The events of November 18, 2011, at the University of California, Davis, catalyzed a national and international response, focused on the vulnerable bodies of young white people engaged in an act of civil disobedience. As this scene has become momentarily enshrined in the political narratives of the U.S. Left, it seems that the spectacle of UC Davis has been isolated from the historical context that has enabled it. Rather than stagnate in the discourse of righteous outrage that is almost reflexively spurred by such events, this essay raises the question as to whether the entwined narratives of moral outrage and institutional (university/police) accountability surrounding UC Davis and select other police spectacles are part of a broader, commonsense conspiracy of silence regarding the where/when/why (and not merely the how) of state violence, and racist state violence, writ large? The institutional entitlement to use such police force, however ill-advised it may seem in hindsight, is neither incidental nor ad hoc—it is systemic, legally supported, and absolutely normal. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the acquittal of five Los Angeles Police Department officers in the street torture of Rodney King, it is urgent to once again examine how police violence shapes our everyday realities in different and contradictory ways.
What does remain in question is how and why the “facts” of the UC Davis incident are being translated into a liberal-progressive political reaction that seems to naturalize—that takes for granted and/or completely obscures—the fundamentally racial and racist structure of U.S. policing. In doing so, is it possible that much of the critical response to the scene at UC Davis is actually condoning racist police violence rather than challenging it, and if so, what is enabling well-intentioned, critically minded people to do so?