Channelling Fanon: What Childish Gambino tells us about Violence and Urban Space


What is violence? An instrumental means to an end? Or the end itself? Is violence the visceral embodiment of a long held grievance, rather than a tool to change the aggrieving behaviour?

Earlier this month, Childish Gambino’s ‘This is Americapresented a gut-wrenching visualisation of randomised and anonymised violence in urban America: one explicitly evocative of the killings at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in November 2017, the Charlottesville attack in August 2017 and the 2014 murders of unarmed black men by police in New York and Ferguson Missouri. As these events have shown, be it on the streets of America or any contested urban space the discourse that relates violence in its instrumental or intrinsic form to the physical space complicit in its manifestation currently echoes with the ‘dog-whistles’ and vitriol of the hyper-partisan. Here, there is no place for human agency: victims are killed like cattle; not by people or guns, but by the ungovernable outcomes of ‘mental health’ or of a ‘malign’ ‘Muslim Ideology’.


Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America / Guns in my area

Back in 2013, the intellectual trajectory for present-day practitioner engagement with the concept of violence as a spatial phenomenon was set by David Kilcullen in Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. But with its heavily instrumental focus on the countering of urban insurgency, attempts since its authorship to explicate ‘lessons’ of relevance towards the resolution of urban conflict perpetuates some toxic intellectual behaviours. For Kilcullen, generalised observations informed by social anthropology present a characterisation of violent conflict as a “central and probably permanent human social institution, one that tends…to occur where people are”. Conflict is thus visualised as ontology: a mere symptom of humanity’s chosen means of social organisation in an objectified world.  In an eye-watering parody this casual heuristic reveals in the industrialised setting to the Childish Gambino film: where violence is delivered blithely, devoid of culpability or human agency. In such a vein, Kilcullen presents the urban space as a ‘metabolism’ ‘infested’ with ‘feral subcultures’. Then, and without irony, Daily Mail provocateur Richard Littlejohn is invoked to condemn the “wolf pack of feral inner-city waifs and strays” that in 2011 “vandalised symbols of wealth and prosperity” of London.

Alas Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains was timed with bleak poetic misfortune, coincident as it was with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in towns across the US. But whereas Killcullen (in language borrowed from biology) explains violence as emerging from the ‘toxic by-products’ of the city’s failure to ‘metabolise’ uncontrolled population flows; commentators such as the recently elevated US celebrity Sheriff David Clarke have gone further:

Americans…are observing a civil war unfold within our borders. A war between rule of law and anarchy-seeking hate. The murders in Baton Rouge…were not acts of domestic terrorism but guerrilla urban warfare against the police…against the Constitution, and against the American way. The police…are on the front lines of this war.

Indeed the demand that ‘Black Lives Matter’ which followed the murder of two unarmed black men; Eric Garner in New York, and Michael Brown, in Ferguson Missouri in 2014; has since been dismissed by Clarke as ‘false tales’ of ‘revolutionary Marxist forces’. In his stylised contortions at the start of the This is America video, Gambino satirises the re-emergence of a ‘Jim Crow culture’, one exemplified in Ferguson where police left Michael Brown’s body exposed in the street for four hours after his death. As Trish Kahle has argued, at a time when more black people in America are killed by the police each year than were lynched at the peak of Southern extrajudicial murders, police behaviours continue to feed the perception that the black community are treated more as animals than as human beings: and that the murder of Mike Brown was in every sense a lynching.


You just a Black man in this world / You just a barcode

To read the work of Frantz Fanon against this context, the lived experience of black communities in Ferguson, in New York and elsewhere readily correspond to the ‘veritable hell’ of an ‘invisible man’  within what Fanon calls a ‘zone of non-being’: where, it is argued black lives matter only in as much as they are perceived to be a permanent threat to a society that is normatively white. Thus, while to assert that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is to invoke the humanism of white liberals in the manner historically favoured by Martin Luther King; it is instead disparaged by Clarke and his ilk as the protestations of “subhuman creeps”. The racialized segregation of American urban space ‘seals in’ African Americans to their ‘blackness’, assembled as an ‘other’: in language uncomfortably reminiscent of Killcullen, as “a phobogenic object, naturalised and reduced to the biological, produced by social and economic realities and reproduced in anecdotes, myths and assumptions.” Indeed, this account of the Manichean world depicted in Fanon’s masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth wherein the French colonial settlers in Algeria allude to the native in ‘zoological terms’ and ‘constantly refers to the bestiary’ nature of the colonised; bleakly presages Clarke’s description of BLM activists as a “black slime” that would need to be “eradicated”.

Fanon observed how colonialism depicted the Algerian in terms of his venality. So too in modern America, segregation and pauperisation have become inherently linked to the criminalisation of African Americans; and the degeneration of communities into spaces where guilt and inhumanity become pathologised:

A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of non-existence. Sin is Negro as virtue is white. All those white men in a group, guns in their hands, cannot be wrong. I am guilty. I do not know of what, but I know that I am no good.

As a consequence, and in the same manner the colonised of WOTE were coerced into a “narrow world strewn with prohibitions”, Black America is also “divided into compartments” that subjugate and stifle. In this regard, the last words of Eric Garner have tragic poignance: suffocating in a headlock, Garner repeatedly told the police officers restraining him: “I can’t breathe.” To Nigel Gibson, these last words “were not only a literal plea for help, as he struggled for his last breath with the police on his back, but a Fanonian expression of Black experience of many communities in the United States.”


This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ up / Look what I’m whippin’ up (Slime!)

This narrative of the social reproduction of racist culture, one which criminalises black youth through the interaction of a militarised police force also finds expression in the deconstructivist theory of Jacques Derrida. Indeed Derrida’s writing on the institutional racism of apartheid-era South Africa perfectly frames Sheriff Clarke’s rhetoric.  Not simply the disposable rhetoric of populism, Derrida interprets such language as a specific performative ‘speech act’ that attempts to describe, and bring into conformity a constative act: that of black youth as inherently criminal – Gambino’s ‘slime’. Black America is thus a ‘colonised space’, and Clarke the instituted spokesmen of Fanon’s ‘settler’ who supports the suppression by maintaining contact with the native, counselling him “by means of rifle-butts and napalm not to budge.” Though numerous Black American artists, notably Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Riding with Death, have also succeeded in drawing a sharp focus on the legacies of colonialism in the ‘pacification’ of inner cities: Donald Glover’s dark, eviscerating turn as Childish Gambino counsels against the uncritical ‘stove piping’ of discourse concerning violence in the urban space.

Image: Frantz Fanon, via Flickr.

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