Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, and widened further upon the refusal to indict the officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and Michael Brown the following summer. Upon the institutional refusal to meet those requests, a popular movement began to emerge. Laclau’s framework can account for that much. But it does not account for the rhetorical strategies deployed throughout that process. Interestingly, the metonymic representation, or slogan, of each nodal point within the movement circumvented the kind of language traditionally associated with popular demands. The unison echo of Eric Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” operates differently than shouting, “Black power!” Similarly, the chant of “Hands up; don’t shoot!” rings differently than “Justice for Michael Brown.” Instead of view the dynamic as mere anomaly, we may investigate the rhetorical production of such slogans within their broader cultural context. I argue the metonymic slogans of Black Lives Matter aim to reinscribe the ideology of colorblindness while simultaneously articulating a chain of equivalence across the dispersion of civil rights demonstrations.
To continue, we must first distinguish between the rhetorical tropology and the rhetorical message of a movement, however slippery such a distinction might be. The populist framework of Laclau focuses primarily on the former, and for good reason. By privileging tropology over verbal message, Laclau attempts to locate a foundational logic underpinning populist formation as such. Consequently, however, Laclau provides considerably less insight concerning the verbal and visual force of social demands in particular. This largely is because Laclau frames the popular demand as an empty signifier whose primary goal is to mark an antagonism between the state and the people, as opposed to express any conceptual idea. Ultimately, Laclau privileges the tropology of the movement to the point of marginalizing its message. He neglects to consider popular demands as anything other than empty signifiers. His framework subsequently fails to account for slogans that are neither concrete, empty nor floating, but, instead, ironic.
Irony appears in the work of Laclau insomuch as the populist subject emerges in dialectical opposition to the oppressor, articulated in mutual constitution with the popular demand. In that way, the very foundation of populism is ironical. The issue is that Laclau views the popular demand, quite literally, as an empty vessel as opposed to a rhetorical force. Consequently, the discursive deployment of the slogan is ignored. My goal here is not to dismiss Laclau’s tropology in favor of close-textual analysis but, instead, to illuminate the mutually informative relationship between cultural context and popular demand to better capture the layered rhetorical dimension of populist reason. As Barbara Biesecker (1989) states, “[T]he ‘rhetorical dimension’ names both the means by which an idea or argument is expressed and the initial formative intervention that, in centering a differential situation, makes possible the production of meaning” (112). In that respect, Laclau’s framework encourages critics to consider only the formative intervention without fully considering the means by which an idea or argument is expressed. As I shall demonstrate, Black Lives Matter distinguishes itself by utilizing slogans pointing to a state of affairs which initially could not be identified as such. Thus, what Laclau typically would identify as the “metonymic origins” of the movement functions in this case more as the play of différance, the “possibility of conceptuality” concerning the appearance of racial inequality in a post-racial state (as cited in Biesecker, 117). Tropologically, the slogans function as the production of irony.
Irony and the Post-Racial Mystique
In The Post-Racial Mystique: Media and Race in the Twenty-First Century, Catherine Squires (2014) interrogates the proliferation of post-racial discourse in the United States. According to Squires, a combination of news reporting, political strategizing, and concerted efforts by the culture industries help circulate post-racial images and narratives at a rate disproportionate to the reality of U.S. race dynamics. She observes, “Discussions of a post-racial America were driven largely by Barack Obama’s presence in [his 2008 presidential] campaign. Running second were articles mentioning multicultural families and persons, as well as demographic changes happening within the nation” (41). Despite its optimistic tone, post-racial discourse imposes a unique burden on people of color. Squires insists, “This neo-colorblindness asks citizens to refrain from declarations of discrimination based on race/ethnicity, and to look for race-blind remedies to racial inequalities in education, housing, employment, and so forth” (167). According to Squires, the cultural milieu of post-racial discourse—what she calls the post-racial script—consequently hamstrings any attempt to advocate a civil rights agenda.
The post-racial constraints upon civil rights advocacy manifest further in light of Laclau’s conceptualization of the populist subject. For Laclau, the political subject and the social demand are mutually constitutive. From this perspective, the post-racial mystique doubly constrains civil rights advocates: first, in terms of articulating a social grievance within a climate of perceived racial equality; and, second, in terms of articulating a Black populist subject within a climate of neo-colorblindness. Both dynamics function to undermine the widening chasm between people of color and the state, thereby minimizing the likelihood of black citizens to articulate a Black populist movement. In turn, civil rights advocates are left to pry open such space through alternative discursive techniques. Interestingly, the prying open of discursive space is precisely the function of irony.
Irony carries a long tradition in civil rights advocacy. Fredrick Douglas (1852) famously demanded supporters to engage in a “scorching irony” of adulation to help offset the misguided celebration of what would soon be labeled American exceptionalism (see Zimmer 2012, September 27). Half a century later, Native Americans echoed Douglas in the ritual of “talking back” to exceptional narratives endorsing colonial domination (see Black 2009). Half a century later, still, James Forman’s Black Manifesto utilized irony to galvanize black and white audiences simultaneously in the pursuit of equal civil rights (Parker, 2008). Today, scholars remain divided on the merits and appropriate forms of irony as a mobilizing force. Christine Harold (2004), for example, prefers the “rhetorical jujitsu” [sic] of “pranksters” over the adversarial irony of “culture jammers” (191). Marcyrose Chvasta (2007) aspires beyond irony altogether. Chvasta argues the scholarly celebration of carnivalesque irony comes at the cost of public advocacy. What advocates need, instead, is a return to clear agendas and good-old-fashioned anger. Others navigate between both extremes. According to Robert Terrill (2003), “[T]he political potentials of irony are animated by a dilemma: irony that would be politically productive cannot be sustained indefinitely because it must find its culmination in action, but action spells the end of irony” (230). Put simply, ironic discourse is both necessary and, ironically, antithetical to public advocacy. Yet while scholars have devoted significant attention to the role of irony in public life, both as a rhetorical device and as a mode of political engagement, far less has been said on the role of irony in constructing a people.
Irony commonly is understood as the effect of saying one thing but suggesting its opposite, thereby illuminating a deeper truth that escapes literality. Dramatically, scholars define irony as a circumstantial contrast of events, whose mutual presence illuminates one another to advance a thesis (Thirwall 1883). Irony is distinguished from other tropes partly due to its rhetorical “edge,” an emotional presence exceeding its conceptual understanding (Hutcheon 1994, 10). Things “feel” ironic in such a way other tropes are not felt. Beyond that, there exists relatively little consensus on the topic. Conceptualizations of irony range from a literary device (see Aristotle 2013) to a conceptual apparatus (Vico  2002) to a structural dimension (see Burke 1989; see also Frye  2000) to a form of political engagement (see Rorty 1989) to an existential mode of being (see Kierkegaard 1992).
The following analysis utilizes a conceptual-structural treatment of irony perhaps best articulated in Kenneth Burke’s (1941) “Four Master Tropes.” Burke’s “dialectical” theorization allows us to consider the capacity of irony to “provoke reflection, elicit response, and direct audience participation” in ways traditional modes of protest may not (Parker 2008, 339). Additionally, Burke’s treatment of the master tropes compliments Laclau’s tropic succession of populist formation. Specifically, Burke illuminates the capacity of irony to facilitate public representation. According to Burke:
Irony arises when one tries, by the interaction of terms upon one another, to produce a development which uses all the terms. Hence, from the standpoint of this total form (this “perspective of perspectives”), none of the participating “sub-perspectives” can be treated as precisely right or wrong. (parentheses Burke’s; 432)
To say irony “arises” rather than say it is “used” helps us consider irony as rhetorical form. One cannot “deploy” irony as one can deploy other tropes. Instead, like pathos, irony is better understood as an audience effect rather than a rhetorical tool. Next, irony helps facilitate public representation. Burke explains, “A human role (such as we get in drama) may be summed up in certain slogans, or formulae, or epigrams, or ‘ideas’ that characterize the agent’s situation or strategy” (parentheses Burke’s; 421). Burke’s attention to slogans is similar to that of Laclau, but Burke additionally demonstrates the role irony in articulating public roles as such. He observes, “A dialectic, for instance, aims to give us a representation by the use of mutually related or interacting perspectives—and this resultant perspective of perspectives will necessarily be a reduction” (421). Put simply, irony facilitates metonymy. Burke explains, “Where the ideas are in action, we have drama; where the agents are in ideation, we have dialectic” (431). One may likewise infer that the interplay of sub-perspectives to produce dramatic irony can function as viable means of articulating public identity.
The “sub-perspectives” of irony do not simply exist but are rhetorically produced in and through discursive communities. As Linda Hutcheon (1994) asserts, the overlapping of preexisting communities enables irony to “happen” (89). In other words, irony happens in the space between identity and difference, allowing a new perspective to appear. For example, the notion of a post-racial society belongs to the perspective of a specific discursive community. The notion of institutional white supremacy belongs to that of another. The emblematic slogans of Black Lives Matter do not treat any one perspective as right or wrong. Instead, they aim to illuminate the rhetorical contingency of those perspectives through the rhetorical production of negative space, thereby compelling individuals to reconsider these sub-perspectives in a different light. In doing so, they also cultivate a space for citizens to reconsider the post-racial mystique. Specifically, I argue Black Lives Matter facilitates a discursive juxtaposition between institutional racism and the post-racial narrative, which in turn facilitates the reemergence of a Black populist subject in the United States. Furthermore, it did so utilizing the very anger and conviction Chvasta and others demand from social activists. I now turn to the historical formation of Black Lives Matter to illustrate the role of irony in its rhetorical staging.
The Rhetorical Staging of Black Lives Matter
News media typically frame the emergence of Black Lives Matter as an immediate populist response to a wave of institutional violence and oppression (see, for example, Ross and Lowery 2017, May 4). The actual formation of the movement is more complex. The slogan, Black Lives Matter, initially took the form of a hashtag on Twitter in July 2013, upon the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin (Black Lives Matter 2017). According to Alicia Garza, she and co-authors Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created #BlackLivesMatter as a “call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed” (Black Lives Matter 2017). She continues, “It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements” (Black Lives Matter 2017). The founders define their organization as an “ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise” (Black Lives Matter 2017). The organization thrives today with numerous chapters across the country and an online forum “intended to build connections between Black people and [their] allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue among Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement” (Black Lives Matter 2017). Interestingly, the organization actively resists its appropriation by other movements, encouraging individuals instead to respect and preserve its racially charged identity. It does, however, welcome a chain of equivalence among black civil rights advocates. Today the slogan Black Lives Matter serves as the equivalential signifier in the struggle for Black populism across the United States. Still, such transformation did not occur over night.
A year had passed from the time of Garza’s initial tweet to the equivalential moment in which Black Lives Matter arguably transformed into the nationally recognized emblem for Black populist struggle. Until that point, the organization constituted just one of several disparate groups protesting the police shootings of unarmed black men (and eventually women). Demonstrators were first saddled with the challenge to make race reappear within the public imaginary after many had declared race, and by extension, racism, dead. Only then could Garza’s plea resurface a year later in the wake of the deaths of several African-Americans, most notably, Eric Garner (July 17 2014), John Crawford III (August 5 2014), and Michael Brown (August 9 2014).
In the following analysis, I investigate the pivotal moment between the democratic demands for the formal indictments of police officers and the emergence of the equivalential signifier, Black Lives Matter. Specifically, I explore the three metonymic protests concerning the deaths of Martin, Garner, and Brown, respectively. I argue the respective protests share a discursive dimension in which ironic juxtaposition functions to displace the traditional form of the popular demand in the effort to illuminate racial inequality in a climate of neo-colorblindness. Tropologically, I argue irony necessarily precedes metonymy in the rhetorical staging of Black Lives Matter. Through the quilting point of irony, the movement simultaneously articulates the demand for racial equality and the reemergence of a Black populist subject in American politics.
The ironic dimension of Black Lives Matter manifests in the discursive production of negative space. Its unsaid statements about racial injustice become just as palpable as the sentiments it verbally expresses. Specifically, Black Lives Matter distinguishes itself through a lack of verbal demands. This is not to say none exist. Protesters certainly articulated a range of demands over the summer of 2014 and continue to do so. Yet these are not the demands which have earned the greatest traction in the public discourse. Instead, the metonymic slogans of each nodal point of the movement escape the rhetoric of demands altogether. They assume the tone of ironic deference—deference to both police officers and the post-racial mystique. “I can’t breathe;” “Hands up; don’t shoot;” and the image of a hooded sweatshirt demand nothing. Nor do they mark an explicit grievance with the state. Instead, they constitute a collective effort to avoid the appearance of racial contestation while simultaneously highlighting the absurdity of the post-racial script. The verbal and visual statements point to a culture of institutional racism while refusing to identify it as such. By refusing to confront the post-racial mystique, they consequently demand its public scrutiny and begin to construct a discursive logic of absence that eventually articulates the reemergence of Black populism.
The necessity of irony presents itself within a myriad of cultural constraints. How does one demand racial equality under the shadow of a black president? How does one demand racial equality within a discursive ideology blind to race itself? How does one confront racial oppression without falling prey to the accusation of “playing the race card?” Demonstrators address these challenges by appropriating the discourse to its own advantage. To borrow form Michel de Certeau (1989), demonstrators employ the tactic of deference to accommodate the strategy of post-racial discourse. In doing so, they temporally disrupt its logic while appearing faithful to its worldview. They carry the absurdity of post-racial discourse to its logical conclusion: the need to plead with police officers not to murder them in cold blood. “Hands up; don’t shoot.” “I can’t breathe.” It is difficult to ignore the outright mockery of the justice system embedded in these dire requests for mercy.
Additionally, the absence of formal demands obviates the space for counter protest. The statements, “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up; don’t shoot” state no explicitly claim concerning racial oppression. In that way, they refuse counter-argument altogether. To demand justice would imply injustice. To demand power would imply oppression. As Laclau reminds us, popular demands such as these function to state a grievance with the system while simultaneously marking a chasm between the people and the state. Rhetorically speaking, demands invite debate. Individuals could—and did—respond to such demands by arguing the fates of Garner and Brown were completely exempt from issues of race. The statements, “Hands-up; don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” do not invite such debate. They function instead as performative utterances. It is difficult to debate a performative utterance, especially one that refuses to make a demand. In this way, the statements function as apotheosis. The very absence of a formal grievance produces its rhetorical effect: ironic contemplation. It reinscribes the traditional justice/injustice binary by refusing rational argumentation altogether. Through the rhetoric of irony, it opens a space for critical reflection that is neither concrete nor empty. It merely points to an uneven distribution of power by illuminating an alternative perspective on racial equality. Specifically, it highlights the naiveté of declaring post-racial America in a political climate where an officer of the law faces no legal consequences for taking the life of an unarmed black man.
The ironic tone of deference to the post-racial mystique does more than mock the semblance of racial equality in the United States. Irony also functions as the quilting point of Black Lives Matter insomuch as it illuminates these disparate grievances in light of one another. Much like the rhetoric of confrontation, it dissolves the lines between otherwise fragmented instances of police brutality. In this way, the absence of explicit demands performs two rhetorical functions: first, it utilizes and subverts the post-racial mystique to forge a discursive space where demonstrators can once again demand racial equality within the mainstream of American public discourse; and, second, it helps articulate a new discursive subject within the historical struggle for Black civil rights. To illustrate how these slogans function individually, I turn to the respective demonstrations held for Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.
The Rhetorical Life of Trayvon Martin’s Hoodie
On February 26 2012, 17-year-old high school student, Trayvon Martin, was visiting his father’s home in Sanford, Florida (Office of the State Attorney of the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida 2012). As Martin walked home from the convenience store, he caught the attention of resident and neighborhood watch coordinator, George Zimmerman, who began pursuing Martin from within his car. Shortly after calling to notify police of a “suspicious person” in the neighborhood, an altercation between Martin and Zimmerman ensued (Office of the State Attorney of the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Florida 2012). The details of what happened next are uncertain. Multiple eyewitness accounts attest to hearing screams for help but disagree regarding to whom those voices belonged. What is certain, Zimmerman ended the altercation by turning his nine-millimeter gun to the unarmed Martin’s chest, killing him instantly. Later that evening, Zimmerman admitted to police that he had shot and killed Martin. Nevertheless, the police released Zimmerman within hours, citing Florida’s stand-your-ground law to justify their decision.
Martin’s death failed to attract media attention until Reuters journalist Barbara Liston (2012) began to investigate the story. The Martin family then sued local police for refusing to release Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 call. After initial resistance, the call was eventually made public. National controversy quickly engulfed Martin’s death, along with the perceived institutional disinterest by the judicial system to prosecute his killer. After a month of public outcry, Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder on April 11 2012. A year later, he was tried and acquitted of all charges on July 13 2013.
Zimmerman’s acquittal sparked over one hundred, non-violent demonstrations across the United States that week (The Guardian, July 20, 2013). In many respects, demonstrations followed a long tradition of civil rights protest. A wide range of slogans, demands, grievances, and observations emerged on signs, banners, and t-shirts. Some made the traditional, universal demand for justice: “Justice;” “Justice for Trayvon;” “Justice Rally;” “Fight for Justice;” and “No Justice: No Peace.” Interestingly, however, the most widely circulated protest concerning the acquittal remains the now iconic image of Trayvon Martin’s hooded sweatshirt (see Hariman and Lucaites 2002). Many wore similar sweatshirts as part of their demonstration, and many more carried signs depicting Martin’s photograph. The professional basketball team, the Miami Heat, demonstrated by wearing hoodies in their team photograph, weeks before the public knew Zimmerman would face trial (Demby 2012, March 23). A week later, several students, faculty and administrators came to their Syracuse high school dressed in hoodies as well (Elzo 2012, March 31). Similar demonstrations took place across the country.
Although the aforementioned demonstrations do function as metonymic grievances with Martin’s death, they do not represent a social cause in the way images typically do. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, for example, operates differently than raising a clenched fist. The image of a hooded sweatshirt carries no universal value or empty signification. In the context of Martin’s murder, however, it functions to highlight the absurdity that an article of clothing as innocuous as a hooded sweatshirt could arouse neighborly suspicion. Even more absurd is the notion that it could place one’s life in jeopardy. In this way, the image of a hooded sweatshirt functions by pointing, ironically, to the practice of racial profiling in a climate supposedly free of racial oppression. Put simply, the image of the hoodie provides a perpetual reminder of the racist gaze (see Yancy and Alcoff 2016).
Journalists typically frame the hooded demonstrations as attempts to “remember,” express “solidarity” or lend “support” (see, for example, Elzo 2012, March 31). By wearing a hoodie, we say, “We are all Trayvon Martin” (Weeks 2012, March 21). In this sense, the image of the hoodie aligns with Laclau’s conceptualization of the popular demand as a metonymic representation of populist struggle. In another sense, however, the image operates differently than do traditional popular demands. More fundamental than its function as a metonym of solidarity, I argue the image also functions a marker of cultural difference. First, it contrasts the harmlessness of black clothing with the fatality of the white racist gaze. To that effect, one may view the hooded sweatshirt as a silent commentary on the fatal consequences of micro-aggressions. Demonstrating in a hooded sweatshirt is perhaps, above all, a statement that wearing a hooded sweatshirt should not make a statement at all, let alone pose a threat. It is precisely the ironic juxtaposition between the innocuousness of Martin’s hoodie and the brutal consequences it brought for him that allows the image to circulate as a symbol of racial injustice.
Second, the hooded demonstrations help contrast the daily experience of white and black youth by mapping white privilege onto the hooded sweatshirt. Specifically, it highlights the way in which clothing style is mapped onto African-American stereotypes, a dynamic from which white American youths are relatively free. The diverse body of Syracuse high school students appeared well aware of this double standard in their decision to demonstrate by wearing hoodies to class. Instead of saying, “We are all Trayvon Martin,” the demonstration appears also to say, “We are NOT all Trayvon Martin,” and can never fully identify with his subject position. In that respect, white students did not stand in solidarity with Martin so much as highlight their inability to fully place themselves in his shoes—or shirt: they highlighted white privilege. Unlike Martin, those Syracuse teens could wear such clothing free of suspicion. By extension, the perceived marker of Black thug culture transforms into a harmless item of athletic apparel.
The hooded sweatshirt is not merely a representation of Martin’s death; it is a discursive deflection onto the reality of white supremacy. Wearing the hooded sweatshirt points to this reality but refuses to explicitly identify it as such. It marks an ironic deference to the possibility that Zimmerman’s suspicions of Martin were not racially motivated. More broadly, it pays deference to the post-racial mystique. In doing so, demonstrators foreclose any potential space for counter-argument. No one has to claim Zimmerman was a racist, or even that his acquittal was racially motivated. Instead, the performative dimension of the hoodie opens the space to consider all of these perspectives simultaneously. The image does not demand change so much as puncture the dominant space of post-racial discourse, thereby allowing the demand for racial justice to reemerge within the public imaginary.
In some respects, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin draws loose parallels to the lynching of Emmett Till, who was murdered by white supremacists for whistling at a white woman in 1955. It is difficult to perceive that a harmless gesture such as whistling, or a harmless article of clothing such as a hoodie, could precipitate a person’s death. Likewise, the outrage surrounding each death is compounded by the absurdity of its pretext. Yet it is also difficult to imagine early civil rights activists protesting Till’s murder by marching through the streets whistling in public. Then, the primary challenge was combatting white supremacy. Today, the primary challenge is exposing white supremacy. Civil rights demonstrators must fight institutional racism while simultaneously striving to make race reappear to its intended audience. In that sense, the rhetorical function of the hoodie is to signal a reality that has been publicly disavowed.
The burden of proof concerning racial oppression has interestingly been placed upon African-Americans around the country, including the nation’s first family. When a reporter unexpectedly asked the president for his reaction to the incident at an unrelated press conference on March 23 2012, Obama simply reflected, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon” (Thompson and Wilson 2012, March 23). The seemingly innocuous comment garnered significant criticism from both the left and the right (see, for example, McGregor 2013, July 15). Whereas rightwing pundits criticized the president’s apparent abuse of the bully pulpit by playing the race card, the left argued his comments failed to go far enough to address racial inequality. Interestingly, the spectrum of criticism poignantly captures the profound challenge facing Black Americans today: one must protest racial injustice against the backdrop of the post-racial mystique. Like protesters, the president responded neither by claiming disenfranchisement nor by backing down. Instead, he crafted an ironic juxtaposition, the reality that even the son of the American president could be reduced to a street thug in the public imaginary. Similar to the act of wearing a hooded sweatshirt, Obama’s words point to the climate of racial inequality without explicitly stating a grievance with the system. Only a year later, when the discursive space to make such grievances had been cleared, did the president expound upon his original comment with greater context concerning the history of the African-American experience (White House 2013, July 19).
The Rhetorical Life of Black Lives Matter
By the summer of 2014, a year after the jury decision to acquit George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, the number of unarmed black men killed at the hands of police officers rose significantly (Mapping Police Violence 2017). The two most visible deaths became those of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. On July 17 2014, New York City police apprehended Garner for allegedly selling unstamped packages of “loosie” cigarettes on the street corner. After initially resisting arrest, Garner was placed in a chokehold and wrestled to the ground by multiple police officers. Garner was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead an hour later (Newman 2014, December 3). A digital recording of the altercation soon surfaced, in which Garner can be heard telling officers, “I can’t breathe!” It would take five months before a grand jury chose not to indict his arresting officer, Daniel Pantaleo, for unintentional homicide, despite an autopsy report suggesting exactly that (Goldstein and Santora 2014, August 1). Three weeks later, on August 9—and just four days after John Crawford III innocently was gunned down by a police officer inside an Ohio Wal-Mart—yet another police officer took the life of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot 18-year-old, Michael Brown, after an altercation between the two ensued in light of a convenience store robbery connected to Brown earlier that day (Sanchez and Lawler 2015, August 10). Three months later, a grand jury chose once again not to indict the implicated officer for taking a life.
The deaths of Garner and Brown, along with the grand jury decisions not to indict the officers involved, resulted in waves of protest across the country. August of 2014 became one of the most racially charged months in the nation’s recent history. The deaths of Garner and Brown became integral nodal points to the formation of Black Lives Matter, just as Ferguson became its epicenter. In December, a second wave of demonstrations erupted as citizens protested the grand jury decisions not to indict their arresting officers. An estimated 10,000 protesters turned out in Washington, DC and New York City alone (DiBlasio and Alcindor 2014, December 14). Once again, the protests featured a number of slogans, images, and chants, including “Justice for Eric Garner,” “Justice for Mike Brown,” and “Demilitarize the Police” (Black Lives Matter 2015). Still, the most widely circulated slogans became “Hands up; don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe.” During that time, Black Lives Matter became the equivalential signifier of the movement as a whole.
Demonstrators expressed the refrains in various forms (see ABC News 2017). Many shouted in unison, “Hands up; don’t shoot” or “I can’t breathe,” as they marched through the streets with hands raised. The visual performance of the protests communicated a beautiful tension of pacifism and defiance wrapped into a singular expression of racial injustice. Others walked silently with the slogans written on posters or t-shirts. LeBron James, who originally protested on behalf of Martin with his Miami sports team, became one of the first celebrities to demonstrate by engaging in pre-game warm-ups wearing an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt (Pollakov 2014, December 10). Several performed the sentiment through creative expressions of oppression. Some, for example, taped their mouths with the words, “I can’t breathe,” written across them. A variety of demonstrations took place across the country. Ultimately, the plurality of protests articulated a common identity of institutional condescension communicated primarily through the trope of irony. Specifically, the protests subverted the logic of popular demands in favor of performative utterances inferring a state of racial inequality and a culture of police violence. Here I examine the statements, respectively.
“I can’t breathe.” The statement is both literal and performative. To borrow from John Austin ( 1975), the utterance performs a rhetic and a perlocutionary act—rhetic in that it denotes a fact: one’s inability to perform a basic human function, and perlocutionary insofar as this fact begs an action from its intended audience—help (109). In the case of Eric Garner, the utterance begged police officers to release him from what the coroner deemed to be a lethal chokehold (Goldstein and Santora 2014, August 1). Protesters captured precisely that sense of vulnerability by redirecting Garner’s last words to the police community at large. Likewise, the demonstrative repetition of the statement performs a new perlocutionary act—the evocation of shame in the police community (see Austin  1975, 101). Rather than explicitly shout, “Shame!” however, as protesters often do, the statement is more subversive in that it aims to evoke the emotion rather than explicitly demand it. Civilians should not need to tell officers trained to protect and serve the community they cannot breathe. The ironic juxtaposition between these dual realities constitutes a didactic public lesson on a national scale. It also negotiates a new relationship between police officers and the disenfranchised Black community, temporarily reversing the power dynamic as officers are subjected to the (instructional) demonstration. Through the production of irony, protesters forge a new relationship with the police community.
“Don’t shoot!” The statement signals the most extreme juxtaposition of mercy. Michel Foucault ( 1990) identifies the relation within the classical conception of power, “the right to decide life and death” (135). Of course, police do not actually possess this right. They are constrained by a set of procedures designed to ensure a sense of order and protect their citizens. Nevertheless, in a provocative reversal of Althusser’s famous illustration, the Brown demonstrations function to interpellate police as lethal subjects willing to take the life of innocent civilians if they please (see Althusser 2001, 121). Once again, it evokes a sense of shame without explicitly claiming wrongdoing. Presumably, one should not typically feel the need to remind officers not to shoot unarmed civilians. Similar to the protests for Eric Garner, the demonstration provides public instruction to armed police officers on how to conduct their business, communicating what any sane person should already know: do not take innocent life. Perhaps most importantly, it communicates all of these things without ever demanding racial equality. In other words, it appears to uphold the post-racial mystique.
The physical performance of the statements is also significant. Demonstrators march through the streets showcasing the iconic gesture of raised hands in contradistinction to the armed force of police officers. Protesters utilize the universal symbol of pacifism to amplify the contrast between the bare vulnerability of the demonstrators and the lethal force of the police. Certainly, the rhetoric of nonviolent protest is nothing new. For Black Lives Matter, however, the image functions as more than a symbol of nonviolence. It also performs the need to communicate that black life is not a threat. It mocks the white gaze of suspicion for rhetorical effect. Within the configuration of a public march, it additionally forces the surrendering protesters into visual—and sometimes physical—contact with armed police officers ready to shoot. The gesture materially produces the rhetorical effect of exposing police violence. It suspends the uncomfortable juxtaposition indefinitely, as police are inscribed physically within the demonstrations as a potential public threat to innocent life. Placed there to ensure peaceful protests, officers ironically and unintentionally transform into the new object of suspicion. The demonstration crafts a public edification to the police department.
Furthermore, the iconicity of the gesture reinforces its metaphorical capacity by inviting a range of participants to appropriate the gesture within their respective cultural and organizational contexts. Politicians, athletes, and celebrities even followed suit raising their hands in the most unexpected places. The iteration of the gesture across various contexts carries its rhetorical force. As with any iconic image, demonstrators can appropriate it across a range of media and contexts (see Hariman and Lucaites 2002, 366). In the case of “Hands up; don’t shoot,” the dimension of irony amplifies the rhetorical effectiveness. The more absurd its context, the greater its perlocutionary force. The image provides an acerbic reminder of the ubiquitous threat African-Americans appear to pose, situated in contradistinction to the superlatively real threat institutional authorities pose to them on a daily basis. It is absurd that a U.S. representative, for example, could arouse fear in his or her colleagues merely by assuming the congressional floor. And yet, Georgia U.S. Representative, John Lewis, placed his hands in the air as if to communicate his desire not to threaten his congressional colleagues through his mere presence in the chamber.
One Sunday afternoon, members of the St. Louis Rams football team entered the field with arms raised. The image of professional athletes raising their hands is particularly provocative, as the timing of the performance draws attention to the societal fears aroused by the sudden motion of black men (Yancy and Alcoff 2016, 15). According to George Yancey, the black man in motion appears either guilty or threatening. Accordingly, the physical demonstration functions by weaving the white gaze within the protest itself. The performance makes an ironic apology for one’s blackness while simultaneously calling attention to the other’s whiteness. Most profoundly, it does all of this without explicitly stating any popular demand other than a call for mercy. It subversively adheres to the post-racial mystique while also calling it into question.
Finally, both statements express the crippling effect of post-racial rhetoric on the Black community. First, “Hands up; don’t shoot” articulates the most fundamental need for survival in light of a discursive context unintentionally jeopardizing Black life. Second, “I can’t breathe” offers a poignant synecdoche for the contemporary struggle for civil rights. It signifies the cultural constraints discursively strangling a movement that once demanded voting rights, integration, fair housing access, and equal opportunities for employment. Today it struggles to communicate the issue of race itself. Advocates for racial equality are suffocated, not only by institutional practices of white supremacy, but, also, and more subversively, by a post-racial ideology that refuses to acknowledge the factor of race in American politics and society.
The Equivalential Moment of Black Lives Matter
We cannot mark the precise moment at which Black Lives Matter transformed into the equivalential signifier of contemporary Black populist struggle in the United States. We can safely say it occurred sometime during the summer of 2014 amidst a sweltering wave of civil rights protest, including those of Garner and Brown outlined above. The protests facilitated the discursive space necessary to declare, “Black lives matter,” in such a way that demanded national attention. Despite Laclau’s theoretical insistence on the contrary, the verbal and visual content of the slogans do not prove arbitrary but instead appear instrumental to facilitating the movement’s chain of equivalence. Through the rhetoric of irony, they provide a cohesive sense of solidarity threading a plurality of demonstrations across the country.
The slogans also helped shape the tenor of the movement. One area of impact concerns its semi-confrontational tone. The rhetorical repertoire of Black Lives Matter includes demonstrators commandeering occupied public space, challenging authorities and even yelling at their own supporters (see, for example, Sanders 2016, April 7; see also Miller 2016, July 26). In many ways, the confrontational tone has helped galvanize and define the movement. It is difficult to separate that tone from the ironic force of the slogans employed. Each slogan invites a range of emotional reactions from both supporters and critics of the movement. The emotional “edge” of irony carries a dual force in that it not only cuts into its intended target but also energizes its base to push the momentum further.