Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

The Story of Abner Louima: Cultural Fantasies, Gendered Racial Violence, and the Ethical Witness

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

The Story of Abner Louima: Cultural Fantasies, Gendered Racial Violence, and the Ethical Witness

Article excerpt

What follows is an attempt to tell the story of Abner Louima. It is a story that cannot be told, yet must be told. It cannot be told because the discursive practices available for recognizing violence against certain people are greatly insufficient. Structures of intelligibility, fields of vision and cultural frames of interpretation delimit the possibilities of enunciating certain stories, particularly stories of racial violence. Yet Louima's story must be told because structures that permit and reproduce possibilities for the denigration and expendability of life must be disrupted.

Still, the attempt to tell the story of Abner Louima brings particular uncertainties. Narrating the humiliation of others always runs the risk of enabling an affective distance that transforms readers into voyeuristic spectators. The retellings of such scenes of spectral violence, rather than evoking indignation, might instead "immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity. . . and especially because they reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering."1 Saidiya Hartman asks how the reproduction of such scenes calls upon us to participate:

Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield?. . . [D] oes the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator.2

These questions and "viewing" positions are complexly intertwined in Louima's story. Tracing the distinction between spectator and ethical witness, the first part of this article investigates the material conditions and cultural logics that sparked and motivated the brutality against Louima. Which ideologies make sexualized racial violence permissible or justifiable? Which cultural fantasy-projections and sentiments initiate racial violence? Which settings perpetuate disinterested and voyeuristic spectatorship to others' denigration?

In the second part of this article, I investigate ways in which Haitian and other communities ethically witnessed Louima's violation. Situating Louima's case in the context of systemic harassment, surveillance, and police brutality prevalent in New York City communities of color, Haitians and other organizers challenged state practices of racial violence and recognized the perspectives and positions of aggrieved communities.

The Story

In the early morning hours of August 9, 1997, a fight broke out in front of Club Rendez-Vous on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.3 Police officers from the 70th Precinct were summoned to quell the fight and disperse the crowd that had gathered outside. Among them were Officers Justin Volpe, Thomas Bruder, Charles Schwarz, and Thomas Wiese. John Rejouis, a New York City corrections officer, was also present. When John Rejouis showed his badge, Volpe slapped his hand, knocking the badge to the ground. Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, confronted Volpe regarding his treatment of Rejouis. Volpe began pushing Louima away from the club, and the tension rose as Louima refused to budge. While Schwarz, Wiese, and other officers were trying to handcuff Louima, Volpe was hit on the side of his head and knocked to the ground by Louima's cousin, Jay Nicholas. Officers who saw Nicholas strike Volpe began chasing after Nicholas, who took off running. Thinking that Louima was the one who struck him and that Louima was the one who took off running, Volpe joined the chase.

Patrick Antoine, another Haitian immigrant, was walking home unaware of what was happening at Club Rendez-Vous. Volpe came up on Antoine from behind and punched him in the face. …

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