Applying the ideas of Agamben and Ericson to explain the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri

On Saturday, August 9th 2014, an unarmed black teenager by the name of Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Caucasian police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As a response to the shooting many people apart of the black community in Ferguson began protesting. The people protested because they felt this shooting was an act of racism. The protests began to escalate and become violent which lead to the police taking drastic actions. The police dressed up in riot gear making them look like military soldiers. When the protests and riots continued, Governor Nixon issued a ‘state of emergency’ for the town of Ferguson and also imposed a curfew to the people. The curfew was imposed to try and reduce the looting and violence taking place. (ABC news, 2014) Over a week after the shooting, Governor Nixon ordered the National Guard into Ferguson to help handle the protests. At this time, the grand jury began looking into whether Darren Wilson should be criminally charged for the death of Michael Brown. Governor Nixon stated that he would resend the National Guard to respond to any protests that may arise from the result of the grand jury’s decision. To keep up to date, Monday, November 24th 2014, the grand jury decided  not to indict officer Darren Wilson. (USA Today, 2014)

There are various cases involving the enactment of the state of emergency or exceptions. Ferguson, Missouri is a more recent example of a state of emergency. There have also been many theories behind what states of exception mean and under what circumstances they are declared. According to Agamben, a well known philosopher, a state of emergency is when the sovereign suspends ‘the rule of law in order to resolve certain problems, generally related to security.’ (Pavlich, 2011) The important aspect of Agamben’s logic around sovereignty and the state of emergency is that the sovereign has the power to exclude itself from the law it is enforcing at a given time. The sovereign has the ‘power to operate without the constraints of law, and with comparative impunity.’ (Pavlich, 2011) This means that the authorities can act outside of the constitution and will not be punished for their actions.

In the case of Ferguson, Missouri, Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed restraints, such as curfews, to the people. However, much like Agamben has noted, the imposed restraints do not apply to those who are part of the sovereign. In Ferguson, those who do not have to worry about the state of emergency policies include Governor Nixon, the police officers, and the National Guards. Although the reasons behind having authorities be excepted from such policies is valid, it re-establishes the notion that those who create and enforce law will also create exceptions. The sovereign power is never subjected to their own rules.

Agamben believes that a society is governed by the rule of law where everyone is legally equal and authorities act with regards of the law. The people within the society are legal subjects that have the ability to exercise their rights and impose limits on the state power. ‘They are subject to the law, but also subjects in the law.’ (Pavlich, 2011) In relation to the current situation in Ferguson, the protesters are acting upon their rights as equal legal citizens and are questioning the state. They are acting outside of their individual rights which has resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency. The Governor declared a state of emergency to ‘maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech.’ (The Guardian, 2014) The state of emergency was called to give authorities the powers to ensure a safe environment without having to worry about the constraints of law. The authorities are given the rights to act accordingly when making sure the legal subjects are acting appropriately. By declaring the state of emergency act it allows for authorities to take the rights away from those acting dangerously.

The reason behind declaring a state of exception is to ensure that things get done. In the case of Ferguson, the protests became very violent that the Governor called for assistance by the National Guard. The National Guard helped with the safety of both the people and property being damaged. Without the state of emergency being declared in Ferguson the Governor would not have been able to imposed curfews. The importance of the curfews were to try and ensure safety amongst those who were not involved in the protest. Curfews illustrate a suspension of constitutional rights because it puts rules to when and where people can be past a given time.

The state of exception has also been discussed by many theorists and criminologists in relation to why we have acts that suspend the rule of law and what it means for the legal subjects. Ericson who is a criminologist, is mainly interested in the rules about exceptions to rules. He views the state of exception as ‘laws against law or rules about exceptions to rules.’ (Ericson, 2007) Ericson’s view on the state of exception is mainly concerned with the lack of certainty provided to the people. The people have their own imagined sources of harm because they are uncertain of what the law provides for them. (Ericson, 2007) The concept behind being able to declare an act that suspends the rule of law in order to resolve conflicts can be is rather intimidating because the rule of law is what protects the people.

When the state of emergency was declared in Ferguson curfews were implemented to the residents. As already noted, curfews take away the rights people have of free movement. Having curfews increases the feeling of uncertainty because you are not sure whether you can be outside at various times and whether there are exceptions to those curfews. Another form of uncertainty that was outlined in the violent protests were the areas being blocked off. The police blocked off areas from potential damages which restricted the peoples ability to have access to public spaces. Being in a state of emergency brings upon uncertainty mainly for those not involved.

To conclude, declaring a state of emergency can have both positive and negative responses. Some may act in accordance to the rules being implemented, while others may continue to define them. Agamben noted that when a state of emergency is declared there are still people in which the rules does not apply. For instance, Governor Nixon would not be subjected to the act because he was the one who imposed it. Ericson focused more on the people being subjected to the state of emergency act. He mentioned that uncertainty is clearly evident when one is suspended of their rights and are not sure what their remaining rights are, or if they have any. With the case in Ferguson Missouri, the state of emergency was needed to try and control the protestors. However, due to the fact that the case was not over and a decision had yet to be made, the protests were just getting started.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Applying the ideas of Agamben and Ericson to explain the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri

  1. Generally, this is an effective and well-informed post. I wonder about the framing of the sequence of events in this case. The traditional framing, which your post reflects, looks like this:

    Normalcy – emergency – state of exception – normalcy

    This corresponds to the idea that a state of exception allows authorities to ‘get things done’.

    But what if the imposition of emergency measures sometimes serves to escalate a situation, contributing to the construction of an emergency? In the case of Ferguson, police actions towards the community (both in the context of the protests and generally) contributed to a climate of conflict, confrontation, and antagonism. The pre-emptive declaration of a state of emergency only exacerbated this. Is it possible that the declaration of a state of exception can actually create conditions of emergency?

    A third way to look at this – one that is reflected in the literature on exceptionality (for example, the work of Sherene Razack or Henry A. Giroux), is that racialized bodies in many parts of the USA exist in a constant, normalized state of exception. In this case, the formal declaration of an emergency only makes official what is already the de facto state of affairs.