Violence for the Sake of Violence

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In the scene on the TV, we see a man lying on the ground, unmoving, his hands behind his head. His head is raised a bit so he can see what is coming toward him. We see four large men walking in a line toward this guy on the street. The four approach him slowly, carefully, as if with a predatory intent, expecting him to defend himself. We don’t know why they are preparing an attack, but we watch them step carefully toward him, as if samurai about to enter mortal combat. The samurai step, forward and to the left with the left foot, forward and to the left with the right foot in front of the left, then the left foot again, always keeping balance and facing frontwards. It is like an adult street gang in the movies. We can almost hear the Edward G. Robinson growl; “Okay, punk, you t’ink you wise or somethin’. We’ll show you a thing or two.”

We watch them approach their prey. He lies there, also watching them. But wait a minute; something is wrong. This guy has shown no preparation to defend himself. Maybe he’s playing possum so that this street gang will leave him alone. But it is too late for that. He knows what they are going to do. We see it in his face.

As the four surround him, yelling things at him that interfere with each other and become unintelligible, two of them reach down, grabbing his arms and pulling him up from the ground. They pull him up roughly to a kind of sitting position, twist him around, and throw him back down. They are kicking him, and one of them punches him four or five times. He doesn’t go down as easily as he came up.

But wait a minute. Something else is wrong. This isn’t a gang of street punks. They’re in uniform. They’re cops. Predatory cops?? What is going on here?

We are watching the evening news. There had been an earlier scene in the video in which we saw this same guy, on the same spot on the street, on his knees. A shot rings out. We don’t see who shoots, nor what the shot hits. But the guy falls toward his right, and lies down. When we see him lying on the street as this street gang walks up to him, there doesn’t seem to be any blood.

Most of this is factual. This is what we see in these video clips, though its resemblance to a street gang operation is a judgment. It is important to point that out. There are other “facts” that will have to be added in order to explain why four cops are acting like a street gang. But those “facts” will belong to “knowledge,” not to observation. For instance, we might conclude, having seen the entire event, that the shot was just a threat, a warning, or a prelude to moving in and beating up this man – something to make it look like “real” police work.

The town is Hayward, CA. The day is April 7, 2021. The media is CBS TV Evening News. Those facts seem less important than the fact that one cop kicks the guy after pulling him up to sitting position, and another punches him in order to get him to lie down again. The guy can’t defend himself with two other cops holding his arms. Neither bravery nor justice is in evidence. It is an exercise in “violence for the sake of violence.”


After showing these video clips, the news program shifts to an ex-cop who the reporter knows, and to whom she showed the video. We might assume that this reporter does this because she considers him an “expert.” Why else bring him into the story? In his response to the video, he says, “Even those punches, which I didn’t think were excessively brutal, even that could have been avoided had these officers known really good submission techniques and arrest control techniques. But again, hearts are pounding, people are nervous and scared, you know, in a situation like that, someone could die.”


A man is lying down, and this alleged “expert” says the cops need “good submission techniques”? To do what? Make him dead instead of just lying down? They have guns, and this guy, their prey, does not. Who does this “expert” think is going to do the dying??

They pull him up from the ground in order to punch him and throw him back down, and that isn’t excessive? The brutality seems to be okay with this “expert.” Why? Maybe because he was a San Jose cop too long. After several incidents like this, one would get used to the idea of manhandling a person in order to then beat them up them for resisting. But he also wants to judge it as not excessive. “Use of Force” is excessive if it is totally unnecessary. It doesn’t even have to be “brutal” to be excessive. Just kneeling on a person’s neck is excessive because it can kill (“Someone could die.”).

Question: how come this ex-cop expert is unable to think beyond violence? He advises that the cops should have used “really good arrest control technique.” Apparently, neither he nor this gang of four have ever been taught to use the English language. I mean, speaking to people in a human voice, without yelling. Here is some guy rendering himself compliant by lying down and showing his hands. And these cops can’t figure out how to say, in English, “get up, you are under arrest. We are going to handcuff you.” Is it true that a cop can only talk to a civilian by yelling commands, so that even language becomes violence for the sake of violence?

Maybe talking to him is too complicated an idea for these cops. It would mean thinking of him as a person, and not as a thing. We assume that these cops are interested in arresting this man. But that means they must grant him person-status. You can’t arrest a thing. So our assumption is obviously mistaken. They are not interested in arresting him. They are only interested in his submission. That is not even street gang language. It is plantation owner language. “Prepare to be tortured for your false pretensions to being human.” Is there any aspect of this that is not excessive?

But our “expert” then mentions “hearts” and “nervousness.” Hearts are pounding, he says. People are nervous. As the four walk toward this man lying on the ground, one of them, obviously in command, rearranges them around the guy, before reaching down to pull him up in order to throw him back down. They couldn’t be doing that to handcuff him. They could tell him to stand up to do that. But then, they couldn’t strong-arm him – power for its own sake.

These cops aren’t scared. At four to one, they are looking for satisfaction. They surround him so that they can get a few punches in. For most men who like violence, punches give them a feeling of elation. The fear, the heart beats, the nervousness, that’s all fiction. We saw that fiction in their walk, something they might have learned in a “fight school,” or by watching Samurai movies.

But this ex-cop “expert” makes one valid statement. “Someone could die.” That is a fact. And he smiles when he says it. The police kill around 1100 people every year. That averages out to around 3 a day – a government killing its own people.

But it gets worse. A captain in the HPD makes a few statements under the heading of a “Use of Force Incident.” “We do not draw conclusions,” he says, “about whether the officers acted consistent with department policies and the law until all the facts are known and the investigation is complete.”

With what law is beating up a man who is compliant and lying down consistent? What law is enforced by substituting violence for speech? One doesn’t have to be a lawyer to know the answer. There are none. What is to investigate? But this ranking Hayward cop wants “all the facts” to be known. What does he not “know” after watching the same video we have seen. Maybe it is that this guy is a “bad” guy? That’s not a fact; it’s a judgment. Or maybe this guy has been disobedient earlier on, and that the cops wanted revenge for that? Their desire for revenge is not a fact, but a criminal intention. Maybe this “gang of four” thinks unnecessary force is necessary to teach this guy a lesson? That is not a fact; it is a decision made by these cops to act like a gang. Or perhaps this “spokescop” wants the opportunity to invent a few more fictional facts of his own so that he can excuse the violence, imposed for the sake of violence, on this guy. If our “expert” can fictionalize, why can’t an HPD captain?

But then, why don’t we require (as necessary) that these cops go and do their playwriting in Hollywood, and not in the streets of our cities? Failing that, someone should arrest this gang of four cops before they kill someone. They are dangerous people. We can see that, even though that is not a fact but a judgment.

This same captain who wants to start with the facts has seen the same punches thrown that we have. What he hasn’t seen is “why.” But that would be “knowledge.” It might be retaliation, or anger, or to make the other submit. But those are not facts. They are motives.

A big problem emerges once motives get raised to the level of fact. Racial profiling, for instance, is a form of raising a cop’s suspicion and bigotry to the level of evidence. Similarly, the excuse used most often by cops who shoot someone in the back and kill them is: “I felt threatened.” To use that as evidence of self-defense (the term “evidence” implying factuality) is to make a mockery of an entire judicial system by honoring shooting someone in the back. It is to turn judiciality into a form of dictatorship, implemented with guns on the street.

But even these cops, as they manhandle this guy on the street, do their own fictionalizing in the moment. We hear them demand that he let them get his hands so they can cuff him. (!!!) They had his hands. They pulled him up off the ground by his hands. But they want it on record that he is resisting. That is necessary for their excessive force to be seen as necessary. But seen by whom? By what audience? For us, the entire thing is a performance. It wasn’t law enforcement. It certainly wasn’t peace keeping, or ensuring that the people of Hayward were safe and secure.

What required fictionalizing was their reason for pulling him up physically from the ground. They had to do that so that, when he squirmed under their force, they could consider it resistance and beat him. They couldn’t do that if they just told him to get up because he was under arrest. They couldn’t punch him for resisting if they hadn’t manhandled him first.

Even Chauvin is using that defense in his murder trial, viz. that Floyd was resisting him. That itself is fiction. Floyd was already in custody, and handcuffed when Chauvin arrived on the scene. You can read that in the news articles written at the time (May, 2020). Chauvin killing Floyd on camera was also a performance. In other words, we have a government that has adopted “snuff films” as its role model, not for policing, but for social control.

The most amazing thing that happened during the killing of George Floyd was that there was a guy on the sidewalk who saw what Chauvin was doing to Floyd and called 911. Can you imagine that? He did that to report a murder in progress. He called the cops to come and arrest this cop who was in the act of murdering someone.

For the police, there is no longer a clear boundary between the tragic and the criminal. Or, as Maldoror would say, what you are doing is so horrendous, so evil, so dehumanized, that it could only be intentional.

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.