The Nature of Police, the Role of the Left
A young black person was killed, many people brave enough to take to the streets in the aftermath were injured and arrested, and the only real consequences the police will face will be changes designed to increase their efficiency at spinning the news or handling the crowds, the next time they kill someone. Because amidst all the inane controversies, that is one fact that no one can dispute: the police will kill again, and again, and again. A disproportionate number of their targets will be young people of color and transgender people, but they have also killed older people, like John T. Williams, Bernard Monroe, and John Adams, and white people too. The Right has seized on a couple cases of white youth being killed by cops, like Dillon Taylor or Joseph Jennings, throwing questions of proportion out the window in a crass attempt to claim the police are not racist.
Essentially, the point being made by right-wing pundits is that the cops are killing everybody, so it’s not a problem. The fact that they can make this argument and still retain credibility with a large sector of the population shows how normalized the role of the police is in our society. The true meaning of the evidence used manipulatively by the Right is that the police are a danger to anyone not wearing a business suit.
In a serious debate, however, it would be hard to deny that the police are a racist institution par excellence. They kill young black, latino, and Native people at a disproportionately higher rate than white youth, and the institution itself descended from the patrols created to capture fugitive slaves in the South and police urban immigrants in the North, as masterfully documented in Kristian Williams‘ landmark book, Our Enemies in Blue. What’s more, the criminal justice system that the police play an integral role in, both feeding and defending the prison-industrial complex, grew directly out of the 13th Amendment’s approval of slavery in the case of imprisonment, illuminating the path by which the United States’ advancing economy could leave plantation slavery behind, first with the pairing of sharecropping and chain gangs, and more recently with the pairing of a precarious labor market on the outside and booming prison industries on the inside.
However, though the police do not affect everyone equally, they do affect all of us. Everyone who is not wealthy can be a target for police violence, and anyone who fights for a freer, fairer world puts themselves directly into the cops’ crosshairs. During the Oscar Grant riots in Oakland or the John T. Williams protests in Seattle, many journalists, closely echoed by progressive spokespersons, denounced the white people who took to the streets angered by police killings. With an underhanded racism, they cast “white anarchists” as the ringleaders of the mayhem, silencing the anarchists of color as well as the many young people of color without any visible ideology who were often the most active at taking over the streets or fighting back against the police. If they really cared about racism and police violence, wouldn’t they have portrayed the young people of color as protagonists, rather than mindless stooges of “white anarchists,” or simply erasing their participation entirely? Instead of discrediting the relatively few white people who did take to the streets, shouldn’t the criticisms have been directed at all the white people who stayed home?
However, with the protests after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, certain entrenched dynamics have started to change. True, the response to the killing of Oscar Grant did spread to other parts of the West Coast, and it was not successfully spun as an issue only affecting black people; but to a far greater degree, the response to the official announcement that the government approved of Michael Brown’s murder spread across the country and included people of all races.
This is a good thing: more people are taking the problem of the police seriously, realizing they need to react, and exploring actions that they can take that will make a difference. The circumstances that forced this necessary step forward are tragic, but they are hardly a surprise to anyone with the slightest sense of history. Police killings and unwavering government support for the cops are an integral part of our society. They are not going away any time soon.
Logically, people would debate: what is to be done? However, this is a debate that mainstream journalists, progressive journalists, protest organizations, and left-wing figureheads have all studiously avoided, maintaining not so much a conspiracy of silence as one of vitriol and marginalization against anyone who challenges their unspoken tenets.
Those tenets are simple: all responses must be peaceful; and the only conceivable goal is piecemeal reform. Within this artificially fixed arena, we are allowed to squabble over all the details we want, from cop-cameras to citizen review boards, but we are never allowed to entertain opinions that transgress those limits. Those who use a wider lens to understand where police violence comes from and what role it plays in our society are ignored. If they are employed as journalists or academics, they have just made a poor career move, and they will quickly be drowned out by the ladder-climbing, cynical hacks who cover up this ongoing tragedy with banal and myopic observations. Those who actually attempt to explore other paths of action and change will be denounced as “thugs,” “criminals,” and “agitators,” FOX and NPR will speak about them in the same terms, police and protest leaders will unite to suppress them.
That is how free speech works in a democracy. Fix the terms of the debate, distract the masses with fierce polemics between two acceptable “opposites” that are so close they are almost touching, encourage them to take part, and either ignore or criminalize anyone who stakes an independent position, especially one that throws into question the fundamental tenets that are naturalized and reinforced by both sides in the official debate. Noam Chomsky was one of several dissidents to reveal this dynamic during the Vietnam War and demonstrate the unanimity of hawk and dove positions in media debates. The media follow the same rules today. In that earlier crisis, the fundamental tenet was that the US government has the right to project its power, militarily or otherwise, across the entire planet. In the current crisis, the unquestionable dogma is that the police have a right to exist, that the police as an institution are an apt instrument to protect us and serve us, and therefore they are a legitimate presence on our streets and in our neighborhoods.
The rest of the article can be read at the link