Robot Cops Are Racist, Too

Over 500 people have been murdered by the police in the US so far this year. Unsurprisingly, a disproportionately large number of these victims were black men – some, like Pierre Loury, and Jose Cruz, weren’t even adults. Prompted by the murders of Alton Sterling (killed in cold blood by police in Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5), and Philando Castile (murdered later the next day by police in Minnesota), demonstrations decrying this unceasing brutality erupted in cities across the country on Thursday, July 7.

Eclipsing the shutdowns of freeways, roads, and other acts of civil disobedience from Oakland to New York, the biggest story to emerge from these demonstrations was the murder of five cops in Dallas by US Army veteran Micah Xavier Johnson, and the killing of Johnson by a military surplus police robot that followed. For, although robots (drones) are used by the US military to kill people throughout the world, the extrajudicial killing of Johnson by an explosive-delivering police robot marks an unprecedented, and qualitative, shift in the ongoing militarization of the police, one amounting to the commencement of the normalization of drone warfare by police against the public. For, not only will this precedent allow robots (as they have in so many other industries) to replace people in law enforcement, the obverse of Fredrick Douglass’ famous remark that power concedes nothing without a demand holds as well: absent demonstrable threats, power exploits every opportunity to aggrandize itself.

Not only violative of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (which ostensibly protects people from deprivations of life, liberty, and property absent due process of law), the killing of Johnson illustrates the degree to which the decisions of the police function (much like the decisions of sovereign dictators, in the notorious Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt’s schema) as the law itself. Extending from the exceedingly militarized, and excessively empowered police, coupled with the ongoing, unaccountable murders of mostly people of color by police, this virtual martial law suggests that the so-called global war on terror has materialized domestically in the hardly hyperbolic form of a racist dictatorship of the police.

Although many may deny it, it is nevertheless a fact that, as an institution, the police is racist through and through – irrespective of whether or not particular cops harbor racist views. This is because, among other reasons, as an institution the police is an appendage of the larger institution of property. And property, in the US at the very least, is inextricable from racist dispossessions, and reproductions, of wealth. That is, in addition to manifesting other aspects of domination, property is racist.

Not only does the term private (as in private property) derive from the verb “to deprive,” the historical deprivations of people’s commonly held lands (transformed into real property), and people’s very bodies (turned into chattels/personal property), have been justified since the late eighteenth century (when the pseudo-scientific notion of race was concocted) by racist ideologies. Forming the basis of wealth to this day, these relations are inseparable from the creation of the institution of the police department. In the US, as Kristian Williams and others have noted, the first police departments were specifically instituted to hunt runaway slaves – that is, to retrieve and secure runaway property. And, not unlike the case with slavery, the modern understanding and arrangement of the physical world as so many pieces of property (owned, secured by contracts, the courts, police, etc.) is inextricable from racist ideologies and practices.

In the US, virtually all real property was taken, by force and in violation of legally binding treaties, from Native Americans. And, more often than not, the rationale for forcefully taking these lands derived from racist narratives. Depicting Native Americans as essentially nomadic (in stark contrast to the pastoral or agricultural practices of many, or to the presence of the ruins of the city of Cahokia – which, when discovered in the early 1800s by European-Americans, was larger than the contemporaneous city of Washington D.C.), the racist trope of an essential nature of some sort was a necessary correlate to the ethnic cleansing of North America and the concomitant transformation of the land into so many parcels of property.

At the same time, the development of wealth and personal property in the US was inextricable from a slave economy underpinned by racist ideologies and practices. Even after the Civil War, the exception to the 13th Amendment – which allows slavery in the case of punishment – enabled the continuation of systemic slave labor to flourish. More often than not, this practice was deeply racialized. In addition to significantly contributing to the industrialization of the South, this racist prison labor system continues to operate, controlling overwhelmingly black and brown ‘surplus populations’ throughout the country, comprising an essential facet of the production and reproduction of property that, in multiple forms, is protected by the police.

This basic relationship between race, property, and police is not by any means limited to the 19th century, however. Nor is it restricted to prisons, or to the Southern US. And let’s not overlook the historical fact that, in addition to Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans, the Irish, Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans and even the poor as such were regarded as inferior races well into the 20th century. This ascribed inferiority not only justified systemic exploitation; this racially justified exploitation is inextricable from the production and concentration of vast amounts of wealth – much of which continues to accrue interest.

In addition to the racist practices of the 19th century, 20th century racist practices such as blockbusting, redlining, and urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods and communities, creating poverty while enriching bankers and others across the United States. These policies and practices ensured that some people (middle and upper class white families, for example) would benefit economically and politically from owning property, while others (such as people of color living in areas that were being deformed into ghettos by these same policies, not to mention people living on reservations) would not. The effects of these policies continue to reverberate throughout the US in the form of poverty, illness, incarceration, and police violence (the patent expression of the latent relations of domination and subordination). The deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Akai Gurley, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, among so many others, are the entirely foreseeable outcome of these relations.

Whether public property or private property, real property (like a particular lot of land) or personal property (like the cotton, timber, or minerals extracted from it), in the US property is thoroughly imbued with and inseparable from racism. And because it is an extension of this racist program, and designed to protect it, the unconscious robot that the Dallas police used to kill Micah Xavier Johnson is necessarily racist as well.

But though the police and property are racist institutions, and though white people throughout the US benefit from racist distributions of power – enjoying the general privilege, among others, of not being brutalized by the police – it is everywhere apparent that poor whites are nevertheless being brutalized by mass unemployment, poverty, debt, and other consequences of today’s neoliberal arrangement of property and power. Among the more quotidian harms (e.g., cancer and occupational disease) early death from drug overdoses, stress-related illnesses, and suicides are widely reported as occurring at epidemic levels among poor whites. In other words, though many are no doubt dupes, whites are hardly the intended beneficiaries of the racist, neoliberal system hegemonic today. As the sociologist Max Weber formulated the problem of social power a century ago, power has economic, social, and political aspects. And while a rich, white man in the US these days enjoys all three aspects of power, according to Weber, a rich, black man, or rich, white woman, or a non-rich white man, for that matter, cannot. All of which is to say, despite the prevalence and obviousness of its brutality, and the imperative to end it, in the end the institution of the police, the dictatorship of the police, is an extension of more deeply harmful, ecocidal institutions.

As such, meaningfully dismantling police brutality, racism, inequality and poverty in general requires more than simply reforming or even dismantling the police. It requires dismantling the root of the police – property relations. This, in turn, requires dismantling property as such. Not simply the concrete objects that are presently regarded as property, and the underlying and overlying institutions that produce and reproduce, intranationally and internationally, disproportionate relations of wealth and power; the very concept of property – along with that which property implies, the right to dominate in the first place – needs to be dismantled.

Such a rupture requires more than a radical break from capitalist institutions and social relations. It requires, as well, something akin to a revolutionary form of charity, or care – a radical care not unlike Thomas Aquinas’ notion of caritas. Defined as “friendship of people for God,” a revolutionary caritas could just as easily be defined as a radical “friendship of people.” Along with defining it as a radical friendship, and love for one’s neighbor, Aquinas also defined caritas as that which “unites us to God,” a formulation that could just as well be defined as that which simply unites us – a conceptualization of caritas, or charity, that has much in common with the concept of solidarity. This type of radical charity, of course, requires far more than the relative charity of giving away money. Rather than simply giving money to people, a radical charity involves, among other acts, giving up money entirely (along with the relations of domination and exploitation that stem from it); giving it up – like a bad habit – for good. In today’s social climate, however, such a development seems unlikely. People seem far too frightened (too terrorized by the global territorium) to seriously entertain the idea of living without their favorite god.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber