Political ecology begins when we say “Black Lives Matter”


excerpt from Watersheds

“They say it’s a joke they say it’s a game.” The slogan was launched on the Chicago streets by the group We Charge Genocide, in the middle of a demo demanding reparations for victims of police torture. The folks on the street chanted those words, we hurled them out of our mouths in staccato bursts, while looking round at the passers-by who pretended not to notice. What the chant means is either enigmatic, or it’s painfully obvious. There is a kind of disdain that minimizes a death or a beating or a torture or a life sentence for black people in the name of lawfulness, efficiency, morality and humanist ideals. That kind of disdain has made democracy impossible in the US – and other places too.

Our group, the Compass, allowed two main tracks to run parallel for years. Bioregionalism on the one hand, minority rights and prison solidarity on the other. We were ecologists and social justice people, not the same thing but at the same time. The divide ran less between the members than inside each one, a split in a collective personality. At a meeting in the city of Madison the group decided that the split could be overcome. Political ecology begins when we say “Black Lives Matter.”

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the movement, puts it like this: “”#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important – it means that black lives, which are seen as without value within white supremacy, are important to your liberation.” Some would say that climate change makes every other issue pale by comparison. But black slavery, or the taking of life as a commercial object, started hundreds of years before the industrial revolution. The poisoning of the planet was built on the way our enlightened societies treat other human beings.

The objectivist poet, Matthias Regan, and the critical cartographer, Brian Holmes, put two and two together. Regan worked through hundreds of local newspaper articles, distilling social diatribe and media obfuscation into concise accounts that shock by their familiarity. Holmes situated both the poetic artefacts and the raw documentary material on a map of Midwestern watersheds, where the city of Ferguson lies at the center of the way things flow down in our region. The aim was to bear witness, at least partially and incompletely, to the names and the places and the stories of killings that have finally become unbearable, thanks to the courage of those who have created and sustained the protest movement.

This map only makes sense if you use it to examine the current state of American society. One way to use it is to go beyond the provided media link (often the first flash report, typically from the police viewpoint). The map encourages you to explore the fragmentary and conflicting texture of knowledge about police killings. The character of the objectivist poems arises precisely from the activity of sifting through these reports, with their many voices cold as ice or warm as love. Sometimes you will be dismayed and almost paralyzed by the mayhem and violence of our impoverished neoliberal cities. Other times you will come upon the traces of ongoing struggles.

Another way to use this archive is to pay attention to the places where death is delivered. Zoom deep into the map, grab the little “Street View” man and place the dotted circle around the gun or at the tail of the shooting star icon. The reports typically give a block location, sometimes more – in any case, you’re in the area. What you will see is the everyday landscape of shootings, taserings and physical blows that have typically been considered legitimate for the police. This landscape is ubiquitous. It’s the local environment of normalized disdain that confronts black people everywhere in today’s society. It’s the banal and utterly ordinary theater of overwhelming force, whose careless excess lies equally at the root of climate change. A tiny “X” up in the right-hand corner of the image affords a welcome exit from these urban and suburban traps. You can click your way back to safety, go ahead. But this isn’t a joke, this isn’t a game. We won’t be liberated so easily.

The counting of the dead and the quest for an end to the abuse are far-reaching efforts, involving large numbers of people whose work deserves close attention. Below we list the crucial texts and database records on which our own work has been founded. Art, in this case, is not invention, it’s respect. Let everyone do what they can, or what they formerly couldn’t, for a  transformed world in which black lives matter for real.


 Complete book of poems

Matthias Regan, Police State


Alicia Garza, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Frank B. Wilderson, “We’re trying to destroy the world”: Anti-Blackness & Police Violence After Ferguson

Naomi Klein, Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate


Operation Ghetto Storm

We Charge Genocide Shadow U.N. Report

Killed by Police

Fatal Police Taserings

Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014

US Police Shootings Database

Wikipedia list of killings by law enforcement officers in the US

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