Democracy and the State of Exception

by Ben Mangrum
14 August 2014

There’s a lot that’s unsettling about the murder of Michael Brown on August 9. An unarmed black teenager who was about to begin his first year at a local college, Brown was shot by a police officer after an altercation that is contentiously disputed by the authorities and eyewitnesses. Several community members who observed the shooting have said that the young man was first shot and wounded after fleeing a struggle in the policeman’s car. Brown declared that he was unarmed after being shot twice, but then reportedly several more shots were fired by the officer, despite the fact that the “perpetrator” was injured and no longer in close proximity to the officer. According to Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend who was accompanying him home at the time, the officer confronted the two men for, well, jaywalking. (If refusing to get on the curb can incite an officer to such a mercurial confrontation, then surely no one can deny that there are turbulent waters just below the state-sanctioned surface of police authority in St. Louis County.) In his interview with MSNBC–the police have so far refused to take his statement–Johnson also disputes the claim that Brown initiated the conflict with the officer. What’s more, Johnson denies that Brown tried to take the officer’s gun (the reason given for Brown’s murder, despite being unarmed). In fact, Johnson reiterates, Brown was running away when he was fatally shot.

If the murder itself weren’t already so disturbing, the subsequent militarization of Ferguson, MO, suggests just how unequal our democratic life can be. The color line belting America is so tight that the blood seems to be rushing to our heads. The display of power seems almost on the scale of the spectacle, while justice is subordinated to racial anxieties and the consolidation of federal authority. On August 11th, for example, several reports claim that the police described initially non-violent protestors as “animals,” often mixing racial slurs with their militarized enforcement of order.

The Ferguson police soon felt overwhelmed by the anger in this suburb, and the town thus requested help from the St. Louis County police, who effectively militarized Ferguson. Indeed, in an irony beyond words (it can happen here, I sense Sinclair Lewis warning us from the grave), the police have denied the media access to Ferguson. Even those citizens who want to use their phones to record the actions of the authorities have been told to get on their knees and put their hands in the air. More black bodies instructed to hit the pavement:

Yesterday, reporters from The Washington Post and The Huffington Post were arrested and later released for trying to document the protests.

This suppression of the media, and the turn by the police toward animalizing the citizens of Ferguson, suggest how tenuous our democracy actually is. The disturbing truth that slips from behind the veil of everyday life is that our political existence can easily morph into the rule by exception. That is to say, the militarization of Ferguson is construed as a necessary exception to ensure that democratic order is sustained. The police ostensibly restrain the press, hem in dissent, and confront cellphones with automatic riffles only in these rare cases. Yet such a state of exception actually traces an occlusion, something hidden in order to preserve our sense of comfort and democratic equality. More to the point, the militarization of Ferguson also attests that dissent is itself racialized, at least in the eyes of the St. Louis County police. Wearing a certain fit of clothing, having a particular skin color, and being angry about the death of a young man and the silence of the authorities–these things become a dangerous combination, a breach of “respectable” dissent. If you’re going to protest, this crackdown in Ferguson suggests, then write a letter to your local member of congress. Retweet a political meme from CNN. Don’t lament in large groups. Don’t protest the lack of transparency. Don’t play loud music. Don’t assemble peaceably after 5pm. 

It’s worth noting that police showed up in their riot gear long before the looting that supposedly necessitated the crackdown. The state of exception seems to precede the conditions that require a suspension of democracy. In fact, even the threat of violence isn’t necessary for a show of force, for merely reporting on the event apparently warrants tear gas:

It’s a question with no satisfying answer: What’s the state of our democracy when the exception defiles the rule?

What myths have we bought into that a militarized zone ostensibly seems necessary to preserve freedom? How can we believe that violence will ever beget a more perfect union?


Ben Mangrum is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to editing Ethos, Ben also writes for the project on politics, the business of sports, contemporary novels, and the academy.  His academic work mostly considers twentieth-century literature, philosophy, and political theory.

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