Part 2: Institutional Racism in America
The protests resulting from events in Ferguson and New York have spurred a nation-wide anti-police brutality and social justice movement. This movement is addressing issues related to the realities of institutional racism in the United States, a colonial legacy born of slavery. Policing itself has a history and institutional function that is relevant to current events. This part in the series, ‘From Ferguson to Freedom’ examines the institution of policing and ‘law enforcement’, designed to protect the powerful from the people, to punish the poor and enforce injustice.
A Primer on Policing
Many social divisions erupt when it comes to discussing the issues of police and policing. Many accept the police and state-propagated view of police as being there ‘to serve and protect’, and that the ‘dangerous’ jobs of ensuring ‘peace’ and ‘safety’ are deserving of respect and admiration. Others view police as oppressors and thugs, violent and abusive, the enforcers of injustice. Here, as with the issue of racism itself, we come to the dichotomy of individual and institutional actions and functions.
As individuals, there are many police who may act admirably, who may ‘serve and protect’, who serve a social function which is beneficial to the community in which they operate. But, as with the issue of racism, individual acts do not erase institutional functions. The reality is that as an institution, policing is fundamentally about control, with cops acting as agents of ‘law and order’. They enforce the law and punish its detractors (primarily among the poor), they ‘serve and protect’ the powerful (and their interests) from the people.
When individuals in poor black neighborhoods are caught with illegal substances, such as drugs, the police are there to arrest them and send them into the criminal justice system for judgment and punishment. When Wall Street banks launder billions in drug money, police are nowhere to be seen, the law is ignored, justice is evaded, and the rich and powerful remain untouched. Crime is subject to class divides. Crimes such as mass murder, crimes against humanity, war crimes, slavery, ethnic cleansing, money laundering, mass corruption, plundering and destruction are typically committed (or decided) by those who hold the power, have the money and own the property. These crimes largely go unpunished, and very often are even rewarded.
Crimes committed by the poor, the oppressed, and especially those which take place in communities of colour are the main focus of the criminal injustice system. It is the poor and exploited who are policed and repressed, punished and sentenced, beaten and executed. The criminal rich and powerful are largely untouchable. The police enforce the law, so far as it applies to the poor, and are primarily there to serve the interests of the powerful. This is not new.
Like with all institutions, to understand their functions, one must turn to their origins and evolution through the years. In the United States, the history of ‘policing’ pre-dates the formation of the country itself, when it was a collection of European colonial possessions. From the late 1600s onward, just as racism was itself becoming institutionalized in the slave system, the social concept of policing increasingly emerged. The European colonial system was dependent upon the exploitation of slave labour, which since the late 1600s had become increasingly defined along racial lines.
In the 1700s, colonial societies began forming “slave patrols” to keep the slaves in line, to capture escapees, and to maintain “law and order” in an inherently unjust and exploitative social system of domination. As black slaves increasingly outnumbered the local white colonists, paranoia increased (especially in the wake of slave rebellions), and so the “slave patrols” and other locally organized ‘vigilante’ groups would be formed to protect the white colonizers against the local indigenous populations and the enslaved black African population.
The slave patrols defined the early formation of the modern ” law enforcement” institution in the United States, which extended into the 19th century, up until the Civil War. The slave patrols also had other functions within the communities they operated, but first and foremost, their primary purpose was “to act as the first line of defense against a slave rebellion.”
Following the processes of industrialization and urbanization, cities became crowded, immigrants became plenty, and poverty was rampant as the rich few became ever more powerful. Thus, throughout the 19th century, the slave patrols began evolving into official “police forces,” with their concern for “order” and “control”, largely via the policing of poor communities of colour.
The evolution of policing in America since the 19th century has largely maintained its focus on the policing of the poor, acting as soldiers in the “war against crime” (which J. Edgar Hoover declared in the 1930s), though, of course, this applies almost exclusively to crime committed by the poor, by immigrants and ‘minority’ groups, as the rich and powerful are able to continue plundering and stealing wealth, waging wars and killing great masses of people, engaging in institutional corruption and even participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity, almost always with impunity and beyond the reach of police or justice.
In the past few decades, police forces across America have become increasingly militarized, with the rise of what has been called the ” warrior cop.” Police forces get military equipment, tanks, rocket launchers, and even wear military outfits and get military training. Militaries are of course designed to be institutions of force, to kill, to destroy, to occupy and oppress. They are fundamentally, and institutionally, imperial. So as police forces become increasingly militarized, their function becomes increasingly aligned with that of the military. While the military secures the interests of the rich and powerful abroad, the police secure the interests of the rich and powerful at home. The domestic population is treated increasingly like an “enemy population,” with poor communities (especially poor black, Hispanic and indigenous communities) treated like occupied populations.
The origins of the modern police force began as a distinctly colonial structure, to enforce the injustice of slavery, to protect the colonizers as they expanded their territories and committed genocide against the indigenous population. Colonization, ethnic cleansing, slavery and genocide are inherently wrong and unjust. As such, these policies must be protected by force. The legal system has always been far more concerned with the protection of property (belonging to rich white men) than it has been with the protection of the population from the abuses of an inherently unjust social system. In a slave society, human beings become property. The law protects private property, but does so often through the oppression of populations. Property becomes more important than people, even when peopleareproperty.
The Global Reality of the Brutes in Blue
Think, for a brief moment, of the images, videos and realities of protests, revolutions, resistance movements and rebellions around the world in the past several years. From the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, to Indigenous movements in Canada and Latin America and Africa, to the peasant and labour unrest across Asia, to the anti-austerity movements across Europe, with social unrest reaching enormous heights in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, from the Indignados to Occupy Wall Street, to the student movements in Quebec, the UK, Chile, Mexico and Hong Kong, to the urban rebellions in Turkey and Brazil, and now to the civil unrest in the US sparked by Ferguson. What do you see, in all of these cases?
In each and every case, there are large or significant segments of populations who are rising up in resistance to oppressive structures, against dictatorships, state violence and repression, against poverty, racism and exploitation. In each case, there are populations struggling for dignity and opportunity, for freedom and democracy, for justice and equality. These populations, those who protest and resist, those who struggle and strive for the realization of democracy and justice, are historically the main reason why society has in any meaningful way ever been able to advance, to civilize itself, for rights and freedoms to be won and realized. Progress for people as a whole has always been accompanied by mass struggle and resistance against the forces of oppression and to upset the ‘stability’ of the status quo.
And, both historically and presently, without exception, the struggle and resistance of populations at home and abroad has always been met with the blunt, brute force of police, there to beat the people back down into subservience and to maintain “law and order.” In the youth-led rebellions from Egypt to Spain to Indonesia, from Brazil to Mexico to Quebec, from Hong Kong to Turkey to Ferguson, Missouri, the police are there with batons, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, real bullets, beatings and brutality, mass arrests and murder, all in the name of preserving ‘stability’.
This is the true institutional function of the police. It cares not whether there are good or decent individuals within police forces, no more than the institutional reality of militaries cares whether individual soldiers are good or decent. Their job is to protect the powerful, police the poor, and punish those who threaten the stability of this unjust system. This is an institutional function which has been alived reality for the black community in the United States since the origins of slavery and policing. The protests resulting from Ferguson are a reflection of this reality, regardless of the opinions of white people who have been largely spared the blunt truth of batons and bullets wielded and shot by the Brutes in Blue.
Black and Blue
According to a study published in 2012, every 28 hours in the United States, a black man, woman or child is murdered by a law enforcement official, security guard or “vigilante.” In 2011, murder was listed as the number one cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34 . In the month prior to Michael Brown’s murder, three other unarmed black men were killed by police, with data from police forces across the country revealing that black males are far more likely to be shot and killed by police than any other demographic group.
According to data from the Department of Justice, between 2003 and 2009, roughly 4,813 people were killed in the process of being arrested or while in the custody of police officers. In 2012 alone, 410 people were killed by police in the United States. Between 1968 and 2011, data from the CDC reveals, black Americans were between two and eight times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. On average, black Americans were 4.2 times more likely to be murdered by police than whites.
Between the murder of Michael Brown in August and the delivery of the verdict in November of 2014, police in the United States killed roughly 14 other teenagers, at least six of them black. Two days before the Darren Wilson verdict was reached, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered by police in Cleveland, Ohio, for holding a BB gun.
In late December, however, a mentally ill man in New York shot and killed two NYPD police officers in Brooklyn, after which he shot and killed himself. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who has attempted to navigate between placating protesters and police, has made himself hated by many in the NYPD, who view anything but absolute and unquestionable loyalty as unforgivable betrayal. The head of the NYPD’s union commented on the two killed cops, saying that many had “blood on their hands”, which “starts on the steps of City Hall , in the office of the major.”
Attempting to placate the police, mayor de Blasio called for the protests to end until the funerals for the two cops had passed, saying, “It’s time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time.” Of course, this and other statements made by de Blasio are designed to keep his own police force under his control; however, the hypocrisy of the statement should not go unnoticed. After all, hundreds of unarmed black Americans aremurdered by police every year, and now, people have had enough, have reacted, taking to the streets to protest. Yet, when two cops are killed, the mayor calls for the protests to end out of some misplaced form of ‘respect’ for the police. Clearly, murdered black Americans are not given the same type of respect, even if it is guided by political pandering. That should speak volumes.
The backlash against the protesters and the emerging social justice movement has been palpable, and the police have been (as they often are) on the front lines of social regression. There was even a small protest in New York held in support of the NYPD, attended mostly by white men (and cops), some wearing shirts declaring, “I canbreathe,” mocking the final words of Eric Garner as he was choked to death by a NYPD officer, repeating, “I can’t breathe.” At the same time, there was a counter protest on the other side of the street, attended largely by black and Hispanic New Yorkers, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” with the pro-NYPD crowd responding, “Whose jails? Your jails!” When the crowd chanted “hands up, don’t shoot!” the pro-police crowd chanted, “Hands up, don’t loot!” The pro-NYPD protest was largely made up of retired or off-duty police officers and their supporters, which along with the assembled on-duty police, media and counter-protesters, did not amount to more than 200 people.
Following the shooting deaths of the two NYPD officers, the head of an NYPD union declared that, “we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.” So the NYPD has declared ‘war’, but against who? Well, they place the blame for the two deaths not only on the mayor, but more so on the protesters and the anti-police brutality movement itself. Thus, the largest police force in the United States, made up of 35,000 people, has essentiallydeclared ‘war’ on a significant part of the population. It’s worth remembering that the previous New York mayor, billionaire oligarch Michael Bloomberg, once declared during a press conference, ” I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.”
In light of the two killed cops, many who had previously been pleading for people to respect the police and remember ‘that they are there to protect us’ and have ‘dangerous jobs’ suddenly feel vindicated. However, as theWashington Post reported back in October of 2014, ” policing has been getting safer for 20 years ,” with 2013 being the safest year for police since the end of World War II. Indeed, as thePost noted, “You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, policing is not even on the list of the top ten most dangerous jobs in America. Some of the jobs which appear on the top ten list include loggers, fishermen, pilots, garbage collectors, truck drivers, farmers and ranchers.
However, it IS dangerous to be an unarmed black man, woman or child in America. And while the NYPD union boss has declared a “war” on the people, the realities of that war have been felt and suffered by black and Hispanic Americans for years and decades.
For over a decade, New York City has implemented a “stop and frisk” policy whereby police are given the illegal ‘authority’ to stop and frisk citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, an obvious violation of constitutional rights. Between 2004 and 2012, New York City cops conducted 4.4 million ‘stops’, with 88% resulting in no further action (arrest or court summons). In roughly 83% of ‘stop and frisk’ cases, those stopped by the police were either black or Hispanic.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2014 revealed that young men who were subjected to stop and frisk by police, particularly young black men, “show higher rates of feelings ofstress, anxiety and trauma.” In over 5 million stop and frisks that took place during the 12-year tenure of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire oligarch, young black men accounted for a total of25% of those targeted , yet accounted for 1.9% of the city’s population, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. In over 5 million stops, police found a gun in less than 0.02% of the cases.
In late 2014, with a new mayor (de Blasio) and following increased public outrage against the policy as well as legal rulings against it, the ‘stop and frisk’ policy declined in its implementation. However, as theNew York Times noted, “police officers today remain ever-present in the projects,” with a “new strategy” for policing the projects slowly forming. Police stand at posts on the perimeters of housing blocks, “officers park their cars on the sidewalk and turn on the flashing roof lights,” and, at night, “the blue beams illuminate the brick of the projects for hours on end, projecting both a sense of emergency and control.”
Black communities remain under ‘military’ occupation by the Brutes in Blue, the modern manifestation of the ‘slave patrols’. The rich and powerful are protected and served, the poor are punished, the descendants of African slaves are slain, their communities under ‘control,’ as the police walk their beat, and beat black lives back down. From Eric Garner and Michael Brown, to the mass protests and civil unrest, the institutional function of the police is, as always, about maintaining stability and order in an inherently unjust social system.
The institutionalization of racism, slavery, and policing predates the formation of the United States itself. And while these things have evolved and changed over the years, decades and centuries, they remain relevant and present. If they are not addressed in a meaningful or substantial way, the America that many imagine or believe in will fade away, leaving only racism, slavery and repression here to stay.
This article originally appeared on Andrew’s website.