Cop Violence and the Order of Urban Terrorism
Immediately after Ferguson, MO cop Darren Wilson murdered unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, the city’s police mounted a show of militarized power that represented the rising tide of police-state terrorism in growing numbers of urban communities throughout the United States of America. Treating the community as a war zone, the cops occupied the streets, ostensibly to protect the city from the violence of black protestors. Rather, the militarized cop presence in the city of Ferguson only served to exacerbate community anger, outrage, and resentment. Young Brown’s parents, Leslie McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., were left to grieve for their son, who was left dead in the street for four hours. Since the murder of Michael Brown, killer cop Darren Wilson has not been seen in public, nor has he been charged with a crime; rather, he has been allowed to walk free and has gone into hiding. It has been reported that he appeared before a grand jury for several hours. Obviously full of anguish, despair, and frustration, Brown’s parents have announced not only their desire for justice, but also their lack of confidence in the Ferguson, MO, (il)legal system. Their fears are reasonable because in past cases of police (or want-to-be cop) murder of young Blacks — such as the case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman in Sanford, FL, in 2012 — killer cops generally have been exonerated. And there is the ongoing case of little 7-year old Aiyanna Jones, who was murdered by Detroit, MI cops on May 16, 2010. Will her grieving family get the justice they deserve?
I am outraged by the increasingly common and wanton practice of police violence and murder in this nation’s urban communities, as well as by a bankrupt and corrupt (in)justice system that exonerates killer cops. These actions represent the absolute disregard for the sanctity of Black life. Hence, I find myself mentally rehearsing why I have come to resent cops and the order of urban community terrorism they enforce.
Growing to manhood in Los Angeles during the 1950s, I learned to fear and hate the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). This resulted from a combination of experiences, most notably the constant stories that my father, a Los Angeles County probation officer, told me about how LA cops savagely and brutally beat Black men brought into custody on charges of violating the law. Since he worked in adult investigations, my father saw first hand the results of savage police assaults, as he interviewed their victims in his capacity as probation officer. He heard countless stories of racialized and excessive police violence.
One reason my father recounted these events was to keep me from loitering on Los Angeles streets and corners with my friends late at night after the curfew. Another reason was his sense of outrage and resentment that city officials tolerated, and indeed encouraged, such local-state violence against Black boys and men. Here, then, is the intense dilemma of Black parents having to rear their children in a racist society. So it was that I, like so many other young Black and Latino Angelinos, developed a longstanding antagonism toward the LAPD. At a relatively early age, I learned that although cops were sworn to uphold the criminal law, they were white men often full of lawless and racist impulses.
At least since the 1960s, Black and Latino communities in big cities across America have complained constantly and publicly about police brutality and repression. The 1965 Watts uprising, as well as many other urban revolts during the turbulent 1960s, resulted from the abuse of police coercive power. Yet, ruling-class and middle-class white Americans ignored these charges of racialized police terrorism and tyranny until the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by LA’s “gang in blue” revealed to the world how racist injustice actually is practiced in the “City of Angels.” The American tradition of cultural domination gives currency mainly to white perspectives of social reality while largely silencing Black points of view. However, the American culture of white supremacy notwithstanding, there is no essential relationship between whiteness and rightness.
The order of police violence, terrorism, and murder directed at Black Americans today takes place with a systematic viciousness and savagery comparable to the dehumanizing sadism of white slave-owners, lynchers, and anti-Black rioters during the periods of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation. This is because the criminalized image of Black people as violent and threatening (along with the similar image of Latinos) is so fixed in the white American imagination — Black women, men, and children always already are guilty of something — that the most degrading and unwarranted police violence to Black bodies is accepted as justifiable. In the USA, Blacks are death-circumscribed people, who are shaped from infancy onward by the imminent threat of death. This accounts for the increasingly unrestrained intimidation of murder of Black men, women, and children by “gangs in blue” across this nation. To be sure, elite white media and policy managers demonize Black females (and their Latina sisters), framing them as prostitutes or morally reprehensible single mothers, undeserving of any societal concern.
Historically, whites have used negative representations of Blacks to rationalize the most heinous crimes against Black humanity. In his book, Police in Urban America, 1860-1920, UCLA urban historian Eric Monkkonen demonstrates that as American cities emerged and as chattel slavery declined in the nineteenth century, Blacks made the transition from chattel slaves to being characterized by white elites as members of the “dangerous classes.” They were criminalized and subjected to the coercive power of a developing white urban police force, as Khalil Muhammad chronicles in The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America. Since an anti-Black society places little or no value on the Black body, cries of racialized injustice largely go unheard. In the USA, it has been largely impossible to think of Black innocence; the Black body always has been marked for death — from the Atlantic slave trade to the present! Therefore, in the face of societal indifference, the incidents of police brutality and murder of Black men and women continue to occur with increasing frequency.
Some years ago, the videotaped incidents of excessive police violence in Inglewood, CA, Oklahoma City, OK, and New York, NY demonstrated the growing regularity of anti-Black police murder and terrorism in contemporary American society. Because of Inglewood’s close proximity to Los Angeles, the legal battle surrounding the police assault on 16-year-old Donovan Jackson captured national attention for a moment. The incident reminded people of the Rodney King case a decade earlier. Additionally, what made the Inglewood situation significant was the demographic shift from the 1970s through the 1990s, as South Central Los Angeles’s Black population moved further west. Hence, formerly middle-class and working-class white areas, like Westchester and Inglewood, now contain predominantly middle-class and working-class Black populations. As with Los Angeles during the years of Mayor Thomas Bradley’s regime, Inglewood’s political managers are Black, but the police force remains largely white. Similar to inner city residents throughout America, large numbers of Blacks in Los Angeles and Inglewood regard cops as a violent and repressive occupying force whose objective is to command, control, and contain. This reality is reminiscent of James Baldwin’s comments about the New York Police Department’s structure of domination in Nobody Knows My Name:
The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive … They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the Black man corralled up here, in his place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should his rebellion become overt … He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country, which is precisely what, and where he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes.
Alternatively, when police savagely attack or murder Black people — for example, the well-known 1997 torture of Abner Louima and the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo by the NYPD — cops and their defenders immediately deny any racist motivation and cynically characterize each event as an “isolated incident.” When Black cops are involved, as in the Inglewood assault and the murder of Sean Bell by Jamaica, Queens, New York, in 2006, the denial of racism’s existence is even louder, as if these cops, as adherents of the police code, could not also view the Black body as possessing little value. Public officials (judges, lawyers, politicians, and police) then legitimize or rationalize police misconduct and corruption. For example, in the face of public resentment and outrage, former LAPD chief Daryl Gates — whose 1980s regime largely, but unofficially, encouraged lawless and racist police behavior — often sought to rationalize unrestrained police violence in Black communities as the actions of a few bad cops. According to him, such conduct was an aberration. This has become the common response of city officials. But how should we really view the dramatically increasing numbers of savage attacks on urban Black residents and the cops who perpetrate them — as isolated incidents or as systemic repression?
The effort to construct urban community police violence against Blacks as an aberration, or as the behavior of rogue cops, masks the culture of racism and tyranny that historically has characterized the policing of Black and poor communities in America. Los Angeles is a prime example. Under a political regime established by LA’s good government reform movement at the turn of the twentieth century, the mayor does not appoint the police chief. Rather, a mayor-appointed police commission selects the chief of police. Over the years, the police chief appropriated mounting managerial, political, and coercive power, which came to rival the mayor’s authority. In the 1980s, this often conflicting dynamic became visible during the leadership of Thomas Bradley, LA’s first Black mayor and a former cop himself, when police czar Daryl Gates sought to challenge his authority.
Police power and its concomitant order of violence reached their zenith under one of Daryl Gates’s predecessors, Bill Parker, who in the 1960s established the LA system of police terrorism that became the model for urban police departments throughout America. As Joe Domanick reveals in his book, To Protect and Serve: The LAPD’s Century of War in the City of Dreams, it was the iron-fisted police chief Bill Parker who built the LAPD into a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant apparatus of organized male chauvinism that, in judgment-call situations, had a license to kill. Significantly, the introduction of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams in 1966 set in motion the increasing militarization of the LA police force, as Christian Parenti details in Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis.
Taking over as police commissar in 1978, Gates continued and expanded the essential Parker philosophy and practice of policing Los Angeles. As Domanick writes, that philosophy was: “Give no slack and take no shit from anyone. Confront and command. Control the streets at all times. Always be aggressive. Stop crimes before they happen. Seek them out. Shake them down. Make that arrest. Never admit that the department has done anything wrong.” As LA’s cultural, racial, and class transformation occurred after the 1960s, the LAPD’s code of (mis)conduct took on an increasingly militaristic, racist, and repressive character.
It is against this background that we need to view the present and mounting incidents of police brutality and murder of urban Black and Latino residents throughout America. Significantly, the order of police violence is neither an aberration nor the commission of unsanctioned acts by rogue cops. As numerous videotapes have demonstrated over the years, cops do not operate alone and in isolation. Rather, they work in a largely autonomous institution that sanctions, and even encourages, racialized injustice and terrorism. Many cops in large urban centers across America are representative of the kind of decadence that often characterizes vicious police behavior; cops literally hate and fear the Blacks and Latinos inhabiting the communities they seek to control and contain. As the videotaped incidents of vicious police assaults on Blacks have shown, cops are willing to do anything in their twisted conception of power to dehumanize Blacks and other people of color and to deny them the equal protection of the law.
William Muir observes in Police: Streetcorner Politicians that the use of coercive power often corrupts urban cops. Big city police forces are infected with a culture of racism and violence that historically has sanctioned the savage and brutal treatment of Black people, other people of color, and the poor. In short, the increasing incidents of wanton police brutality and murder of Blacks are by no stretch of the imagination “isolated incidents.” Rather, in contemporary urban America, excessive cop violence, terrorism, and murder take place with increasing regularity!
A colonial mentality, rooted in chattel slavery and imperialism, has structured the entire history of policing in urban America. That kind of thinking and practice needs to be overturned. An assortment of policy ideas has been advanced in order to reform police (mis)behavior, including community-based policing, racially balanced police forces, more educated cops, or cops with cameras. In my judgment, these reforms, even if implemented, are pipe dreams. For a number of reasons, I am pessimistic about positive alternatives to an increasingly militarized order of police terrorism in urban America. Police reform is a useless concept in contemporary America. I see a growing prison-garrison state in which urban residents will become the targets of mounting police surveillance, murder, and incarceration — enforced by increasingly militarized and paranoid killer cops employing heavy artillery and Army tanks. Here are three reasons why I have no faith in police reform in an increasingly unstable American society. First, the so-called war on drugs during the 1980s and 1990s resulted in the incarceration of massive numbers of young Black and Latino men and women — a veritable prison nation. Of course, largely denied was the US government’s involvement in the urban drug epidemic in the first place, as Gary Webb exposed in his important book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. Second, the 9/11 attack forced the American polity to realize its vulnerability to international assault, leading governmental elites to set in motion the mounting militarization of American society. Third, the public exposure of corporate elite greed, corruption, and fraud during the George W. Bush years resulted in a crisis of confidence in America’s managerial capitalist political economy. Under increasing media scrutiny for past corporate corruption, failing imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and arrogant and incompetent leadership, the Bush regime was plagued by a deepening public crisis of credibility. Following the 9/11 assault, the Department of Homeland Security was established; it has steadily armed urban street cops with heavy artillery and Army tanks. Although exiting US Attorney General Eric Holder seems to have taken some interest in the murder of Michael Brown, there is not even remote evidence that Barack Obama’s administration will call for a reversal of the growing militarization of urban street-level cops. Significantly, the Obama regime, which is largely retracing Bush’s imperialist international policy in the Middle East, cannot counteract America’s increasing fear of challenges to its sinking global hegemony. The resulting domestic effect is the increasing militarization of a panic-stricken American society. Clearly, these disjunctions do not constitute a political framework necessary for overturning the structure and practice of mounting urban police violence, terrorism, and murder.
Therefore, how might American people respond to these developments? In the face of increasing political and corporate decadence, cynical disillusionment and social anarchy continue to mount among exploited and disenfranchised Americans. To be sure, the ground forces of urban militarized cops are not there to “protect and serve” Black and Latino communities. Rather, street-level cops appear as occupying forces of command, control, and containment. Fed up with increasing rates of police brutality, murder, and terrorism, outraged and resentful urban residents may have no alternative but to undertake new strategies of political protest, popular resistance, and self-defense.