Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Theory and Violence

I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. – Tupac on the LA riots after the Rodney King trial.

Nothing that has happened to Rodney King is new. America has always been about this. – KRS 1, reflecting on the riots.

Immediately after reading this week’s Butler article, I went to YouTube and watched the Rodney King video (trigger warning for extreme police brutality). It felt important to witness it to understand, on some level, what Butler was talking about, where she was locating herself. It didn’t give me any answers.

How helpful is theory at a time like this? I’ve asked before and I’m sure I’ll ask again, but does conceptualizing the difference between “seeing” and “reading” have any impact whatsoever on police brutality? What happened to Rodney King was nothing short of a brutal (not to mention completely illegal) hate crime. The trial of violent police officers afterwards was clearly a miscarriage of justice. How does Butler’s analysis help here? What does her analysis do to promote justice, to educate the public about what happened, to make sure it never happens again? Does theory have a place in helping us process and react to violence?

The video documentation of the horrific beating seems to be what catapulted this incident to the national level, yet, as KRS 1 and countless others explained, this racist, violence behavior by police officers is nothing new. This is business as usual in communities of color. In fact, in 2009, a young African-American man named Oscar Grant was needlessly shot and killed by a police officer in San Francisco, sparking a media outcry and, to a lesser degree than in 1991, riots.

What can Judith Butler teach us about “reading” and “seeing” that can help us to better understand these horrific incidents? Is it even possible to “understand” them, and can theory help us do that? I’m not convinced.

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