Behind US Police Terror

We must always remind ourselves of the long history that underlies acts of terror – whether by police or vigilantes – like the recent killing of black teenager Michael Brown in a St. Louis suburb. Only in the light of that history can we grasp the depth of the changes that are needed in order to put an end to such crimes.

What is indisputable about the present incident is that it was entirely created by the police. No crime was being committed. There was not even a provocation. Two young men were walking together – “walking while black” – and one of them ended up dead.

The police were not protecting anyone. They were patrolling the neighbourhood in the manner of an army of occupation, on the lookout for any chance-pretext to assert their potentially deadly authority. If the pretext they initially chose (walking in the middle of a suburban street) appeared flimsy in the context of what it led to, another one could be created after-the-fact: the all-purpose category of “suspect,” applicable to any male of the appropriate age-range and skin-colour. But since when did being a “suspect” – if this was in fact the case – become grounds for immediate execution?

Such behaviour by police is common in the United States. It flows out of a wider culture, honed over centuries along with an agenda of massacring indigenous peoples and maintaining bondage over bodies imported and bred as suppliers of unpaid labour. The psychological force of this culture is constantly revitalized as the scope of its application expands.

Military training defines the larger ideological setting within which police training takes place. A rhetoric of dominance frames both. The global military role of the United States is rationalized by a discourse of entitlement, whereby US leaders affirm the country’s supposed moral supremacy and, with it, the prerogative to define whose interests are worth protecting and whose lives are of no value – the latter then becoming candidates for annihilation.

The police implement this practice domestically against the colonized populations of US cities, be they the descendants of kidnapped Africans or, with slightly different effect, the most recent escapees from the regimes of poverty and social breakdown produced south of the US border by “free trade.”

Both these populations, as well as Muslims, are subjected to patrolling and profiling, but the extremes of firepower – domestically – are directed above all at African Americans, who differ from other targeted groups in a number of ways. Most immediately, except for indigenous peoples (who are less urbanized and much fewer in number), African Americans suffer the highest rates of unemployment and poverty. More profoundly, among the large populations of non-European descent, those of African descent have a collective history in the US that makes them particularly vulnerable to the kind of targeting we’re looking at.

It began with slavery. The institutions, assumptions, and practices associated with the enslavement of Africans have never been completely erased. As is well known on the Black Left, the constitutional amendment which purported to abolish slavery made an “exception” for persons drawn into the penal system. Legally imposed segregation, backed by the terror of periodic lynchings, sustained this regime directly in the Southern states for almost a century.

The radical popular movement that dissolved that legal regime came to fruition in the 1960s and generated revolutionary offshoots, especially in Northern cities, that would have translated legal equality into real equality. It was these movements – most notably the Black Panther Party – that provoked the panic on the part of the US ruling class which generated a new mix of devices, nationally, for imposing on the black working class a level of social control equivalent to the restraints imposed on the entire black population of the old South.

The new control-regime has depended on four sets of interrelated measures: 1) the termination of welfare policies that helped reintegrate people into the job-market, 2) the introduction of illegal drugs, and a heightened level of police-surveillance, into black communities; 3) the disenfranchisement of working-class blacks, whether by laws barring ex-convicts from voting, by voter-ID laws, or by direct sabotage of the voting process; and 4) mandatory sentencing laws (especially for drug-offenses), the phasing out of early release on parole, and other measures leading to a mushrooming of the percentage of black people in prison.

All these developments, concentrated over the last three decades, have been integrally tied to the rise of neoliberalism – the free movement of global capital and the decimation of social services – and the unfettered projection of US military power. Extreme social inequality and mass material deprivation have become the “new normal,” and the political discourse required in order to sustain and rationalize this condition has become all the more aggressive.

The draconian policies being pursued can only increase the levels of mutual suspicion. As the poor suffer, the rich and their defenders quake at the prospect that their vile regime will provoke insurmountable resistance. From ubiquitous surveillance to the doctrine of “preventive wars,” the mentality of the power-enforcers is one of blocking any potential challenges before the challenges can become real. Of course, in so doing, they only aggravate the underlying resentments. But the calculus is that the privileged few, drawing on their vast technological and logistical resources – can permanently overwhelm the uncomfortable aspirations of the majority.

The militarization of US police forces flows inexorably from the logic of the order they are assigned to defend. It will not be checked except to the degree that there is a general shift of national priorities – away from the interests of capital and toward those of the majority, who, whatever any among them may have been induced to think, gain nothing from the imposition of “racial” hierarchies.

Victor Wallis is managing editor of the journal Socialism and Democracy. He has taught political science since 1968 (now in Boston). His articles on the ecological crisis and on left movements have been translated into twelve languages.