Let me make it clear from the outset of this article: I’m against violence and killing, and I’m certainly no advocate of killing police officers.
But having said that, it must be stated that the combination of a national gun culture that makes obtaining guns and deadly bullets as easy as buying a newspaper, combined with the increasing availability of videocam evidence of infuriating police murders of innocent, unarmed people, including kids, is a recipe for the kind of vigilantism that we just witnessed in New York City, where a Baltimore man, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, took it upon himself to wreak what he considered deserved vengeance on the NYPD by randomly selecting and assassinating two New York cops sitting in their squad car.
Random acts of retributive violence like this are only to be expected when you have police treating the public — and especially certain segments of the public, notably people of color — like presumptive criminals or a people under occupation.
This is not a question of right or wrong. Hell, the two policemen killed by Brinsley, ironically a Chinese and a Latino cop, had nothing to do with the killing of Eric Garner, a black man, by white police officer Daniel Pantaleo. It’s simply a reality: If the growing murderousness and thuggishness of (especially white) police behavior towards people of color, and towards the public in general, continues in this country, it is totally predictable that such acts of vengeance or vigilantism will increase, perhaps even becoming more focused to target the actual perpetrators of unjustified homicides, such as the recent killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Garner in New York and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, should their uniformed killers be given a free pass by prosecutors.
We all know why Darrin Wilson, the Ferguson cop who killed the unarmed 19-year-old Brown with shots to the head when he clearly posed no threat to the officer, has left the department. This was not a decision based upon concerns about community relations; if he had tried to remain a police officer in Ferguson, Wilson would have had to work every day wearing full body armor, and backed by an armed escort.
There may be some hotheads who would argue that having police think twice about the potential consequences of killing unarmed suspects and people being arrested for minor offenses like the late Garner, who was simply selling single cigarettes on the street of his neighborhood, trying to feed his family when he was killed by an illegal police choke-hold, would be all to the good. But the end result of having citizens killing police in retaliation for police killing people would be a state of open war in inner cities, a war which would just result in more killing of innocents.
Even from a practical perspective vigilantism makes no sense, because the police will always be better armed, and able to use violence far more extensively and effectively than those who would attack them. We already saw what happened when the Black Panthers back in the 1960s and early ‘70s attempted to defend black urban communities against police violence. The entire repressive apparatus of not just city police departments but of the whole national security apparatus came down on them, and they were crushed as an organization, with many Panthers murdered outright by the government.
The problem we face is that today’s militarized police, and the philosophy of aggressive policing in neighborhoods populated by the poor and especially by people of color, are creating a situation in which community anger is a once dormant volcano, now ready to erupt. At that point logic is going to be overwhelmed by emotion. We need only think back to the mid-1960s — when inner cities across the country were exploding in revolt and the government was responding like a nation at war by sending in the National Guard to restore some semblance of repressive order — to see where things are headed.
So much for the post-racial society supposedly inaugurated by the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.
We cannot expect today’s police to turn this runaway train around. The police response to such killings as the recent one in New York is usually to just clamp down harder. Police who are given a concrete reason to fear for their lives from an approaching black male are going to turn more readily to their Glocks than they already were, which will inevitably lead to even more tragic and unjustifiable killings as people just asking for help or for directions are likely to end up getting blown away by paranoid officers. And that will just lead to a spiral of back-and-forth violence.
No. The only answer at this point is a wholesale reversal of course away from police militarization to a retraining of police so they see their role as being peace officers, not “law-enforcement” officers. There has to be a major campaign to hire and promote more minority police officers, and more women police officers, so that we never see a situation like in Ferguson where an essentially white police department is policing an essentially black or hispanic neighborhood. Police must reflect, and live in, the communities they are policing. Candidates for a police job must be screened to keep those who are violence prone, racist or psychopathic, must be rejected. Police should not and cannot be armed troops who come in from the suburbs to act as an occupying army.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).