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The Violence of Police Politics

Insofar as the state, and the prison administration, know that solitary confinement drives people insane through isolation and torture, its use signifies that the state desires this outcome. That is a political desire, a desire to do irrevocable damage to people. It happens silently, as punishment for thinking autonomously, for self-respect against the violence of imprisonment, as a political stance. On the street, however, when comparable irrevocable damage occurs, as when a cop shoots someone, he must give an account. “He was reaching in his waistband, and I felt threatened” (Gary King). “He attacked me and tried to grab my gun” (Michael Brown, shot as he stood a 100 feet away). “She became uncooperative, and made a threatening gesture.” These appear as mantras in all parts of the country. The uniformity of these excuses give them away as formulas, not reasons. They are tacit admissions that no threat existed, only disobedience, and self-defensive resistance.

In California, a small 80 year old black woman, a grandmother, was shot 6 times as she stood in her driveway with a one inch kitchen paring knife in her hand for having ignored the cops’ screams to “drop your weapon.” A black teenager in North Carolina, while undergoing some emotional trauma, was shot on his own living room floor in front of his mother for resisting being handcuffed.

To disobey an unauthorized command is to defend one’s freedom. For a cop to demand obedience, under threat of arrest or execution, is to criminalize that freedom. Inside prison, it is unfreedom that is criminalized. On both sides of the wall, what is the same is the police demand for obedience, for acceptance of lesser status as a person and a withholding of rights. It marks the power to control. And insofar as it happens to people of color mostly, it is racialized control. Control, obedience, and the imposition of lesser status dimension a process of racialization.

And like all anti-democracy, it deploys extremes. A homeless man, camped on a hill above Albuquerque, faces four cops training their rifles on him (in the police video). When he agrees to come down off the hill, picking up his bundles, the cops shoot a stun grenade, and then open fire with bullets. They approach his corpse, and like demented drunkards, shoot him again and again while shouting “drop your weapon.”

It is a form of “dementia,” able to shift from berserk activity to a calm voice in seconds. The cop in McKinney, Texas, ran around like a crazed man rounding up all the black kids in reach after an integrated swimming pool party, leaving the white kids alone. He threw a 14 year old black girl in a bathing suit to the ground twice and pulled his gun on another who came to help her. Then he goes over to two black teenagers he had handcuffed, and says:

“I personally told you to get on the ground, and stay there. What did you do when I walked away? You did just what everybody else did, which was illegal [indicating the others who had fled in self-defense]. You did it, and you got caught. Now you are going to pay for it.”

In the tones of a scolding housemother, he implies that we are all in some kind of military institution, under any cop’s command, who can then act as a commanding officer. This may be the fantasy these cops live under, but the racism and the arbitrary violence that this fantasy unleashes as institutional power is unconstitutional in its abrogation of due process. It is the atrocious character of this fantasy that it rationalizes shooting anyone who doesn’t acceed to be regimented in that way.

This wanton withholding of the right to dignity, self-respect, or sanctity of personhood through the use of guns and fantasy constitutes a “political dementia.” The term “dementia” refers to a psychological condition of unbalanced reason or a crazed sense of reality. But it is political insofar as it involves profiling as the foundation for demanding obedience. As policy, it renders each cop a threat to humanity.

In 2013, in Liberty City, FL, Tremaine McMillan, a 14 year old black teenager, was attacked by cops for what they perceived as a “dehumanizing stare.” In a subsequent interview, an officer, speaking for the machinerywhitenesspolice department, calmly explained that McMillan’s “body language” was “already” resisting an officer, letting the officer know that this person could become “agitated and violent, and thus was an immediate threat to the officer.” Spoken in an academic tone of voice, the psychotic nature of what is said become demonic. The teenager was sentenced to two years probation for looking at a cop wrong.

It is the element of profiling that renders each incident beyond the law, insofar as profiling contraverts law enforcement. In law enforcement (the proper domain and activity of the police), when a crime is committed, the police look for a suspect to charge with the crime. In profiling, the police commit an act of suspicion, and then look for a crime with which to charge their suspect. One has to be oneself beyond the law to place other people beyond the law. In addition, military regimentation is a form of absolute power over the individual. To have absolute power on the street is to have no one in control over oneself, and thus to be, in a political rather than a psychological sense, “out of control.”

Police dementia reflected in prison cruelty

In its wanton cruelty, the political dementia exhibited by the police parallels that of the prison system, and expresses most clearly the police-prison nexus. For the police to act as they do, harassing and violating whole communities (of color), they require a growing prison industry. And for prison industry to grow, it depends on the police acting as they do. They combine as a common political project. Neither can be understood without understanding the other.

The cruelty in prison escapes being seen as demented because it has become routine. Solitary confinement is imposed on those who think critically and politically. And it can be imposed for decades, in order to drive a person mad. We know of those individuals who have withstood this torture and survived. But those who succumb remain unsung. It becomes an expression of “institutional” political dementia that prison administrations can regard prisoners as imprisoned in order to be punished, where legitimately prison itself is to be the punishment. For the most part, punishment is meted out (without judiciality) in prison for the crime of thinking of oneself as human, due some respect and dignity as a human being.

It is perhaps this facet of the police-prison nexus that explains why, after the huge upheavals in protest against police killings, the killings increase. Where, in 2012, 380 unarmed people of color were killed by the police (cf. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement), which averages one person killed every 28 hours, in 2014, that number jumped to around 1,100 (or close to 3 people a day killed by police). In March of 2015, over a hundred people have killed by police nationwide. It appears that the police not only instigate the outrage, but use it to increase their violence.

It is a sign of institutional dementia. Because people protest their dehumanization, the violation of their humanity will be enhanced. It is a slaveholder mentality, to torture people until they abandon all hope of being seen, and seeing themselves, as human.

Berkeley Suppression of Demonstrations

The truly grasp the political nature of this “dementia,” we should look at how the police deal with political protests. On Dec. 6, 2014, in Berkeley, massive protests were called against the failure of St. Louis and NYC grand juries to indict the murderers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The world had seen the pictures and heard the testimonies of people about these gratuitous murders. Yet, the political structure rendered those killings “legitimate.” All over the country, there were demonstrations against this ethical corruption (aka injustice) of political institutions.

In the melee that extended itself through the night, many people were injured by truncheon strikes, punches and kicks by the police, tear gas, rubber bullets, and tasers. They included students, teachers, city officials, and all classes of residents.

Unable to ignore these events, the city council called special meetings in January and February, 2015) at which hundreds of people testified to what they had suffered. Then, in June 2015, the police issued its own report (at a Police Review Commission meeting). It was an account of their actions from their own perspective rather than a response or even recognition of the damage and injury to which people had testified.

The report consisted of an oral reading of the report, accompanied by slides and videos. Its overture consisted of slides of two leaflets that were openly anti-police, after which the report described (with videos) how a cordon of officers was constructed in front of the police station because that was the site where the demonstrators were going to express their protest and their call for justice. After describing this cordon, which was called a “skirmish line,” the rest of the report went into detail of the many confrontations with mobile demonstrators as they evaded the police.

The politics of police presence was fully established by these two opening items. Nothing was said about other leaflets issued by different organizations, of which there were many, leaving the impression that those two leaflets represented a uniform sentiment. That is, the report opened with a biased sense of the demonstration’s position.

And the video of the skirmish line was stark in its presentation of gratuitous police violence. Whenever anyone walked too close to the line, they were violently shoved away by the nearest officer, even before the main body of demonstrators had arrived. In other words, the line itself represented a desire for violence, the ability to shove people, on the part of the police.

In the report, the “skirmish line” is represented as maintaining “a safety zone” for the officers. Yet the shoving and violence was wholly one-sided, and arbitrary because it was arbitrary where the police established that line, and accidental who walked near it. Far from a defensive “safety zone,” the line had an offensive character in its placement and its hostility. Both represented prior criminalization of the demonstrators, a massive act of profiling.

In presenting a paradigm of violence, the “skirmish” line manifested a desire both for violence by the police, and a desire for a hostile response by the people so that the police could respond to that as an aggression against social peace. It is that desire that makes the operation political rather than judicial – like throwing a 14 year old black girl on the ground twice in order to charge her with resisting.

It is this political desire for a response, against which the police can claim self-defense, that marks the vast majority of police killings. One approaches a black person with hostility, hoping they will attempt to preserve their dignity and self-respect; and when they do, they can be criminalized for disobeying an officer and resisting arrest.

Interestingly, the report concludes that the skirmish line was a faulty tactic. “The skirmish line may have exacerbated the situation because the crowd had been peaceful up to this point.” This too is a misrepresentation. The term “exacerbate” signifies an existing situation made worse by the action in question. Clearly, the skirmish line and the pushing were the initiation of a situation, not an exacerbation. It was “exacerbation” that the police desired, not peace.

The political effect of this police presence and violence was to shift the demonstrators’ focus from the national issue of police injustice to the Berkeley police themselves, rendered the police a counter-demonstration. As such, the police became the embodiment of the injustice the demonstrators were protesting. In profiling the demonstration as criminal, the police actually personified that injustice, thus allying themselves with the refusal of justice in other cities. Where the people demonstrated for justice, the police demonstration became a support for injustice. Where the people called for prosecution of killers, the police presence became a call for their protection and valorization. Where the demand for justice was a call for lawfulness, the police counter-demonstration exhibited unlawfulness and provocation. And in thus making themselves an aggressive force, they made themselves a target for political attention, against which to respond as if aggressed against. Subsequent police proclamation that a demonstration is illegal only labels a situation that meets the political desire and goal of the police.

Finally, it is the police-prison nexus, the fact that each depends on the other, that contextualizes the police desire for violence. As an opportunity to criminalize protest as aggressive, and thus rationalize their own initiatory violence as self-defense, their self-decriminalization is of a piece with prison operations that see the prison as a place to punish people for having been imprisoned, rather than as punishment itself. This implies, for people in prison, that they have been kidnapped by a criminal organization (nationwide) to be held ransom for total control of the people on the street.

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Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.

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