We all know that hands raised in the air at a moment of conflict indicate surrender. They say, “I’m unarmed” or “I’ve laid down my arms” and “please, do not harm me” and “I am in your power.” At least, those of us who watch tv and films, read cartoons and novels, track newspapers and magazines. This “I surrender” sign is a global vernacular, taught and circulated by children’s cartoons. (We might need to ask why children’s cartoons teach this vernacular.) And so, what is striking about “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as a chanted slogan and as printed words on handmade, often homemade, signs is that it indexes the failure of this bodily vernacular when performed by a black body, by a killable body. Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular, the error that makes this bodily action illegible, the disposability that renders the gesture irrelevant.
Blackness, after all, is the great alchemy of social relations: it transforms hands reaching into pockets into weapons of mass destruction, wallets and brooms and keys and phones into machines whose wielders must be destroyed, proximity into justification for violence and murder. It lives as an unsounding: “how is one supposed to understand these people?” As always-threatening movement, even when that movement says, “I surrender.” Or, “please, don’t kill me.” Or, “I am trying to participate in a global bodily vernacular.”
If “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” is an expression of “humanity,” as one tweet has it, we must ask for whom that humanity is available. In fact, the insistent repetition of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” by black bodies across the U.S. might offer a less promising narrative: it might suggest the banality with which black life forms can never gain access to the vernaculars of the human.
keguro, “hands up, don’t shoot”