On March 31, 2004, one year after the launch of the U.S. war against Iraq, four U.S. military contractors, mercenaries, were ambushed and killed in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and their charred corpses were hung from a bridge. The indignation expressed by the American political leadership and senior military officials was that their imperial privilege had been challenged— how dare the people whose country they had illegally invaded and substantially destroyed and whose relatives, neighbors and friends they had murdered fight back? The city of Fallujah was surrounded; women and small children were told to leave and then the slaughter began. White phosphorus and depleted uranium shells were dropped until thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Iraqi boys and men in Fallujah had been murdered.
Left unsaid at the time was that most Americans subjected to an illegal war, invasion and occupation would respond largely as the citizens of Fallujah had done. Self-defense against invading hordes is as close to a natural right as the term could convey. The real crimes committed in / on Iraq were the war and occupation launched by the Americans and Brits. And the collective punishment visited upon the male citizens of Fallujah very closely resembled the acts that led to collective punishment being designated a war crime in the first place— the group slaughters regularly meted out by the Nazis in WWII for acts committed by unrelated individuals or groups. Today the Americans and Israelis (against Palestinians) are the main global keepers of the war crime tradition of collective punishment.
Picture (1) above: An NYPD motorcycle cop gratuitously rides his motorcycle over the leg of an NLG (National Lawyers Guild) legal observer at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration. The role of the police as armed thugs protecting the privilege of connected kleptocrats on Wall Street is framed in the language of the radical right as protecting ‘the public’ from over-privileged, elitist kids disrupting the public order. When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who made his early career prosecuting Wall Street criminals, says that the police are concentrated in ‘high crime’ areas he fails to mention that any concentration of police in the financial districts of major U.S. cities is to protect financial criminals from being held accountable for their crimes. Source: Washington’s blog.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made explicit the military role of the police when he bragged that he had ‘the seventh biggest army in the world,’ the NYPD. Mr. Bloomberg claimed the NYPD to be ‘his’ army in 2011 as he was violently repressing the Occupy Wall Street movement. A short time after the comments were made the NYPD participated in a coordinated national assault against lawfully assembled protestors that included the total destruction of the Occupy library, kitchen and associated infrastructure. Through an ongoing campaign of violence, infiltration, disinformation, ‘pre-emptive’ kidnappings and legally dubious arrests the Occupy movement was effectively destroyed. Mr. Bloomberg made his fortune from Wall Street and he used ‘his’ army to prevent it from being held legally and socially accountable for its crimes.
When Ismaaiyl Brinsley murdered NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in self-proclaimed revenge killings for the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner spokespersons for the NYPD and the PBA (Police Benevolent Association) were quick to personalize the victims while using the language of belligerent militarism to politicize the broader context of growing public resistance to police violence. What wasn’t expressed by NYPD spokespersons was any regret for the unjustifiable murder of Eric Garner or any number of other black and brown youth, for participation in systematic racial repression like stop-question-and-frisk or for the acting as an occupying army in poor neighborhoods of color. What was affirmed through the words of spokespersons for the police was that black lives don’t matter but that cop lives do.
Picture (2) above: The NYPD applies an illegal choke hold in the murder of Eric Garner. The allegation against Mr. Garner was that he was selling ‘loosey’ cigarettes, individual cigarettes on which applicable taxes were not paid. In the run-up to the Great Recession Wall Street made dubious, in many cases fraudulent, mortgage loans of over one-trillion dollars. The economic calamity that resulted cost millions of families their homes and millions more their jobs and life savings. The everyday business of U.S. corporations is avoiding hundreds of billions per year in tax liabilities through sham transactions. Eric Garner could in theory have sold loosey cigarettes for the next 500,000 years and not neared the annual tax avoidance of Apple Computer or General Electric had the police not murdered him. Source: ABC News.
The loss of any life through violence is tragic, which makes the police practice of casual, consequence-free, assault, murder and harassment so worthy of public condemnation. The contention put forward by PBA spokesperson Patrick Lynch that those protesting police violence have ‘blood on their hands’ leaves unaddressed the reasons why protestors are protesting— around the country heavily armed, militarized police routinely assault and murder people, largely black and brown youth, with impunity and largely without conscience. Seventy-six unarmed black and brown youth have been murdered by the police since 1999 and it is only the murder of two cops that raises the moral outrage of the police. And here lies irony— the protestors by-and-large have great sympathy for the families of the slain cops whereas, as best can be determined by the words and actions of the police, courts and political leadership, the imperial privilege of police to murder with impunity remains intact.
Picture (3) above: it has been nearly fifteen years since unarmed Amadou Diallo was murdered by the NYPD in a hail of bullets. In the intervening years the police across the country have murdered seventy-six unarmed people of color (link above), have been increasingly militarized, given the right to rob people of their possessions at will, made immune from prosecution for crimes committed and dedicated to systematic race-based repression like stop-and-frisk. The failure of the political leadership and the judiciary to hold the police accountable at any level demonstrates the political role that the police fill— that of an army of the rich existing to protect the ruling class from social accountability. Source: Life Magazine.
The existence of a heavily armed, highly militarized, wholly unaccountable army to protect a class and race based social order is totalitarian by degree— those on the side being repressed bear the brunt leaving the illusion of justice for those not paying attention. The one-sided response of the political leadership and police spokespersons to the tragic murder of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos is evidence of the social order being protected. Left entirely unaddressed is the historical role of the police in maintaining an unjust race and class based social order from slave patrols to convict leasing to mass incarceration and for-profit prisons to class and race-based enforcement of selectively repressive laws. And to be clear, it is the political leadership that has designated and so-armed the police to be the quasi-military force they now are.
The mainstream press is claiming that the murders of Messrs. Liu and Ramos have reframed the protests against police violence to be against violence. Without disarming the police and changing their role from militarized guardians of ruling class interests to servants of all of the public it is difficult to see how opposing violence without opposing the existing role of the police is politically coherent? And reduction of the idea of justice to the will of the police is to accept the role they have been given in protecting class and race interests by a political leadership that straightforwardly answers to economic interests. Put differently, if fealty to the law had anything to do with the current role of the police then areas with high levels of criminal activity could be found in the financial towers of lower Manhattan and on Park and Madison Avenues just north of Forty-Second Street. As of a few days ago the NYPD was nowhere to be found enforcing the law in these locations.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is forthcoming.