The Fall and Rise of the Black Cyborg
The Black cyborg is a product of collective representations. The Black cyborg incarnates political ambitions and projects an imagined future. Michael Zinzun was a cyborg because his political persona emerged in the feedback loop between, on the one hand, his personal experiences, qualities, and limitations, and on the other hand, the expectations of the collective ensembles that drew inspiration from him while also sustaining him. There is no Black cyborg without the remarkable human being that is able to incarnate this figure of social fiction; there is no Black cyborg without the collective symbolic environment that requires and produces that unusual, seemingly superhuman, or extrahuman subject. To study the Black cyborg is to recognize both Michael Zinzun’s unusual qualities and the cognitive and political idiosyncrasies that defined his allied blocs.
Despite the regime of state terror he inhabited, tirelessly cataloged, and opposed, Michael never gave up. At great personal cost, including his family’s exposure to illegal police scrutiny, intimidation, and physical brutality, he never gave up denouncing the persistence of a racist power structure and finding ways to reform it. Michael wanted to be included in the very society that systematically victimized him and others similarly positioned—a reformed version of that society. Even though he studied and had sympathies for autonomous and maroon-like social formations, such as the Republic of New Afrika, Michael conjured up his various projects, political alliances, his often devastating critiques against state institutions, and indeed his dreams of a better world unmistakably in oppositional dialogue with the dominant legal, political, and economic structures. As a former member of the Black Panther Party he was highly critical of how those structures operated, but he did not advocate their immediate overthrow. He believed that collective wisdom and effective, studied mass mobilization would, in time, if not correct the evils of racial capitalist exploitation, at least generate entry of those previously excluded into spheres of justice, work, consumption, and decision making. The 1991 campaign for a Civilian Police Review Board, which Michael and the Coalition Against Police Abuse spearheaded, was an example of that approach. As in that campaign, he worked tirelessly in Black communities and with members of nonblack constituencies—namely, Latin@s, Asians, and progressive Whites. Michael often collaborated with organized gay, lesbian, and transgender groups as well.
Analyzing Zinzun’s organizing trajectory, this chapter explores the ways in which the figure of the Black cyborg illustrates and adds to our previous analyses of nonblack oblique identification with Blacks. The Black cyborg enables the multiracial bloc that is aware of and wants to put an end to Black suffering. Because the Black cyborg embodies, studies, explains, and politicizes Black experiences, to associate with the Black cyborg is to recognize Black suffering: the Black cyborg mediates the relationship between the nonblack and Black lifeworlds. And since the Black cyborg embodies Black wisdom, will to educate, capacity to love, and organizational knowledge, s/he personifies an idealized Black political ally. The Black cyborg reaches out, invites, informs, explains, and offers a project of multiracial democratic redemption—all while typifying Black suffering and refusal to be victimized.
Zinzun’s trajectory manifests the ways in which the Black cyborg enables awareness of Black suffering while disabling a sustained and vigorous collective acknowledgment of the foundational aspects of antiblackness. Zinzun’s lifetime political work offers angles through which to analyze the dichotomy awareness of Black suffering/disavowal of antiblackness. This dichotomy is at the heart of nonblack–Black relative recognition, which i have termed oblique identification. At the end of this chapter, i offer explanations for why the Black cyborg simultaneously engenders nonwhite relative empathy toward Black suffering and hampers incisive critiques of structural antiblackness.
• • •
Born in Chicago on February 14, 1949, in an impoverished family and under legalized racial segregation, Michael knew firsthand the effects of poverty and antiblack racism. The son of a Black mother and an Apache father, he grew up in the Cabrini–Green residential projects, where he often experienced hunger. Michael sometimes reminisced that to quell his hunger, like other kids he ate plaster from the walls of his cold, damp, and crowded apartment. In 1957, when his father died, Michael was sent to Pasadena, where an aunt lived; there he remained for his entire life. After finishing high school he worked as a car mechanic, and eventually he managed a car repair shop in Altadena. In his early twenties Michael was already involved in local organizing with youths and protesting against police misconduct. In 1970 he joined the Black Panther Party, and upon its effective dismantlement by state repression, with activists B. Kwaku Duren and Anthony Thigpenn, following a string of community-organizing initiatives ranging from youth-centered pest control and supplemental school education, in 1975 he launched the Coalition Against Police Abuse.
The bus. That was the image Zinzun often used to conclude public speeches. It served as a metaphor for his method of social organizing and change: a bus without preferential seating, a bus conducted by the people, a bus leaving a time and space of struggle and heading toward a more just, solidary, and integrated social world. Michael at times talked of this imagined bus traveling sideways—a futuristic projection that, engineering challenges notwithstanding, stressed the egalitarian philosophy of his political dreams.
It was not just the refusal to give up despite the overwhelming evidence of antiblack dispositions in the empire-state machine and in society at large that made Zinzun a cyborg. Having endured repeated indignities and pains resulting from the regime of antiblack terror and from his active opposition to it, Michael consistently showed unusual will and strength. And if he didn’t openly extend love to his powerful adversaries, contrary to how they consistently acted, he counted them as his fellow human beings. A few times he confided with me about his moral dilemmas concerning the suffering he or his Panther comrades may have inflicted on their adversaries during the height of the war the police and the U.S. empire-state apparatus waged against them in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was acutely aware that the people in the adversarial social and political camps, particularly those invested in forms of antiblack supremacy (Whites and nonwhites), did not seem to share his expanded ethical perspective. Planned assassinations of young Panthers, of which there is an abundant documental and photographic archive, reveal striking similarities to lynching scenes. In both sets of scenes, the obvious contentment shown by White spectators and police officers are stark reminders of the ethical incommensurability between Michael’s moral standards and those of his political adversaries. Whereas Michael considered himself a member of an expanded human universe and drew his ethical values from it, those willing to degrade, subjugate, and kill, apparently without moral dilemma, forcefully negated his values. This worldview incommensurability was well illustrated in the permanent exhibit of mutilated Black bodies Michael arranged in the CAPA office: disfigured bodies victimized by police and mob beatings, dog bites, explosions, and gunshots, many of them barely recognizable as human. And that was just the point: Michael inhabited an inclusive moral world which, though foreign to people who harbored antiblack sentiments and the institutions that implemented them, made it necessary to include, engage, educate, and love the other, the ignorant, the adversary, the White, the nonblack, and the Black antiblack even despite—and perhaps precisely because of—the continuing manifestations of antiblack terror. Educate and love the ignorant and the hateful, and reform and occupy institutions of power: such was the mandate.
Michael was a firm believer in broad, cross-class, multiracial political alliances. For example, he was a longtime member of the socialist, democratic, feminist, environmentalist, and antiracist Peace and Freedom Party, under which in 1989 he unsuccessfully ran for the Pasadena City Council; and he was one of the main organizers of the Latin@, Asian, and Black gang truce initiated in 1992. Temporary, shifting, pragmatically designed and carried out, such multiracial alliances provided the fundamental political energy needed for achieving precisely delineated, momentary goals. Goals included marches and rallies, campaigns (protesting police brutality; for public office; for or against legislative propositions), press releases and events targeting the news media, and national and international encounters and seminars. As circumstances and goals changed, as adversaries changed, so did the alliances. The one constant was that Michael and his primary affiliations—the Coalition Against Police Abuse as well as the Community in Support of the Gang Truce—provided the core of the alliances’ organizational strategy, the institutional and historical knowledge, the infrastructural and financial resources, and perhaps more decisively, the expanded ethical–human principles on which recognition, solidarity, and even love between differently positioned political subjects materialized. Michael’s charisma exerted pronounced gravitational pull: he made otherwise self-centered, scattered, suspicious, even violent people work together for a common cause. Just as important for the political projects in which he was involved, but perhaps not as perceptible, was that the force field he energized required his personal, seemingly endless energy, his tireless will to engage those who inhabited familiar and foreign ideological worlds. In this capacity to give love, political love, Michael was superhuman, and thus a cyborg.
Zinzun was a cyborg due to the charisma he commanded and turned into practical action. This capacity to transmute charisma into action made Zinzun quite unusual, gave him apparently extrahuman powers, and thus placed him—at least part of him—in the realm of the metaphysical. But of course Michael was his body; he incarnated the charismatic cyborg in his collaborators’ perceptions, and perhaps even in his own perception.
Perceptions are the product of collective craft, and this craft is often a concoction of magical and engineering pursuits attempting to make sense of and change the world. Perceptions, then, are socially produced fictions. As Erica Edwards argues, “If charisma is not a static social structure but rather a portable structure, a sketch, of sociopolitical history and engagement—again, a cultural regime—then it might be deciphered as a fiction emerging from a particular cultural context.” This line of reasoning resonates with Donna Haraway’s 1983 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” wherein the author constructs her notion of a feminist cyborg as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” Haraway’s project is “an effort to contribute to socialist–feminist culture and theory in a postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagining a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, but maybe also a world without end. The cyborg incarnation is outside salvation history. Nor does it mark time on an oedipal calendar, attempting to heal the terrible cleavages of gender in an oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse.” Whereas for Haraway the cyborg is “a creature in a post-gender world,” and cyborg politics “is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism,” the Black cyborg is a creature of and immersed in the cisheteropatriarchal antiblack world seeking the post-antiblack multiracial integrated polis.
Zinzun, Black charismatic cyborg, while an agent of a utopia where and when (principally but not exclusively) the nonblack would cease to oppress, is a social fiction that strategically embraces salvation history. If salvation history is understood as a narrative of progress, or successive political, cultural, and social gains leading to greater levels of Black and nonwhite inclusion, then the Black cyborg is placed smack in the middle of this narrative, and is in fact its propulsive symbolic and practical engine. It is a strategic embracing of salvation history, though, because Zinzun’s ultimate horizon explodes his allied bloc’s references of progress and belonging. In the ultimate horizon, the utopian destination that is reached by Michael’s sideway bus, social differences are disentangled from social inequality, rendering irrelevant the Black cyborg’s political imaginary. In the utopian world arrived at after the political journey in the Black cyborg’s sideway bus, the Black–nonblack differences become mere superficial details, they lose their structuring meaning. Like a one-way interstellar ship, Michael’s sideway bus, and the political engineering that made it possible, is rendered obsolete once the destination is reached.
The fictive nature of the charismatic Black cyborg makes compelling, because socially recognizable, his political performance. Fictive means not unreal, but rather socially crafted, thus socially relevant and effective. As a charismatic Black cyborg, Zinzun catalyzed shared anxieties and desires, and thereby enabled the agglutination of diverse constituencies around common goals, finite and indistinct. Zinzun’s cyborg embodied both a collective melancholia and a corresponding urge for redemption of the empire-state and its inclusive ideals.
Yet the Black cyborg’s compelling performance, reflecting a catalog of shared expectations, and as a model of collective mobilization, reaffirmed normative protocols. Normative gender roles, and a default cisheteropatriarchy, drew sharp lines around the Black cyborg. Who could, should, and would be a cyborg was readily understood, among Zinzun’s collaborators, as he who knew the ways of organized protest and had the moral, physical, and material resources to withstand the arduous road to reform. Even Michael’s continued attempts at understanding gendered dynamics of racial oppression did not relativize the normative cismasculinity under which he operated. The same can be said about all us who participated in the collective efforts in which he was a central player. The black cyborg, as a socially located and historically specific fiction, activated expectations of leadership that were unmistakably embedded in heteropatriarchal, unequal gender dynamics. As much as women and LGBTQ persons were genuinely valued, their presence around the cyborg only reinforced a predictable pattern of Black mobilization in which exceptional heteronormative men—often assisted by women who, behind the scenes, contributed a disproportionate share of the everyday labor, including affective labor—performed the most visible, powerful, and prophetic duties. Put another way, the Black cyborg and the fictions of charismatic leadership that made this figure possible required and reproduced heteropatriarchal hierarchies of gender whose underlying violence forces us to call into question the type of reformist utopia the Black cyborg and his collaborators pursued. As we will see, cisnormative gender was not the only blind spot in the Black cyborg’s practice.
Zinzun was a cyborg because he refused victimization. In the forceful and confident manner that was a central aspect of his public persona—a persona he often credited to his years as a Black Panther Party member—Michael was the bearer of a political desire of integration. A radical embodiment of assertive heteronormative male blackness, Michael punctuated his public pronouncements with memorable phrases. Following the 1991 police beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, when he was often featured on television with police officers, he concluded his thoughts by hailing the cops with whom he shared the TV program, saying “I’ll see you in court!” and then “Backwards never, forwards ever, power to the people!” He wanted his seat in the bus—the vessel that would lead to the desired integrated republic—and he wanted a good seat for his people and allies. He performed his conviction and project of belonging with gusto: “You may not like it,” he’d often say humorously, “but I belong here and I ain’t going nowhere.” “You,” of course, signified both individuals not able to accept Blacks as full citizens and, more important, institutions, like the police, whose perverse logic and operation Michael intended to radically reform.
Michael’s notion of integration had an imperative to it. To him it was a necessary integration, one that would come about despite the racial antagonisms of which he was, due to experience, research, and study, acutely aware. Based on a boundless, selfless, patient, and giving disposition, Michael’s integration was the medium through which a loving community would emerge, a community built on the excess of Black love despite antiblack hatred. This required excess of Black love made Zinzun a cyborg. Anyone who knew Michael knew he was as generous as he was vulnerable: he continuously trusted, he gave, he shared, he helped, he listened—all of which made him an easy target of unscrupulous requests, disappointment, and of course physical and spiritual pain and exhaustion.
• • •
As a cyborg, Michael was a “modified, improved human whose increased ethical, spiritual, and physical capabilities generate unusual strength, omniscience, and boundless love.” Near-mythical male Panther figures such as Huey Newton, George Jackson, and Geronimo Pratt informed many of Michael’s cyborg characteristics. Less obviously but just as powerfully, some of James Baldwin’s cogitations on the place and function of Blacks in the actualization of the inclusive project of democracy are instructive in our effort to understand Zinzun’s ethical standpoint. It is fitting that Baldwin’s cyborg, consubstantiating accumulated Black wisdom, courage, and strength, is represented as a Black cisheteronormative male cyborg. Although aware of gendered inflections of racialized social dynamics—brought to life (and death) in many of his fictional works, where, for example, he explored Black cisgender homosexual masculinities—Baldwin often ventured into sustained ethical and political reflections that privileged the experiences of men, variegated as they may be. In his political–philosophical work, and in his public interventions, he thus left unchallenged patterns of cisnormative masculinity and its heteropatriarchal logic. This limitation transpires quite evidently in the passages i focus on below. It is a limitation that equates the rescue of the empire-state multiracial project to the extrahuman work of Black charismatic heteropatriarchal men. It is a fitting and instructive juxtaposition because as a cyborg, Michael thought and acted for all Blacks. And just like Baldwin’s cyborg, Michael understood Black struggle as the gateway to the redemption of the entire polis. The Black male cyborg was the indispensable agent of the multiracial project of integration.
How does Baldwin’s cyborg come about? In “My Dungeon Shook,” writing to his nephew James on the hundredth anniversary of emancipation, Baldwin gives Blacks a central, disproportionate, and indeed superhuman role in the required empire-state-building efforts. To bring about the beloved integrated polis, it was necessary
that we [Blacks], with love, . . . force our [White or nonblack] brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is our home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.
To “make America what America must become” requires unusual strength and determination. Choked by a suicidal antiblack formation, the American democratic experiment had been seriously impaired. But not irreversibly. In Baldwin’s perspective, the empire-state’s redemption could not depend on those who had brought about its near ruin. Instead, and dialectically, the persons who had been formally stripped of their very humanity and rendered fungible objects, but who had maintained their ethical principles intact—those Black subjects were now hailed to put into practice their historical salvaging mission. The time had come when Blacks were called to reestablish the polis’s moral center and historical vocation. Blacks had, in effect, physically built the empire-state while preserving their moral aptitude amid the country’s degradation. They were, therefore, the ones with the greatest connection and commitment to the republic. Such unique connection—moral and affective—resulted in a fundamentally unequal distribution of responsibilities. In Baldwin’s worldview, Blacks were charged with lovingly yet forcefully educating Whites and other nonblacks about the beauty and necessity of the democratic multiracial project. In this process of conscientization, there would emerge a collective recognition of Black people’s humanity, importance, worth, and indeed centrality in the country’s rebuilding effort. The Black cyborg configured in Baldwin’s narrative, one whose endurance and dignity are ostensibly superhuman without analog, is the foremost protagonist of the society’s redemption project. The Black cyborg redeems fellow citizens from their ignorance and bigotry, and hence rids them of their self-destructive formations of ontology and sociability. By redeeming its citizens, the Black cyborg redeems the democratic inclusive project.
Yet, as the Black cyborg engages in this project of democratic and inclusive redemption, normative social perceptions and relations are radically disrupted. Similar to Frantz Fanon’s ontological scheme, Baldwin’s nonblack and, principally, White subjects depend on the fixed Black nonsubject. To redeem the polis means to shake up its structures of sociality and self-understanding; to create the very cognitive and moral conditions that, while necessary for the empire-nation’s improved rebirth, will destabilize nonblacks, principally Whites, and certainly endanger Blacks. The ensuing cognitive and moral earthquake will be hazardous to Blacks inasmuch as, in the corrupted country’s symbolic and social maps, Blacks are not supposed to be anything but nothing, with no say, no vision, no ethics, no agency. There is no question about on whom falls the burden of redemptive transformation. It will be difficult, but after all, like Baldwin’s nephew James, Blacks come from remarkable stock—from accumulated collective experiences that have generated monumental, superhuman qualities. The Black cyborgs that populate this particular Baldwin text, endowed of endless compassion toward those who despise them and who, unknowingly, render the empire-state project inviable, want to recuperate this same project, to shape “America” into what, they assume, is an existential and historical preordainment. That is to say, the democratic project is redeemable only if and when Blacks, at their own likely-to-be-actualized risk, take on the necessary mandate of salvaging it. Blacks embrace salvation history; they have no other choice. Baldwin’s Black subject is a Black cyborg because, despite strength and foresight accumulated over generations, he knows beforehand that much suffering, and possibly death, will have to be endured. Superhuman determination, love, and strength will be required. But for the cyborg, they already exist; these qualities are indeed constitutive.
Unlike Fanon’s transformative project, one that aims at the destruction of the colony and builds on the colonized’s odium of the colonist and the colony, Baldwin’s rebirth is one of recuperation. It is one that wants to rid the polis of its moral bankruptcy by resuscitating its democratic spirit. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” asserted Baldwin, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” While in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth it is hate and cleansing and empowering violence that leads to transformation, in Baldwin, the Black cyborg’s unbounded love as well as moral and physical strength rescue the country’s concept and its substance. Indeed, Baldwin’s cyborg appeases rather than provokes; he soothes, reconciles, ponders, educates, and transforms.
Here lies the crux of Baldwin’s method of social transformation: the beloved community results from the struggles necessary to establish lucid dialogue and ethical commitment according to which antiblack dispositions become acknowledged and unacceptable. Through the work of the Black cyborg, ever undeterred, antiblack terror is cataloged and explained, thus becoming unbearably visible, unjustifiable, and via the laborious moral elevation of the imperial–national subjects, finally neutralized. But what, precisely, must precede the method—what are the method’s conditions of possibility? Baldwin’s cyborg must lovingly embrace those who stand in diametrically opposed, antagonistic social and ontological positions vis-à-vis Blacks: nonblacks, and Whites in particular: “You [meaning James, but James is, after all, Baldwin’s prototypical cyborg] must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” The burden of engineering and carrying out the redemptive method is unambiguously on Blacks. The burden of acceptance, love, and wisdom is on Blacks: not only do they put up with White (and nonblack) hate and ignorance, they patiently build archives of information that they subsequently share with and explain to Whites (and nonblacks). The burden of suppressing rage while being victimized by White hatred; the burden of establishing communicative rationality and a collective ethical contract when, precisely, the antitheses of rationality and ethical commitment inform the normalized regime of antiblack terror—the burden of carrying out the method of redemptive social transformation is the burden and mission of the Black cyborg. At once victim and controlled, degraded but forgiving, dehumanized yet all-inclusive and humanizing, the Black cyborg must be a super/extrahuman whose unnatural capacity to suffer and love make him the necessary political subject on whom relies the republic’s project of redemption. Without the Black cyborg, the nonblack, and above all the White, is irremediably corrupted; hopeless in her hate and ignorance. The Black cyborg is the moral reservoir and prophetic hope of the empire-state.
• • •
Michael Zinzun was a cyborg because, like Baldwin’s cyborg, he not only recognized the redemptive project’s burden, but embraced it. “The Law Wants to Shut Him Up,” read the headline of a 1982 Los Angeles Reader cover story. “Mike Zinzun,” the article announced, “is the city’s staunchest cop critic. Make that was. He’s about to go on trial for the crime of talking back to the police. This is his story. It could be your story.”
By 1982 Michael had a well-known public trajectory of activism in Pasadena and Los Angeles. Upon amassing extensive evidence that undercover agents had infiltrated CAPA, in 1979 Zinzun and 130 plaintiffs from various civil rights organizations who had similarly gathered proof of infiltration sued the LAPD for violating their constitutional rights to assemble, to expect privacy, and to associate freely. That case resulted in a $1.8 million settlement in 1981 and the disbanding of the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division.
Besides providing assistance to victims of police misconduct at the Coalition Against Police Abuse, Michael was involved in a series of community initiatives: nontoxic, environment-conscious pest control (the “Off the Roach Program,” based on Michael’s meticulous study of boric acid as a safe deterrent to insects), around which he held training classes and employed local young women and men to serve the surrounding communities; video-making courses; production and hosting of Message to the Grassroots, a monthly cable television show that started in 1988 and ran for approximately a decade; a recycled plastic dome housing project for the homeless; silk screen and computer instruction for youth; and supporting transnational collaboration between activists of Los Angeles and Brazil. Zinzun seemed tireless. At almost every turn, however, he was confronted with obstacles of various kinds: financial, interpersonal, and legal in addition to problems with the police. Michael’s disputes with law enforcement evidenced, as David Marriott puts it, “the question of how cultural and unconscious fantasies of black men as icons, types and antitypes lay claim to particular accounts of the nation [empire] state.” The Los Angeles Reader article describing Zinzun’s disputes with the police reveals the ways in which he inhabited certain archetypes that, while effective in projecting a sense of collective and historical purpose, made him increasingly more vulnerable. This is how sympathetic journalist Steve Erickson introduces Michael to his readers:
Mike Zinzun lives in Pasadena. Arrived from Chicago at the age of eight. He is now thirty-three years old. Very big dude, wary, charismatic. Isn’t that what they call guys like this, charismatic? Picked up on the Black Panthers when he was in his late teens, split from them around 1972 over political differences. . . . During the seventies, Zinzun was involved in community free-breakfast programs, roach-control programs, recreation and summer-employment programs for kids, emergency medical and first-aid programs, and, six years ago, he co-founded with fellow Panther Robert Duren the Coalition Against Police Abuse which, as you may know, is Daryl Gates’s favorite charity.
Sometime between 1969 and 1971 Zinzun and his wife, Florence, barely escaped a predawn police raid that would have claimed their lives, just as similar raids had decimated a substantial part of the national Black Panther Party leadership. Luckily, they happened to be awake in the wee hours of the night. Hearing suspicious noises around the house, Florence went to the door and noticed a large concentration of cops and special agents geared up to act. A well-trained Panther, with a shotgun in her hands she demanded to see legal documents justifying the police visit, which started a lengthy negotiation between Florence and Michael, on one side of their home’s door, and police authorities, on the other. Florence’s presence of mind stalled an operation that did not count on having its intended targets awake, much less cognizant of legal procedures; both facts paralyzed the cops.
I bring up this story, which Zinzun occasionally recounted as an example of the war climate during the Panther years, to suggest a dynamic specific to the performance of the apparently tough, intensely focused, and charismatic Black militant—a version of the Black cyborg. This dynamic is such that, the more the Black cyborg survives and is successful, the greater the chances he will meet violence and terror in the following phase. Marriott’s quotation about black men’s performance of cultural types and antitypes is instructive because it stresses the gendered aspect of this racialized dynamic of terror. Perceived as a “very big dude, wary, charismatic,” Michael incited specific types of personal, public, and institutional expectations and responses, each carrying antiblack anxieties. Dominant parameters of gendered racial subjectivity depended on and multiplied such antiblack anxieties. Reflecting an openly oppositional type of politics, Zinzun’s presence synthesized a combination of symbolic forces difficult to ignore. Although there existed complex sentiments traded between the cyborg and his bloc’s members—not the least of which were related to his performance of a specific type of Black cisnormative maleness—to his allies Zinzun galvanized mostly positive, collective energy. To his detractors he magnetized corresponding levels of ire and violence.
The incident the Reader refers to, tense and uncertain for Michael and his family, in retrospect constituted a prelude to a much grimmer episode a few years later in which Zinzun was again centrally implicated. In February 1982 Michael lived in a low-income apartment building in Pasadena. He sees three cops arresting a man, when a resident, apparently coming to the arrested man’s help, hurriedly stumbles down stairs and falls against or, depending on who does the recounting of the facts, shoves one of the officers. A gathering of people quickly forms in the building’s courtyard. True to his calling and the daily work against police abuse he had been doing since at least 1975, from the courtyard Zinzun tells the persons around him that they should pay close attention to the events and make notes if possible. Zinzun was closely following the manual of community organizing he and CAPA members began writing in the mid-1970s: police-abuse events were opportunities for communities to come together and later discuss, research, and possibly protest specific grievances as well as broader structural problems affecting them. At this point, an officer recognizes Michael and addresses him. This is how Erickson describes the scene:
One of the sergeants—a veteran of nearly forty years who goes by the name of Reinke—comes up to Zinzun and talks to him. “Michael,” he says, “if you ever do one thing for me in your life, will you get back?” Zinzun turns around and walks back to the fence and slides under it to the other side; he’s now standing on the driveway. He says to Sgt. Reinke, “All right, I’m cooperating with you. Now will you do something for me?” He wants the sergeant to keep the rookies under control. He’s worried about them, he’s worried they’ll get out of hand. The courtyard is filled with humanity and there are upwards of ten cops, at least one or two with shotguns. One of the rookies walks up to Zinzun and pokes him through the fence with a nightstick, pushing him farther back. Zinzun tells the officer with some irritation that if he pokes him again, he’s going to get that nightstick shoved up his ass. The cops lead the arrested men to the cars and the crowd begins to disperse, and it’s over.
But it wasn’t over. Five days later Zinzun was arrested and charged, not by the Pasadena prosecutor, who would have jurisdiction over misdemeanors committed in the area, but by the Los Angeles County district attorney. The charge: not the customary “incitement to riot,” but four counts under the obscure Penal Code 69. Dating back to 1872, Code 69 defines as illegal, “by means of any threat or violence, to deter or prevent an executive officer from performing any duty imposed upon such officer by law.” If convicted, Michael was facing twelve years of incarceration (three years for each count.) It was an extraordinary charge, one that revealed an extraordinary intent to destabilize and indeed silence Zinzun. Penal Code 69 had been used only a handful of times. The explanation for the draconian and highly unusual charge against Zinzun, as the Reader suggested, was his well-known work at the Coalition Against Police Abuse. Zinzun and CAPA had been targeted for infiltration and disruption practically since day one of the organization’s inception. Penal Code 69 provided an excellent opportunity to silence Zinzun and potentially shut down CAPA.
A few months before Michael’s arrest, and as a result of the lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department i described above, the LAPD released its Public Disorder Intelligence Division espionage files, in which CAPA and Zinzun featured prominently. They revealed that four LAPD officers had infiltrated CAPA—Eddie Solomon, Connie Malazo, Eddy Camarillo, and Georgia Odom—posing as radical or revolutionaries. So adroit were the infiltrators that they were able to assimilate into several local organizations, and some of them, such as Odom in CAPA, even rose to prominent positions. It was typical FBI Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, tactics. Fed by a constant stream of reports and phone calls from the infiltrators, official intelligence divisions at the local, state, and national levels were able to closely monitor and affect organizations deemed threatening. CAPA and Zinzun, in particular, had been the most prominent thorns in the LAPD’s side. They had tirelessly reached out to aggrieved communities and instructed individuals on how to file complaints against the police; they had succeeded in forcing police officers to carry identification cards and provide the cards upon request; they had called attention to and created a public debate about choke holds; they had passionately and in great detail protested the use of lethal police force; and they had become quite effective in using the streets, news media, and principally the courts to combat state abuse. Long before the increased public awareness of police abuse and state-sanctioned violence against Blacks and nonblacks, Michael and CAPA members had assembled extensive dossiers on Anthony Brown, Ron Burkholder, Anthony Reeves, Reyes Martinez, George Ward, Dwayne Standard, Eula Love, Larry Morris, and Ron Settles, among many others, killed either in confrontations with, or under custody of, law enforcement. Michael had reason to believe his extensive, detailed, and well-known archive of police brutality, much of it housed in the CAPA building, was the object of numerous suspicious break-ins—suspicious because, when these frequent invasions happened, even though the office was left in disarray, no objects of value, such as cameras, lenses, and computers, were ever taken.
Michael and his comrades knew perfectly well they were being monitored a long time before they sued the LAPD in 1979. Indeed, as early as 1971, COINTELPRO had labeled Zinzun, then a Black Panther Party member, “potentially dangerous” and “subversive.” In a November 2, 1971, memorandum FBI director J. Edgar Hoover signed, Michael is categorized as showing “evidence of emotional instability” as well as “a propensity for violence and antipathy toward good order and government.”
Since at least 1977, Zinzun had sent repeated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the United States Department of Justice. As a result of these requests, documents such as the 1971 FBI memorandum, along with many others i encountered while researching the Southern California Library’s CAPA archives in 2013 and 2014, became valuable evidence of the illegal government surveillance practiced against Zinzun and his collaborators. The evidence was valuable because it gave CAPA the legal basis and moral upper hand in the disputes with law enforcement bureaucracies. Michael often uttered, “I’ll see you in court,” in public, sometimes televised debates. This type of hailing was meant to surprise and intimidate agents and supporters of law enforcement who were called to defend, or at least justify, the recurring acts of police misconduct and violence against vulnerable people. Furthermore, the evidence of spying was valuable because it provided primary material based on which activists like Michael gained finer understanding of the illegal tactics of official institutions. Critically, the evidence of spying and infiltration (which the FOIA documents reaffirmed) and, even more pointedly, the botched predawn raid of his house, demonstrated that Zinzun and his family’s physical integrity, and indeed their survival, depended on being constantly informed about the tactical minutiae of law enforcement and on knowing how to respond when the occasion demanded.
All of this is to say that, when Zinzun was arrested and prosecuted on Penal Code 69, even though the district attorney’s charges were distinctly aggressive, they were not surprising. In the court hearings, as they demonstrated indignation at the draconian obscure nature of the accusation, Michael and his attorney performed a well-rehearsed legal strategy that drew from his effective familiarity with proceedings and from his higher moral ground vis-à-vis the already and repeatedly demoralized law enforcement agencies, specifically the LAPD.
After a year of hearings, expensive legal maneuvering, and, for all of Michael and his attorney’s confidence, a heavy psychological toll due to the possibility of long-term imprisonment, on June 29, 1983, on the first day of trial, Pasadena Superior Court Judge Xanthos dismissed all charges. As Los Angeles social management agencies carried out a “cleanup” campaign preceding the 1984 Olympic Games—quelling protests, removing the impoverished and homeless from downtown and tourist areas, and intensifying surveillance and policing of Black and Brown neighborhoods—Zinzun’s court victory was a dissonant note. He was certainly swept up and charged in the heat of the pre-mega-sport-event climate which, together with the COINTELPRO-like strategies of making up accusations aiming at long-term prison sentences, could have put him out of circulation for a considerable amount of time. Yet his emergence from this ordeal consolidated his cyborg persona and set him up for subsequent, more threatening confrontations.
• • •
Although it is tempting to stress the parallels between, on the one hand, Zinzun’s embodiment and performance of his multifaceted politics, and on the other, that of paradigmatic figures of transnational Black struggles such as Safiya Bukhari, Assata Shakur, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral, anticolonial theoreticians and (perhaps with the exception of Bukhari) advocates of violence against the apparatuses of oppression and their agents, the parallels would miss that which made Michael singularly compelling as a public figure and organizer. Early on during his activism, probably in his mid-twenties, he grew weary of violence. Despite recognizing that indiscriminate antiblack and racist violence was a fundamental aspect of the social order he passionately wanted to transform, Michael began doubting the ultimate effectiveness of physical violence as a political tool. Although his public performance and political vocabulary hardly indicated it, and while always advocating and practicing self-defense, Zinzun began a lifelong internal struggle hastened by the violent deaths of comrades, allies, family members, and political enemies. Many of the walls inside his house on North Marengo Avenue, including the bedroom where he slept, were covered with large photographs of assassinated Panthers. Many times i wondered about the effects, over time, of constant exposure to reminders of the brutality meted on those individuals, many of whom were Michael’s close friends. It was evident that Michael and his family drew much strength from those portraits, but it was also inescapable that each of those individuals had perished under violent conditions: their photographs were reminders of the lingering and ubiquitous terror that had claimed their lives. That brutal world was also the world of Michael and his family.
Beginning in his Panther years and continuing during his lifetime of organizing, Michael’s troubled experiences and memories of violence calibrated his political perspective as well as his public personality. Perhaps the culmination of this enduring internal reflection, Michael became one of the main architects and stately figures of the 1992 historic gang truce between Crips and Bloods that eventually gained national and international relevance. Yet the path to this political position—that of the cyborg who values appeasement over conflict—was tortuous and tortured.
In 1986 he would find himself the victim of an atrocious act of empire-state violence, one that left him blind in his left eye and made an indelible mark in both his personal life and his political outlook. This incident illustrated the archetypical dynamic of the Black cyborg: because Michael emerged victorious in the 1982 incident with the police—as he had in the earlier dismantling of the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division—he had become a highly visible representative of the organized opposition to police abuse. His greater visibility rendered him more vulnerable to state repression. The events described below solidified Zinzun’s presence in the Los Angeles area activist map, increased the level of official surveillance on him, his family, associates, and his organization, and not surprisingly intensified his internal dilemmas about violence. After experiencing firsthand the sheer brutality of the police force, the temptation to revert back to his early Panther years, and to focus on the use of violence as a legitimate instrument of active self-defense, must have been considerable. Yet the deeply traumatizing experience brought Michael closer to Baldwin’s cyborg—one who, even in the face of unjust, extraordinary physical and psychological pain, through committed pedagogical and organizing work, insists on recuperating the empire-state project of democratic multiracial integration.
• • •
Less than two years after the dismissal of the accusations based on Code 69, Michael Zinzun found himself in another confrontation with the Pasadena Police. In the early hours of June 22, 1986, Steve Rivers, a Black man, was arrested on suspicion of burglary. When officers began beating him with their batons, Rivers, already sprayed with Mace, handcuffed and lying on the ground, cried for help. His shouts got the entire neighborhood’s attention, and dozens of people poured out of their homes, including Frank Taylor and Michael Zinzun. When Taylor and Zinzun pleaded to get the names of the officers, they were brutally beaten and arrested for “interfering with police.” Maced and struck with a flashlight, Michael suffered a severe gash on his head, which required forty stitches on his face and scalp. Such was the violence with which he was met that his skull was fractured. His left eye’s optic nerve did not resist the flashlight blows and became detached, rendering that eye blind.
The police brutality at the low-income Community Arms Apartments did more than irreversibly harm Michael physically. In a depressed state, unable to work or pay the rent on his home, and facing eviction along with his family, Zinzun appeared defeated. At the time, he lived with his wife Florence, thirty-five, and four children: Michael Jr., nineteen; Kindra, sixteen; Anthony, fifteen; and Michelle, thirteen. All were affected, financially and psychologically. Florence had a job as a nurse’s assistant. Her salary was enough for food and utilities. But the $210 monthly rent on their three-bedroom had not been paid in a year. And within days of the incident, Anthony began using crutches even though he did not appear to have any injuries. According to Zinzun, the psychologist with whom the entire family was having regular appointments said that Anthony was “trying to share my pain.”
If, as the Los Angeles Reader stated in 1982, the law wanted to “shut him up,” then four years later it apparently succeeded. In a newspaper photograph taken a few days after the beating, Michael is the very image of defeat. Gone is his defiant pose, his swagger, his assured gaze. I was taken aback when, conducting research at the Southern California Library, i first came across Kathy Braidhill’s 1987 article. It was not so much because of the sheer brutality Michael’s face registered, but because during the time i had known him there was hardly a moment when he allowed his public persona to be anything other than that of a confident, proud warrior. Michael did allow for his vulnerabilities to show, but only in private, with very few people, and his show of vulnerability was part of his genuine search for interpersonal improvement.
The public image of a battered Zinzun, therefore, shocked as much at it revealed, yet again, the considerable effort required to overcome personal catastrophe and persevere in the mission of salvaging the democratic multiracial project. Baldwin had warned about this: “It will be hard . . . but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
Blinded in one eye, psychologically wounded, and experiencing domestic disarray, Michael wobbled but didn’t fall. His physical and psychic predicaments were not resting points. Rather, and following a script of mastery over hardship not unlike that of Baldwin’s cyborg, Zinzun refused the destiny the empire-state had imposed on him. Zinzun refused being broken; he refused victimization. His physical modification—a ruptured optic nerve, a broken skull, and several worrisome emotional and bodily bruises—announced renewed focus. The posttraumatic period became a time to gather information, regroup support networks, and put into practice his already extensive organizational and legal knowledge accumulated while combating state excesses at the Coalition Against Police Abuse. By then CAPA was an organization with a decade of experience, a well-known and constant regional presence, and at least one significant legal victory to its credit.
A central aspect of Michael and his supporters’ counteroffensive was the formation of the Michael Zinzun Defense Committee (MZDC). “Free speech is on trial,” the committee protested. It continued: “After years of community organizing, Michael Zinzun is facing the possibility of a jail sentence for speaking out against police brutality in his own neighborhood. The Zinzun case is in the forefront of community efforts to protect all of Los Angeles area residents against police abuse.” MZDC members were a constant presence at court hearings, city council meetings, the mayor’s office, and police stations; and they organized marches, rallies, and fund drives. For example, shortly after the beating incident, more than 150 supporters, led by the MZDC, “packed a Pasadena City Board of Directors meeting to demand an independent investigation of the incident and the filing of criminal charges against the police officers involved.” Among the supporters were representatives of the NAACP, the ACLU, the Peace and Freedom Party, and several other community groups that formed a multiracial political ensemble.
Zinzun reemerged supported by MZDC, progressive and civil rights groups, and sympathetic news media. Utilized in the MZDC press release as well as accompanying articles in newspapers, Michael’s new photograph indicated a transformed look and spirit. No longer the person battered by the police, nor the brash former Black Panther activist clad in leather clothing and a carefully kept Afro, Zinzun was now donning a three-piece, pinstriped suit, dark tie, and a patch over his blinded eye. His hair was shorter. He posed in front of bookcases. (One of the book covers, purposefully facing the camera, was a collection of speeches and addresses edited by Philip S. Foner titled W. E. B Du Bois Speaks.) His gaze was firm but serene. The MZDC press release’s first paragraph read, “Here today, just as in Pretoria, we have to sound the call for the defense of those who have long committed themselves to the fight against injustice in the Black Community. On January 22nd, exactly six months after the South African–style police attack on Michael Zinzun and others outside the Pasadena Community Arms housing project, formal charges have finally been filled by the Special Prosecutor John A. Slawson against Zinzun. The arraignment date is February 13.” Michael’s personal pain had been transfigured into collective moral energy and a statesman-like stance. By referencing similar struggles in South Africa, and equating U.S. police practices to those common in the country of formal apartheid, the MZDC projected a sense of diasporic ethical empowerment. The press release’s tone, in line with Michael’s photograph showing him formally dressed, suggests a principled high ground from which wrongs would inevitably be righted. Framing the legal battle in terms of constitutional entitlements, the Defense Committee asked, “Do citizens have the right to witness police arrests, to ask the police to identify themselves, and to protest when ‘alleged suspects,’ already handcuffed and lying on the ground, are beaten with baton and flashlights?” It was a question dear to Black Panthers like Zinzun; but now, more than twenty years after the Panthers’ beginnings in Oakland, California, the question was being posed again, inserted in a transnational context, and backed up by a sharp analysis of the then current domestic political climate. “Zinzun’s indictment,” the MZDC press release contextualized, “is not the only outrage against civil liberties in the Los Angeles area. On January 26, nine people, 8 Palestinians here on Jordanian passports and a Kenyan, were arrested by the INS. Six are now threatened with deportation under a McCarthy era law prohibiting the publication and dissemination of communist literature. This is an attack on the right to the legal expression of political views.” Zinzun’s case, after all, was not unique. Was what unique was Zinzun’s will to persevere, his ability to mobilize multiracial, energized, and relatively organized constituencies. As important, Michael had been able to transform his bodily and psychic trials into advantages. “I may have lost an eye,” he often repeated, “but I see a lot clearer.” A special kind of cyborg, indeed: one that gained powers (of analysis, perception, and vision, in the physiological, ethical, and political senses) following physical trauma and impairment.
Zinzun was a cyborg because, as he coped with his deeply destabilizing, painful, and life-altering ordeal, he was able to activate a political bloc that was energized, mobilized, informed, transnational, and diverse. Encompassing a broad multiracial political spectrum—former Panthers, the NAACP, the Peace and Freedom Party—the MZDC transformed Black suffering into collective demands for reparations in the legal sphere and reform of key institutions such as the police and the courts. While presently discriminatory and unjust, it was assumed that society and its institutions could be rectified. A synergetic connection between on-the-ground organized pressure and a well-planned legal strategy would make change possible. “We must mobilize a strong defense in the streets as well as in the courtroom,” the MZDC asserted, “demanding an end to Apartheid-style injustice in the Black ghettoes and Latino barrios of Southern California.”
By including Latino barrios in its analysis, the MZDC made evident the terms according to which the multiracial effort operated. The multiracial effort relied on the assumption that Black experiences were translatable to nonblacks. If Zinzun’s experience represented experiences common to Blacks, and if Zinzun’s superhuman efforts were examples of a Black cyborg, then Black suffering, Black resistance, and Black willingness to work with nonblack social groups provided the broad political front’s conditions of possibility. The segregation of barrios made sense because it was commensurable to the apartheid-like conditions Blacks faced. The critique of and organized opposition to Black residential segregation and the criminal justice apparatus that sustained it, therefore, was assumed to be immediately adaptable to Latin@ experiences. In the name of constitutional reform and ethical multiracial democratic integration, the Black cyborg made Black people’s suffering, strategies of coping, and visions of a better future meaningful to nonblack peoples in the United States and elsewhere. Although Southern California was the immediate battleground, and the Black experience generated the conceptual matrix, the troops, inspiration, and ramifications reached far beyond that particular battleground and matrix. Indeed, this Black cyborg vitally reaffirmed the assumption of analogy between Black and nonblack experiences.
Fifteen months after a protracted legal battle and mobilization effort, whose turning point was Zinzun’s filing of a civil rights suit against the city in which he alleged he was beaten and wrongfully arrested, the City of Pasadena agreed to an out-of-court settlement that awarded $1.2 million to Zinzun, to be paid over thirty-five years. “It’s all over, and now I can begin picking up the pieces of my life,” Zinzun said. “The money will . . . send a clear message to the city and the Police Department that they can no longer act like judge, jury and executioner.” Zinzun announced as soon as the settlement was official that with the money he bought a house in Pasadena, got himself a Timex watch, and allowed his children one wish, which turned out to be a swimming pool. He also set aside college funds for them. To the dismay of his adversaries, he let it be known he had no intention of moving to some paradisiac Caribbean island. Instead, he reaffirmed his commitment to “increase his protests of [domestic] police brutality and South Africa’s apartheid policy.”
As part of this commitment to expand the political networks that had coalesced around him, in 1989 Zinzun decided to run for the Pasadena City Council. Zinzun and Chris Holden, his main rival for the District 3 seat, knew the election would be close, as indicated by the voting projections. Holden, son of Nate Holden, the Los Angeles City Council member who at the time was challenging Mayor Tom Bradley in the mayoral race, received a considerable boost when, in the midst of the campaign, former assistant police chief Robert Vernon used an LAPD computer database to obtain information about Zinzun and falsely suggested Zinzun had been investigated by the LAPD’s antiterrorism division. Michael narrowly lost the election. But he sued the City of Los Angeles for defamation, and five years later, on July 27, 1994, he was awarded $512,500 to settle his claim.
• • •
A considerable portion of the settlement funds Zinzun won from the cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles went to maintaining the Coalition Against Police Abuse—rent, utilities, staff, equipment, office supplies, and programming. Michael did indeed try to pick up the pieces of his life. That meant taking care of his family’s immediate housing and other material needs, investing in stress-reducing activities such as semiprecious stone collection, jewelry crafting, pet tending (he kept snakes, lizards, birds, and dogs), cooking classes, and traveling. Still, emerging victorious from the confrontations against established official bureaucracies, Zinzun renewed his commitment to organizing, now financially empowered in ways unimaginable a few years earlier. With his new resources he invested in photography and video equipment to be used by young people at the CAPA office; he continued to research and develop new devices and chemical formulas for safe and environmentally responsible pest control; convinced of its usefulness in combating homelessness, he conducted extensive research about and purchased a recycled plastic dome, which he installed in the Western Avenue office’s backyard; in the dome he placed silk screen equipment, and he had professionals hold classes on this technique for community members. In 1992, in the midst of the Los Angeles Uprising, he provided material and logistical resources to the formation of a gang truce between Crips and Bloods, an initiative that led to the formation of the Community in Support of the Gang Truce, which would be housed with CAPA until the office’s closure; in 1993 and 1995, he helped organize and funded people from the United States participating in a conference series on the “African Diaspora in Dialogue” in Rio de Janeiro; in 1995 he began acquiring computers and offering classes targeting Black and Latin@ kids and residents of adjoining neighborhoods; and in 1995 and 1996 he played a critical organizational role in the conceptualization and execution of the third and fourth anniversaries of the gang truce, which by then had become a national and international movement.
Until his death in 2006, Michael was a well-known and celebrated advocate for police accountability and for peace in impoverished areas. He continued to suffer from bouts of depression, however, and often self-medicated in ways that were self-destructive. I interacted with him in two of those psychological crises, once when i lived in San Diego, and another time when i was in Austin. While Michael’s pain was apparent and, as he implied, connected to personal and collective suffering—the loss of his eye and recurring pains and nightmares related to the police beating he suffered; the loss of close friends, family, and entire generations of young people to the effects of violence, drugs, and incarceration—he didn’t allow himself to wallow in his depression for too long. After each bout, which lasted a few weeks, he would self-impose dietary restrictions, cut out alcohol, and establish daily routines that included work at the office but also the cultivation of less demanding activities such as culinary classes, short trips with family members (especially with his grandchildren, to whom he was joyfully attached), and projects involving a variety of domestic pets.
Michael was now a mature organizer—many of the teenagers he worked with called him grandpa—someone people recognized in the streets and whose charisma easily came across in his frequent television appearances and in the written press. In 1998, with a front-page photograph and article, the Black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel reported that Michael Zinzun, along with Johnnie Cochran Jr., were “honored for their tributes to excellence during a ceremony Sunday aboard the Queen Mary by Police Watch, a non-profit civil rights organization.” Next to actor Danny Glover, Cochran, actor Mario Van Peebles, and attorney Jorge Gonzalez, Michael seemed genuinely pleased. The photograph captured him wearing his hair net, a dark embroidered dashiki, and some of his self-crafted jewelry. His lifelong work had made a difference at the local and international levels, and this type of recognition confirmed his prominence in activist circles and in the broader Black, Brown, and progressive intelligentsia.
• • •
Michael’s compelling personality and political trajectory were tethered to the belief that people’s cultural understandings (including their racialized unconscious), institutions, and indeed the entire social world could be reformed. Had he stuck to his early advocacy of armed struggle, he would probably not have reached as many people and received this type of praise and recognition for his work—the type expressed in mainstream news media, banquets, prizes, and other similar rituals. Nor would he have succeeded in attracting to his efforts against police brutality, for the gang truce, and for community programs that aimed at the full inclusion and citizenship of the impoverished and disenfranchised, the broad constituencies that cut across political and gang affiliation, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and social class.
Since at least the late 1980s defining himself as a “radical socialist,” Zinzun was relentless in his oppositional work. His radical political orientation was certainly disruptive of social institutions and their protocols. Yet, by design, he and his allied bloc did not advocate the overthrow or elimination of institutions such as the police, the courts, and prisons. Radical reform was the goal: it required coming to terms with and correcting long-standing patterns of discrimination, and including, via democratic processes, the formerly excluded in the decision-making spheres of various institutions. His brief preference for a three-piece suit notwithstanding, Michael’s political agency departed from the protocols of normative respectability. He was proficient at “in your face” shock performance, which included witty phrasing, a booming, Panther-inflected confidence, and colorful clothing not usually associated with most established public personalities. His political persona was consciously tailored to produce stark contrasts with the usual business of public debate. Michael was skilled at oppositional routines, which made the messages he performed during his frequent participation in local news television broadcasts crisp and memorable.
Despite his unusual style, Zinzun radiated his own type of respectability, one that equated with his unapologetic, informed, generous, and tireless commitment. Michael’s excess of energy, obvious to anyone who met him, came across emphatically as i went through the CAPA boxes at the Southern California Library. The number of simultaneous cases of abuse, wrongful conviction, and deaths he was involved in; the intense correspondence he kept with many prisoners, victims of police abuse and court discrimination, and their relatives; the dozens of manuals and specialized articles on pest control, recyclable materials for housing, police equipment (so that he could give expert advice to victims and testimony in juridical processes), and photography and video recording; as well as the folders upon folders of newspaper clippings, academic articles, handwritten and typed lectures and speech notes—this documentary evidence only confirmed Michael as someone defined by his unflinching commitment and consistent capacity to offer assistance to organizations and private persons who needed his expertise, attention, sympathy, moral support, and often material resources. In this commitment, he habitually reexperienced his own episodes of brutality and loss. He would be visibly shaken by many of the cases he took on—some of which would last months, even years—but he was methodical in their analysis and in formulating the best course of legal and political action. This capacity to bracket personal suffering and insist on collective service marked Michael’s life trajectory; it made him a cyborg very much in line with Baldwin’s recommendations on the imperatives of painful yet necessary and redemptive political action.
Zinzun’s cyborg was the fulcrum of a series of interconnected multiracial collective initiatives. Without his tireless commitment, there would be no Coalition Against Police Abuse, no Community in Support of the Gang Truce, no campaigns for civilian police review boards, no celebration of the gang truce, no organized trips to Europe, Africa, and South America. Without this Black cyborg, there would be no sustained investment in multiracial alliances. Michael’s experience of brutal and quotidian discrimination provided the ideological grounds on which was rooted the assumption of experiential analogy and recognition between Blacks and those termed peoples of color. The multiracial bloc’s conditions of existence were precisely those assumptions of analogy and recognition. As the next chapter shows, however, the assumptions of analogy and recognition came with a price. For the multiracial bloc, the price was the elision of structural and persisting antiblackness. Operating under the aegis of oblique identification, the cyborg’s bloc performed the disavowal of that which was the most essential to Black people’s struggle. The Black cyborg’s political bloc, then, was as effective as it was in pushing antiblackness out of cognitive, affective, and tactical awareness.
Michael sought alliances beyond the United States. In Brazil he established collaborations with activists in Rio and Salvador in the early 1990s that remain active to this day. For example, there would be no diaspora course in Rio with Criola were it not for Michael’s insistence that i connect with the Favela Popular Movement in 2001. His insistence is at the root of my ongoing work with Black activists in Brazil. At a deeper level, his insistence revealed a recognition that the diaspora was defined by common traits of antiblackness. To him, diasporic patterns of impoverishment, residential segregation, punitive schooling, and police brutality suggested the political necessity of organizing across so-called nation-states. To connect dynamics of juvenile incarceration in Texas with facts of police lethality in Rio, then, is to apply the Black cyborg’s theory and practice of the diaspora. However, as the next chapter shows, the diasporic political blocs that galvanized around the Black cyborg were able to engage such patterns of exclusion only partially. Although empathy toward Black suffering was evident in these transnational political formations, the transhistorical, structural, and ubiquitous fact of antiblackness was seldom addressed.