Police brutality and its discontents  

The destruction of the Black body in America

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.

                 Ta- Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (a letter to his son)

I. The deceased

It seems fair to say—at least for rhetorical purposes—that the first group of those discontented with police brutality are those unable to express discontent, or any other form of human expression for that matter, due precisely to the brutal actions of police that have cost them their lives.  At the moment of this writing (Dec 10), according to data compiled by “The Counted”, an interactive program designed by The Guardian (US), there have been 1063 people killed by the police this year, which amounts to an average of three people per day before the end of December 2015. More than half of them have been male (745), and in terms of Race and Ethnicity, the majority of them have been Black, killed at a rate of 6.34 per million; followed by Native Americans, at  rate of 3.4 per million; Hispanic Latino at a rate of 3.05 per million; White, at a rate of 2.67 per million; and Asian Pacific/Islander, at a rate of 1.01 per million.

No other advanced capitalist society in the world comes even close to this level of killing of its own people on a daily basis. Within this context, it is hardy coincidental that no official U.S. government organization keeps close track of this social event. It appears to be a clear case of an intentional statistical deficit, particularly for a country that takes pride in the quality of its quantitative record keeping about a myriad of information and exercises high levels of surveillance over its citizens. It’s impossible not to conclude that we live in a society that is both selective in its killings, and even more selective about what it wants to keep in its official recorded memory.

However, as demonstrated by the incidents beginning in Ferguson and continuing in numerous other American cities, communities of color know and remember. Large numbers of Black Americans are not willing to ingest the saccharine pill of social amnesia, i.e. at the moment of this writing there are huge protests against the police in the streets of Chicago challenging police brutality. The widely reported events of police brutality just this year—coupled with the record of the historical past—demonstrate that there is a pernicious form of violence directed against black people in America. Black Americans are being killed at a rate disproportionate to their total percentage of the population as suggested by the statistics presented by The Guardian. The point here of course, is not to suggest an ‘equitable’ distribution of killings among different American ethnic groups, but to point out the systemic racist profiling of African Americans, or what in the words of Ta-Nehishi Coates constitutes a heritage of violence against black bodies, whose latest most visible expression is the killing of black citizens as an accepted “modus operandi” of some police departments throughout the nation.

Two main groups have taken prominence in opposing current police brutality. The first is loosely integrated by different variants of American liberalism searching for ideological solace under the umbrella of reformism. This group essentially seeks to pass policy reforms to affect police departments throughout the nation, hoping to create a more  ‘restrained’ image of the institution even as it continues to exercise the  ‘legitimized’ use of force granted by the state to the police and its members.  The second group is more radical and broad in the scope.  It understands police brutality not as an isolated event to be addressed within the quiet quarters of police departments and the thick municipal regulations of our cities, but as embedded in the structural racism of American society, which in turn is rooted in historical relations of power and oppression that can not be separated from broader social, economic, and political considerations. This second group is constituted by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and each of these two forms of discontent offers a unique perspective about the role of the state in a capitalist society, its ideological and political apparatuses, and the role played by its institutions of control and repression such as police departments. Each proposes a different set of strategies worth considering in our struggle against the abuses of power and in favor of the rights of all citizens.  The first group imagines how American capitalism should be. The second, knowing through historical experience how American capitalism works, explores ways to transcend it.

II. The discontent of the liberal mind

There are numerous ways to distinguish between liberal and radical thinking, or, in other words, reformist versus revolutionary thinking. Sparing the reader an unnecessary historical journey into the origin of liberalism, suffice here to say that liberalism understands the rights of the individual as if they were constituted autonomously, that is to say, independently of social, cultural, and economic constraints existing in a given society.  Within this ideological frame, the liberal mind understand issues such as equal rights, the respect of individual freedoms, and the conduct of social institutions such as the police as if they were merely the result of procedural principles of abstract justice to be solved within city halls by local politicians. By doing so, the liberal mind ignores the history and social context in which those rights, freedoms, institutions, and legal systems were put in place. The liberal mind, occupied as it is with the procedures of justice, fails to identify not only the main beneficiaries of existing capitalism in America, but also ignores at the same time the role played by popular struggles in the acquisition and defense of existing rights.

To point out the limitations of liberal reformers of capitalism in general, or of the police force in particular, does not mean to deny the value of reforms per se, but when it comes to reforms we must keep in mind two important factors: first, we must not restrict our political actions to reforms understood solely as taking place within the already complicated (on purpose of course) legal apparatus of the system; and second, reforms must be used to intensify—not to placate—the fight against all forms of capitalist exploitation.   No effective political response to police brutality will be possible if we continue to ignore among others, the following factors: (these factors were included in a previous article of mine on Ferguson)

  • The black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the white unemployment rate for 50 years.
  • During the second quarter of 2015, the national African American unemployment rate dipped below 10 percent for the first time in seven years. By way of comparison, although 6.9 percent is the lowest black unemployment rate in any state, it is essentially the same as the highest white unemployment rate (West Virginia’s).
  • The black poverty rate is no longer declining. In 2011, almost 28 percent of black households were in poverty, nearly three times higher than the poverty rate for whites.
  • Black children are more likely than whites to live in areas of concentrated poverty: 32% of black children, 30% of American Indian children, 24% of Hispanic children, 8% of Asian and Pacific Islander children and 5% of white children live in census tracts with poverty rates of 30% or more.
  • School segregation has increased since 1980, which means that “the more nonwhite students a school has, the fewer resources it has. A 10 percentage-point increase in the share of nonwhite students is associated with a $75 decrease in per student spending” (EPI).
  • The racial disparity in incarceration rates is bigger than it was in the 1960’s. While in 1960, the rates were 262 whites and 678 blacks incarcerated per 100,000 U.S. residents, by 2010, the rates were up to 1,313 whites and 4,374 blacks incarcerated per 100,000 residents.
  • A separate study on social mobility conducted by Richard Reeves showed that “Black children are more likely to be born into poverty than white children; but they are also less likely to scape poverty” (2013, Social Mobility Memos).

Black youth in America—a group frequently the object of police brutality—has been called Generation Zero, described by social scientist Henry Giroux as “a generation with zero opportunities, zero futures, and zero expectations […]  forced to accept a life of unstable labor and unstable living.  Too many young people and other vulnerable groups now inhabit what might be called a geography of terminal exclusion—a space of disposability.” Giroux continues: “As the war on terror comes home, public spaces have been transformed into war zones as local police forces have taken on the role of an occupying army, especially in poor minority neighborhoods, accentuated by the fact that the police have now access to armored troop carriers, night vision rifles, Humvees, M16 automatic rifles, grenade launchers, and other weapons designed for military tactics. Acting as a paramilitary force, many local police have become a new symbol of domestic terrorism”.

It is within the context of economic, racial, social, cultural, and military oppression that the latest expressions of police brutality and authoritarianism above the law can be better explained. Police actions are not the exclusive and direct result of the circumstantial bias of isolated individuals, or overworked cops in need of better working hours, or poorly trained police officers lacking multicultural proficiency or conflict resolution skills. Police brutality in America is the result of the long history of systemic racism and inequality, with the police force being one of the many repressive apparatuses of the nation state.  Liberal reformers can dream all they want about reforms, but those pipe dreams will be the repositories of things that very seldom come true, dreams not enduring enough, not far-reaching enough, unable to explain or transform reality.

III. The discontent of the “Black Lives Matter” movement

The well publicized killings of black men by the police have encountered the standard perfunctory liberal solidarity of many Democrats—principally mayors and other elected officials of big cities—threatening to obscure the true nature and significance of police brutality and monopolize popular discontent among black Americans. It is against this scenario—to which we must add the ‘team player silence’ of the Republican Party—that the “Black Lives Matter” movement has put back on the American political agenda racism and discrimination. Their political platform (Campaign Zero) poses a series of reforms and solutions that seek to intensify in more radical ways the fight against police brutality.

At the same time, according to Aziz Rana, author of “Race and the American Creed: Recovering Black Radicalism”, while recent narratives “like Campaign Zero, have put forward valuable concrete ideas for police reform…these demands must be combined with a more expansive and prefigurative politics. Activists must do no less than imagine and present their policy prescriptions, as did earlier generations, as competing ideals for liberation, solidarity and renewal.” In other words, we need a platform not from or for those who have lost faith in the possibilities of democracy, but a platform for and from those who have experienced its absence and want to make it real in the present.

While Campaign Zero doesn’t go as far as Rana advocates, what “Black Lives Matters” proposes is not a platform of lamentation but a platform of people in struggle. According to “Black Lives Matter”, their proposed reforms “constitute a comprehensive package of urgent policy solutions—informed by data, research and human rights principles—that can change the ways police serve our communities”. In the following paragraphs I have included almost verbatim the most significant points advocated by “Black a given a given society.ir platform—as a way to promote this first step towards necessary, more sweeping changes.a given society.ee www.campaignzero.org for more detail.

End Broken Windows Policing: A decades-long focus on policing minor crimes and activities – a practice called Broken Windows Policing – has led to the criminalization and over-policing of communities of color and excessive force in otherwise harmless situations. Police killed at least 287 people last year who were involved in minor offenses and harmless activities like sleeping in parks, possessing drugs, looking “suspicious” or having a mental health crisis. These activities are often symptoms of underlying issues of drug addiction, homelessness, and mental illness, which should be treated by healthcare professionals and social workers rather than the police.

Community Oversight: Police usually investigate and decide what, if any, consequences their fellow officers should face in cases of police misconduct. Under this system, less than 1 in every 12 complaints of police misconduct nationwide results in some kind of disciplinary action against the officer(s) responsible. Communities need an urgent way to ensure police officers are held accountable for police violence. As a solution “Black Lives Matter” proposes to establish an all civilian oversight structure with discipline power to work in collaboration with a Police Commission and a Civilian Complaints Office charged with removing barriers to reporting police misconduct.

Limit Use of Force: Police should have the skills and cultural competence to protect and serve our communities without killing people – just as police do in England, Germany, Japan and other developed countries. Last year alone, police killed at least 268 unarmed people and 91 people who were stopped for mere traffic violations. The following policy solutions can restrict the police from using excessive force in everyday interactions with civilians: Establish standards for reporting police use of deadly force. Revise local police department use of force policies. End traffic-related police killings. Monitor how police use force and proactively hold officers accountable for excessive force.

Independent Investigations and Prosecutions: Local prosecutors rely on local police departments to gather the evidence and testimony they need to successfully prosecute criminals. This makes it hard for them to investigate and prosecute the same police officers in cases of police violence. These cases should not rely on the police to investigate themselves and should not be prosecuted by someone who has an incentive to protect the police officers involved.

Community Representation: While white men represent less than one third of the U.S. population, they comprise about two thirds of U.S. police officers. The police should reflect and be responsive to the cultural, racial and gender diversity of the communities they are supposed to serve.

Body Cams / Film the Police: While they are not a cure-all, body cameras and cell phone video have illuminated cases of police violence and have shown to be important tools for holding officers accountable. Nearly every case where a police officer has been charged with a crime for killing a civilian this year has relied on video evidence showing the officer’s actions.

Training: The current training regime for police officers fails to effectively teach them how to interact with our communities in a way that protects and preserves life. For example, police recruits spend 58 hours learning how to shoot firearms and only 8 hours learning how to de-escalate situations. An intensive training regime is needed to help police officers learn the behaviors and skills to interact appropriately with communities.

End For Profit Policing: Police should be working to keep people safe, not contributing to a system that profits from stopping, searching, ticketing, arresting and incarcerating people.

Demilitarization: The events in Ferguson have introduced the nation to the ways that local police departments can misuse military weaponry to intimidate and repress communities. Last year alone, militarized SWAT teams killed at least 38 people. We need policies that prevent police departments from obtaining or using these weapons on our streets.

Fair Police Contracts: Police unions have used their influence to establish unfair protections for police officers in their contracts with local, state and federal government and in statewide Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights. These provisions create one set of rules for police and another for civilians, and make it difficult for Police Chiefs or civilian oversight structures to punish police officers who are unfit to serve.

IV. Choosing our form of discontent

It is up to us to decide which kind of political reform we support–the kind that restricts popular political action or the kind that strengthens it. It is up to us to define and create the type of country we want to live in. For now, the campaign proposals put forward by Black Lives Matter provide a good place to start.

Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.