† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Misdirection: Imposing Silence; Criminalizing Reality
by Kay Whitlock
So the problem in Ferguson, Missouri isn’t the extrajudicial execution by a local police officer of 18-year old Michael Brown, who was unarmed and had his hands up. The problem isn’t the fact that Brown’s murder constitutes part of a grotesque, racist national tapestry of killings of unarmed people of color by police, security guards, and self-appointed white vigilantes. The problem isn’t that law enforcement misconduct and abuse are endemic. The problem isn’t racial profiling within a framework of white supremacy, or the criminalization of entire communities of color and U.S. race-based mass incarceration.
The problem, said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, as he called out the national guard and state highway patrol to buttress local policing of demonstrators, is “a violent criminal element intent upon terrorizing the community.” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson agreed that the “criminal element” is riling up – agitating – the protesters. He also believes that “that some — and he emphasized some — of the media outlets on the ground in Ferguson were enabling the looters and criminals embedded within the otherwise peaceful protestors.” In this way, protesting itself – purportedly a Constitutional right – becomes the problem, and the people doing the protesting are themselves framed as the source of violence.
And the problem when Amy Meyer stood on a strip of public land outside a Utah slaughterhouse to video a “downer cow” – one who is alive but too sick or injured to stand and walk – being moved around on a forklift was not the misery of that cow. It was neither the cruelty and horrific mistreatment of living beings, nor the lousy labor practices and unsanitary conditions endemic to the meat-producing arm of Big Ag – the huge feedlots, factory farms, and slaughterhouses. The problem isn’t the kind of supremacist belief that encourages human beings to permit countless animals to be subjected to unimaginable suffering at our hands.*
The problem, according to the “Ag-Gag” legal frame under which she was the first to be charged, is that she was an “animal rights terrorist.” (Charges against her were dropped, but more arrests have been made under Utah’s law.) The goal of such a terrorist? To destroy America’s agricultural industry. While charges against Meyer were dropped, more Ag Gag arrests are being made; in fact, state and federal Ag Gag laws constitute a chilling, much broader template for criminalizing undercover, independent exposure of cruelty and protest directed at that cruelty. It’s a cautionary lesson; one need not be an animal rights activist to learn from it.
This is how is you utilize the political and cultural art of misdirection in order to alter reality, or at least the perception of it. This is how you convince people that multiple forms of cruelty, abuse, dishonesty, and exploitation aren’t really happening. Or if they are, that they aren’t that widespread or worrisome because the problems are caused by only a few “bad apples” within institutions that are basically fair, responsible, and trustworthy.
This is how you render invisible massive, structural forms of violence that are so commonplace as to be normative.