The trajectory of police violence against mostly young Black and Brown men has taken many turns. It finds expression in diverse situations. However, we cannot fully understand it without looking beyond the immediate murderous actions of particular officers in the heat of the moment. The violence of authority runs much deeper than that.
Police in the U.S.A. have plenty to worry about. Imagine driving around all day, or night, more or less bored, then suddenly getting a call for a domestic disturbance or maybe a break-in at a residential address or jewelry store. You have no idea whether a perpetrator is armed or is on meth or both. You have to be prepared for just about anything and at the same time do nothing that your body cam may show to be outside the rules of conduct. Policing is one of those jobs where you must live on the edge of boredom and crisis much of the time.
Does it have to be that way? Not necessarily, but getting there from here is an extremely difficult journey. The numerous cases of police violence against unarmed civilians in recent years may or may not be more frequent than in past decades, and not all were caught on camera or even reported. Often, officers want complete immunity and citizens want complete transparency. Neither is likely to be satisfied. But there is so much more involved.
Despite its democratic pretensions, the American society is really quite hierarchical. Our political system goes through the motions of democratic electoral politics, but the political-economic hierarchy assures that the interests of the most powerful financial and corporate sectors dominate policy and law. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable communities suffer not only deprivation but predatory subjugation by unfettered agents of authority.
The American Culture of Violence
The United States of America has been at war for most of the two and a half centuries of its existence. Yet, with the exception of the recent terrorist attacks and the wars of extermination and subjugation it waged against the native peoples in conquering most of the North American continent, none of those wars reached American soil. Although most are unaware of the origins of law enforcement in slave patrols, it is hard to argue that the United States is not focused on dominance.
American militarism in many ways has set the tone of response to many ‘problems.’ Our very language betrays a predatory posture. We have the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, and the War on Crime, each of which involves aggressive approach in which suppression is the modus operandi. But it is not just about militarism, though militarism is closely linked with the culture of violence. The penchant for violence deeply penetrates the entire society from everyday life to the mass media, video games of course, the widespread obsession with guns, and our responses to so many things. So it is with law enforcement.
Just when George Floyd and numerous other victims of police violence had begun to fade in the memory for many folks, the Memphis special operations squad, “Scorpion,” a recently formed ‘jump-out unit’ comprised of young aggressive poorly supervised officers, rose its ugly head. Of course, many things seem all wrong about this urban assault squad. Its members are too young, inexperienced, and violence-prone. And no, it is not simply about the need for better training. When twenty-something men go around looking for people to beat up, it is not for lack of training. It is all about the culture of violence in which they participate.
Memphis’ blues are the nation’s blues. There is a reason that officers of various ages are able to hold the attitude that they have a right to commit abuse on Black, Brown, and poor populations with impunity. And when violent young Black men who wear badges and embody that culture of predatory authority, it is no different. When social, political, and economic hierarchies are enforced by low-level ‘warrior cops,’ they represent that hierarchy, not whatever ethnic or class category they come from.
Attempts at ‘police reform’ have so far been feeble and have failed in cities across the nation. That will continue until a majority of Americans recognize the dominance of the culture of violence and firmly reject it, demanding the transformation of policing so that it is configured and cultured in the admonition to “protect and serve” the people in the communities where they work.
Unfortunately, no amount of ‘police reform,’ extended training, unenforced rules of conduct, body cams, or more complete supervision will help much until the deep roots of the institutionalized culture of violence are faced head-on. We deceive ourselves if we think that all we need to do is change police culture, patterns, and practices. Police culture is broadly consistent with the culture of the nation. Violence is merely the extreme expression of the deeper culture of domination we accept in economics, politics, and society itself.
These ‘incidents’ always remind me of a student comment in a class I taught decades ago. In a class discussion of police-community relations, a young black student said that when he had attended the academy to become a Los Angeles County Sheriff officer, he noticed with some dismay that many of his fellow cadets were the same guys who he knew in high school as the ones who most enjoyed beating up other kids. We live in a culture of violence and the most violent are often self-selected into law enforcement careers.
Police violence is an amplification of the American culture of violence. The culture of violence clashes with the peaceful intentions of the majority of citizens, but it dominates society. Until the culture of compassion, self-discipline, and conflict resolution overcomes the culture of violence in America, not just within police departments, the carnage on the streets of our most vulnerable communities will continue.
One thought on “Predatory Authority and the American Culture of Violence”
Just about everything we’re challenged by rests in economic inequality. Pay attention to bringing people out of poverty, where we care about each other as much as we care about ourselves, and you change the breeding ground for the violence that pervades our world. It’s a massive shift in perspective we need and we aren’t even talking about creating that.
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