The public debate raised by events in Ferguson Missouri asks: is America still a racist country? Obama weighs in with the question: is the justice system meeting its own standards? Everyone is invited to form an opinion on whether or not a police killing contradicts the American system of justice – and not what this says about it.
When somebody is killed by the police for stealing cigars, everybody knows that’s not justice. But every year in the USA, hundreds of people are killed by the police in the process of enforcing the law. These cases never make it to the level of news, at least in a negative way. If a suspect runs out of a liquor store with a hundred bucks and doesn’t stop when told or pulls a gun, nobody protests when the police shoot him dead.
So how do people know when a police killing is unjust? There is a presumption in which the question arises. Did the police overreact, use inappropriate force, incorrect methods? It presumes a legitimate, positive use of force. Everyone recognizes that maintaining law and order requires force, so it is always a question of the right use of force. It takes the perspective of the state and asks: did the police act lawfully?
The criteria for judging police activity is that if there is a breach of the law, then the police must act. If that’s not the case and an innocent person is victimized, then that is a case of illegal use of force which is not justified. This criteria sees it as self-evident that the police protect law and order. This entails looking for law breakers and taking care of any and all illegal activities. But if an innocent person is punished, then the issue of misconduct or bad management comes into play.
Part of the legal definition of justice is “the punishment must fit the crime.” This is taken for granted, but the logic behind it is strange: why and in what sense can the punishment fit the crime, since they have nothing to do with each other? What is the relation between robbing a bank and 10 years in prison? Or shoplifting and a $1000 fine? How do they get connected?
In the mind of the ordinary citizen, the connection is immediate: a moral sense of justice establishes a scale of law breaking and a scale of punishments and their interconnection. But it is a political decision which crimes are more serious because more damaging to the legally-protected social order; which crimes are just nuisances; and everything in between.
It is also said that justice is not served when there is not enough punishment. Or: he got away with murder! The idea is that when crime and punishment match, everybody knows that state purposes are at work. When a measure of justice doesn’t correspond, the suspicion is that other purposes are being carried out. A rogue cop is not serving what is defined by the society as justice, but doing his own thing, acting on his racial biases. He is suspected of just wanting to get somebody.
So the police are criticized – along with prosecutors, judges, and juries – according to a pro-law critique of the workings of the law. When the police shoot a suspect or administer a beating, they must apply only the legally justified quantum of brutality; anything that steps over the line into personal sadism is condemned. Objectively, this line is hard to discern. Then the debate rages over where it is drawn.
When a white police officer kills a black man, the protest this ignites is about a lot more than the individual case. It is said to prove that blacks are not full Americans. The law stipulates equality, but the police treat blacks differently. Wealthy and powerful blacks take the occasion to testify to their experiences being racially profiled. Racism in terms of treating people based on appearance is no longer tolerated in modern America. If somebody has money, they are entitled to respect and service, regardless of skin color. If a homeless white person is eyed suspiciously in a boutique, nobody calls that racism – it’s fair! If a black person really is poor and receives bad treatment, then that’s also ok. In the modern, enlightened way of thinking, people like Obama and Oprah Winfrey don’t deserve to be associated with the blacks in the ghetto. Racial racism is unacceptable, but social racism is unobjectionable.
What makes the former type of racism taboo in American public life? It implies that a person’s fate is not just determined by just what they can achieve in competition. The tone now is: decades after the Civil Rights Act, America has done more than enough to allow blacks into the competition. Now the outcome is the outcome. If blacks end up disproportionately in the streets or in jail, that’s a reflection on them because this is the land of opportunity. Competition is the breeding ground of racism; it’s the reason that racism is rampant at the same time everybody condemns it.
So what are the racial considerations on the part of the police? It may be that they are “racist pigs,” but this does not explain what happened in Ferguson or anywhere else. In the USA, poverty has a skin color: black. The police are not looking for blacks, but for possible law breakers and disobedience. Criticizing the police in the name of fair policing accepts the reason police take their attitude towards the poor and asks whether there was a racial bias in it or not. It considers it correct and normal that police suspect poor people of wrong-doing – that’s what law and order is all about. It turns a social question into a question of respect towards race. This only affirms the reason law enforcement looks especially at blacks in substandard neighborhoods.
All class societies know that the lower class has reasons to violate the class order because of the condition they are in. In the USA, this can be seen in the well-defined neighborhoods of rich and poor, the methods used to protect them, and the readiness of the police to act in certain ways. Policing itself is supposed to correspond to the crime being committed, so the pursuit of white collar crime seldom turns lethal. But where there is more desperation, people act in more desperate ways, so the police are more ready to act with violence.
Even in neighborhoods where the police are viewed with hostility and suspicion, people complain that the police do not come when they are needed; that the gangs take over the neighborhood. If the police kill people in these neighborhoods and nobody complains, that tells you something: there are players in these neighborhoods who everybody regards as trouble.
The media take it for granted that police force is necessary to protect people against all the different kinds of actions people take to pursue their interests, but the reasons for law and crime are not in the public debate. It is never asked why police are necessary for the functioning of this society. Crime is thought to originate in a human nature that divides into good and bad; or good people in bad situations make bad decisions. Both views are ideological. Everybody expects crime and knows that crime makes sense in this society. Criminals do the same thing as everyone else, only illegally. When someone steals a car and makes it their property, they are interested in property; it is just somebody else’s. They are not against the system of property.
When the police are criticized, it is said they are not “serving and protecting” the community. The very use of the word “community” is an idealism — as if common interests were at stake. Obama, for example, was a “community organizer.” It’s a strange concept: I am going to organize a community; everyone is in the same boat, but there are specific interests in it that need organizing: somebody needs to be hooked up with a job, an education, or social services in order to be able to compete better so they can get something for themselves.
A community of competitors requires an outside force to maintain their competition because the law of property sets them into a hostile, antagonistic relation. This is what is meant by “serving and protecting the community.” People as competitors need the law. They need to be protected because of the antagonism they are in; private property owners tend to use private force to pursue their goals against others. They are out to get wealth and use whatever they have to get it. This competition is fierce.
This is not a community of common interests, but competing interests. Some have private property and some do not. What’s protected is the property of those who have it. The basis for a competitive society is that most people, black and white, are forced to start off without any means of livelihood and have to compete with whatever means they have to get one. And most people have only a lousy means. So it should not be a big mystery that the children of sub-proletarians end up losers in the competition. Or that the few good paying jobs that exist in the society go to people whose advantages or connections help them circumvent the competition. Free and equal competition ensures that the poor stay poor and that blacks remain at the bottom.
Racist police in a non-racist system?
Obama assures people that after all the progress America has made on the race question, only one argument remains: if you are innocent, you should be treated as such, regardless of whether you are white or black. If you disobey, then you should be punished to the fullest. Just to make this clear, the National Guard is always on standby.
Modern liberals say: but Michael Brown wasn’t doing anything! He didn’t deserve it! They think this was an injustice because Michael Brown was black. But the cops don’t know if someone is innocent or not. They are looking for law breakers, not skin color; they are responding to the social despair in black neighborhoods, not creating it. It is the weakest critique possible of class society to ask: “are the poor being treated fairly?”
Liberals miss the real reason Michael Brown got into trouble with the law and affirm everything else leading up to it. They know discrimination is illegal, but believe that the police are doing more than they are asked to do by over-willingly doing their jobs in black neighborhoods. Liberals don’t question this job because they are more bothered by crime than by the poverty they know leads to crime. And they are more upset about the policing of ghettoes than by the existence of ghettoes.
Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.