Performance as Research Working Group 

 Proceedings of the meeting at the IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) conference, University of Hyderabad, India 6.-10.7.2015. 

Violent Democracies: Performances of death as a claim to justice in the United States1 


Aldape Muñoz, Juan Manuel 

“Street Death” (2014) Photo: Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz 

Minute One: The Ally 

Demonstrators had been walking angrily around varying parts of Berkeley, California for over an hour on the evening of December 6, 2014, intersecting through the streets of Bancroft and Telegraph. Before coming to the cross-streets of Shattuck and Allston, hundreds of bodies were already shouting in an indignant tenor, igniting the night with sonic distortions against an unperformed justice and the unfair treatment of black people in the United States. Among the splintering corteges crisscrossing streets, some groups demanded “No justice, no peace, no racist police” while others chanted “Black Lives Matter.” Still, others invoked their counterparts by shouting, “Shut it down for Michael Brown.” Police in militarily fatigues surrounded the protestors and controlled traffic ahead. City and media helicopters hovered above with sharp spotlights surveilling the people’s movement. 

The moment arrived when one leader called for the “die-in” and four minutes of silence. Each minute represented an hour that the body of Ferguson, Missouri teenager Michael Brown was left on the street on August 9, 2014 after being shot by white police officer Darren Wilson. A particular tactic in the recent “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations were “die-ins,” a performative act wherein a group of members in support of a cause lay on the ground. The four minutes of silence in Berkeley had the objective to show solidarity with other demonstrations occurring simultaneously across the streets in the US in a spate of documented violence and death caused by police forces. These actions present an opportunity for both allies and members of the black community to represent death as sympathetic to the deaths of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, among many others. The interval between the start of silence and the resume of the demonstrations revealed uneasy cultural fissures. 

In the presence of constant violence and death carried out by police forces, citizens in democratic societies have limited avenues for democratic participation to demand justice. The gap between just participation and the unfulfilled needs pressures communities seeking justice to adopt non-legislative actions. Performance practice is one such expression of these demands. I evaluate these demands from recent demonstrations that gravitate around the particular themes of enacting death. As a brown-skinned Latino male in the US, who has been victim of racial attacks by both authorities and passersby, I identify with the urgent call for a reevaluation of the militarization of police forces, as well as the purging of a systemic culture of violence against black lives. However, what is at stake in this alignment? How does the performance and practice of empathy function in the die-ins? What are the dangers in conceptualizing a black body that matters? I am concerned with the privilege that allies of the “Black Lives Matter” movement posses in desiring to show solidarity in an already violent context.

I recognize that the danger of speaking from the trenches of an unfinished and resolved cultural conflict might appear to reveal a limited perspective.3 Yet it is from this disjunctive position that I want to write and highlight the limits and possibilities of participating as a non-black ally in pro-black demonstrations, in general, and the die-ins, in particular. Ultimately, I endeavor to consider, does my participation fashion anti-black social structures and how do the living relate to the dead in violence contexts? Analyzing the die-in performance, this paper, structured in three “one-minute” sections, examines the embodied manner in which performances of death reveal?the ambivalent predicament for non-black allies—such as myself—that erase part of the black experience while also exposing a political practice articulating claims to rights in an anti-black violent democracy. 

Minute Two: Presence in Absence 

A multiplicity of actions unfolded in the silent grandeur of four minutes. While some protesting bodies sat on the black asphalt with their backs fully erect, their eyes peering up and their bodies silhouetted by the darkened street lamps that were both dark and chromatically accented by the turning red and blue police lights, some appeared to be reflecting with their eyes closed and their face looking straight up at the black sky, the gravity of their eyelids shut close to the turbulent noise; a possible moment of peace and tranquillity. One protestor rested completely on her back while still being able to take an inverted photograph of the others on the ground. Others looked puzzled as they watched the multitude of bodies. Simultaneously, demonstrators withdrew their vociferousness, laying down demonstration placards that stated “We are all Ferguson” on the ground to cover the bodies that furnished them. 

The four minutes of dying-in on the gritty asphalt on Shattuck and Allston reveals the tectonic cultural disjunctures in American subjective practices defined by blackness and non- blackness. The image “Street Death” (positioned at the beginning of this paper) captures the demonstrators taking various positions during the die-in. In that moment I considered a litany of doubts and questions: How were these living bodies relating to the dead? Was this gesture sympathy or empathy? Whose death and whose destruction was/is at stake? Is it the spectacle of death without violence, but with an already assumed, normative violence on black lives? Whose death is on the stage of the street? Who can participate in the dies-ins? This discharge of questions situated the urgency of the deadly performance. 

In Cities of the Dead (1996), Joseph Roach argues that there is an intimate interplay between memory, performance, and substitution. In the act of performance, on the one hand, that which is absent is presented, and that which is present stands in for something and erases or forgets. He argues, “Memory is a process that depends crucially on forgetting” (2). Performance’s phenomenological function instantiates directional forces, or as Diana Taylor maintains, “Histories and trajectories become visible though performance” (270). Roach argues that surrogation is the process by which culture represents and reproduces itself. When something or someone dies or is lost, a community’s attempt to substitute that which is now gone is a process that continues, it fails, it errors, and at times the intended substitute creates a deficit (2). Performance, for Roach, “stands in for an elusive entity that is not but that it must vainly aspire both to embody and replace” (3). Performance operates in contrapuntal fashion, while something is being remembered and (re)presented, something is being forgotten. I find Roach’s framework useful in that it crystalizes the dynamic and fraught relationship between memory, performance, and substitution. What is more, a performance’s ability to represent something which is not present, to create a memory, provides the possibility to create new worlds and unspoken pasts (Dillon Maddock 19). 

Looking at the four minutes of silence from the perspective of surrogation, it is possible to observe that the demonstrators standing in and embodying the actual lives of black bodies killed by police forces are selectively presenting the vacancy of the materiality of the dead black bodies not present. The materiality of the demonstrators’ expressive movement and breathing bodies become the surrogates for un-breathing, murdered bodies that only become socially visible after their death. The demonstrators, by exclaiming that “Black Lives Matter,” and subsequently representing dead bodies, bring forth the past moment of Michael Brown and others’ death. The performative gesture cuts through time and space, a genealogic transmission connects the black asphalt of Missouri to the black asphalt of California, recreating an ongoing cultural struggle to remember dead black bodies. Collapsing the uniqueness of each death makes possible to witness a cultural problem,“Same Story Every Time, Being Black is Not a Crime.” Through this phrase, demonstrators make the statement that blackness does not equal criminality while also acknowledging a systemic narrative that perpetuates the exclusion of the black community across time and space. 

The predicament of remembering a black death through the spectacle of protest vis-à- vis die-ins is that the lives of non-black subjects performing the die-ins forget their own privileged position and the non-blackness of their everyday, or as Roach succinctly summarizes, “The fit cannot be exact” (2). Performance, as Diana Taylor argues (275), reveals the social power relations at hand, and in this case, the substitution that occurs in the performance both erases the bodies that were actually killed, like those of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, as well as brings breath to Eric Gardner, something which he lost.4 To speak about the uniqueness of Michael Brown or any one individual dead body detaches it from the larger systemic pressures that press black communities. Conversely, it results in the instantiation of what Harvey Young (2010) calls the abstraction of the black experience, that which he terms “phenomenal blackness.” Young sustains, “As an instantiation of a concept (blackness), the black body does not describe the actual appearance of any real person or group of people” (Young 7). A black body is an abstraction and imagined figure that shadows and doubles the “flesh-and-blood body” that is the target of a racial system (Young 7). Thus, surrogate bodies for black bodies carry a tinge of temporal and spatial erasure that collapses the uniqueness of the individual bodies that died. A slippage occurs between the materiality of everyday blackness and an abstracted black body. Demonstrators performing dead black bodies both restore the loss of the deceased and instantiate the forgetting that black experiences are subject to constitution from the outside. 

Saidiya Hartman argues that the specticality of violence perpetuates the techniques of black subjectivation. Refusing to recount Frederick Douglas’s concerns of the “terrible spectacle” in Aunt Hester’s beating, Hartman disavows the explicit violent moments that demonstrate the ease with which it is to reiterate and remember the ravaged black body through the routine of violence. Hartman refused to recount in detail the violent stories that Douglas saw as the formation of his blackness. She maintains, “The oft-repeated or restored character of these accounts and our distance from them are signaled by the theatrical language usually resorted to in describing these instances[...]” (3). Meaning, to repeat and retell the accounts of violence at a distance reiterates powers of slave domination and violence imposed through the optic of specticality wherein the black body is subjectivated. Instead, Hartman argues for an analysis of subjectivitation?where familiar dimensions of slave experience such as practices of enjoyment, property, and paternalism are defamiliarized to show the extent to which violence and terror is maintained. By focusing on the quotidian in slavery, she reveals how the subject is subjugated and constituted in scenes of subjections, in the mundane and performance, practices that were heretofore considered autonomous and processes of individuation. The practice of everyday slavery is more constituted, and forms of resistant tactics are only small moments of gestural assaults on domination. 

Accepting Hartman’s focus on the “terror of the mundane,” rather than to “exploit of the shocking spectacle,” reveals how violence occurs in the quotidian and that emancipation was more complex. And yet, the persistent adoption of the die-ins by both blacks and non-blacks, as joint performance calls to justice, reveals the ambivalent fashion in which violence can be corporeally reproduced and memorialized without the exploit of spectacle. Where?Hartman implicitly defined violent spectacle as that which is phenomenologically resonant through visibility and written description, I am compelled by the manner in which the die-ins serve as an embodied and affective violent remembering, silent representations outside the terms of spectacular seeing and reading. The willing effort of black community members to “die” alongside non-blacks in the die-ins reveals the minor and small acts of resistance despite non-black community members reproducing relations of domination. I want to extend Hartman’s thinking to the extent that an allied peaceful, silent, and non-gruesome representation of death, violence and suffering perpetuates social death and violence of black lives. 

Building on Diana Taylor’s astute contributions on percepticide—“the self blinding of the general public”— I want to argue that die-ins usurp the spectacle of violence and death as a way to provide a way to see the state violence apparatus. The protestors taking the picture while dying- in or holding the sign “We are all Ferguson,” forces witnesses to look in, and alongside, rather than away from the systemic confinements that operate against black communities. “Being Ferguson” and captivating the “deaths” of those protesting reveals the subterranean politics of black?resistance while also providing a frame through which to highlight the micro spaces of?violent complicity when allies support black acts of resistance. 

Hartman clearly indicates that what is at stake when we talk about scenes of violence is the way in which we participate in the scenes of subjection. She wonders, “At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator” (4). If the non- black demonstrator chooses and is able to represent death, is he/she not in a position to enact an assumed agency and secured relation that perpetuates the dominion of the black body? Surely, a body does not choose to die, but is instead made dead through excessive force by police officers and departments that preemptively see the black body as threatening. Thus, the scene of someone whom is non-black putting on display death and uttering the declarative statement “Black Lives Matter” perpetuates a small act of violent empathy where relations of domination reside. 

Consequently, I arrive at the dilemma, if “silence is violence” and “White Silence = White Consent,” as some demonstrators vociferously expressed throughout the?demonstrations and held signs during the die-ins, how can a non-black ally resist against a violent US democratic system that excludes black communities without being the surrogate for the abstracted black body? Hartman would argue that, indeed, in imagining the suffering of the black captive the white witness “becomes a proxy and the other’s pain is acknowledged to the degree that it can be imagined, yet by virtue of the substitution the object of identification threatens to disappear” (19). Succinctly, non-black subjects can only die for an imagined, mythic, and abstracted black body, their experience is outside the reach of an embodied experience of blackness. 

Between Joseph Roach’s performance evaluations on surrogation and Saidiya Hartman’s ideas of empathy and spectacle, I reveal the stakes at hand when a non-black ally participates in the die-ins. Where protestors acknowledge a kindred desire to be allies, finding satiation by empathetic identification, their acts of performing the die-ins furnishes the double- edgeness of empathy. Performing empathy toward the black body is a relation of substituting an imagined black pain with a privilege over blackness, afforded by the ability to posses and embody the black body given the acceptance of its fungibility, and a willingness to accept it as a place that is disembodied and capable of being substituted by non-black protestors’ desires and feelings. 

Minute Three: Deadly Ending 

Throughout this paper I have grappled with the slippage between ally and perpetrator, and an unresolved concern over empathy in the Black Lives Matter movement. If on one side, my inaction performs in perpetuity a violence against blackness, conversely, I acknowledge participation is unable to embody the black experience. My fleshiness is not Eric Gardner’s fleshiness. When my fleshiness attempts to give presence to his death, it erases his lived experience. If the die-ins surface the experience of the dead black body and not the experience of blackness, is it doubly performing two deaths? Is one death the material body that is physically shot at the hands of police and the second death the performance of the die-ins where the representation of a social exclusion is fleshed out and other bodies replace the materiality of social blackness? Sharon Patricia Holland (2000) and Fred Moten (2008) individually contend that black subjectivity holds an intimate connection with death and decay. And yet, as a brown male, I seek a small scale assault unto myself so that my regimes of social death and praxis imposed on black lives stand not only as witnessing suffering and desiring for the materiality of suffering for self-reflection but also as an embodied everyday imaginary. 

Moving towards an everyday critical praxis, as Hartman promotes, I find it important to temper the ambivalent direction in which value is ascribed. In “Violence of Value,” Lisa Marie Cacho warns, “Rather than ‘breathe life’ into the spaces of social death (gentrification, privatization, and democratization), we might conscientiously work against the logic of survivability, which in the United States sees the preservation of U.S. capital as central and indispensable to the ‘American way of life’” (33). I surface this concern to highlight that the?chant “Black Lives Matter” alongside the die-ins tries to enter a blurry regime of legibility?where economy and policy are entangled to give life value as property. Meaning, individuals who exist on the exteriority of value-making cannot decide and ascribe value to their own lives. Simultaneously, individuals who have the privilege of meaning and value-making instantiate a “propertyness” or subjectivation to those lives that they are ascribing matter and importance. Making a case for the value of life based on propertyness shortcuts an individual’s agentic possibilities. 


And so, I end with a gesture toward Baltimore, Maryland and the recent protests in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death on April 19, 2015 by looking with humbleness to Fanon for the reminder that indeed this dilemma is a colossal task. Fanon sustains that one way forward is to “[...] confess that [European masses] have often rallied behind the position of our common masters on colonial issues” (Fanon 62). I confess, albeit in US context, the task of allying, through performance, is at the expense of other’s positions wherein resting on the ground suggests rallying behind anti-black quotidian performances due to the entrenched regimes of violence and scenes of subjection on an imagined black body. Despite the benevolent protestors’ desires, the die-in performance is a violence itself that repeats systemic displays of/on dead black bodies. What recourses exists? In the preface of the documentary Concerning Violence (2014), Gayatri Spivak contextualizes Fanon’s call for violence. Fanon, Spivak argues, insists on a dialectical relationship between violence and nonviolence because there is no other response, there is no other practice. Spivak declares that Fanon’s social rally in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) is a teaching text where the reader is witness to how “Those lives count as nothing compared to the lives of the colonizers.” Though Spivak tempers Fanon’s calls for libertory, decolonial politics by observing that both colonized and colonizers are united in gender violence, she underscores the importance of violence against violence on the road to liberation. As I get up from the four minutes of silence, my lungs expand, I walk with an ambivalent consciousness, and with the acceptance that “Black Lives Matter” and black lives can act and gesture towards a social context that they see fit in the struggle for liberation in the United States’ violent democracy. 


1 The original scope of this analysis included Mexico within its frame. However, I felt it appropriate to focus on one country. The analytic frame for the observation of the US is the same, and asks the same questions. A comparative approach felt beyond the limits of this paper given the concurrent social development as the paper was being written. 

2 On July 13, 2013 George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges against the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Florida state law “Stand Your Ground” protected him from any wrong doing. 

3 I want to note that protests are unfolding as I write this paper. The tragedy in the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray at the hands of police once again ignited riots, rebellion, and looting. This time, similar to what occurred in Ferguson, the National Guard was called in, and a curfew was imposed. 

4 Eric Gardner died at the hands of New York Police on July 17, 2014 as a consequence of having a chock-hold on his neck while police tried to restraint him for supposedly selling cigarets on the sidewalk. Passersby video footage exists of him pleading, “I can’t breathe.” 


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