The Desire to Kill

They don’t know how to stop. They just don’t know how. It doesn’t matter how many people march in how many cities calling for the police to stop killing people, they don’t stop.

If a private affair is in progress, and someone says, “don’t go in there,” common decency would dictate that one not enter that domain. It is a question of respect for human being. Which is really a respect for human life.

But that is not something one can assume for the police. Massive numbers of people say, “Stop, don’t do that any more.” But they don’t know how. They don’t even know how to stop other cops from killing people. Is it a form of denial? Or an outright refusal? Or an actual desire to kill?

The present massive uprising against police brutality begins with George Floyd. George Floyd was killed on May 25. Chauvin the cop had his knee on Floyd’s neck in full knowledge that, even without that, Floyd couldn’t get up because two other cops were kneeling on him as well. But he had Floyd’s neck where he wanted it, and he bore down. People watched from the sidewalk, yelling to stop. “Let the man up.” A fourth cop was standing there facing the public, protecting this act of killing. Nonchalantly, he had his hand in his pocket, as if just waiting for a bus, a simple presence assisting his “fellow officer” in taking this black man’s life. That assistance, as an obstacle against the public, made this act of killing a premeditated murder. “Premeditated murder” is the official metaphor for the “desire to kill.”

Thus began four weeks of outraged crowds in the streets of cities, and four weeks of more killings, more police torture, more brutality. A dozen have been killed or injured around the country by police in that time. Lets look at a few incidents.

Four days after George Floyd’s death, Derrick Sanderlin was shot by a rubber bullet at an anti-brutality demonstration in San Jose (CA), which put him in the hospital. In broad daylight, on a wide avenue, thousands of people marched toward city hall, to say to city government and to the world, stop killing black people. The cops couldn’t stop them (neither physically nor constitutionally). So they formed a line behind the demonstration and started shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. This is the third day of massive demonstration against doing precisely that. More brutality has been the response to outrage at brutality.

A young woman turned around, and is hit in the chest by a rubber bullet. Sanderlin sees this happen, and for some reason, thinks he can talk to these uniforms pulling triggers. He steps into the space between the police and the crowd, shouting “please stop doing this.” He is black, and has led classes for the cops on addressing or recognizing police racial bias. He says he hoped some would recognize him. A cop sees him, aims at his balls, shoots, and puts him in the hospital for surgery. Sanderlin sees him aim from 20 feet away. The cop’s intention was to maim, if not to kill. Is Sanderlin crazy, thinking he can actually stop cops in the midst of their target practice on real people? Or is it the cop who is sick, uninhibited in his desire to kill, his weird homosexual jag, and his taking the opportunity to torture a black man?

On the same day, thousands showed up in Brooklyn, on the other side of the continent, to demand an end to police brutality. The cops decide this is an unlawful gathering. A young woman, named Dounya Zayer, light colored and taking photographs, videos some cops trying to clear the street. One comes at her, knocks the camera aside, and pushes her so hard she falls and cracks her head on the concrete. Not a single cop stops to help her as she lies there. They walk by. Thus, they participate in her injury. The same thing happens to Martin Gugino in Buffalo at a similar demo. He lies bleeding from a fractured skull on the sidewalk. Somehow, he survives. Sayer is hospitalized with a concussion. She knows how close to death she came. The Nuremberg Decision, written by the US at the end of the most destructive war ever, would define the desire by government military forces to injure or kill civilians as a crime against humanity.

Three days later, on June 2, a young man was shot and killed by police in Vallejo, CA. His name was Sean Monterrosa. He was in the parking lot of a big store mall when police show up. They don’t see him looting or breaking windows. They see him get on his knees in the parking lot with his hands in the air. It is a gesture that means, “I surrender.” A cop driving up sees Monterrosa’s face, and shoots him five times. He was in such a hurry to shoot this man that he couldn’t even take the time to open his door. He shot him through his windshield. He ignores both his windshield and the political storm going on in the world agasint his doing precisely that. Does he live in a fantasy world, in which hammer handles are guns and surrenders are threats? Or does his obsessive desire take precedence over all else?

On June 12, two weeks after Floyd was killed, Rayshard Brooks got shot in the back by a cop because he had fallen asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru line in Atlanta. It is late at night. Someone calls the cops. They knock on his window. He wakes up, opens the door, and steps out when asked to do so. He is cooperative. Just a groggy black man. They do a breathalyzer test, and he fails it. Okay. That just means they can’t let him drive. He says his sister lives a few blocks away. He can walk it. The two cops could have said, okay, we’ll drive you, to make sure you get home safely. Nah. That would be too civilized. One wants to handcuff him. For falling asleep in his car? He was compliant with the police, but not to the point of being handcuffed. George Floyd had been handcuffed already and compliant when they threw him down and killed him.

One cop tases Brooks for refusing the cuffs. The other cop draws his taser. Brooks takes it away and runs. The cop pulls his gun and shoots him in the back. Totally unnecessary. The cops have Brooks’ car. They can just wait for him to finish running and come back for it. They even know where he lives. That is not the purpose of shooting him. Their cowardly purpose is to kill – cowardly because it doesn’t take any courage to shoot someone in the back.

Tasers are simply instruments of torture. You torture first to induce obedience. Then kill to make obedience irrelevant.

The cop walks over to Brooks, lying on the ground and dying, and kicks him a few times, as if to get those kicks in before he dies. It is a psychotic need for vengeance that accompanies the desire to kill.

Forget about that silly little “bad apples” idea. Forget about that “most dangerous job” excuse. There is an unspoken desire in all these incidents, a desire that is most greatly fulfilled by shooting in the back. The number of people of color shot in the back is enormous. If I name Walter Scott, Oscar Grant, Gary King, Michael Brown, I have already named too many. The list should never have been even that long. But it streches into the hundreds. The other thousands of deaths, like that of Breoona Taylor, were not shot in the back.

Indeed, shooting in the back is so cowardly that it could only represent the killer’s relation to himself, rather than to his victim. The victim exists only for the cop’s self-aggrandizement. He does it to impress other cops. The police are an insular culture, speaking to themselves. That is why other Atlanta cops have protested the charges against the one who killed Brooks. (They have been calling in “sick.” Got that one right.)

When Berkeley City Council voted to ban police use of tear gas for crowd control purposes, they did so because, as a cause of respiratory distress, tear gas increases vulnerability to Covid-19. But someone asked Chief Greenwood what the cops will use instead, and he glibly answered “live ammunition” (a paraphrase). He wasn’t speaking to the councilmember. He was playing to the other cops in the department. It was beyond him to imagine using respect for justice, respect for human beings, or constitutionality as an alternative to tear gas. Those are foreign words for that culture that desires to kill or torture people of color. It has now become the background for how the police are seen.

Insidiously, the behavior of the police in killing black people has provided a role model for others. Hence, the spate of lynchings. Real ones. On June 1, as the killing and the protests against police brutality proceeded, a black man named Malcolm Harsch was hung in the southern California town of Victorville. If it were not suicide, then it was a lynching in the old style. As a lynching, it would express the intentional hatred, and the intention to kill, that characterized and empowered such killings from the Reconstruction period all the way to the murder of Emmet Till, and Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. But it would just be a chip off the old block of police killing people of color now. The police originally said it was suicide. But nobody believes that, certainly not Harsch’s family. Let there be an independent post-mortem examination. We need truth-telling here.

And it happened again, a week later. On June 10, Robert Fuller, another young black man, was hung from a tree in Palmdale, California, just 60 miles away. Again the cops assumed suicide. Again the family complained. Again, there was no evidentiary answer to the family. Another lynching. Another step back toward enslavement.

And during that same week, 4 other young black men were hung from trees. They are all listed as suicides. Six suicides of black people in all? In the midst of black people standing up and saying “stop,” young black men are suddenly killing themselves? Forget it. This is a moment when people are arriving at a voice loud enough for even white supremacy to hear. They were lynched. Why would the police lie? For the same reason they will say that shooting a man in the back is self-defense. For the police to proclaim them all suicides is to be complicit. Lets have independent coroners do the post-mortems.

The next week, half a dozen nooses showed up in the trees of Oakland, California. They are symbols of murdering black people. Black people didn’t put them there as a form of proxy suicide. They are there as a form of proxy murder. What is a lynching but a desire to kill. In other words, the police desire to kill has opened a door for presumably white people to do likewise.

In addition, there have been murders of transgender black people during this same period. For them, there is no suicide excuse. In their invention of new genders for themselves, they are showing that “real men” are not the end all and by all of existence. So they get killed. The police will be looking for suspects until 2027.

To think about reforming the police is to play with daydreams using a language from a different century. The culture of the police (different from the culture of policing) has silenced that ancient language with the cacophony of brutality and racial terrorism. The desire to kill is a cultural construct that goes all the way back to the beginning and the English raids in 1610 on the Chickahominy. Jim Crow is a latter day cultural mindset; it is not an ideology. It can’t be rooted out by training. And to call it “racism” is just a way of individuating what is a cultural structure of racialization.

Do all cops feel this desire to kill? Who knows? Maybe they don’t. But maybe they do. How deep in the culture of the police does this desire lie? A cop can stand idle, as if waiting for a bus, while his buddy finishes killing someone. It is too late to ask if they all do it. In every team effort, when one cop has killed, all others in the team have been accepting of it.

The cops who protested charging Brooks murderer have said, through spokespersons, that by shooting the wrong-doer, society was saved from danger. Are we supposed to respect that statement? That society will be endangered by a man who falls asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru?

If you don’t know how to stop killing, reform is not an option. Rules, or regulations, or sensitivity training will not work. The culture that obviates listening to the people must be dismantled. There is no other way to deal with it.

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.