The Fleshy Excess of Black Life: Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice
by Eric Ritskes
Black life, Blackness, “Black holding on, Black making a way out of no way” is always in excess of the antiblack settler colonial state. And, in its excess, it is always threatening to the order and sense making of the state.
This excess is carried in and on the bodies of Black peoples, it is embodied and illegible to the state, unable to be incorporated into Whiteness, and is thus always present before, beyond and against the state. Blackness as excess is, as Alex Weheliye explains, a fleshy excess. It spills over and protrudes; it cannot be contained. It is always escaping. It is always already too much.
In each of three most recent cases of Black death to garner mass mainstream media attention – the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice – the bodily excess of the victims was used as a reason for their murder, as justification for their death. This excess was not articulated as the excess of their Blackness – which becomes unspeakable (and unthought) in the antiblack state – but through their physical size, the sheer embodied physicality of their presence, through how much literal space they occupied. Not only did their physical size exceed normative White body standards, but it became one way to speak of the excess of their Black bodies and how, through their excess, they were justifiably murderable.
Mike Brown, Eric Garner & Tamir Rice
On August 9, 2014, an unarmed, 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot repeatedly, despite having his hands in the air, by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Testimony given by Darren Wilson in front of a Grand Jury made multiple references to the size of Mike Brown, as part of a narrative that sought to establish Brown as a threat to the life of Wilson (and, subsequently, his murder as justified). Despite both Brown and Wilson being the same size (6’4’’), Darren Wilson said he saw Brown as “obviously bigger than I was” and that “I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” As Darren Wilson fired his gun repeatedly into Mike Brown’s body, he testified that it was like “he was almost bulking up to run through the shots” and that he looked like a “demon”. Mike Brown’s size made him seem beyond human, or unhuman, growing larger than life even as the bullets landed in his fleshy body, ending his life. His fleshy excess was seen as a beyond-human threat to Darren Wilson, justifying his murder.
Just before this, on July 17, 2014, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner to death as he stood on the sidewalk. Similarly, his body size was used as an excuse for his death. Despite chokeholds being banned and the excessive nature of the response via the (perceived) infraction, commenters defended police actions, noting that Eric Garner was “the size of an elephant” and that, because of his size, resisting arrest deserved death. Past NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik echoed this sentiment when he stated on CNN, “Look, I saw the size of this man… And I’m sure that’s why the takedown was taken.” Republican Peter King noted Garner’s excess size and defended the Grand Jury’s decision because “If [Eric Garner] had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, he almost definitely would not have died from this.” His excess was the cause of death, the reason for his homicide to be deemed justified, not the actions of the NYPD.
Less publicized but equally disturbing was the reaction after the release of the Medical Examiner’s report in the death of Tamir Rice. Tamir was a 12-year-old Black child playing in the park across from his house with his sisters when Cleveland police responded to a 911 call indicating a child was playing with (what was likely, the caller states) a toy gun. Within two seconds of arriving on the scene, on a cold November day in 2014, Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann had shot Tamir multiple times in his fleshy abdomen; Tamir died later in the day from intestinal and pelvic injuries caused by the bullets. When the Medical Examiner released the report, ruling his death a homicide, many commented on social media, and in mainstream media, in regards to Tamir’s size, which was listed as 195 pounds by the Medical Examiner.
Comments on Tamir’s excess size were made to discredit the fact that he was a 12-year-old child; commenters explained how because of his size, he would have looked more threatening to the arriving police, as if somehow his size justified the police response. The officers involved said they believed, because of his size, that they were dealing with someone much older, despite the Medical Examiner report stating Tamir’s appearance was “consistent with the reported age of 12 years or older.” This fleshy excess did not make him a child, or a human, with rights to live under the law.
The fleshy threat of Black bodies
These three bodies were each deemed in excess and, in their excess, justifiably murderable. As Black males, occupying public spaces (the street, the sidewalk, the park) not meant for their presence, they were always already out of place and in excess, occupying spaces not meant for their lives, occupying spaces built on Black death. Their excess size came to be a stand in for what was unspeakable within the antiblack colonial nation-state – that, in fact, it was their Blackness that was in excess. They were each discursively, materially, and literally taking up too much space. Their bodies, already in excess through their Blackness, were also more visible, were more obviously taking up space, were more obviously Black. As Wilderson and Hartman note, White supremacy is caught up with the visuality of Black life: “visually, the threat of Blackness is somehow heightened.”
They were each too heavy, too big, too visible. They were larger than life and, in fact, too large for life. They were too fleshy.
Fleshiness, as Alex Weheliye writes – working from Hortense Spillers’ writings – is both the dehumanizing precedent ascribed to the less than human racialized other within the antiblack colonial state, but also, in its fleshy excess, a “stepping stone towards new genres of human” beyond colonial recognition. Flesh, for Weheliye, is both embedded in the ontology of colonial Man, but is also always already the physical. Blackness, then, in its excess, always already extends beyond the limits of the state and the limits of the discursive. It incarnates alternate modes of being beyond inclusion, modes that inherently threaten colonial regimes of knowing and being; hence, the criminalization and fear of Black fleshiness.
J. Kameron Carter, in a talk given in the wake of the Grand Jury verdicts regarding Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s murders, similarly illustrates how Black life, the Black social life that exists beyond state articulated humanity – the fleshiness – exists always in excess of the state. It is this radical relationality and different genre of being, symbolized within the excess fleshiness of Blackness, which precedes the criminalization and ultimate death of these three bodies by the antiblack colonial state. There is more to the fleshiness than what can be seen or understood within colonial modes of sense making. The fleshiness of their bodies represents something that exists beyond the body itself and, importantly, beyond the state itself.
The fleshy threat of Blackness also extends beyond death. Even as Eric Garner gasps for his very life breath, or as Mike Brown throws his hands up and shouts “Don’t shoot!”, the excess of their flesh remains a threat. As Keguro notes, their Blackness renders their gasps, shouts and raised hands illegible, their Blackness is “the disposability that renders the gesture[s] irrelevant.” For Kajieme Powell, another Black man shot by police in St Louis shortly after Mike Brown, even in his death, post-ten-bullets-in-his-body, he was still deemed threat enough for police to handcuff him.
Similarly, as Tamir Rice lay on the ground in the park, shot down but still alive, his 14-year-old sister rushed to his side and, in her mere movement and in her inability to articulate ‘calmness’ in the wake of seeing her brother gunned down, she too was deemed an excessive threat and handcuffed, placed into the confinement of a police cruiser. The demand to remain calm in the face of colonial violence is part of the normative violence of the state. As Weheliye notes, the flesh of Blackness is violated not just in death, but in the normative violences of the everyday, most often enacted on Black women. As the recent police murder of Tanisha Anderson reminds us (among many others), Black women and girls are also murdered by the police. But as Joy James notes, recognizing the spectrum of violence against the flesh is important in evading the capture of the spectacle, in resisting the folding of Black female trauma into the spectacle of ‘Black suffering/death’.
Blackness, indigeneity & decolonization
In Weheliye’s book, Habeas Viscus, he explores some of the connections between Indigenous and Black life in relation to the colonial state, particularly in how the state both similarly and differentially “produces both black and native subjects as aberrations from Man and thus not-quite-human.”
This is an important point in thinking through lines of decolonial solidarity and in furthering necessary conversations about Black and Indigenous lives as being in excess of colonial humanity. Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, importantly, is also also exploring, in some of her newest work, the ‘fleshiness’ of bodies, arguing that Chief Theresa Spence’s fleshy appearance during her 2012-2013 fast (hunger strike) refused the logic of settler colonial genocide that demands Indigenous women must die and, as such, her appearance was a primary point of critique from settler society as she asserted Indigenous sovereignty and body sovereignty against and beyond the juridical assemblages of the nation-state of Canada.
Similar to Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, Chief Spence also occupied a public place (Victoria Island). She also took up too much space not intended for her presence; she was out of place. In noting her fleshy appearance, critics were able to vocalize her excess, her taking up of space predicated on her death, her murderability, and, as Simpson notes, also (in her excess) her embodied resistance of the colonial death drive. The ‘public’ and the commons have always been built on the exclusion of Black and Indigenous life, needing Black and Indigenous death for the construction of the White settler human, the public whose good must be protected through Black and Indigenous death.
In these examples, we can see examples of how Black flesh and Indigenous flesh are similarly and differentially situated within an antiblack settler colonial state, building on the work of many who are articulating the intersections between antiblackness and settler colonialism, particularly how “settler colonialism is fundamentally structured through anti-Blackness and vice versa.” Chief Spence’s fleshiness is an excessively visible threat to settler colonial state legitimacy, the right to rule, and to the legitimacy of settler occupation of Indigenous land. This fleshiness must be made invisible, appropriated into Whiteness as a mode of erasure, and re-made into humanity. Humanity is available to the Indigenous person in-so-far as their flesh – their indigeneity – and its subsequent claim to governance, land and belonging, must disappear, both literally and discursively. This is the genocidal strategy that seeks the death of the Indigenous life: one must ‘kill the Indian, to save the Man’. For Black flesh, the settler colonial state is both built on the enslavement of Black life and also offers inclusion into the settler project of occupying and legitimizing stolen land, while always excluding Black life from ever being fully human. There is only allowance of Black life in-so-far as it legitimates and supports settler colonialism, either materially (as through slavery) or through the seeking of inclusion and recognition. In this way, the state seeks to both mobilize and manage Black lives through matrices of slavery and its afterlife. This is the fleshiness of Black life, the “intimate violences” of the everyday, produced through the exploitation and management of Black life. As Tiffany King notes, settler colonialism does not just manage Indigenous peoples and spaces, but must also manage Black people and spaces (p. 130). These forms of domination, as she notes, are not analogous but in relation to one another.
Both Indigenous and Black fleshiness – that social life and alternative modes of being that resist inclusion – is always in excess, always existing as the threat to White settler normality.
Tiffany King notes, “The specific ways in which [Black and Indigenous peoples] die and are violently entangled in each other’s murders are important to know.“ Decolonization, a different future and way of relating beyond the humanity and confinement of the state, is needed. As scholars such as Leanne Simpson, Luam Kidane and Jarrett Martineau, have recently noted, Black liberation and Indigenous liberation are connected through resisting a colonial system that demands the perpetual and ongoing death of those constructed as less-than-human, Indigenous and Black lives.
The excess of Black and Indigenous life, as alternative modes of being against and beyond the definitional power of the state, is essential, then, for decolonization. Kawash articulates decolonization as “the excessive violence that threatens the reality as a whole” (p. 245) and, through this violence, decolonization promises and threatens, “the total destruction of law and right and the beings that come into existence in relation to law and right” (p. 242). Through the law, Indigenous and Black lives are deemed less-than-human and in murderable excess. Yet, this excess also holds new relationalities and new vocabularies of being that are in fleshy excess of the state, that demonstrate in their existence new and resurgent ways forward – ways that promise the necessary destruction of colonial state and its subjects.
Decolonization is not a hopeful, coherent position but one that demands the violent overthrowing of regimes of colonial sense making and Man making. Decolonization demands the end of positions where colonialism, its subjects and its modes of relating with one another even make sense.
Many thanks to Delice Mugabo and T.J. Tallie for commenting on and being in discussion with various drafts of this paper – for incisively noting absences and provoking new lines of thought to fill them with. Gratitude also to Karyn Recollet for the discussions that sparked some of these ideas!
Eric Ritskes is the founder and Editor of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education. He tweets regularly at @eritskes.