• Ally Squared

The Power of Positionality

By Rika Mpogazi


Power is a means of understanding one’s ability to maintain control.

Positionality is a means of identifying one’s position within a collective.


In theory, the two combined offer perspective on how we are able to maintain control over

ourselves and over others. But in practice, it remains subjective to individual acts, and the

systems and contexts in which they take place. This three-part chronicle aims to objectively examine how six individuals’ positions within a collective offer a perspective on how each acted on their relative power [1]. The result of their acts, or lack thereof, helps us understand what happens when an individual within a collective reacts to the power of their positionality.


Trigger Warning: descriptions of police brutality.


1.

A man walks into a corner store to buy cigarettes. He hands the store’s cashier a twenty-dollar bill and walks back to his car with his purchase. Back in the corner store, the ink from the twenty-dollar bill that the man used to make his purchase is still running, which prompts the cashier to suspect that it is counterfeit currency. The cashier decides to pursue the man to retrieve the cigarettes he suspects were unlawfully purchased. The man refuses.

The cashier notices that the man is exhibiting a withdrawn behaviour. He is leaning over the top of his car and is responding with a slurred speech [1].The cashier decides to follow the corner store’s protocol. He calls the local police department which has the power to maintain control over such situations. A phone agent answers and asks the cashier to describe the man physically. The cashier answers saying that the man is “tall, bald, [and] about 6 feet tall” [1]. The phone agent then asks the cashier to describe the man’s racial category. The cashier hesitates. The phone agent presses the question. The cashier eventually answers, “he’s a Black man” [1].


2.

A few moments later, two police officers arrive at the corner store to respond to the cashier’s call. The man who purchased the cigarettes with what the cashier suspected to be counterfeit currency is in the driver’s seat of his car. One of the officers faces the front passenger side window, while the other faces the driver’s side window. The latter points a legally authorized weapon towards the man and calls upon him to show his hands as a means of ensuring that the man is not concealing any weapons, legally authorized or not. The man accepts. He positions his hands on the steering wheel of his car. The officer then puts his legally authorized weapon away.


He orders the man out of his car to handcuff him. The man physically resists. Eventually, the

officer handcuffs the man. The man is now physically restricted. He relents. The same officer

guides the man to the sidewalk near the corner store.

The officer facing the front passenger side window follows suit. But he notices that the man is exhibiting a withdrawn behaviour and responding with a slurred speech. The two police officers walk the man to their police car. The man hesitates to get in the passenger seat. He tells the officers that he is claustrophobic. He tells the officers that he is having trouble breathing [2].


3.

A few moments later, two police officers arrive at the corner store to respond to the cashier’s call. They find the man intentionally falling to the ground. There are now four officers in the corner store’s parking lot. The four officers direct the man to stand still. The man refuses. He tells the four officers that he is having trouble breathing.


One of the later arriving officers is the superior ranking of the collective. He pulls the man over to the back of the police car through one of the back-passenger sides. He then directs the two earlier arriving officers to assist him. The late arriving officer then pulls the man out of the back- passenger side. The man falls over and out of the car facing the ground.


The earlier arriving officer who initially faced the man on the driver’s side window presses down on the man’s back. The other earlier arriving officer who initially faced the man on the front passenger driver’s side window takes hold of the man’s legs. The later arriving officer who initially pulled the man into the back of the police car positions his knee on the man’s neck and head. The remaining officer stands by.


The man repeats to the three officers positioned on his back, legs, neck and head that he is having trouble breathing. The officer positioned on the man’s back suggests rolling the man on his side to the superior ranking officer positioned on the man’s neck and head. The superior ranking officer declines.


The officer positioned on the man’s back expresses his concern that their collective actions will cause “excited delirium” [2]. The superior ranking officer disagrees. He justifies his decision by his maintaining control over the man’s physical position.


The officer positioned on the man’s back repeats his suggestion to roll the man on his side.


The four officers maintain their positions.


The man is unmoving. He is breathing at a slow pace.


The four officers maintain their positions.


The man is unmoving. He is not breathing.


The four officers maintain their positions.


The officer who initially noticed the man’s withdrawn behaviour and who is holding the man’s

legs reaches over to the man’s wrist. He tells the collective that he cannot find the man’s pulse.


An ambulance car arrives at the corner store.

The man is still. He is not breathing.

The four officers maintain their positions.


[…]

This encounter is the result of a collection of individual acts. But the overall outcome points to a larger truth. It illustrates how social ranking is determined by a system that ranks individual life’s worth and value according to social categories. And in this hierarchy of positions, each category is assigned, not by an all-knowing source, but by the collective functions of a society, the power of which originates and continues to be maintained at the top, on the basis of race.


Each individual within this encounter assumes the responsibility to make independent choices that abide by and contribute to a larger system.


The cashier at the corner store who hesitates to describe the man’s social category to a police phone agent abides by the protocol of the ‘law’. He chooses his ranking.


The first police officer who recognizes the man’s restrictive physical position when he realizes

that the man’s humanity is being subjugated is in a subordinate position within the collective.

He chooses his ranking.


The second police officer who identifies the man’s withdrawn behaviour and declining physical condition is in a subordinate position within the collective. He chooses his ranking.


The third police officer who, prior to this encounter, had previously been reprimanded for

numerous acts of abuse of power over individuals who belonged to the same racial category as the man maintains his individual bias and superiority over the collective. He chooses his

ranking.


The fourth officer who witnesses the powerlessness of the man’s positionality amongst the

collective stands by in complicity. He chooses his ranking.


When the man first walked into a corner store to buy cigarettes, he had caffeine, cannabis,

amphetamine, alcohol and fentanyl circulating in his blood. He suffered from a hyper-intensive heart disease [3]. He was claustrophobic [2]. But it wasn’t his declining physical condition or his biological features that put him in a position where his heart rate accelerated to the point of no return. The man’s death was caused by an increased physical pressure and stress disproportionately induced by the four officers’ decision to place systemic power over the value of individual life.


Because his social value, or lack thereof, was predetermined by the colour of his skin.


Because the collective force whose responsibility should’ve been to protect him as an individual, disempowered him.


And because the system that perpetuates this disproportionate equilibrium offered the legal

means to do so in a context where legality is subjective to the one who holds power.


The man whose positionality precipitated his last breath was an individual. But the position in which he found himself was not an individual case. It was an individual representation of a

collective case. One that has occurred in the past. One that is occurring in the present. And one that will continue to occur in the future if the collective power that has the ability and means to maintain control over an individual does not identify the power of its positionality and make the appropriate adjustments.


References

[1] Furber, Matt. D. S. Burch, Audra & Robles, Frances. “What Happened in the Chaotic

Moments Before George Floyd Died”. The New York Times. (May 29, 2020) Retrieved from

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/us/derek-chauvin-george-floyd-worked-together.html.

[2] Plaintiff v. Derek Michael Chauvin. Court File №27-CR-20–12646 (2020). Minneapolis,

MN. Retrieved from District Court State of Minnesota, County of Hennepin

[3] Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office (2020). Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating

law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression (Case №20–3700). Minneapolis, MN. Retrieved from https://penandthepad.com/cite-autopsy-report-apa-2203.html


Rika Mpogazi is an observer of her environment who occasionally writes and produces work on her findings. She is fascinated by the intersection between individual self-understanding and collective development. She’s utilized her cultural awareness and knowledge of International Development and Political Science to contribute to self-determined development in her local community in Canada, as well as her global community in Brazil, Senegal, Colombia, Rwanda and Congo of which her focus on Afro-diasporic authenticity is highlighted in her upcoming multi medium project ‘Interesection’, set to launch in September 2020.

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