“Stand Your Ground” and sovereignty

Before the advent of Stand Your Ground laws, to claim self-defense you had to demonstrate that you genuinely had no other option. Violence was supposed to be a last resort, and even if the other guy clearly started it, you had no legal defense if you gratuitously escalated the conflict when you could have walked away. This approach makes sense as a way of balancing out the state’s claim to a monopoloy on legitimate violence and the individual citizen’s inalienable rights — in the last resort, everyone is entitled to do what’s necessary to preserve their own life, but it genuinely has to be the last resort.

With Stand Your Ground, a new regime has arisen in which the presumption of de-escalation no longer holds. Instead, the law functions to actively encourage the escalation of violent confrontations and defends the actions taken in that context regardless of “who started it” or whether another option was possible. Under the old regime, I think it’s pretty clear that George Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder, because he initiated the confrontation and stuck with it when he could have easily run away. Stand Your Ground removes those standards — it’s as though the state is saying, “No, don’t walk away, we want to see how this plays out.” And that seems difficult to square with traditional state sovereignty.

What is going on here? I don’t think we can separate these laws from the racialized structure of law enforcement, as the Trayvon Martin case demonstrates. It is simply not the case that Martin would have walked free if he’d somehow killed Zimmerman in their confrontation. On Twitter, Jim Henley suggested that we view these laws as a variation on deputization — but it’s a weirdly open-ended form, a kind of freelance self-deputization. It’s recruiting potentially every white male (along with everyone who identifies culturally with the white male power structure over against minority groups) to appoint himself a police deputy and join in the ongoing war on minorities that we euphemistically call “law enforcement” in this country.

This is a weird form of “popular sovereignty,” if we define “we the people” as “we the white (or white-identified) people.” And it shows the intimate link between Schmitt’s principle of sovereignty and the friend-enemy distinction — the ultimate state of exception is the declaration of a war. Stand Your Ground de facto declares certain types of citizens to be mini-sovereigns who can declare their own mini-wars and then depend on the power of the state to back them up. This isn’t a dimininution of the state’s authority, but a particularly powerful way of interpellating citizens into identifying with state violence as their own violence rather than existing over against them.

The right wing naturally has a greater affinity for this type of thing — ranging from the lynch mob of old to the self-appointed border patrols of today — but we can view the “If you see something, say something” attitude as a kind of bipartisan, centrist version of the same impulse. The fact that so many mainstream liberals rushed to the defense of the NSA spying, for instance, shows how effective the strategy is in legitimizing a form of state power that seems substantively indistinguishable from practices that we normally associate with “totalitarian” regimes.

I’ve long maintained that when we ask how “oppressive” regimes manage to stay in power, it’s not enough to point to coercion — after all, controlling the people with the guns is presumably the most difficult part! But I think that the strategy of our own liberal democratic republic gives us some insight into how it actually works. The oppressive dictator can control the troops by giving them the right to use violence, by sublimating that violence into something other and higher than simple brute force.

The problem arises when there’s simply too much cognitive dissonance, as when the troops can no longer maintain the belief that they’re acting on the public good when they’re firing on a crowd of peaceful protestors. Stand Your Ground and similar efforts represent a strategy for getting around that problem — first by recruiting the troops as deeply into the population as possible and second by trying to set things up so that the troops won’t be able to identify with the people who are left over. Both are necessary constituents. Recruiting literally the whole population to exercise state violence would be a collapse of the state — recruiting a certain ethnic identity to exercise state violence over against a racialized internal enemy is a kind of apotheosis of the state, a total saturation of state power into potentially every crevice of everyday life.

In this regime, a sidewalk can become a war zone, and every “upstanding citizen” can exercise the sovereign power of war. If the category of totalitarianism has any meaning, surely we must call this regime much more totalitarian than, for example, East Germany. There the “totalitarian” power was recognized (and at the end of the day recognized itself) as a heteronomous imposition — here there is a seamless identification. Citizens don’t have to be recruited, but actively recruit themselves to be the police in all its forms, including the riot police and the secret police.

The Stand Your Ground totalitarianism does share one feature with “traditional” totalitarianism, however, and that is desperation. The totalitarian system is a last resort, a Hail Mary-style attempt to hold onto power because it can’t hold onto power in the more or less straightforward way that a more legitimate regime can. Here we naturally think of the shifting demographics of the United States, the impending shift to a so-called “majority-minority” population, and we can’t help but notice that these efforts reached a fever pitch precisely when a black president was not only elected, but reelected — so that it couldn’t be dismissed as a fluke. The legitimacy of the white power structure is no longer self-evident and must violently assert itself.

The liberal illusion is that one can simply wait it out. But we have no reason to assume that the tide will inevitably turn as demographic factors take over. The state of emergency can be maintained indefinitely, and in fact the more “inevitable” the defeat of the totalitarian regime seems, the more violent and tenacious it can prove itself to be.

11 thoughts on ““Stand Your Ground” and sovereignty

  1. I thought he didn’t use the Stand Your Ground defense. Or are you suggesting that the mere existence of the Stand Your Ground regime alters the workings of self-defense as such?

  2. Richard, that’s only true by the slightest technicality. The judge included Stand Your Ground in the jury’s instructions, and of course the original failure to arrest Zimmerman was due to Stand Your Ground.

    The oppressive dictator can control the troops by giving them the right to use violence, by sublimating that violence into something other and higher than simple brute force.

    During the Egyptian counterprostests in 2011, Dsquared had a post called something like “The Political Economy of Arseholes” which was about this phenomenon in crisis mode. Basically, you can count on there being a substrate of angry, violent men who need but the subtlest of encouragements to go whale on protestors.

    The Stand Your Ground totalitarianism does share one feature with “traditional” totalitarianism, however, and that is desperation.

    But that “self-deputization”–the state’s relaxation of its monopoly of violence for the purpose of controlling minority groups–was a hallmark of the pre-Civil Rights south. “Stand Your Ground” feels like a throwback to it. I’m not saying you’re wrong, exactly, I’m just wondering how you would historicize your thoughts about desperation when they echo a long tradition of liberalized state murder.

  3. Riffing on what Josh said, I’m convinced the driving force behind Stand Your Ground is the existence of a group of angry white men who actually look forward to shooting someone someday and support legislative facilitation of this event.

  4. Dan Barber e-mailed me earlier today talking about how the formation of police forces in the U.S. originally began with self-appointed groups of white men who wanted to regulate the movements of blacks.

  5. To nitpick, in a number of places there is no duty to retreat without it being the work of modern NRA conservatives – in California it’s been in judicial interpretations and standard jury instructions for over a hundred years (see http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Stand-your-ground-the-rule-in-state-courts-affirm-3482665.php). It’s not a time-immemorial thing going back to English common law, I don’t think; I’m going to spend some time trying to track down the kinds of cases it originated in. Perhaps similar politics to today.

    Of course here there’s no pretrial clearance process like in Florida, and the notoriety and recency of SYG laws in red states is itself a public statement.

  6. Thank you for your helpful piece and drawing attention, in the link, to Adam Gopnik’s excellent piece in the NYT. There is another dimension to this continuance of violence and it has to be understood in relation to theology (and psychology).

    I think Paul Kahns recent book on violence and the sacred, coupled with Rene Girard on the ” scapegoat theory” and both in relation to the essential protestant monad of American puritanical protestantism. are key ti understanding the deeper waters of what us going on. “God, guns and guts mad America Free, Let’s fight to keep it that way” as a bumper sticker I saw in Dallas a few years ago neatly encapsulated it.

    If it is just me and my bible or just me and my gun we are in different worlds than personhood, communion and community.


  7. Effectively this limits “Stand Your Ground” to gunowners. Martin was standing his ground too. It would have been his word against Zimmerman’s, but without him it was just Zimmerman’s word and the physical evidence.

    The most heavily armed have the rights, just as in the Middle Ages.

  8. A big piece of the puzzle that has yet to be mentioned is ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Commission, which is a private corp that brings big corporations and legislators together, crafting corporate-friendly legislation that cement the relationships and lucrative futures of legislators and corporate interests alike. The legislation they produce is right-leaning at best, totalitarian at worst. They write this legislation and hand it out to legislators both at federal and state levels, including legislation aimed at privatizing prisons and more – including stand your ground laws – in FL and elsewhere. So along with the racial implications (which are surely important to note and take great issue with) of stand your ground, we ought to look very closely at the degree to which private interest and neo-con capitalist ideology determine law/policy/culture/race relations/etc,

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