The Police Society
We’ve seen it all before. An unarmed black man is shot to death by police, who are later acquitted of all charges. This time his name was Sean Bell. There have been many others over the years.
But when people point to this pattern, and protest the excessive force and brutality used against African Americans, they are inevitably accused of being incendiary themselves, using the “race card,” and denigrating the authority of the police.
The same reaction occurs when the subject of racial profiling arises, or the disproportionate number of black people imprisoned. To talk about institutional racism at all seems to be tantamount to attacking the American way of life. The rightists have achieved such a stranglehold on public discourse that it has become taboo to declare what you can see right in front of your eyes. This narrative of denial has been politically effective for the right so far because they’ve framed everything in terms of a bad conscience rather than in terms of justice. No one likes to feel guilty, so in a carefully designed atmosphere of powerlessness, people turn on the bearers of bad news. But in truth, it’s not about guilt. It never has been. It’s about the system and how people can change it. As far as the police are concerned, I would think it was ultimately healthy for law enforcement to be self-critical in order to be truly effective.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard police chiefs and commissioners defend some indefensible action by claiming that opponents are trying to smear or denigrate the integrity of the police. Someone protesting a specific police action is attacked for being against the police force in general. Or if a corruption story breaks, there’s bound to be some spokesman or pundit railing defensively about “our fine police force” and the great job they do.
This is a curious phenomenon. Yeah, I believe most cops are just honest working folks doing the best they can, and that usually the best is quite good. But why should I have to bow and scrape and repeat this mantra every time cops do something wrong? The entire subject is weighed down by authoritarian thinking. When you really examine the premise, it’s perfectly absurd: as soon as someone puts on a uniform and becomes a police officer, he or she becomes incapable of wrongdoing or corruption, and to criticize the actions of that officer is to criticize the entire police force. No one would actually come out and claim such a thing, but this is really the operating assumption. And it prevents any real accountability.
The truth is that putting on a uniform that gives you power over other human beings always contains the potential for corruption. People have limitations, so if you put guns in their hands, some of those limited people will misuse them. The problem is compounded when the people with guns are in a big group together and develop clannish or tribal behavior, which is a common human pattern. Cops may tend to see people outside their group as insufficiently supportive, or just ignorant of what it’s really like to be a cop, which makes them more defensive and less open. Now add race to the mix. There are plenty of screwed-up racial attitudes and beliefs out there—are you going to tell me that a police officer is somehow immune from that? In fact, that could easily become reinforced in the closed inner-circle atmosphere of a particular police force or unit.
All these things are not only possible, but have clearly occurred, and that’s leaving aside the outright corruption which has been documented in the police of various cities and states over the years. To see this as part of reality is simply to be awake and reasonably sane. How are the police supposed to really do their jobs unless they’re accountable? How can we trust them if they’re not?
Unfortunately, in an authoritarian system protest is considered a security threat. The police forces become political entities with their own constituencies and interests. So the concern is no longer how to serve the people, but how to protect and enhance the authority of the police. This is not a minor concern. Modern history has seen the rise of police power as a new form of government—in the Soviet Union, for example, the police were actually the dominant class, with a clear precedence over the military. Rather than a force of protection, which is still the narrative our society tells itself about the police, the new authoritarianism sees the police as a tool to be used against the citizenry, as a form of social control. The ominous vision of riot cops concealed behind black uniforms and visors, using force to put down peaceful demonstrations, is part of this shift.
So while individual acts of injustice by police, typified by these high-profile racial cases, are alarming, it is the defensive reaction against those crying out in protest that I find more disturbing. Individuals are affected more or less by the system as it has developed. Solutions to these problems may include civilian supervisory boards, increased police-community communication, etc. But I maintain that the system itself has taken on an essentially racial character. The drug war and the prison industry combine to keep African-American communities disempowered. The police shootings and other brutalities are like symptoms of this underlying systemic problem. How and why this is so requires a much wider public debate—and that’s exactly what the authoritarian right doesn’t want to allow.