In judging the actions of the police in their recent killings of African-Americans, it is essential to understand that police are the domestic enforcement arm of the state. I use the term “state” broadly to include all legally constituted civil authority, be it federal, state, or municipal. And therein lies the tale: how these “authorities” exercise their power is as much an expression of the cultural tenets of a particular place as they are the legal. For example, murder was explicitly illegal in the states where the lynching of African-Americans was rife in the last century. Yet rarely was anyone apprehended, since the prevailing racist culture took precedence over law.
The implications are obvious: any bias that pollutes the state will be expressed in its enforcement arm. We must therefore conclude that the promiscuous killing of black people by law enforcement derives from an overarching state bias against that population – a bias culturally absorbed by the enforcer. In most cases it’s hard to make the claim that the offending enforcer acted solely from a personal bias different from that of the state. During the civil rights movement, for example, local police forces acted with remorseless brutality and impunity against black demonstrators and anyone, black or white, who supported them. The southern states, where most of the offenses occurred, were notorious for their long-standing racist culture that gave tacit approval to violence against blacks, despite the law.
While large segments of today’s population are branded racist, evidence of racism in the functioning of the state itself is still overwhelming. Black education is notoriously underfunded; unemployment is highest among blacks, despite the country’s crying need for infrastructure renewal; decent, affordable housing is a remote dream for most blacks; incarceration for negligible offenses is highest for blacks; and recidivism is highest among minorities deprived of living-wage employment after release from prison. Many municipalities, in collusion with local officials, including judges, single out blacks for insignificant infractions carrying heavy fines that further impoverish them. State-sanctioned “stop-and-frisk” practices directed to blacks are equally vicious, as well as humiliating.
If the state itself demeans a population, how can its enforcement arm act differently? While individual police may harbor racial prejudice, they could not express it without full approval of the power structure that supports them and whose bidding they are following. Brutal police action against blacks is consistent with brutal state policy against them – the police and the state being one.
Police have beaten striking workers and beaten, pepper sprayed, arrested, and sometimes even killed citizens demonstrating against injustices – all indicating the state’s bias against the suffering masses and in favor of the ruling minority. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, demonstrators were forcefully ejected from “privately-owned” Zucotti Park and their belongings confiscated or destroyed by police carrying out state policy. It’s significant that, in the cases of successful revolutions, the enforcement arms of the state – the military and the police – abandon the state and join the revolutionaries. Until then, these institutions continued to enforce even the most egregious and persecuting edicts of the state.
To end the outrages, the police must join the people. There is some awareness of this in the suggested reforms that urge the police to “get closer to the community” they serve. But that can’t solve the problem as long as the state, that hires the police and to which they are first answerable, retains its bias against minorities. The reforms may radicalize some cops. But only when the state guarantees minorities the socio-economic dignity and equality that their humanity deserves – and true democracy demands – will the killings be no more than a bitter memory. The “free market” alone will not and cannot accomplish this, as evidenced by its more than two centuries of economic rule.
Let’s not blame the police; the blame lies with our country’s prejudice and distorted policies. The police are being scapegoated for the crimes of the state that they are hired to enforce.