Police Killings are a Political Tactic

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As the spark that lit a fire, the murder of George Floyd was horrifyingly, sickeningly ordinary. According to the scant data on police killing of citizens that is available, about three people are killed by the police in the U.S. every day. And despite the protest movements Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, this number has remained about constant in recent years through Democratic and Republican administrations. This persistence stands in contrast to the political ‘branding’ of the mainstream political parties where difference is claimed, but little is evident.

The place of Mr. Floyd’s murder in the ordinary working of American governance makes it the catalyst, not the cause, of current protests. The background circumstances of economic calamity suggest that political tensions will continue to rise as unemployment and economic desperation exert a toll on social stability. The horror of Mr. Floyd’s murder should get outraged citizens into the streets regardless of broader circumstances. But with history as a guide, it is these broader factors that are creating the political moment. This highlights the urgency of acting while there is an opening.

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Graph: according to this credible— because it is unofficial, source, the total number of citizens killed by police per year has held steady at about 1,100 over the last decade. Ironically, given the scale and scope of the current rebellion, the number of blacks killed by the police has been falling over the last few years— meaning that the killing of whites has been rising. Illustrated here is the trend in blacks killed by the police by year. Source: mappingpoliceviolence.org.

The disproportionate targeting of blacks by the police is given needed context when the data is organized by economic class. Poor and working-class whites are arrested and incarcerated at about the same rate as poor and working-class blacks. By its nature, this data says nothing about history. But it does offer structural and political insights. To the prior, history informs the present, it doesn’t define it. To the latter, 1) the frame of race divides people who otherwise have shared class interests and 2) poor and working class ‘allies’ are struggling for their own freedom from police violence, whatever their intentions.

What this arithmetic of disparity implies is that a larger proportion of blacks than whites are poor and working class. One interpretation is that race defines economic opportunity, which is overly generous to how capitalism works. Whatever people’s sentiments, slavery, convict leasing and Jim Crow had economic explanations. Some people, call them capitalists, make themselves rich by making and keeping other people poor. Here is a dry, academic and partial explanation of how poor people are kept poor in the present.

The current focus on police violence is roughly analogous to explaining foreign entanglements like wars through the actions of foot soldiers and technicians rather than through the strategic and tactical goals of state leaders. And explanations of police power like police unions and white supremacy ignore modern history at the peril of their purveyors. The film 13th offers key insights into this history from a black liberal perspective. Richard Nixon created the carceral state to imprison the political enemies of capital.

As writer Dan Baum reported in Harper’s in 2016, Mr. Nixon created the ‘war on drugs’ to give state and local police a state-sanctioned (‘legitimate’) reason to arrest and imprison the counterculture left and blacks. Whatever Mr. Nixon’s sentiments regarding race, his goal was straightforwardly political— to use state power to arrest and imprison his political enemies. And his strategy worked. Through the war on drugs, the U.S. created the largest gulag system to imprison real and potential opponents of official state policy in human history.

This ‘political’ explanation of the carceral-police state strains the brains of Democrats who spent four decades arming, militarizing and supporting the police to combat ‘crime.’ That it is overwhelmingly poor and working people in prison who were sent there on drug charges supports Mr. Baum’s claim. As his source, Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, added, Mr. Nixon clearly understood that 1) ‘crime’ related to drugs was a political designation intended to 2) put the entire counter culture— which at the time included a large black nationalist movement, in prison.

The political question related to ‘crime’ wasn’t: what socially destructive behavior should be punished? It was: what laws can be enacted that will specifically target the political enemies of establishment interests to prevent them from mounting effective political challenges to it? To state the obvious, some of the most dangerous and socially destructive drugs (alcohol and tobacco) were kept legal to be distributed at a profit. And as ‘conspiracy theory’ as the charge still reads, decades of evidence place the CIA as the distribution center of the American narcotics trade.

What Mr. Nixon accomplished was twofold: he created the largest gulag system in world history and he gave a federal purpose to otherwise disparate and locally funded police departments. This is where Bill Clinton picked up. Through the liberal frame, Mr. Clinton’s deregulation of the banks, cutting of social spending and build out of the carceral state were unrelated acts. But even within a neoliberal frame, these are related as a carrot and stick approach to force people to adhere to the emerging neoliberal order. The requirement to work or starve was intended to recover the Dickensian conditions of early capitalism in ways that Ronald Reagan only dreamed of.

Another way to understand deregulation is as reducing the number, scale and scope of laws that constrain corporate behavior. Capital was freed by Bill Clinton as he used the class-proxy of ‘crime’ to increase violent state repression of poor and working people. By giving the police immunity for their actions, Mr. Clinton made violent crime a state-sponsored enterprise. Within the range of available options, he reduced social spending in poor neighborhoods, choosing instead to criminalize poverty. The Democrats have been the party of Wall Street ever since.

As with race in an earlier era, incarceration was made the marker that defines a super-exploitable class. The incarcerated— overwhelmingly from the poor and working class, were made to pay for their incarceration, often by working for private corporations at below-market wages; were the last hired and the first fired after being released from prison, and they were excluded from political participation through prohibitions on felon voting. These practices tie in history to convict leasing and Jim Crow— and liberal Democrats supported them.

Furthermore, what bearing would police reforms have on the political purpose of the carceral system? This purpose is determined by oligarchs and the agents of capital, not cops. Reforms will only be adopted and kept in place as long as to the broader political and economic goals of the oligarchs are met. For instance, the New Deal was jettisoned the moment it could be plausibly argued that it constrained capital. As for the Voting Rights Act, after blacks were given the right to vote, capital took over the electoral system.

Back to the film 13th for a moment. After presenting the half-baked assertion that Bill Clinton was forced by the political zeitgeist to take up Richard Nixon’s program of (re) racializing policing and the carceral system, it was clearly and accurately stated that Mr. Clinton was directly, and almost singularly, responsible for the willful destruction of millions of black and brown lives through his buildout of the carceral and police states. Mr. Clinton’s defense— that violent crime was a real problem, ignores the role that his patrons played in neighborhood destruction and the resulting social carnage that led to this outcome.

The film (13th) also provides a string of dim, thuggish, prattle from Donald Trump where he incites violence against ‘outsiders’ at his political rallies in his proto-fascist manner. This ties to his Nixonian threat to use the U.S. military to ‘dominate’ protests and protesters through violent repression. This in turn led to a rash of ‘Reichstag fire’ type analogies that treat Mr. Trump’s threats as facts while reducing the actual history of liberal Democrats building the largest gulag system in world history to a momentary lapse in judgment.

This public exploration of the liberal id was followed by well-placed editorials in the establishment press arguing that ‘Donald Trump is no Nixon— he is much worse.’ Here is Richard Nixon discussing with Nelson Rockefeller how to murder as much of the captive population of Attica prison, including prison guards, as was logistically possible just before Mr. Rockefeller did so. In addition to creating the American gulag system to imprison his political opponents, Mr. Nixon expanded the U.S. war in Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia, gratuitously slaughtering untold innocents in a war known to have been lost a full decade earlier.

That the Clintonite architect of the modern police and carceral states, Joe Biden, is the establishment Democrat’s candidate for president demonstrates their commitment to their neoliberal program. Joe Biden wrote key parts of the 1994 Crime Bill and the Patriot Act, and he dedicated his career to empowering the police while exempting them from accountability for their actions. After Bill Clinton, Joe Biden is the national political figure most responsible for the police practices that led to the murder of George Floyd.

In terms of emerging political alliances, the distance between words and actions is a political strategy. By analogy, the actions of white liberal Democrat Amy Cooper in using the NYPD for social leverage in her dispute with black birdwatcher Christian Cooper are instructional. By Ms. Cooper’s own words, she isn’t racist. Her use of race was transactional— race (and gender) are social levers, she wanted social leverage in her confrontation with Mr. Cooper, so she used them. The police were the social device at her disposal.

This is corporate logic— Ms. Cooper was a financial executive before she was publicly exposed for abusing Christian Cooper. It is also the mode of operational logic that dominates the Democrat’s political culture. The national Democrats who conceived and promoted the 1994 Crime Bill used its racial subtext for political leverage much as Ms. Cooper did. Ms. Cooper was careful to use politically correct terminology to demonstrate that while she was using race and gender to her advantage, she isn’t racist. #Resistance liberals used ‘Russia’ and ‘Putin’ in similar fashion to discredit their political opponents.

With regard to the current alliance of convenience between protesters, the establishment press and national Democrats, it was only a few weeks ago that the latter were lauding the American political police— the FBI, as the saviors of freedom and democracy in the Russiagate fraud. That the FBI was behind the scenes in the murders of Black Panther Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, suggests that protecting freedom and democracy isn’t precisely its mandate. Through its Cointelpro program, the FBI worked with Richard Nixon— and subsequent administrations, to disrupt, thwart and otherwise destroy organized opposition to state policy.

Closer to home, the FBI was ‘deeply involved’ in the vicious police repression that was used to shut Occupy Wall Street down in an organized multi-state operation. To bring this back to Mr. Nixon’s service to capital in creating the modern carceral-police state, the FBI coordinated with the large Wall Street banks that the Obama administration was still in the process of bailing out when its assault on the peaceful protesters of OWS took place. For those who may have forgotten, Wall Street bank J.P. Morgan made a $4.6 million contribution to the NYPD pension fund as OWS gained political strength.

Events have moved past the murder of George Floyd as establishment hacks try to extinguish the flames with ham-fisted theatrics. I had a hard time not vomiting at the sight of craven Democrats dressed in kante garb kneeling in Kaepernick fashion to show solidarity with the people they have dedicated their careers to selling out to the highest bidder. Given that ‘we’ were in a similar place in 2015, with near daily high-profile murders of unarmed youth at the hands of the police that they had empowered, and they did nothing. To save the suspense, they engage in theatrics in place of taking meaningful action, not in addition to it.

With capitalism in its deepest crisis since 2009, and possibly since the 1930s, the current political moment is fraught. As was demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the existing powers are incapable of governing. What they are capable of is massive transfers of social wealth to the already rich and political repression. If capital is perceived to be threatened, look for self-preservation to come in the form of political violence no matter which party holds the White House. One might ask what happened to Bernie Sander’s ‘coalition,’ which I supported for tactical reasons (to head off environmental calamity). Bernie Sanders is a Democrat. That is what happened.


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