Ending Police Brutality: It’s Not That Simple

The smart phone videos of cops harassing or beating unarmed Black males have exploded on social media. Newspaper articles discuss the various difficulties involved in prosecuting police for excessive force, murder, etc. Video pundits left and right proclaim or admit that something is just not right. They acknowledge that Black parents have to train their boys to be cautious when confronted by a policeman or they will face extreme danger.

Law enforcement officials scramble to demonstrate their commitment to improving “training” and “cultural awareness.” Law professors ponder the possibilities of revamping the procedures for assembling grand juries when an officer has killed another unarmed Black child or young Black man. Politicians pontificate on how to restore the Black man’s “trust” in police and the justice system – as usual, they get the cart before the horse.

Well, none of them seem to get it. Police abuse and killings of Black men have a long history, although it is largely buried in social amnesia. The nature of the problem is quite unlike the conventional characterizations heard in the mass media. We are living in the era of denial of racism – you know, “post-racial America.” The growing protests over police brutality put the lie to that illusion. But the persistent denial makes it very hard to discuss the culturally ingrained and conceptually re-coded racism that is all around us if we just open our eyes.

Racism is still rampant in America. It is re-coded and resurrected in numerous ways. The re-coding allows many to behave in racist ways while conceptually denying any “racism” is involved because they no longer use those old racist words. The language is much more subtle. But the violence is not. People of good will and intention are being fooled by all this, and they mistake the combination of racism and just plain viciousness for a failure of training or of criminal justice process. Certainly training and process are defective. But that is only a result of the deeper problem of racism and dehumanization in American society.

We must remember that racism is a particularity of dehumanization. The young men and women of the U.S. (and every) military routinely characterize “the enemy” as sub-human. In basic training they are drilled with the admonition to kill a dehumanized other. Civilian populations of the invaded countries are difficult to distinguish from “insurgents.” This facilitates the killing, torture, and hated of whoever is found in a house in a night raid based on very flimsy “intell.” The parallel with home invasions by militarized “swat teams” in Camden, Compton, or Cleveland is distinctly disturbing. Many returning veterans who have experienced horrors of combat where civilians and resistance fighters are indistinguishable, find little opportunity for employment other than as police.

But racist police violence in the U.S. did not start with returning veterans disturbed by the extreme violence and dehumanization they experienced in combat. It began right here at home. It is endemic, not just to the police, but to the culture. The culture of racism and the culture of violence are distinct social formations, but they are also very closely linked and often combined. Relations of power and vulnerability lead to dehumanization, which leads to hatred, which leads to violence. The language of police I heard on some of those viral videos on Facebook and YouTube is exactly the language of the high school bullies we have all heard. As one student put it to me a few years ago – he was a cadet in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy – “a lot of the cadets are the guys who liked to beat people up in high school.”

Improved training will not do it; tweaking the relations between police and prosecutors will not do it; revising procedural manuals will not do it. Body cameras may stifle it but will not resolve the problem. Only changing the entire police culture from the top down and hiring as officers only recruits who can understand what “peace officer” means, can turn the tide. That is a daunting task. Whether the cities or the nation are up to it is doubtful. That it is necessary is entirely certain.

Something else is also certain. Until such a massive rebuilding of law enforcement with a new cultural core and massive replacement of officers who cannot meet a humanitarian standard, police abuse of citizens will continue. It must be done from Los Angeles to New York City, from Ferguson to Albuquerque, and across the entire nation. There is no other way.

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