Systemic Racism and Everyday Mobilities: On Policing and Resisting Bodies

Over the past weeks, I have stood with many of you around the world in grief over the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Manny Ellis, and in anger – about  
the Trump administration’s response to protests and about the centuries of systemic institutional racism that have brought us to this point. These acts of physical violence have once again unmasked the everyday structural violence of policing practices in the United States and beyond. In solidarity with the people of color affected by these unjust and inhumane systems and with the protesters demanding change, I wanted to take some time here to reflect on the relation between systemic racism and everyday mobilities.

Both the killings that sparked the protests and the violent repression of the protests have shown that black bodies and their movements are differently – that is, more frequently and more violently – regulated and punished than white bodies. The United States has a long history of policies and practices explicitly aimed at regulating black mobilities, as Mimi Sheller explains:

“Racialized mobility systems in the United States originate in the system of slavery and its coercive and violent controls over black bodies and mobilities. But modern unequal mobility regimes are also grounded in the reactions against the abolition of slavery and the backlash against the Reconstruction era, which produced efforts at segregation codified as Jim Crow laws. This led into a long history of conflicts over freed peoples’ mobility and access to urban space.”[1]

While the segregation of mobilities in the United States is no longer codified as it was in the Jim Crow era, transportation systems are still racially stratified. Today, as Robert Bullard shows, “a lack of car ownership – especially among low-income people of color – combined with an inadequate public transit service in many central cities and metropolitan regions only serve to exacerbate social, economic, and racial isolation.”[2]

Similarly, many of the systems and practices used to regulate the movement of walkers, joggers, drivers, and public transit users remain racialized. In the case of public transportation, racial minorities are disproportionately affected by fare-enforcement measures. In Los Angeles, for example, (as noted in a previous blog post), Rosalie Ray calls attention to the fact that “of the 30,000 fines and 8,000 arrests for fare evasion in 2016, more than 50% were of Black riders, even though Blacks are only 19% of the Los Angeles population.”[3] There, as in several other cities across the US, activists call for fare abolition as a means of addressing the systemic racism of transit policing practices. While such policies have widely been mocked as unrealistic socialist ideals – possible only in Luxembourg because of its wealth and small size – present demands from across the US to defund the police raise critical questions around resource allocation. More and more, louder and louder, people are calling out the injustice of spending so many tax dollars on the militarization of police forces rather than investing more in public services like education, health care, and mobility.

Of course, mobilization for racial justice around mobility issues is nothing new in the United States: public transportation spaces have long constituted sites of resistance against systemic racism, as emblematized by Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience. 65 years later, protesters mobilizing in the streets are invoking such images from the Civil Rights Movement to demand an end to racist policing. My family recently sent pictures from a protest in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, where one marcher held a sign saying, “The Montgomery Boycott Lasted 382 Days. We out here.” These protesters are also showing that they are ready to stick it out, in the public spaces of our city streets as well as the new public arenas and avenues of cyberspace, until we see substantive change to the institutions, practices, and biases that reproduce systemic racism. 

I have largely focused here on the situation in the United States because I feel that as a white American, it is imperative to speak out against the specific violences and injustices of a system from which I have benefited and which I have been complicit in reproducing. Yet at the same time I do not wish to suggest that these are just US-specific problems. Last week, when we gathered in front of the US Embassy in Luxembourg City, protesters made it clear that we must actively work against systemic racism here, too. Some carried signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter och zu Lëtzebuerg” (“also in Luxembourg”). I was heartened to see these messages and heartened to see so many people out in the street – including hundreds who travelled by bus and train from all over the country to gather together. Let us continue to use our free mobility as a tool to freely mobilize, to keep moving forward, to no longer stay still.

[1] Sheller, Mimi. Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2018. p. 92.

[2] Bullard, Robert D. “All Transit Is Not Created Equal.” Race, Poverty & the Environment 12, no. 1 (2006/2005): p. 9.

[3] Rosalie Ray, “The US: Seeking Transit Justice from Seattle to NYC.” Prince, Jason, and Judith Dellheim, eds. Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators. Montreal, Chicago, London: Black Rose Books, 2018. p. 144.

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