Police Brutality is a Symptom of a Bigger Problem
“Who are the police protecting from us?”
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
By Alexander J King
At the start of 2020, America was focused on gossip, the never-ending primary, and conflict in the Middle East. Looking at the January 2020 CNN archives, there are 122 references to the nascent pandemic with only three before January 17th, 45 references to the economy, and 90 (mostly glowing) references to the police - out of thousands of articles. The idea that our country would be gripped by the combination of a pandemic, economic depression, and social unrest in just a few short months was not widespread. But here we are all the same, and saying “I told you so” is likely no solace to any person who saw any one of those things coming, let alone all at once. I want to focus on the last one - social unrest - and how it relates to the structure of our society, a structure that connects and reinforces all three events. Police brutality is an expression of the social control that the police offer to the rulers of our society, and the stresses that our society is experiencing provoke the police into ever greater attempts to control the most vulnerable among us.
Our world is so intricately interconnected that I can only sketch a general outline of how we got to this point, but the barbaric acts that our police carry out do not happen in isolation. It will continue until we cure the underlying cause. We cannot just treat symptoms of the disease - it would only come back worse and worse each time. Jailing one officer, or four, or even a thousand won’t cure our disease. As we watch national leaders ask those brutalized by state violence to cower in fear at home instead of calling for an end to the state monopoly on violence, we need to acknowledge how we got to this place, because it was no accident. To understand the deeper reason why the streets became filled with protesters, we need to look at the big picture.
Police oppressing the “other” (whether defined as Black Americans, Native Americans, recent immigrants, or other people of color) has always been a feature of our society. The difference today is that we just have more cameras in the hands of private citizens. George Floyd was not the first member of our society to be murdered by police, and he will not be the last - those killed by police during the protests notwithstanding. Last year, the police killed 1,098 people in America, 24% of whom were black, even though black people only make up 13% of the population. In simpler terms, black people are twice as likely to be killed by police as you would expect if there was no bias towards killing black citizens vs other citizens. At first glance, this seems to tell a simple tale: the police are racist and if we can eliminate this racism there won’t be a problem anymore. (Assuming you passively accept police killing people, to begin with, which we shouldn’t.) I don’t buy this entirely: there is definitely racial bias at play, but there is also a huge economic aspect to this. Poor people as a whole are much more likely than well-off citizens to be killed by police. We live in a society where black families are twice as likely as white families to be poor. This helps explain some of the overrepresentation of black citizens killed by police: they are much more likely to be victims of systemic racism leading to poverty. Our society treats Black Americans as second class citizens, and so the police will do so as well.
We have seen that “reform” has done nothing to change outcomes in the streets. Body cameras “malfunction,” racial sensitivity training is ineffective, and police unions block reform efforts. If we want to understand why reforms are ineffective, we need to start out from the reality that we live in a racist society that kills black citizens without any help from the police. Police doing so seems like a contradiction of their motto “protect and serve,” if you expect the police to protect and serve all citizens of the United States. This would be an incorrect notion, however - the police exist to “protect and serve” the ruling class of America. As evidence for this fact, it is important to note, as many before me have, that the police in America have their origins in the slave catching and “night watch” business. They served the important societal role of keeping minorities in check so that they could be exploited for monetary gain by capitalists. Later on, when the police were formalized they served the same role: ensuring exploitation by strikebreaking. Basically, capital realized that it was cheaper to pay for police and prisons than give the people a fair share. Police remain in that role today, where they enforce austerity and hierarchy. The ideological differences that led to Emmett Till’s death and Trayvon Martin’s death are small at best. Our society is still killing Black Americans, and so police will do so as well.
The ways that US police brutalize the American population is uniquely evil in the Western world. However, the concept of the police being used by the state to quell social unrest is universal, always concealed under the guise of protecting the populace. This idea of “protect and serve” exists elsewhere in the world as well - the Lausan Collective in Hong Kong say it like this: “When we say things like “we need the police to protect us,” who are the police actually protecting, and from what? Or perhaps a better question is: ‘who are the police protecting from us?’” When you are oppressed by society, the people that pay the cops are your enemy.
In America, that is the essential question. If the police are attacking protesters, who are they protecting from the protesters and why? The answer to the first part, as always, is capital. Police enforce the austerity choices that politicians and the middle class make by carrying out evictions, preventing petty theft related to hunger, and preventing any protest against poor conditions - so that middle-class citizens don’t have to personally get their hands dirty. They create a distance between our choices and our actions. Now that we are in a pandemic and economic depression, there are calls for even more austerity that we will ask the police to enforce. Why do the police protect capital? The police are incentivized to commit violence by the messages they receive in training: the citizenry are the enemy in a never-ending war, your job is to get home safe, you have immunity, and oh yeah here’s a tank. We know from war that with the right incentives, you can take an innocent man and turn him into a bloodthirsty killer. Why would the police be exempt from this phenomenon? (and with cops clamoring for ‘killology’ training, what do we expect?) When the first slave patrols were formed, they conscripted men involuntarily for a reason - to make sure that whites helped enforce the racial hierarchy. Lyndon Johnson summed it up succinctly: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” The rich and powerful are asking the middle class to participate in a system that brutalizes their brothers and sisters. The white moderate might be the enemy of progress, but they too have been told lies, tricked, and provided incentives to ensure they take part in the system. People worry about the technological surveillance state while the state gets the people to narc on each other. They use the totalitarian thoughts in all our heads against our peers. White moderates are not innocent as they attempt to cling to status, but they still are victims of the incentives they are provided by the system just as the soldier or police officer is a victim of the incentives provided to them by the system.
Everything is connected. When our American society was first formed, it was on the foundation of the unspeakable exploitation of the slave trade. If we are to deal with this shame, we have to confront its legacy. The grotesque nature of the flesh trade eventually led to enough citizens withdrawing their consent to the arrangement that chattel slavery ended, but bondage was never what capital was after. It was after exploitation for profit and power. The specifics were always flexible to capital. It would be naive to assume that capital gave that control over laborers away. The goal was always the maximization of profit, the accumulation of power, the means of control. If the worker is not hungry, if there is not a teeming mass of starved humanity ready to take the place of the hungry worker, how will he be exploited? Without the police, who would enforce it? Inequality based on skin color ensures that there will always be a vulnerable class to be exploited by capital. At its core, racism in America serves this essential purpose: to ensure that there is always an underclass to serve as cheap disposable labor and that the middle class will consent to the arrangement. Today, the underclass serve as wage and other types of slaves instead of as direct chattel slaves.
Police brutality is a side effect of a larger project of dividing and conquering that is currently collapsing. Since the Reagan presidency, dedication to a value system (neoliberalism) that says we should only think in terms of economics has taken hold of nearly every politician. Under that economic consensus, the police we know today were created in order to manage the consequences of neoliberal capitalism. Black Americans bore the brunt of this police onslaught because if economic values are all that matter and structural racism has left Black Americans with no wealth, Black Americans will not be valued. We can’t fix what is wrong with the police without fixing what is wrong with our values. Neoliberalism has destroyed our world and opened the door to Trumpism. As the pandemic continues, capital is turning the screws, attempting to enforce austerity on people who have nothing. Now that people are fighting back in the streets, monopoly capital is scared. Capital has partnered with ultranationalists who view racism positively through the lens of social-Darwinian domination, not profit, to ensure that capital’s exploitation does not end. The police are being paid to make sure you don’t do anything about it. Previous generations called that fascism. They also knew that under fascism, there would be no next government. The transition to fascism will bring police brutality to more people than ever before. Societies don't have to be this way. Being brainwashed into just thinking about your three dollars a day isn't an end. It is possible to have free thought. To ask yourself what YOUR morals are, not capital's.
I know that some will want to think of all this as an issue for Black Americans, not all Americans. However, it is important for all of us to support one another. Police can only continue to oppress citizens as long as the other citizens consent to it and participate. Your life depends on everyone withdrawing their consent to police brutality. Martin Niemöller tells us why: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” The Nazis looked to what America did to Black and Indigenous peoples for inspiration. Racism is Fascism that hasn’t caught up to you yet. Anyone who is not oppressed by racism should examine the hubris that leads us to think it won’t catch up to us. Speak out now: Black Lives Matter.
What we need is prescribed by Mandela and Tutu: Truth and Reconciliation for the system. Restorative Justice to tear down the old and build something new and better.