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Police brutality and murder are arguably the most visible, direct and clear expressions of racialized state power in the United States. To say this is an epidemic, however, as many have, is somewhat of a simplification. An epidemic is an indiscriminate force of nature, seemingly emerging from nowhere, affecting people at random, often with a cure that is elusive. Epidemics grab ahold of the public’s attention, demand strategies for containment, and prompt a universal concern that a cure must be sought. Police violence, specifically police murder, is not new, its origins and several potential solutions are not a mystery. While police violence is well understood in urban communities of color, it is hardly capturing the national imaginary. For a quick comparisons of the epidemics that have had the American public on the edge of their seats in recent years, one could counterpose “invasions” of killer bees, West Nile virus, or Avian Flu in the US (all of which were embedded in orientalist discourses themselves) on the one hand, to a black person being killed by the police every 36 hours on the other hand.
The continued gap between what America says it is and what it actually is (a gap that has persistently been most pronounced in regards to race), finds no clearer illumination than through racialized state violence. Many historians make a very convincing argument that this violent enforcement of the racial order was the very reason for the creation of the police in the first place. It is a gap that consistently finds its clearest expression through the end of a police officer’s gun, with periodic and spontaneous, reciprocal violence taking the form of broken windows, looted stores and burnt buildings. From Watts and Detroit and dozens more cities in the mid-late 60s, to Miami in 1980, Los Angeles in 1992, Cincinnati in 2001, Oakland in 2009, with other uprisings in between, resistance and demands for change have accompanied persistent police violence. But the cycle persists. Riots have been “the rhyme of the unheard,” a clear wake-up call from an alarm clock that America has nonetheless consistently hit the snooze button on before quickly and groggily yanking the clock’s plug out of the wall. Riots have also left burnt factories, warehouses and storefronts that have helped solidify deindustrialization in neighborhoods within cities like Los Angeles and Detroit. These burnt former shells of industrial production stand as broken monuments to rebellions long past, their use as a good place to get high an index of pain unresolved, as structural violence persists and deepens.
White America: From Active Participation to Duplicitous Blind-Eye
The murder of young, unarmed black men is not new and it has been persistent. Under Jim Crow, there was an average of one lynching a week for almost a century. There is a black person killed every 36 hours by police today. Both realities have been driven by unchecked white supremacy, a violence fostered by the dehumanization necessary to maintain the existing order and upheld by the warped fear that perceives dark bodies as so many variants of an ill-defined threat. The combination of psychological projection and self-exoneration arises to rationalize the persistent horror white supremacy has itself imparted – from the fear of slave revolts, to the fear that a white woman may have been whistled at, to the fear that a black family is moving next-door or black kids are getting bussed to your white-flight schools, to the fear that every hoodie hides a weapon, that every cell phone is a gun.
A key difference between yesterday’s weekly lynching and today’s 5 killings a week at the hands of the police lies mostly in the visibility and the conscious complicity of white America. While the white terrorism that was lynching drew out many, in their Sunday best, to actively participate and revel in what was done, today the modern equivalent is something that white America is happy to ignore, something they show very little signs of wanting to recognize or change. Today, it is a practice they would nonetheless rather not have to think about, not see, and not feel that they have any type of moral complicity with – even though that complicity is squarely theirs, whether they are drinking brandy next to the dead body or not.
Police violence is not an epidemic, not a new disease ravaging an otherwise healthy body politic. Police violence is a metasticized form of the cancer that has been present in this political order since it was in the colonial womb. Institutionalized racial violence is a cancerous mutation built into the very nature of “American Democracy” – the primary condition that has kept it forever fragmented, hypocritical, and lying to itself with one eye closed so as not to see its own behavior – a condition which has consistently fueled this cycle of violence for hundreds of years.
The police certainly do not call their persistent violence an epidemic or a cancer. They call it a war – a war on drugs, a war on gangs, a war on crime. They train with US and foreign military units as if it were a war; they have the same body armor and the same weapons as foreign troops; they call themselves an occupying force. They criminalize whole communities, which many police-soldiers patrol with an irrational fear, with predictable results of unwarranted violence. “Collateral damage” is expected and rationalized. The language, the practice, and the popular understanding of urban policing as a form of warfare does not just rationalize police violence. Unlike lynchings, which involved the active participation of white America, modern urban policing affords the American public as a whole the ability to cognitively disconnect themselves from moral responsibility and complicity, the same way people distance themselves from their foreign neo-colonial wars, to the extent that they even enter their mind. Due to persistent segregation, this “war” is seen to take place “someplace else,” the same way the prison is seen as outside of society. This type of overt occupation takes place only to the extent that people tolerate it, or to the extent to which they are allowed to simply ignore it. If this is a war being forged against communities in cities and towns all over the country, it needs to be a war with two sides, a war where there are no sidelines, no space for the glib normalization of violence, or false positions of moral unculpabilty.
Making America Face the Diagnosis, Towards the Politics of a Cure
“Power cedes nothing without a demand.” — Frederick Douglass
Change comes most often from the coupling of organized and networked grassroots agitation from below with the translation of festering problems long-ignored into political issues that demand resolution or immanent reckoning. Discussions are starting to emerge in Oakland, in California more broadly, and nationally to forge a coordinated effort to address this racist cancer at the heart of the American body.
I have previously written on the Oakland police’s killing of Alan Blueford in May of 2012 and the movement that has grown up around it (Reports from July, October). The Bluefords just got back from New York where they gave speeches and attended meetings with the family of Ramarley Graham, who was killed by the NYPD earlier this year, and also met with Mumia Abu-Jamal. On November 10th a march in Oakland brought together the families of Derrick Gaines, Idriss Stelley, Jared Huey, and Oscar Grant all lost to Bay Area police violence. Over 500 people marched, demanding the firing of Oakland Police officer Miguel Masso, the cop who killed Alan, and for justice for Derrick, Idriss, Jared, Oscarand all of those killed by police.
The families who marched alongside the Bluefords on November 10th don’t just share a lost loved one, or questions unanswered, or justice denied. They share a missing piece of themselves due to police violence (sometimes even against those the police determine to be too poor to be considered “white” in the case of Jared Huey). These missing pieces were all due to police force used, not as a last resort or due to an immanent threat, but out of what has become “normal” practice. The coming together of unaccountability, fear, violence and intimidation as the primary means of communication, is a fundamental commonality in the stories of all of these families. This makes racial profiling and police unaccountability, the before and after that creates and recreates the cycle of police violence, a logical point of coherence, solidarity and mutual struggle. Diagnosing this cancerous occupation means challenging the benefit of the doubt that police get, making the public have to deal with the dehumanized suspicion and fear of occupied populations long ignored, and making policing a political issue, a reality brought to light, a contested reality.
The Justice for Alan Blueford Coalition is seeking more than immediate justice for Alan, but structural changes to address the roots of the problem. The Bluefords’ most immediate demands are for Masso to be fired and tried in court for his actions, while simultaneously building a wider Bay Area struggle against racial profiling and aiming to take on the California Police Officers’ Bill Of Rights, a key legal foundation that enables police misconduct by helping to protect cops like Masso. The building of non-sectarian campaigns, networks and organizations to address issues like racial profiling on a regional and national scale is long overdue. It is a process being forged by a number of groups with similar visions who are outside of the formal constraint of those clamoring for funds and legitimacy from city officials and grant foundations. There is a broad understanding that police and prisons are the major civil rights issues of our time. There is some cause for hope that there is a distinct possibility that these issues and the activity we see across the country (for example, the Million Hoodie March this past Spring) is cohering into such a civil/human rights struggle.
The Oscar Grant movement tried to make this transition from the original core goal of justice for Oscar towards addressing police violence, but failed due to a combination of sectarianism, repression, and organizer burn-out, amongst other factors. Around the country there are movements in numerous cities trying to make this transition from discrete struggles for justice towards proactive and networked efforts to address root causes. Regardless of whether we call it an epidemic, or a cancer, or an occupation, or terrorism there is widespread sentiment that policing, alongside mass incarceration, are major contemporary civil rights issues that betray America’s false promise of equality under the law.
The killing of Trayvon Martin has brought national attention to racial profiling and violence, though the specifics of the case do not involve uniformed police but harken back to an era of vigilantism which never really left. By making police violence a political issue, whether vigilante citizen policing or vigilante uniformed policing, structural change around racial violence, and the broader racial inequalities it upholds, can be more squarely put on the table. It also broadens the scope of the issue beyond rogue cops and Zimmermans, towards one of social and moral responsibility for what are structures of violence rather than isolated incidents.
The struggle to make police violence a political issue is more than bringing awareness to the everyday realities so many face in poor communities – particularly poor black and Latino communities – but realities so few see, and even fewer see for what they are. The causes are deeper than vigilantes and “bad apples,” and real solutions broader than reforming the police. It will involve forcing all of those who get their understanding of the inner-city from the 11 o’clock news, or all of those who are comfortable with their current ability to rationalize this violence as some sort of distant collateral damage, to recognize their position. It would be naïve (to say the least) to base a strategy for racial justice on the good will of the American people. But by placing moral responsibility in their lap, alongside the police and political structures, the choice between humanity and violence can be made unavoidable and clear. By demanding substantial structural changes to the nature of policing, a radical project of our own making, we can begin to materialize the power necessary to not only identify the roots of the problem, but rip them out and burn them once and for all.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mikeking0101(at)gmail.com.