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American Sniper

The only outcome more predictable than Micah Johnson’s killing of five cops and wounding of seven others in Dallas is White incredulity that race and class divisions lie at the heart of American social relations. Theorists of self-evidence face the contradiction that differences in lived experience provide fundamentally different filters through which acts like the police murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are interpreted. These differences place pleas for ‘unity’ and universal condemnation of Mr. Johnson’s actions on the side of repressive power as diminution of legitimate grievances. Otherwise, when precisely, and by whom, will police murders be ended if not by the people being murdered?

In theory the powers-that-be could have ended murders by police decades ago by prosecuting killer cops. Given their systematic nature, as evidenced by persistence across time and geographical dispersion, the reasonable conclusion to draw is that ‘the state,’ broadly considered, has no interest in ending them. And the targeted nature of police violence–toward the intersection of race and class that has evolved to include new and historical underclasses, ties it to an implied rationale that has nothing to do with the contrived misdirection of ‘law and order.’ Any real state interest in curtailing crime would start with the ruling class that commits the most socially destructive crimes, witness the American War of Aggression against Iraq.

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Graph: the self-serving storyline used by murderous police and their supporters is that police violence is a public service to quell public, usually ‘Black-on-Black,’ violence. While public violence is indeed a problem that ties closely to the looting of inner-cities by connected capitalists and the institutions they control, this violence appears to be completely unrelated to the propensity of cops to murder citizens. Source: mappingpoliceviolence.com.

The oft-made relation of ‘crime’ to police violence made its most inauspicious appearance in recent history (the past few weeks) through the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Mr. Castile was pulled over (in official explanation) for a broken tail light and Mr. Sterling was harassed for selling CDs. The implausibility of these escalating into capital offenses reframes the police role from crime ‘control’ to that of social repression. Under no reasonable configuration of events would Messrs. Castile and Sterling be dead were stopping crime the goal of the police. ‘Crime’ is but a pretext for assertion of state power. And the eternal refrain of ‘rogue’ and / or poorly trained cops is belied by the systematic nature of police violence. That bourgeois Whites find ‘crime’ a plausible explanation for systematic social repression speaks to a divide unlikely to be resolved through ‘reforms.’

The historical development of the police in America from slave patrols to economic agents for ‘private interests’ through the racist repression of Black codes and Jim Crow to occupation armies in poor communities and communities of color has at its core economic basis with the overlay of White Supremacy. Slavery was an economic institution, whatever else it might have been. The racial repression that followed had economic basis. Convict leasing was an economic institution, whatever else it might have been. This isn’t to reduce White Supremacy to economics. But it is to link imperialism and colonialism to economic extraction through the use of force, including systematic social repression.

The role of the police as an ‘army of the rich’ is worth considering inasmuch as their militarization, immunity from prosecution and attendant impunity have grown in approximate proportion to the concentration of wealth that is itself tied to the impoverishment of growing portions of the population. The Black migration north following WWII was driven by relatively well-paying industrial jobs that were the first to be eliminated through de-industrialization in the 1970s and through the relocation of industry overseas in the capitalist revival that followed. Black unemployment, historically a multiple higher than White unemployment, provides a ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ to keep an upper bound on wages. Therein lies part of the class dynamic of structural racism.

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Graph: As corporations gained power over labor— the reciprocal of labor’s share in the graph above, prime-age American labor, and Black workers in particular, have been forced out of the labor ‘market.’ In other words, rising corporate profits tie directly to the immiseration of Black workers with many being forced into permanent unemployment as a result. The causal link is ‘free-trade’ with NAFTA, signed by Bill Clinton, put into effect just as the Clinton crime bill (link below) was being passed. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

‘Criminality’ is substantially tied to participation in the ‘informal’ economy by which those excluded from the formal economy survive. As evidenced by current widespread use of opioids prescribed through official channels and the ready availability of cheap, plentiful alcohol, the powers-that-be have no problem with socially destructive drug usage as long as the drugs are distributed through official channels so that profits can be made. It is other than paradoxical that the public health interest put forward to explain drug law enforcement finds its most violent expression through repressive policing in poor neighborhoods. Were concern for public health the motivation the police would be helping the poor find jobs, get needed health care and assuring the availability of nutritious food.

The link between the ‘war on drugs’ and strategies to legitimate state repression of antiwar protestors and the Black Left was conceived by Richard Nixon at a time when open rebellion threatened ruling class power. Hillary Clinton’s slander of Black children, dehumanizing them as ‘super-predators,’ coincided with the Clintons’ support for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that increased capital punishment, the militarization of the police, mandatory prison sentences and the build-out of prisons for mass incarceration. The liberal patina given to strategies of social repression ties directly to the ascendance of neo-imperial capitalism that ‘freed’ a substantial portion of the former workforce to exist as it could.

The coded racism of the Clintons’ welfare ‘reform’ tied race to class to assure cheap and malleable labor for their neo-capitalist patrons on Wall Street and in industry. That most of those receiving welfare were White begs the question of why coded racism was used to end it? The answer, that stoking White resentment was the most effective way to sell policies antithetical to White, working class interests, ties the Clintons’ retrograde racism to their support for neo-capitalist resurgence. By passing NAFTA the trifecta of increasing the size of the global labor force, cutting the social safety net to force people into labor markets and building out the mechanisms of social repression to suppress resistance to the process completed the neo-capitalist coup.

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Graph: the question of how to get Whites to cut their own throats, economically speaking, gets to the heart of divide-and-conquer racial strategies and with them, racial repression. The Clintons stoked racial resentment to sell polices of immiseration for labor broadly considered. Since Bill Clinton passed NAFTA the prime-age workforce has declined through sequential booms and busts. The storyline of economic recovery is sold as cover for the broader trend of economic decline. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The question of how to end police murders of citizens, Blacks in particular, ties the hard violence of police repression to the soft violence of economic exclusion and zen economicsimmiseration. While racism does exist separate and apart from its manufactured incarnation in divide-and-conquer political strategies, broader economic and political distribution would go far toward resolving the material consequences of racism. And given the role that engineered racial divisions play in accruing profits for connected capitalists, ending capitalism seems a necessary step toward racial reconciliation. Furthermore, it is well within the ability of the Federal government to provide guaranteed jobs that pay a living wage, health care, quality education and adequate pensions for everyone. The impediment to doing so is political, not resource constraints.

Tactical considerations join the broad condemnation of Black justice and empowerment movements that have arisen from Micah Johnson’s murder of cops in Dallas with the fact that police murders of Blacks are intolerable and need to be ended immediately, not in some distant future. Peaceful protest, always a first choice, pushes against an increasingly insistent global capitalism that has state support and that feeds from the racial divisions that political opportunists create. Moral pleading depends on a shared perspective that doesn’t exist for common ground. And the strategy of electing better plantation managers— Hillary Clinton instead of whatever candidate Republicans put forward, is placed against the Clintons’ history as the most effective proponents of radical capitalist resurgence through strategies of racial division.

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Graph: not only do murders by police bear no relation to levels of violent crime (top graph), unarmed Blacks were 5X as likely to be murdered by the police in 2015 as unarmed Whites. While unfounded fears of Blacks are used to explain the sociology of police murders of Black citizens, the systematic nature of these murders— across time and geography, in association with the systematic failure to prosecute killer cops, leaves plausible explanations at the level of system. Source: mappingpoliceviolence.org.

Blanket condemnation of political violence, and Micah Johnson’s killing of cops in Dallas was most certainly political, requires a plausible alternative. Pointing to the resulting White backlash runs headlong into the manufacture, or more minimally exploitation, of racial divisions by the political agents of ruling class interests that are used to boost capitalist profits. While it’s convenient to point to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as historical motivators of America’s long political turn hard-right, prominent liberals including Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been the more effective proponents of the move. It’s hardly coincidence that Mr. Obama is basing his legacy on getting the labor and civil rights killing TPP and TTIP trade deals passed.

Moreover, police violence is political violence of the first order. Efforts to humanize the murdered cops in Dallas run up against four decades of militarizing them— turning them into occupation forces in capitalist-created ghettoes. If the goal were really to humanize, de-militarizing the police is a necessary first step. The Black Panthers began as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in response to police violence in Black communities. The state response was swift and savage. But does that mean that the Panthers were wrong, or that they even had a choice? The powers-that-be could end police violence in a few days by prosecuting killer cops and redefining the role of the police toward real community service. That this hasn’t happened helps to clarify the task at hand.

Finally, deepest sympathies to the families and communities of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and all of those murdered by the police. They deserved better.

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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