Our Dirty War-The Disappearance of Black Men in America

By: Dr. Leigh M. Johnson

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Johnson’s essay “Our Dirty War.”  The full version, originally published May 2015, is available here.

"The disappearance of citizens displays a perversely cruel and absolute sovereignty"

Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice (2002)

I should begin by noting that I started writing what follows back in April, after the publication of the New York Times story on the "1.5 Million Missing Black Men in America" but before the popular uprising in Baltimore that began a few days later as a consequence of Freddie Gray's death in police custody.  In response to the latter, Baltimorean Rudolph Jackson was reported as saying of Freddie Gray "I'm not saying that [he] was an angel; whatever he did is now in the past.  But the police have made up their minds about who we are.  They figure every black man with his pants hanging down as a suspect, and they stop [us] without probable cause."  

A lot was written in the days following the article regarding how long and how carefully we should think on the "suspicions" that Jackson describes, as well as the deadly consequences of those suspicions. For the record, "what happened to Freddie Gray," as far as we know now, was that his spine was severed while in police custody. For whatever it's worth, and this only has a grossly curious worth, experts say that, quite simply, you can't break your spine like Freddie Gray is reported to have done.  We also know that Freddie Gray died as a result.  Every official and/or "leaked" published report of this incident has described Freddie Gray's injury in the passive voice.  Freddie Gray's spinal chord was severed.  Freddie Gray died as a result.

The Baltimore police department has opted to hand the findings of their investigation into Freddie Gray's death over to a prosecutor, instead of releasing those findings to the public, as they initially promised to do.  Every last one of us already know better and know more than what has been reported to us about that incident, though,  Freddie Gray's is not the story of a black man who "somehow died" in police custody. His is the all-too-familiar story of a black man who was made to disappear in the course of the United States' ongoing Antiblack Dirty War.

Lady Justice Being Held Back by the Angel of Mercy (Sculpture by Glynn Acree on the campus of Samford University)

Desaparecidos ("the disappeared") is a late-20th century neologism that has resisted comfortable translation into English, both linguistically and conceptually. The Spanish and Portuguese desaparecidos(n.) was initially devised to name tens of thousands of primarily Argentine and Chilean persons who were extrajudicially abducted, assassinated, tortured and/or executed-- that is to say, made to disappear--in the course of what came to be known as Argentina's "Dirty War" under the Pinochet regime in Chile.  In those contexts, "to disappear" (desaparecer) was employed as a transitive verb, something that one does toanother, or something that is actively done to one. 

During Argentina's Dirty War, for example, the question was often: 

What do you say of a son or a mother, dragged by police or other agents of the state out of his place in the streets or from her place of work and never heard from again?  

Without official records of his fate or her whereabouts, without an arrest, a trial, a judgment, a fine to pay, without even an official to bribe or an inmate to visit, how do you account for your loved one's absence? When there is no body, no death certificate, no explanation, you do not say "he disappeared." You say he was disappeared.  You do not say that she was executed, no matter the level of your confidence that she is, in truth, dead.  You say they disappeared her. 

In so doing, as many did thirty years ago, Argentineans and Chileans in some small part may have effectively demystified the conditions of the disappeared's disappearance, tacitly affirmed both the reality of their deaths and the clandestine injustice that brought those deaths about, but only at the expense of describing those disappearances in a way that simultaneously shrouded the agents of injustice in yet another layer of impunity. In this respect, the Spanish idiom "él fue desaparecido"-- "he was disappeared" or "he was made to disappear"-- shares an unholy alliance and abettance with its (intransitive and deceptively passive) English-language correlate "he disappeared." For countless loved ones of desaparecidos across South America throughout the 1970's-90's, giving a more or less "true" account of the disappeared qua "disappeared" required attempting to narrate a story in which one could only, at best, vaguely point in the general direction of a secret.  That secret was rarely what happened to the disappeared-- far from it, in fact. Rather, the real secret primarily involved the how of the disappearance, the why of the disappearance and, in what often amounted to a truth that stymied both understanding and imagination, the complicatedly nefarious for the sake of which of the disappearance.


In April of this year, the New York Times ran a story on the 1.5 million "missing" black men in contemporary America. A few key factors underlie this shocking statistic, chief among them the disproportionate number of black men who suffer early death (either by homicide, extrajudicial executions or various sorts of health conditions that are symptomatic of poverty), incarceration and overseas military deployment. The authors of the NYT's Upshot study summed up their findings thusly:

Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.

That is a stark description, indeed, and one that ought to shock and offend, if not also terrify, any and every American who believes the lie of our so-called "post-racial" United States.  But it is also a grossly misleading description.  Black men have not disappeared from daily life in the United States as if in some magical, mysterious "vanishing."  The truth is that black men are being made to disappear from American life.  

Black men are the United States' desaparecidos.

Black (and brown) men are regularly, systematically and in no small measure deliberatelydisappeared (v.) from daily life, from their families and homes and work places, from polling booths and public spaces, from inclusion as persons of concern in our collective conscience and sense of collective responsibility.


It is long past time to reckon with the fact that ours is a haunted democracy.  We are haunted not by thousands, not even by hundreds of thousands, but rather by millions upon millions of spectres of forcibly disappeared citizens, whose detention, death and intentional erasure mark the very boundaries of our community, define the content of our shared "secret," and constitute what ought to be our shared shame.

The disappearing of citizens, as Teitel rightly notes in my epigraph above, displays not only a perversely cruel but also a perversely absolute exercise of state power.  It brings to light what Giorgio Agamben (in his State of Exception) called the arcanum imperii, the "secret of power," in our time: an empty space at the center of sovereign activity for which we can at most, in our language and thinking, only inadequately account. It is the space that "grounds" the Law, but which the Law does not govern and cannot coerce. It is the space where sovereign power is executed and, more importantly, executes.  It is the space where a man like Freddie Gray can be arrested by agents of the state and, in the custody of those same agents of the state, have his spine "mysteriously" broken and die as a result.  It is, exactly as Agamben described, a space where "a human action with no relation to law stands before a norm with no relation to life."

It is the space where disappearing, in the active voice, is made (silently) possible.

For those who may still want to protest that the 1.5 million so-called "missing" black men about which the NYT reported on are not our own desaparecidos, that the United States is not engaged in a (Antiblack) Dirty War, that comparing us with Dirty War Argentina or Pincohet's Chile is beyond the pale, consider this: during the week of the protests in April of this year, more than 500 protesters have been taken from the streets, locked up and are being in held in jail, without having been officially arrested on any charge.  And if that gross violation of habeus corpus doesn't offend your democratic sensibilities enough... Just. Watch. This.

The protester in the abduction/disappearance above, Joseph Kent, is a student at Morgan State University and has been a community organizer since his middle-school days.  He has always been, by all accounts, a peaceful protester, even described once as "MLK with tattoos and gold fronts." Joseph Kent first appeared on the public radar when he began organizing protests in Baltimore in response to Michael Brown's (Ferguson, MO) murder by police as a part of Rev. Al Sharpton's Justice for All campaign. What you just saw in the video above was Joseph Kent being made to disappear.  Not in the way that is easily explainable by some actions of his own.  Nor by any above-the-board actions of the state.  Rather, an armored vehicle rolled up on Joseph Kent, a cadre of hooded police shoved him inside and whisked him away, and Joseph Kent was disappeared.

What you just saw in the video above was the definitive tactic of a Dirty War.  What you saw was exactly what the United Nations has defined as a human rights violation.  What you saw was exactly what a "forced disappearance" looks like.


For the people, for our desaparecidos and those making themselves visible and vulnerable for the sake of our desaparecidos, we are obliged to demand a truth-telling. Not the sort that is accomplished by police investigation or trial by jury or even civilian oversight, but rather the sort that can only be accomplished by a collectively-enjoined, collectively-enforced and collectively-endorsed structural evaluation and indictment of our justice system.

The United States desperately needs to legislate (as the Carnegie Council suggested earlier this year) exactly the sort of thing that many transitional democracies in the latter part of the 20th instituted, namely, a truth commission.  We need to do so, first and foremost, because we are not worthy of the name "democracy" anymore.  If we have any sincere interest in retaining that name, we need to be forced to collectively acknowledge the reality of our most protracted and covert engagement, our Antiblack Dirty War, as well as its consequence in the form of millions upon millions of black and brown desaparecidos.

As Eric Liu wrote earlier this year, presciently, the greatest obstacle to the establishment of a truth commission in the United States is that "it would be hard... hard to start and hard to finish." Liu writes:

We Americans can be a bit lazy when it comes to messy civic and historical truths. We want our stories — and our Story — to have happy endings. We want reconciliation on the cheap.

Reconciliation is never cheap.  Truth, even less so.  Let's call for an accounting of these United States, all of us.  And if we do not, let's not stand in the way of those who opt to speak in the language of the unheard.


Dr. Leigh M. Johnson is a Philosophy professor in and from Memphis, Tennessee. Her primary research/teaching focuses on moral and political philosophy, broadly speaking. She also writes about politics, philosophy, film, technology, music and pop culture at her blog ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore
Posted by Josh Colfer at 8:30 AM

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