Political Assemblies, Unlawful Asylums
Last fall, Ferguson and St. Louis exploded with acts of revolt against the police following the murder of Mike Brown. A year later, Jonathan Karp revisits the exhilerating days and nights of riots.
With symmetric vowels around a sigh, asylum feels a little like an accident, but not an unwelcome one. Obviously, the word – and the borders it implies – need both sides to exist, and its ultimate power comes from a simultaneous offering of peace and acknowledgment of threat. Looking back, its root is even more defensive: in Greek, “asulos” means “inviolable” and “without the right of seizure.”
When I hear this word and its origins, I suddenly feel bodies to my left and right, our arms entwined, shoulders to shoulders, packed as close as possible. We stand in parallel lines facing an empty classroom and, when the command is given, we sit on the floor without breaking contact. A few people stand separate and face us. Soon they rush forwards and try to take someone in the first row, and then another in the second. But we are entangled, our centers of gravity are low, and they aren’t really trying, anyways. We stand up in unison and the outsiders rush us again; they have picked out a person and as their hands reach forward, the first row twists, the second one pulls, and their target is shot back to join the third. All safe, for now. This is a community built in opposition, assembled only for its survival and the safety of its members. It’s only a training exercise for nonviolent direct action, but the threat of seizure feels real. For most in the room, it has been and will be again.