In the early 1970s, the famous comedian Richard Pryor joked: “If you’re going [to the courthouse] looking for justice, that’s what you’ll find – just us.” The phrase has since been repeated in various scholarly and artistic forms including rap music, where it has sometimes taken different meanings, but often still in relation to police brutality and the court system. Not long after I immigrated from Palestine to Canada in the early 1990s, I remember hearing it for the first time in “Channel Zero” by Lost Boyz: “There’s no justice, understand man, there’s just us.”
I have always found this phrase, particularly in the Lost Boyz version, haunting. Not because it suggested that for black Americans, justice does not reside in the criminal justice system. The systemic racism in American and Canadian societies was never a controversial issue for me, it was clear as daylight. The reason I found it haunting was because the phrase seemed to leave no room for justice anywhere. I believed that if it is indeed just us, then this means that only in the forceful assertion of their collective will, can the oppressed gain what they have been forbidden: a life of dignity and freedom. If there is no justice, then only power remains: a battle of wills, a battle of force, to settle which “us” ends up on top.
But perhaps this was a misreading or misinterpretation of the phrase. Perhaps what it has always said, and I simply missed, is that justice is missing only in the oppressive system that proclaims to house justice. And that deeply embedded in the struggle of the “us” who have been killed, tortured, oppressed and imprisoned in this house of state justice, is another kind of justice: a non-state justice.
I am not talking here about social justice. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the term “social justice”, the kind of justice I am referring to here in the negative form, is raw and difficult to pinpoint and name. It is the kind of justice one finds in the philosophies of Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, and is operative in the writings of the likes of Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. DuBois, Judith Butler and Edward Said. To put it simply, if social justice seeks to create particular notions of equity and equality to address problems specific to a society, then non-state justice is the raw, almost universal, force that enables and directs specific efforts at social justice.
This, I think, is one of the most powerful elements of this latest wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests: they lay bare state justice and put into play, or turn productive, non-state justice. Two important points of clarification are necessary here. First, non-state justice is not street justice, it is not vigilante violence. It is above all a creative force that transgresses and transforms. It is what emerges when people are themselves rendered and left bare; when people are stripped of their humanity, and they reach for a generative force that is more human than the liberal humanist ideologies that dress up the brutal violence of the state.
Second, there are certainly many different groups, ideologies, grievances, demands, tactics, strategies and demographics that are currently present and operating in these protests. There is also much diversity within BLM itself, which means that there isn’t one easily identifiable overall message that subsumes all others. This has been missed in mainstream public discourse, where it has become accepted (and rather quickly) that the people on the streets are only demanding to be included in the state justice system as equals. Their demand has become formulated as a plea for the protection and justice that the system professes to provide to all citizens. And while I agree that many activists are articulating that very message, something else is happening here. There is a more radical critique of the justice system than the desire to be included in it. I am not claiming that this critique wholly defines these protests, but it is there, and it seems to be gaining momentum (for example, momentum seems to be building for defunding the police and a significant restructuring of the judicial system).
But more to the point I’m after, the protests this time around seem to show, in starker and clearer ways than before, the brutality of the justice system in its pure and naked form. In the numerous videos of executions and killings of black people and the seemingly inevitable political and judicial inaction that follows, in addition to the police brutality against largely unarmed and peaceful demonstrators, we are all bearing witness that there is no justice, which means that there is nothing there that is worth being included in. At this moment, it feels like the entire system is being undressed right before our eyes, for all the public to see.
Of course, black communities in the US, Canada and elsewhere have been bearing witness to and living this reality for hundreds of years. And they have attempted to communicate this reality and experience to the majority in society through scholarship, song, poetry, political manifestos and ideologies, activism and the media. Throughout this long history, very few listened, and even fewer partially understood. But for whatever reason, a considerable portion of the majority have finally glimpsed this brutality in its own nature as it were. I cannot explain why this particular video generated a spark. The video is certainly horrific, but not any more horrific than previous ones that have gone viral. Perhaps because the majority have come to appreciate the fear of not breathing from COVID-19, perhaps the dire economic conditions of so many are a key factor, or maybe we have reached some kind of threshold of the number of videos that the majority need to see before they are convinced. Regardless of the reasons, this video has hit a nerve, and the activism of the protestors seems to have finally communicated a basic yet radical message: forget the emperor, the whole system has no clothes.
There is no justice in this system and it needs to be re-examined and rethought from the ground up. BLM is not calling for simple reforms, but a radical reconstruction of the social, political and judicial orders. And the only way that society can be rethought is through the eyes of just us, those who have been oppressed by this system. We need to discard the old and tired ideologies of classical liberalism at this juncture. All claims of blind justice, liberal tolerance of difference, the capitalist sacredness of private property, among others, are no longer capable of dressing up the system and hiding its structural violence. They no longer convince. Instead, we need to turn to the space of this non-state justice, the kind of justice that stems from a deep and long experience of suffering and pain, where a novel and substantial justice (like social justice) can then be pursued.
It is precisely this point that connects the struggle of black Americans to the plight of the Palestinians and others in the Middle East, some of whom are seeing these events as a reflection of their own lives under authoritarian and dictatorial rule. It is not social justice per se that connects us, since this kind of justice is particular and contextual. Rather, it is non-state justice, the justice of just us, that forms the common thread between these diverse and distant communities.
A beautiful mural has already been painted on the annexation/apartheid wall in the West Bank by the Palestinian artist Walid Ayoub. In the mural, George Floyd is wearing a keffiyeh and a Palestinian flag is painted behind him. I do not know how much Mr Floyd knew about Palestine and the plight of the Palestinians. That does not matter much in this case, because what connects these struggles is beyond any one individual, but is rather found in a kind of justice that transcends the particularities of each struggle. I do not suggest here that we ought to overpower particularity by focusing on a universal notion of justice, but instead think about a path towards a fruitful kind of solidarity that respects differences as it builds a bridge that weaves in and along with these differences: that bridge is the productive and transformative potential of non-state justice. It stems from the suffering of those rendered inhuman by state violence – those who then reach for a more authentic humanity from that very condition.
This is why the image of Mr Floyd’s face can make sense within the symbols of the Palestinian struggle. Both black and Palestinian bodies have been rendered bare, opened up for the unleashing of unbound violence that holds no consequence for the perpetrators and oppressors. In the inhuman condition in which the state has thrown them, both black and Palestinian bodies reach into a raw kind of justice that gives us direction and purpose, because it springs from within us to guide us. Not liberalism, not a reformed police system, and certainly not the racist settler-colonial and imperial state can aid or productively participate in this task. We cannot even count on the support and allyship of the majority, since we’ve seen before how quickly this support is withdrawn when the issue is no longer the leading headline. It is just us. And that is both terrifying and liberating.
The Civil Rights Movement, as many critical scholars have long argued, played a major role in teaching all of us what democracy might actually mean and could actually look like. BLM and black communities, I believe, are currently teaching us what justice actually means and might look like. And at this moment, Palestinians, along with other peoples oppressed, exploited and murdered without consequence are, and should be, listening, supporting and learning.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.