This essay is the final installment of a three part series. The first installment, Dead or in Jail: Ferguson and the Bounty on Black Life, can be read here, and the second installment, Gaza, Ferguson, and the Perils of White Guilt, can be read here.
As the events in Ferguson have unfolded, I have been watching the Kardashians. A few days before Michael Brown was killed on August 9, that week’s tabloids were released; a Kardashian or Jenner was on the cover of Us Weekly, Life & Style, Ok!, and In Touch, and have largely remained there since then. While protesters massed in Ferguson and progressives on Twitter began to take note of the local government’s aggressive response, Kim’s new smart phone game “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood,” which had recently debuted and immediately grossed millions of dollars, shot to its position at the top of the App Store’s most popular lists.
I did not download Kim’s game, but I have been katching up on her TV show. Without a TV, this was my summer media diet. I didn’t have to suffer through CNN’s coverage of Ferguson—I just read the story as it happened, on Twitter. Sometimes I scrolled through the tweets on my phone while watching KUWTK on my laptop.
A couple weeks ago these narratives collided at the VMAs when MTV’s “Audience Cam” caught sisters Kim Kardashian and Kendall and Kylie Jenner checking their phones during the six seconds of silence for Michael Brown led by rapper Common, before he gave an absent Drake the moonman for Best Hip-Hop Video. As the screenshot image of the three sisters texting spread on social media, the public was dutifully enraged, and the story picked up by all those purveyors of gossip-oriented clickbait for whom this was ideal content. No word yet from MTV as to whether the audience cam was functioning on a delay, and I wouldn’t expect it, either.
In an earlier piece for this series, my unqualified use of the phrase “new world order” was deleted by my editor on the reasonable grounds that it called up a “vague conspiracy theory.” Of course, he was right. The New World Order is by turns a conspiracy theory and, on the other side, a utopian vision of neoliberal world cooperation and diplomacy, ideally shepherded by America and the West.
In an interlude on the Poor Righteous Teachers’ 1996 album New World Order, which spoofs a news broadcast, New World News correspondent Ned Koppel reports from violent riots in a housing project in Trenton, New Jersey. There, under federal martial law, NATO has been fighting a civilian population carrying out “some kind of revolt against all authority.” Among the cartoonish sounds of whooshing gunfire, Koppel manages to interview a cartoonish Latino character who describes smoking marijuana when the fights broke out. He says, “They started to run, they said something about a New World Order, mayne. All I want to know was does a fry and a shake come with that, ‘cause I sure got the fuckin munchies, mayne.” The skit ends with the sound of an explosion and the home station losing contact with reporter Ned.
I resist calling the skit prescient, because we’ve seen decades of protests and riots in communities of color be met with the full violence of the state. Yet there is something in the smallness of the named community and the hugeness of the state response—NATO has touched down—that recalls the slender human resistance of Ferguson and the overwrought bulk of the St. Louis Police response. Resonant, also, is its ending—the potential loss of Ned Koppel—in the wake of threats and tear gas directed at the press sent to cover the protests.
In my television-less corner of the universe, I could only watch the aftershocks of rage at the media that rippled out through Twitter as Americans across the country reacted to CNN and the New York Times’ insulting coverage of Michael Brown’s death. Mainstream media’s incompetence to cover the story with any nuance—or their apathy towards trying—was skewered most brilliantly by Tumblr #ifTheyGunnedMeDown, on which young black men and women questioned whether, were they killed, the news would show images of them in cap and gown or blinged out for a party.
Cumulatively, what we are watching is a dissimulation of a lynching, where the murder happens in one corner of our screen while our coy rationales withdraw into the manifolds of popular culture. Recent attention to police usage of deadly force against black men confirms the suspicion that this current era of lynching is as violent and as flagrant as the one we wish we left behind eighty years ago. Then, as now, the media bought into the spectacle because these murders were and are ritual and ritual sells. Indeed, Kim Kardashian’s story is part of the same sordid tale, because our interest in her has been rooted, from the first, in her relationships with black men.
Between Reconstruction and WWII, women and men of color in America were lynched for all kinds of reasons. In the records of lynchings painstakingly gathered by the NAACP, column after column listed all the crimes the dead men and women had been convicted, without trial, of committing. In one table of lynchings from the period, reasons given included “acting suspiciously,” “demanding respect,” and “trying to vote.” These are not so different from recent excuses we’ve heard, as one white man after another has excused himself from taking another black life—for talking back, selling illegal cigarettes, knocking on a front door, refusing to turn down one’s music, or looking suspicious, in a sweatshirt, in the rain.
Our visual fields are cluttered with screens. Constantly, constantly, we are looking at images. Here we have the image of Kim Kardashian, which is really an agglomeration of the incessant stream of images of Kim Kardashian—in a Calvin Klein crop top, in an Alaia bustier, with her husband in A.P.C., with their child in diamond studs.
Here is another image, in another corner of the screen, of Michael Brown laying in the street.
Here is a third: the image, moving and repeating itself, of happy people dousing themselves with ice water.
Guy Debord tells us the spectacle is what our modern economy looks like: it is what we have produced, and what we consume, congealed into an image. “The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” In an earlier piece, I suggested that the capital accumulated in the images of Ferguson is our squandered defense budget, expressed on suburb streets and pointed at our own citizens.
It all makes more sense if you don’t distinguish between E! and CNN, between Kim Kardashian and Rosemary Church. The TV is just trying to entertain you, to give you what you want to see so you’ll keep buying. That is, you who it thinks it knows but no longer does. They must be pitching my grandparents, who leave their TV on CNN all day, because I don’t even have a set. Faced with no journalism and no creativity, citizens take recourse to conspiracy theories. “They’ll confuse us with some bullshit, like the new world order.” But I’m not convinced the networks remember how to do news any better.
Kim Kardashian and Michael “No Angel” Brown are part of the same recycled story about salacious white women and black men with baggage. Dear Media, please serve us something new. This story is so old, and so tired, and we want to hear also about Renisha McBride and the Honduran children at the border and the new refugees in Gaza and Ebola and Isis and climate change, because the whole world is suffering and all you can do is demonize another murdered black man. Another black man has been killed and it’s the simplest story in America because it’s been happening for so long you’d think you could get it straight by now.
Anyway, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown deserves a fucking Pulitzer Prize.
In the revolution, Kim Kardashian will cease to exist, because we pay for her every time we turn on the TV. Denied her funds, she will stop buying her clothes; the paparazzi will stop snapping her pictures, E! Celebrity News will no longer exist, and neither will CNN, because everyone is in the streets, or owning their own destinies, and the batteries are dead in the remote.
We should march in the streets, and refuse to pay our taxes until they are diverted from the war chest into Ferguson’s high schools. But it is so much easier to sit on the couch and scroll through screens. Why, I just paid $11.99 for the first season of Kourtney and Kim Take New York. It is easier to sit on the couch and judge and say, he deserved it, and wonder why, and become so obsessed with demonizing a dead kid that the rest of the world falls away. Self-righteousness is a luscious pleasure.
Kim disappears in the revolution because she is the only character American media seem to know how to tell, and it’s a history of the same flat characters, the same fetishes and the same fears. We need so much more from our media right now. Where are the tables from 2014 of the endlessly accumulating list of minutiae for which Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and so many more are murdered? Where is the inquiry, the investigation, the historical perspective—dare I say it, the journalism? We knew the revolution wouldn’t be televised but are you not even gonna cover it at all?
Enough of this foolishness. I have Kim’s wedding to watch.
Tessa Brown tweets at @tessalaprofessa.