Probing the Epidemic of Police Murders: The Cases of Alan Blueford, Trayvon Martin & Oscar Grant
We republish Steve Martinot’s 2013 historical/theoretical interpretation of a phenomenon that, despite its recent explosion into universal public awareness, has been plaguing US society from the beginning. - VW
For months, the Blueford family begged the Oakland City Council for answers to why and how their son Alan had been murdered by an Oakland police officer in May, 2012. They got a series of conflicting stories, none of which coincided with what people on the scene told them. One story, for instance, was that Blueford had shot at the officer, who was chasing him. Another was that Blueford had not fired, but that a gun “had been found” near the body. It was never explained why Blueford was not taken to the hospital, but was kept guarded for four hours at the site of the shooting.1 The officer, named Masso, was taken to the hospital since he had in fact shot himself in the foot after killing Blueford, perhaps to make it look as if Blueford had shot him. There was not even an explanation why the police initially approached Blueford, who was just standing on a street corner with some friends on that night. Without a report, it was impossible to hold the police department accountable. By September, patience had worn out. On September 18, 2012, over a hundred people gathered in the Oakland City Council to support the Blueford family's demands for a police report, and for a truthful accounting. Though the crowd shut down the City Council meeting with their demonstrating presence, it was not until October 9 that the police released the report. It exonerated the officer. It said that Blueford had pulled a gun and turned on him, so Masso shot him.
The coroner's report, on the other hand, said that the bullets entered Blueford's body with an upward trajectory, meaning either Masso was lying on the ground when he shot Blueford, or Blueford was.2 Even knowing this, and faced with a large, militant movement demanding murder charges and an end to such assassinations, the city council did nothing, essentially rubber stamping the police abrogations.
The Trayvon Martin killing on February 26, 2012 alerted the nation to the fact that something was wrong, that something which had been protested, and which should have been stopped, could not simply be protested and stopped. The fact that a civilian presumed the same impunity as a cop in killing a young black man had a revolting familiarity to it, as did the reticence of the political and judicial system to indict him. But the travesty of police shooting men of color, almost on a weekly basis, has continued.
We cannot call the roll of all the victims because it is too long. But a glimpse at the quantity gives a feeling for the quality of what is happening. Oscar Grant was shot in the back while on the ground with three cops sitting on him in Oakland. Kenneth Harding was shot in the back for jumping a $2 bus fare in SF (7/16/11). Gary King was shot in the back for walking away from an officer in Oakland. On August 1, 2012, Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old black man, was killed in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in the back seat of a police car, with his hands handcuffed behind his back. The police said he shot himself. On September 2, 2012, in Vallejo, police shot Mario Romero and a friend who were sitting in a car, using 31 rounds to kill Romero and wound the friend (reminiscent of Sean Bell's killing). We could add Marshall Tobin in Vallejo (7/5/12), Ascension Herrera in Oakland (7/9/12), Jared Huey in Vallejo (7/3/12), Derrick Gaines in San Bruno (6/5/12), Darius Kennedy in NYC (8/11/12), Christopher Middleton in Maywood, IL (8/12/12). These are all people of color.
What is exceptional in most of these cases is the flimsiness of the police excuses. On September 26, 2012, Hayward police shot and killed Edgar Alvarez, later claiming that he matched a description of someone suspected of firing a gun earlier in a bar several blocks from where he was found sitting in his car. How they recognized him sitting in a car was not reported. They did say they shot him for backing his car up toward the police as they approached him (though none were hit and the car did not crash into anything). The tales told by the police get increasingly unbelievable. Only the stories told by the mothers who come forward and speak at the demonstrations demanding justice become the existential truth of what is happening. Meanwhile, the political structure becomes only a blank stare of city council-members waiting for angry family members to go home.
One could say that a corner was turned with the murder of Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009. It is since then that the numbers have escalated to epidemic proportions. But we have to do more than just make lists. We must look closely at a few cases in order to see the nature of the disease causing this epidemic. To call it racism would not be wrong, but it would be much too superficial. It doesn't answer the question, why now? Why the escalation?
The murder of Oscar Grant took place globally in public, present in the multitude of videos taken in the moment. The cell phone images of Grant being shot went around the world. He is lying face down on a subway platform, with three cops on him, when Mehserle, standing over them, reaches for his weapon and shoots Grant in the back. The other cops stand up and look at him dumbly. It happened fast.
There is one cell phone video, however, that is not generally seen. It is on a DVD called “Operation Small Axe,” produced by J.R. Valrey, a programmer at KPFA and contributor to Bay View Newspaper. It tells a more complete story. In it, we see Grant sitting on the platform between two other companions, leaning against the back wall of the BART station, with a number of police officers standing in front of them, guarding them. Things appear stable and quiet; nothing is happening. Suddenly, three cops from out of the frame approach Grant, pull him up off the platform, and throw him face down in front of where he had been sitting. He has his hands under his body, from his attempt to break his fall. The cops want to get his hands out in order to handcuff him, but prevent themselves from doing so because they are sitting on him. Mehserle is part of this huddle of cops, hovering over it. He is superfluous, unnecessary to this scene of the cops working against themselves, under no threat, and with nothing to be gained. Yet somehow, Mehserle feels the necessity to act, as if in response to some arbitrary psychological “drive.” He pulls his gun and shoots Grant.
His excuse was that he was reaching for his taser, and made a mistake. But that is false. The gun and taser are worn on opposite sides of the body. His taser was on his left side. He reached on his right side with his right hand. It is all on video.
The term “drive” perhaps doesn't belong here. It is a psychological and not a situational term. We are looking at evidence, and can't see inside Mehserle's mind. But we see his actions, which were in obedience to something totally internal to himself, with no external source or necessity. For the needlessness of his act, it will suffice. And it works in other cases. When Amadou Diallo was killed, four cops shot 41 bullets at him, with 19 hitting him. What testifies to their “drivenness” was the astounding fact that the last two bullets that entered his body did so through the bottoms of his feet. For these cops, the raw act of shooting had a primacy over any concern for detaining and identifying a person, for stopping a threat, or even for defending themselves.3 It was an inner desire, totally divorced from the reality of the situation. Sean Bell and Tyisha Miller were similarly and needlessly killed in massive fusillades from police guns. Sean Bell was sitting in his car talking to friends when the police (in plainclothes) opened fire. Tyisha Miller was passed out in the front seat of her car, parked in a gas station early in the morning in LA, when four cops approached the car, banged on the window, and when she opened her eyes, opened fire through the windows. The point is not what drove these cops, but rather the simple fact that they were driven, acting out an internal need in the absence of external necessity.
When Grant was pulled up from the ground and thrown back down on the platform, it was a simple show of force. The cops could have told him, “stand up, we're going to handcuff you, you're being arrested.” They didn't do that. They arbitrarily pulled him up and threw him down. Then they struggle to get his hands clear so they can arrest him. That is, they sought to handcuff and arrest him for being the victim of this arbitrary police action. If he appeared disobedient, it was the cops themselves who had created that situation by putting Grant in a position where he could not comply, because his hands were under his body. In their arbitrary show of force, the police demanded compliance while rendering compliance impossible. They essentially entrapped Grant in disobedience. It was an extortionate situation, in which they too were acting in response to a wholly internal need and desire.
In other words, all of them are driven by something internal. What it was for each is unknowable. But for each, that drivenness testifies to a fixation. It is a fixation simply with performing a show of force toward this black person – at one level to extort submission to the arbitrary, and at another to shoot him. In the first, they create a situation in which to demand obedience, in order to produce disobedience, for which Grant is to be arrested. In the second, Mehserle takes it upon himself to punish Grant for his disobedience. It all has nothing to do with Grant as a person. It was all self-generated by the cops toward Grant as an object.
The killing of Alan Blueford reveals a similar fixation. When Blueford took off running, in the middle of the night, Masso chased him around the block. Finally catching up with him, he knocks Blueford to the ground and, though Blueford is on his back surrendering, shoots him three times, killing him. He then shoots himself in the foot to make it seem that there had been a gun fight. It was as if the cop had decided in advance that he was going to shoot Blueford, regardless of any extenuating circumstances (such as surrender or incapacitation). Like Mehserle, he acted purely in relation to himself, to a wholly internal necessity irrelevant to the situation. Blueford had become a mere object, lying on his back, to be subjected to a show of force. Masso's focus was on a need and desire to show that force, not on the law nor on his job nor on what constituted criminal activity, nor on the possibility of his own criminality. This black man became an abstract object to be used to fulfill an internal need. Perhaps Blueford ran from the cop because he had an intuition of that fixation, that he had encountered it before on the part of police in East Oakland.
Ramarley Graham, a teenager in the Bronx, was spotted by police going into his tenement and shot in his own apartment when they followed and broke down the door.4 Kenneth Chamberlain was shot in his own apartment for having refused to open the door to police answering an accidental and false medical assistance alert.5 Kenneth Harding and Gary King have been mentioned. In the aggregate, there is a common thread, one which throws out the old tired notion that these are rogue cops. Each killing was an immediate response to disobedience to a command. That is what being shot in the back while walking away represents. Each killing occurs to make the demand for obedience absolute. In forming a common thread for all these disparate incidents, it represents something more generalized, something at the departmental level which all these individual officers enact in their own way. In other words, we are looking at something structural as well as individual.
In that structural sense, even the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, in which the entire judicial machine of Georgia was involved, will be seen to follow suit.
The structure of these killings and the killers
There is another component. Each killing testifies to a number of (perhaps unacknowledged) assumptions. One is that killing a black person has a historically conditioned cultural permissibility about it in the US. We cannot ignore that historical context. In Mississippi, for instance, even during the 1950s, 95% of the murders were not investigated. For the cause of death of a black person found lying by the side of the road riddled with bullets, the coroner would write “heart failure.”
A second assumption is the expectation that some form of tacit official approbation will be forthcoming after the fact. None of the cops involved in any of these shootings has ever been treated by the department or the media with anything but respect, while both institutions have routinely looked for ways to demonize the victim. Even Zimmerman, after killing Trayvon Martin, was granted all the amenities of respect, all the benefits of doubt.
A third assumption is that a story will be concocted to justify the killing. It can be as bizarre as that in Arkansas in which a person, frisked and handcuffed behind his back, was capable of shooting himself in the head from in front. Or that a crippled grandmother, unable to even hold her own grandchild, could threaten an officer with a knife while carrying a purse, a whiskey bottle, and a fire igniter all at once (which was the case, on July 10, 2012, when Wichita police shot Karen Jackson four times in the chest and killed her).6 She was black (just to keep the thread straight).
In Blueford's case, as in Grant's, the media reported the police account without interviewing any of the many witnesses that were there and saw the killing. The police, the coroner, the Oakland city administration and City Council all collaborated in stalling the report of what happened, and then in exonerating Masso. In Mehserle's case, the media adopted the police story that he made a mistake and was simply reaching for his taser, as if totally untrained in the use of these weapons. And the department gave him the official benefit of the doubt by putting him on administrative leave with pay. Both institutions refused any such benefit to Grant, looking for something with which to disparage him in order to valorize what Mehserle had done. In that valorization process, officialdom is admitting to there being a collective hand on the gun.
The final assumption is the fixation itself. DeJuan Colbert was shot by Wichita police who caught him robbing a Dollar Store. Three cops entered the store and stopped. Colbert dropped his knife and said “I give up.” Then the cops shot him 13 times (see note 6). A black man (or woman) cannot surrender to a cop who is intent on shooting a black person. White men can surrender, as did Holmes, the Aurora killer, after shooting up a movie theater, killing many. Whatever goes on in the cop's mind, the simple fact of a decision in response to nothing extant to shoot a black man evinces some kind of fixation.
These assumptions appear as threads in the political fabric of these killings. They are all present in the shooting of Ramarley Graham (2/2/2012). A cop driving by sees Graham on the stoop of his building in the Bronx, and decided, all by himself, that Graham was armed. He stops, follows Graham into his building, breaks down the door, finds Graham in the bathroom, and shoots him dead. There was no sanctuary for Graham from this cop's invented story about him. He was simply an object to be noticed. The cop's command was that Graham open the door, which Graham refused. The cop's fixation was on obedience, not to be separated from Graham's being black. That fixation made killing permissible for the cop. The shooting would have been ruled justified had there not been protests and demonstrations. Even so, the department and the city tried to find ways to justify it. Yet, because it had happened inside Graham's home, the city indicted the cop for manslaughter.
In the case of Kenneth Chamberlain, the threads continue. Chamberlain was a war veteran with a bad heart. He wore a device that monitored his heart and could signal a medical emergency to a local health care facility. In the middle of the night, his device accidentally sent a signal. The health care dispatcher had no doctors to call at that moment, so the police were called. They came to the door, demanded entry, and when Chamberlain said he was all right, and that they should go away, they broke down the door and shot him to death. Though only one did the shooting, none of the others stopped him – in a kind of crowd hysteria.
Again, the cops invented an arbitrary suspicion about what was happening inside this black man's house, and on that basis refused to accept what the resident of the house told them through the door. They transformed their suspicion itself into a self-oriented desire to deal with the fantasy they imagined, and acted collectively to fulfill that desire. Having assumed for themselves the need to kill this black man, as a fixation, they broke down the door. When they later claimed it as their duty to follow their suspicion, they were admitting that they had transformed their personal need and desire into an element of law. Again, the media accepted the police account, and no crime was charged by the department.
Thus, four threads are evident in all these cases. There is the arbitrary creation of a situation in which the police demand obedience. There is a fixation on killing in response to disobedience. And there is a tacit assumption that the killer will not only be accorded a decriminalizing respect, but that those in the department, the media, or the political structure will provide a rationalizing explanation for the killing. That is, there will have been a collective hand on the gun that kills, a complicity or even endorsement of the shooter by the department, the media, and the political structure. And as the media reviews the event's elements as provided by the police, the young black man is killed again and again.
Rather than the media's many manipulations in each case, let us look at one exemplary comparison. On April 2, 2012, an Asian man who was studying at Oikos college in Oakland brought a gun to the school and killed six white people. The media reported the event, and then spent a lot of time on the lives of these 6 victims. Who were they? What were they doing? What were their families like? What have other people lost by their deaths? With respect to the shooter, only the question of his motive occupied the media. What had led him to his lethal desire, and to single out white people? Six days later, on April 8, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two armed white men drove into a black neighborhood and started shooting people at random on the street. They killed three and wounded two. This time, the media does not pay attention to the victims, nor what the victim's families and friends lost by these murders. The media focuses on the shooters. Who were they? What were their families like? Where did they come from?7 About the victims' families, and how they lived in this black neighborhood, there is not a word. The media thus grants humanity and personhood to white people, and withholds it from people who are not white. In the police murders we have been listing here, the media has dutifully played that role.
The Trayvon Martin case follows suit, revealing these same threads. It is a critical case, not because of how he was killed on a rainy night in February in Florida. It marks a historic turning point, not in the course of history, but in our awareness of it.
George Zimmerman sees Trayvon Martin walking home with some groceries in Sanford, Florida. He follows in his car, and calls the police to tell them what he sees. The police say they will send a squad car, but Zimmerman continues to follow Martin. In fact, he gets out of his car and stalks him so overtly that Martin turns and cries out, “why are you following me?” Nevertheless, after he shoots Martin, Zimmerman claims self-defense, that Martin hit him. The police do not place Zimmerman under arrest because they say that have no evidence one way or the other (photos or otherwise) that it was not self-defense. Even the Attorney General of Florida called the Sanford police that same night and told them not to arrest Zimmerman.8
Three weeks later, a photo is produced of Zimmerman with his face bruised and his nose bleeding, which would have been evidence of his having been attacked. But at the time, the police said they had no evidence, one way or the other, which means they didn't have that photo on the night of the killing, and only obtained it afterward (by what means?). Had those bruises been in evidence on the night of the shooting, we can only imagine the spectacle the press would have made of it, denouncing what this black guy had done to a respectable citizen. Instead, the media simply reports Zimmerman's story that he acted in self-defense, that he was attacked by this young man whom he himself was criminally stalking. The day after Martin's killing, a video surfaced (and was shown on network news) showing Zimmerman walking into the police station that same night, with no wounds and no blood on his face.
In effect, officialdom from the top to the bottom of the judicial machine (from the Attorney General to the police and the media) united in endorsing Zimmerman's story of killing in self-defense. Zimmerman was given every benefit of the doubt, and not even arrested, while Martin was condemned. He is labeled a trouble-maker in the media because of some minor teenage independence in school, as if to say that he deserved it. Zimmerman was commended under the “Stand-Your-Ground” principle recently legislated in Florida – though Martin was the one standing his ground against someone who was stalking him with a gun. In effect, the media reduced the victim's humanity to a question mark, as a means of valorizing Zimmerman's story. It took weeks of demonstrations around the country, and federal intervention, to finally indict the killer.
The thematic threads we have identified are all in place here. A situation is created by a white man who notices a black man, who would otherwise just be some guy walking somewhere, perhaps home. It is an arbitrary situation, devoid of any necessity, other than the white man's need to do something about the existence of this black man. Zimmerman is fixated on this black teenager when he gets out of his car and follows him. He is the one creating the raciality of the situation by enacting it.9 He has a gun, he purposefully makes his stalking of Martin a provocation, and shoots him. The killing is the direct outcome of his fixation, his desire to get Martin's attention, to provoke him in order to claim self-defense, just as Mehserle and Masso did. That is, he arbitrarily creates a situation in which to see Martin as aggressive, lacking proper obeisance. And there is the same presumption of impunity, that officialdom will have his back. The police and political structure refuse to arrest Zimmerman. Thus, they join in the act, rendering the crime a collective crime, with a metaphorically collective hand on the gun.
Troy Davis – the institutionalization of the collective hand
Having identified common threads in these incidents of murder, let us look at a case in which the immediacy of momentary interaction is absent, the case of Troy Davis.
Davis, a black man, was indicted for a murder that occurred in a mall parking lot late at night in Georgia. He pleaded not guilty, and stated that he wasn't even there at the time of the shooting. He said he saw an argument in the parking lot, knew one of the men arguing, and left the area quickly out of a premonition that something bad was about to occur. The argument was sufficiently blustery to attract a security guard, who was then shot. The trial produced no physical evidence to tie Davis to the killing, neither ballistic evidence nor gunshot residue (GSR). It relied solely on the testimony of seven witnesses, only two of whom were at the scene, one of those being the man involved in the argument. Davis was convicted, and appealed. The media presents his trial as a fair trial, an instance of equality before the law, while Davis himself is demonized and denigrated as an unemployed vagrant who is often in trouble with the police (without mentioning their history of profiling black people).10
His appeals occurred with minimal funds. In each of his three attempts to fully describe the absence of any case against him, he is unable make a complete argument. It would have meant interviewing, reinvestigating witnesses, getting police statements, and examining police reports and evidence. Each of his appeals fails. His first appeal was aided by the Georgia Resource Center, which had its funding cut 70% in the midst of the process. After that, he depended on pro bono lawyers. In 2000, he appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, but only on technical grounds, and in 2001, to the US District Court on habeas corpus. He presents witness affadavits of coerced testimony, but his defense team has insufficient funds to bring them to court, nor to protect them from police retaliation. The court ruled against him, saying that the evidence should have been submitted earlier (timed out), the witnesses should have been present, and Davis did not make a “case for innocence” (though that was the content of his plea).11 In effect, in his entire appeals process, Davis faces a refusal on the part of the Georgia judicial system to take his partial arguments and put them together into a whole case (on its own, in the interest of justice).
Ultimately, six of the witnesses recant their testimony, claiming the police pressured them to tell a different story than what they saw or knew. One witness refuses to, the one who was there in the parking lot, involved in the argument that then attracted the security guard. Oddly, this person was also not tested for GSR, nor did the police do a ballistics examination of his gun. Somehow, his testimony was believed over Davis's.
A mass movement forms to get Davis's sentence commuted or his execution delayed – in the interest of justice. A petition calling for a retrial garners a million signatures. But by the time this petition is circulated, and organizations such as the NAACP, Amnesty International, and the Southern Poverty Law Center get involved, the most they can do is plead for clemency to the state of Georgia. In March of 2012, Davis was executed by the state.
In this case, the entire judicial system in Georgia was united in ratifying a corrupt and insubstantial process of conviction, over the course of 20 years, based only on subjective testimony (later recanted), in order to kill this man. The state had no necessity to kill him, nothing to prove by doing so in the face of contrary accounts, the recantations of testimony, and the absence of concrete evidence. Nothing in the case was “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” There was only an unremitting desire to kill this man on the part of a social and political institution, a collectivity of people in the judicial, the political, and the media fields. Just as in the case of Zimmerman and his killing of Trayvon Martin, there was the same unity and mutual support, extending over 20 years, to culminate finally in the killing it collectively desired.
The issue of a fixation with killing a black man thus arises at an institutional level. To understand that fixation to extend over a 20-year period in the face of what contradicted it renders that fixation a cultural matter. It combines the elements of permissibility, political approbation, and institutional self-decriminalization, to ultimately produce, over the space of two decades, a massive socially organized “collective hand” on the instrument of death.
The substance of these threads, which involve the collectivity of the killer, the creation of a situation in which to hold the subject responsible for recalcitrance or disobedience, an impunity in the act of killing (the assumption of permissibility and approbation), the fact of political policy, and the assumption of cultural valorization, conjoin in a collective meaning. It renders each act of killing a social act whose themes and motifs (threads) stretch from Georgia through Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin to the Oakland City Council and its stonewalling of the Blueford family.
There is a complex relationship here between the one who pulls the trigger and an institutionality. It is not a political relationship, because no policy is made – the policy had been made all along. It is not an economic relation, because there is no gain or asset created, and nothing in the job description of these people, the cops, the white vigilante, and judges and DAs, that require these killings. It's a cultural relationship, a relationship between an identity, the identity that licenses a killer to assume a certain social approbation for his act, and the institutionality that will continue to respect and support him in its wake. The attempt of the judicial and political institutions to find a way of valorizing the killing in each case testifies to the fact that the killer's confidence is not misplaced, that the institution will support him. In those cases where there are indictments or sanctions, it is only because massive popular outrage demanded it.
The confidence the killer must feel becomes critical. It is an institutional part of the killer's fixation, a social context he assumes in the absence of extant necessity. At the moment of reaching for his gun, that fixation positions him culturally within a given domain of permissibility. It is a domain of racializing approval. The killer cannot make the same assumption with respect to a white person as potential victim. The cops don't shoot white people arbitrarily (in the absence of alien behavior, such as homelessness, mental illness, etc.) except in hostage situations, or some such emergency in which the subject is actually threatening someone with a weapon. But the killer can make that assumption in these cases, and allow himself to enact his fixation. The expected valorization is enough to make it permissible, to have confidence that the victim is fair game, beyond the limits of humanity.
Thus, there are two relations involved in each killing. The first is the positioning of the man of color as the object of a fixation. As a cultural rather than psychological fixation, it forms part of who the killer is, rather than an aberration in who he is supposed to be. The second is the relation to a vast social institutionality that provides implicit confidence that extreme violence will be valorized after the fact, before pulling the trigger. The act of killing becomes the performance of more than police procedure. Each killer's act participates in the performance of social racialization. It becomes a cultural procedure whose meaning is the operation of a structure of racialization.
The police, and civilian police surrogates such as Zimmerman, are providing a lethal component to a racial dividing line that white society, since the civil rights movements, has been intent on reconstituting.
The meaning of obedience
Two factors contextualize this analysis of the police killings epidemic, and refer it to a process of racialization. The first is a racialized demand for obedience, conflated with the creation of a situation in which a demand for obedience and the prevention of compliance are both operative. And the second is the historical process of rolling back the gains of the civil rights movements, which follows a historically established pattern.
A demand for obedience has been one of the threads that connect the cases examined here (and others not examined). Its context is a cultural relation between a killer and a political institution, which gives the demand for obedience its social significance. The institution is not simply supporting or protecting its members from their own misdeeds. An institutionality relies on that cultural relation, establishing the necessity for obedience, for which it is willing to kill.
But why would obedience have become so important? What is the institutional gain from approving that willingness to kill? It marks the resolution of a cultural and political crisis of historic proportions.
To get a sense of that crisis, we have but to notice that the prison system in the US has become the largest in the world, both in numbers and per capita, housing almost two and a half million prisoners, where in 1970, there were about 300,000. This represents a process of mass incarceration – the essential effect, as Michelle Alexander has shown, of the “war on drugs.”12 However, some 75% of prisoners at present are people of color, the direct result of police racial profiling (since crime rates among whites and people of color are roughly the same). One could estimate that 70% of these inmates are imprisoned for victimless crimes (drug use or possession, etc.). A victimless crime is one that the power structure defines as a crime in which the one arrested and imprisoned is the victim.13 In other words, the mass incarceration that has occurred in the US represents a horrendous crime in and of itself. This is the backdrop for the epidemic of police killing people of color on the street.
The standard operation of prisons in the US (it is different in other countries) is one of cancellation of human rights. In prison, one has privileges, not rights. Human rights have been rescinded or annulled. In other words, human rights are actually contingent, and not inalienable. This is a society that can live with abrogating or repressing them. And nothing expresses its willingness to revoke human rights more clearly than does mass incarceration. In a country that claims to be the heartland of human rights, its political practice of incarceration stands in sharp contradiction to its ideals, as well as to Constitutional provisions and ethics. This represents a system-wide crisis.
When laws and social conditions violate human rights, a situation is created that requires absolute obedience to those laws and conditions, if the violation of rights is not to be exposed as criminal. To pass laws that violate Constitutional provisions and ethics, that is, that have a criminal core, even under a pretense to democracy, is to create a need for unquestioning obedience precisely in order to decriminalize both their conceptual core and the enforcement of those laws. To write criminality into the law through acceptance of an abrogation of human rights requires a decriminalization process to revalorize institutional practice, and for that, absolute obedience is the means. Because racialization is inherently a violation of the human rights of those subjected to it, it represents an institutional criminality, directed at racialized groups, that demands obedience by those racialized in order for those doing the racializing to see that criminality as decriminalized. The epidemic of killing represents this process taken to an extreme level, a process of criminalization of those killed in order to facilitate the institutional decriminalization of the killers.
Hence, the sense of fixation on the part of the enforcers, the need to punish in the most absolute sense any expression of human rights on the part of those for whom those rights have been annulled. There can be no due process in the enforcing of racialization. And the abrogation of due process attaches ineluctably to the ongoing historical repeal of earlier democratic gains for which the civil rights movements were the driving force. Let us outline this process of repeal, and then examine the historical pattern to which it relates.
The first step was to curtail or repress the most militant or radical of the groups and organizations that emerged from those movements. The Panthers, other black power organizations, the Revolutionary Action Movement, Indigenous and Chicano organizations, etc. were attacked and suppressed by the government. The second step involved the repeal of affirmative action principles in the courts and affirmative action laws in Congress. Equal Opportunity offices, anti-poverty programs, and job training projects were successively defunded beginning in the late 1970s. Under Reagan, the government subsidized the runaway shop movement, essentially de-industrializing the US. And a so-called war on drugs was instituted, which many black leaders and activists saw early on was to be a war on black people – that is, drugs were not the enemy but the weapon. The result, as Michelle Alexander has analyzed it, was a ballooning of the prison system, and a campaign of mass incarceration, that have made the US prison system the largest in the world.
Before examining the police role in this process, let us look at what deindustrialization means for it. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, there was massive migration of black people out of the south to the industrial cities of the north. When the industrial union movement took hold, it organized integrated labor forces. Membership in these unions gave black people and their communities economic stability and growth, even though segregated into “ghettos.” When the runaway shop process took hold during the 1980s, the most singular fact about it was that nowhere in the US, except in one instance, did any union, city council, or county council raise any serious objection or offer concrete resistance to it. No one in union leadership capacity said “no, you can't take these factories away from us. We made them run and we gave them value. They're ours” (as workers and unions in France have done, for instance). Only in Youngstown was an attempt made by rank and file workers to keep the local steel mills from closing. It failed.14 What union leaders, city councils, and most white workers were able to assume at the time was that, when new investment flowed into the space left by departed industry, the employment opportunities offered would go to white people first. Thus, the runaway shop movement amounted to a bleaching out of the work force, as well as a dissolution of the industrial unions. The process both dissolved the tax base of these cities and thrust the black and brown communities back into devastating impoverishment.
The police as the new color line
Michelle Alexander has described the process of mass incarceration in the US as the establishment of a “new Jim Crow.” It was constructed over three decades, during which the increasing criminalization of communities of color was the driving force, while the “war on drugs” operated as its technology. The juridical mechanism for which this “technology” was designed was the tightening of victimless crime laws and the passage, through legislation and court decisions, of enhanced obedience statutes for the police.15 Both have operated on the basis of racial profiling, which has also been given legal sanction by the courts.16 Indeed, profiling has taken on society-wide though uncodified dimensions (traffic stops, security guards following people of color around supermarkets and department stores, real estate segregation, bank redlining, etc.).
Victimless crime laws (such as drug use, or possession), as mentioned above, allow police officers to dispense with the necessity for a complainant. In approaching anyone on the street or in their house, the officer has autonomy, and thus the ability to act arbitrarily. The war on drugs, search-and-seizure campaigns, or “zero tolerance strategies” simply give police a green light in its exercise of arbitrary power. And enhanced obedience statutes make the exercise of that power unquestionable. Altogether, these new standards of policing give the police the ability to criminalize anyone at will at any moment. An officer has but to give a command that a person might find humiliating, and anything the person does to defend his or her dignity or self-respect can lead to charges of disobeying an officer, or resisting arrest, and can incur police violence. In other words, these new standards of policing constitute an establishment of impunity, which means that the police have become a law unto themselves. (The passage of Police Officers Bill of Rights standards has rendered the police beyond accountability.)
The police thus actually become responsible for producing a “criminal element,” insofar as they focus on people of color to criminalize. And at the same time, they are producing the situation in which to convince the rest of society (whites) that it must be protected. It is police action that turns ordinary social behavior into what society then discerns as a threat (just as it was police actions that transformed Oscar Grant into a man disobeying the police, to whom lethal force was then applied).
The social effect of this has been to divide the population between those whose humanity will be discounted and disrespected (the profiled), and those whose humanity will be respected because not profiled. In this sense, the police have become a new color line, added to the new segregation marked by the prison wall. It functions the same way as the old color line under Jim Crow, with white people lining up behind it. Today, white people turn to each other behind police “protection,” convinced by the violence of the police and the prison industry that people of color are indeed a threat.17 This new color line becomes the actual boundary of a political and cultural form (though less geographic) of segregation. And within this structure, the demand for obedience can be accompanied, as it was under the old system, by lethal force.
This new color line, and its new Jim Crow, marks out a process of re-racializing white people as white, insofar as the cohesion and coherence of a white (and white supremacist) social framework and culture had been seriously questioned and undermined by the civil rights movements. Behind the color line, white racialized identity, having been weakened by the pro-democracy demands for equality made by the civil rights movements, finds the space to reconstitute itself. In that sense, the epidemic of police killings acts upon a stage on which a reconstruction of whiteness is unfolding. The reconstruction of whiteness becomes its central political significance.
The historical process that this epidemic represents
This is not a new idea. The process of reconstructing whiteness has occurred twice before in US history. The first instance was against the abolitionist movement. The second was to erase the effects and meanings of Reconstruction governments in the south. And the third was to repeal what the civil rights movements had gained. A similar pattern is discernible in all three instances. Each occurred in response to a movement demanding the establishment of justice and the equality of peoples as the bedrock of democracy. Each movement was spawned by a document which gave it institutional voice and inspiration. For the first, it was the Declaration of Independence. For the second, the Emancipation Proclamation. And for the third, Brown vs. Board of Education.
In each instance, after some momentary success, the movement was blocked, obstructed, and eventually decimated by white supremacy and white nationalism. The process by which this occurred involved the government, and exhibited four stages. The first stage involves violently suppressing organizations that advanced the interests of equality, or of community autonomy, of people of color. The second stage is legislative, the third a stage of enhanced policing, and the fourth a demand for obedience, enforced by lethal means.
In the wake of the Declaration of Independence, a number of states immediately turned to the task of outlawing slavery – Pennsylvania in particular, and several New England states. The first stage of violence against this occurred in the Constitutional Convention of 1788 itself, in which the entire revolutionary vision was held hostage to the preservation of slavery by the southern states. The inclusion of slavery in the Constitution accomplished the overthrow of those earlier abolitionist constitutions. What then ensued, in the 1820s and 1830s, were destructive riots against black communities in northern cities, such as Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and others, mostly against attempts by the people of those communities to vote. These riots were generally accompanied by the burning of black churches and violent attacks against abolitionist headquarters and journals. There was also the arbitrary and criminal disruption and forced migration of the agrarian indigenous societies in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.
Similar violence occurred again in the next two pro-democracy instances. After emancipation, political violence was unleashed against the Reconstruction governments throughout the south. Participants in those governments, and the Republican Party clubs that connected them to local organizations, were assaulted and eventually destroyed by paramilitary gangs, of which the KKK was, and has been, the most infamous.18 Masses of black people were arrested on victimless crime law charges such as vagrancy or talking to a white woman, and deployed as bond-laborers under the convict lease system in mines and industry.19 After the massive civil rights upheaval of the 1950s that followed the court declaration against segregation, a different form of assault was launched by the government. Direct attacks were made against black power, the Panthers, La Raza, the American Indian Movement, black nationalism, and other radical organizations, along with the frame-up or assassination of many of their leaders, to decapitate or dismantle them as organizations. This included the FBI Cointelpro programs designed to disrupt or destroy organizations actively demanding equality and justice (as opposed to simply petitioning for it).
In the legislative phase, during the 1820s and 1830s, northern states successively disenfranchised black people, either by legislation or by Constitutional amendment. The Dred Scott decision was the ultimate consummation of that process. The issue of slavery was transformed into the ancillary issue of extension of slavery to western territories, while fugitive slave laws were enhanced. And as northern black communities swelled with escaping slaves, segregationist laws were passed, creating the first official black ghettos.20 After the overthrow of Reconstruction, beginning in the 1880s, Jim Crow laws were passed throughout the south, first in transportation, then in social services, and finally, as a system of social norms in daily life. Segregation became a cultural ethos adopted almost universally throughout the rest of the country. Southern legislation extended as well to systems of chain gangs to hold black farm laborers who sought to escape the debt servitude to which sharecropping and tenant farming condemned them, as an addition to the convict leasing system. And beginning in the mid-1970s, the process of repealing affirmative action was begun, civil rights offices and functions were defunded, job training programs were defunded, and the runaway shop movement was subsidized.
The third stage in the enforcement of the anti-black legislative ethos was one of enhanced policing and imprisonment. During the decades prior to the Civil War, an anti-immigration movement formed (principally in Pennsylvania) to close state borders to runaway slaves. Fugitive slave laws were enhanced at the state level, culminating in the federal Fugitive Slave law of 1850. It is in harmony with this phase that the indigenous of Georgia and Florida were forced off their native lands and marched west. After the 1880s, with the passage of Jim Crow laws, a system of segregation and caste distinction was created that was so complex, ordinary police departments couldn't enforce it, and the entire white population of the south was enlisted into that task, recreating a white culture that demanded universal abject obeisance from black people. Finally, beginning in the 1980s, using the various forms of criminalizing people of color, a massive prison system was built, as a “concrete” resurrection of segregation throughout the US.
In the final stage, that of arbitrary violence against people of color, the south assumed the power to deputize people to go north, find runaways or kidnap free black people, and bring them back south to be sold into slavery. New forms of terror were imposed throughout the south, associated with political protection of the internal slave trade, and in response to the operation of the Underground Railroad. The US invaded Mexico, and tore off its northern provinces. After the turn of the twentieth century, waves of lynching occurred, mostly in the south, as a way of cementing the social ties of white people through that form of collective murder. And today, the US is entering that comparable stage of arbitrary violence and an absolutizing of its demand for obedience, for which the police are the instrument. In each era, that stage of arbitrary violence marks the final stage in rolling back what the pro-democratic movements had won.
In other words, in each period, after the rise of a pro-democracy movement calling for equality and justice, black and brown people face increasingly worsening conditions, finally culminating in institutional approbation of arbitrary violence, administered with impunity, against them. It has happened three times now.
This outline account leaves out the various white supremacist strategies for building popular white support for undermining the pro-democratic movements of each period. It also leaves out the socio-economic transformations that occurred in each period, a successive process of corporatization of the economy, along with increased impoverishment of communities of color. Today we see this as the direct effect of deindustrialization, and the racial bias exposed in the mortgage crisis that burst in 2008.
In sum, the willingness to kill that is sweeping urban police forces is the empirical expression of the fact that obedience is essential to the entitlement that white racialized identity reserves for itself, which involves, as a process of racialization, endless violations of human rights, as well as of Constitutional ethics. It is a process of reconstitution of whiteness, of an entire structure of racialization, to which pro-democracy movements have endlessly stood in contradiction.
If we understand the historical significance of the present racializing processes, then perhaps we can prevent the final culmination of their anti-democratic endeavors.
Readers may also wish to look up Steve’s recent article, “Defunding the Police,” published by the Berkeley Daily Planet in June 2020.
2. Witnesses whose testimony did not appear in the report said that Blueford was lying on the ground when shot. Indeed, the coroner's report mentioned that one bullet passed upward through his body and grazed the inside of his arm, suggesting that his arm was raised above his head, which is the signal for surrender. Cf. www.indybay.org/newsitems/2012/09/26/18722410.php
3. Diallo and Bell were frontpage news for a few days. But the names Patrick Dorismund or Malcolm Ferguson are not generally remembered. Both were active in organizing and rallying the outraged people of NYC, demanding prosecution of the cops who slaughtered Diallo. Both were killed by cops during the month following the four officers' acquittal. In those cases, what the media presented was the police demonizing accounts of who they were. Dorismund was approached by a narc seeking to “buy” drugs; when Dorismund told him to leave him alone, the narc shot him.
A significant incident occurred during Dorismund's funeral in Brooklyn. There was a rally, and then a march down to the church where the funeral was going to take place. The cops broke up the march about 50 feet from the church, and started beating people at random. A black reporter from WBAI was on his cell phone reporting live (on the air) what was happening right in front of his eyes. The cops saw him and started beating him, obviously because he was black, since there were white reporters who didn't attract the cops' attention. He was on the phone saying “they're beating me up right now,” and this is going out over the air. The reporter ended up in the hospital, and nothing ever happened to those cops.
9. Race is something that one group of people does to others. Beginning with its colonialist origins, race is something that white people have done to those they define as “other,” as not white, and through whom they have then defined themselves as white. In other words, race is more properly understood as a verb rather than a noun. It is a system of social practices, rather than something inherent in people. The verb is “to racialize.” And racialization is something that only white people have a cultural interest in, because it is the process by which they construct their identity as white. Other communities that build a “race consciousness” for themselves in general do so in active resistance against having their consciousness and identity defined for them by white supremacy.
11. Peter Whoriskey, “Execution of Georgia Man Near Despite Recantations,” in The Washington Post, July 16, 2007.
12. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: New Press, 2010).
13. There is much disagreement on this victimless crime conviction total. The Libertarian Party claims the number is 86% in federal prisons (Michael Suede, September 29, 2011; http://www.libertariannews.org/2011/09/29/victimless-crime-constitutes-86-of-the-american-prison-population/). The rate would be higher in state prisons, since most victimless crime laws are passed at the state level. The “Democratic Underground” “estimates” that one-third of all prisoners are imprisoned for victimless crimes (http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=389x5808579). Robin Campbell, on the other hand, writing in 2000 for the Community Impact Panels of the Midtown Community Court, argues in her article, “There Are No Victimless Crimes,” that declaring an act illegal implies that its commission will have repercussions among other people, in terms of their social freedom, that it would not have had in the absence of its illegality. What this disparity suggests is not only that it is a matter of definition, but also that it is impossible to truly quantify. For instance, as a category, it would also include resisting arrest. But to resist arrest is generally to incur police violence, for which “assaulting an officer” would then also be charged, shifting the case to a crime of violence. In addition, the majority of convictions occur via plea bargain, for which only a confession rather than evidence is on record, meaning that it is impossible to know whether the conviction reflects a criminal act or prosecutorial discretion. My estimate of 70% is derived as follows. If the vast majority of convicted offenders before 1970 were in prison for violent crimes or crimes against property, and the subsequent eight-fold increase in prison population depended primarily on victimless crime prosecutions (the war on drugs), then the 70% figure seems reasonable.
14. Staughton Lynd, The Fight Against Shutdowns: Youngstown's Steel Mill Closings (San Pedro: Singlejack Books, 1982).
15. Steve Martinot, The Machinery of Whiteness (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009), 72–75.
16. Racial profiling was even sanctioned by the Supreme Court. Decisions such as Terry vs Ohio legitimized invocation of “color” as “suspicious behavior,” as Michelle Alexander has explained.
17. Martinot, 10–11.
18. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Atheneum, 1975), esp. ch. XIV. See also Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 549–563. See also chapters on specific states.
19. Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name (New York: Doubleday, 2008), ch. 3.
20. As more slaves escaped to northern cities, an intense impoverishment was imposed on them by segregationist laws, whose implicit political purpose was to make the social conditions of black people in the north sufficiently dire to dissuade others from escaping to those cities. Special taxes were levied against these impoverished communities of free and runaway black people, ostensibly for funding indigent social welfare. Cf. Leon Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the United States, 1790–1860 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1961).