James Forman on cop gangs

 

[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]


[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Bodies

Son … I write you in your fifteenth year. I’m writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. 

There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege and even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.[1]

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.[2]


[1] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015: 9-10.

[2] Ibid, 103-104. 

Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.

Mark Greif on Seeing Through Police

A surprise of being around police is how much they touch you. The purpose of touching by police is to make persons touchable. Touch readies more touch. It is preparatory.

The sudden violent arrest at a protest is almost never sudden if you have been watching the officer and the longer sequence.

In recent decades, African Americans have made proverbial the facetious offenses that police seem to be pursuing: “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and walking while black.” The history of racial terrorism by whites is old. Police have gradually taken up its responsibilities in a process that goes back more than a century. Police departments’ role in racial terror has survived even where racism has waned and their forces have integrated nonwhite officers. Racial terrorism is simply part of the job for local and metropolitan police forces in America – any policing at the level of the city, broadly construed.

Racial terror creates enormous complications for any ordinary theory of what American police do, just as it carves a fundamental division between the experience and the expectations that non-African American citizens have of police and those held by African Americans.

The more time you spend looking at police, the more you see that the law is not a true resource for them…Police lack law…This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to avoid mess or clean it up.

Part of the reason police seem at present un-reformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. It’s possible they never have. When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought. If police don’t take stock of the Constitution, might it be because our Constitution can’t conceive of them?

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy – from Hobbes and Locke to the American Republic constituted in 1789 – do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact.

Secrecy by police in a public place always identifies them as a suspect. Yet police departments hold tightly to their capacities for secrecy and claim them to be necessary for their heroic function of detection and investigation. Insofar as as detection of crime is what police wish their job was about, police are likely always to strain for greater secrecy in a democracy.

Where sight disappears, abuse becomes possible.

Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law or eloquence. Their medium is not law. Police negotiate without any single, unitary reference or goal. Even a traffic stop becomes a negotiation.

When police eye African Americans, harass African Americans, obstruct the movements of African Americans and wind up drawing their guns and murdering African Americans – which even in the twenty-first century they do with regularity and impunity, no matter the police department or region of the United States – it’s first because America still sees racially. Kidnapping an African labor force to build the country is still the country’s unrepented sin.

Violence is given to police as a technique they alone can use, in the service of the overall nonviolence or pacification of society such that citizens need never use violence legitimately upon one another – they route it through police, so to speak. But this formal device winds up defining police by their application of violence. They wind up originating violence as a means of resolving any social deadlock. Police add violence to situations. This becomes a way of injecting testing violence or domination into the heart of society in a public way.

Our neighbors may support [police] wickedness. We may have no idea how to fix it. Still, police violence differs from other forms of violence and domination that have no visible presence, or public check. The police measure out in public what the society will tolerate, even to our shame.

 

 

Greif, Mark. Seeing Through Police, from Against Everything: On Dishonest Times. Verso Books, London, 2016: 270-285.