<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Buell Race, Class & Police Militarization

John Buell

Race, Class, and Police Militarization

Police characterize their jobs as being among our most dangerous. Little surprise that they often require advanced military armaments. Statistically, however, many occupations are much more dangerous, and police, like military personnel, are among our most revered citizens. Why police feel so afraid is an important question, if only because their response to fear poses a threat to the future of our democracy.

New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” has not been justified by the actual number of crimes uncovered and successful prosecutions enabled. Nor has the “broken windows” policy — arrests for very minor property crimes — caused the declines in crime observed during the Giuliani years. Other cities that did not adopt this agenda saw equal reductions in crime.

That stop-and-frisk is racist is clear from the statistics. In 2011, NYPD was arresting over 1,800 citizens per day, with 80% of these being Black or Latino. Only a tiny fraction of these arrests led to successful prosecution. What these tactics have done is humiliate blacks and both reflect and intensify stereotypes about black males.

In a blog post at NakedCapitalism.com (Dec. 7), University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Bill Black points out: to “focus overwhelmingly on the least destructive property crimes committed in parts of the city (disproportionately) inhabited by Blacks and Latinos one must add ‘stop and frisk,’ the outright racist effects of the sentencing disparity for powder v crack cocaine, and the emphasis on arresting drug sellers overwhelmingly in poorer areas inhabited disproportionately by Blacks and Latinos. Collectively, the strategy means that policing in NYC is aimed overwhelmingly at Blacks and Latinos, creates the constant humiliation of young Blacks and Latinos, makes it inevitable that large sections of these communities will view the police as the problem rather than the solution, and produces the self-fulfilling prophecy of leading to grossly disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino males having criminal records that impair their ability to get jobs and form well-functioning families … (B)oth groups feel that they are under siege by the other.”

Black adds: “Repeatedly humiliating male minorities through “stop and frisk” operations and arrests for trivial offenses … has to produce a …rage… (A)rresting such individuals is inherently dangerous – and police know it. Police are taught to be aggressive and dominating in such encounters and to view every arrest as a dangerous encounter with someone that may cause them grievous or even fatal injury.

It is generally wrong to think of the police … as swaggering thugs. The police and the minority being arrested often share mutual terror. As the person being arrested struggles or flees the police officers’ fear spikes. It is unusual for police to be seriously harmed during arrests, and far more likely that the suspect will be harmed, but every police officer is told multiple stories about situations in which a police officer was hurt or killed during what seemed to be a routine arrest. As humans, we are primed to respond to narrative, not statistics.”

Adding to the narrative of the black predator is the more recent terrorism saga. The police must not only arm themselves but also engage in careful surveillance lest terrorists strike. Yet this narrative has many holes, including especially the wide range of dissent read as “terrorism.” In an article in the online journal Theory and Event, Utah State political theorist Steven Johnston points out: “American police, of course, do not appreciate politics exercised on the streets, perhaps especially when it’s conducted by minorities—whether racial, economic, or otherwise. Since the late 1960s in Los Angeles, local police have created military-style assault forces to deal not only with all manner of crime, but also, and more importantly, with whatever political opposition, dissent, resistance, or tumult may be developing in the community. Los Angeles invented SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams in response to the urban uprisings in Watts in the mid-1960s. They were first deployed as part of an ongoing war against the Black Panther Party…”

Militarization has always been aimed at repressing possible coalition of poor blacks and white supporters aiming for basic reform/transformation of the capitalist system. Thus repressive tactics have been aimed not only at Black protest but also at demonstrators against so- called free trade agreements as well as Occupy protests in NYC and elsewhere. And while low level street crime and reformist protest have evoked a military response, no law enforcement agency has even charged let alone convicted even one of the investment bankers who have inflicted an estimated $21 trillion loss on the US economy.

Nonetheless, Blacks have had to face the most extreme and continuing repression, reflecting this long-standing stereotype of the predatory black male. Wayne State University art historian Dora Apel comments: “in a country where racial equality has yet to be achieved, blackness itself is regarded as a threat, especially if you are young and male.”

As conservative pundit Ben Stein openly said of Michael Brown on Newsmax, “He wasn’t unarmed. He was armed with his incredibly strong, scary self.”

Blackness itself evokes white racial anxiety and the need to contain and control that anxiety through racist repression. These stereotypes have been used to justify more militarization, thereby increasing levels of distrust. More recently, that repression has been coupled with an ongoing assault on the right to vote, the consequence of which is a deprivation of Blacks’ opportunities to contest repression through the ballot box.

That assaults on voting rights, demonstrations on trade, banks bailouts and foreclosures may damage working class whites’ economic interests as well seems less compelling than their place in the racial hierarchy within the current US capitalist order. In this context NakedCapitalism.com editor Yves Smith speculates that the more aggressive targeting of Blacks and their neighborhoods occurring now is: “the outward manifestation of deep seated white fears that demographic changes assure that in the not-to-distant future, they will no longer be the majority in the US.” Fears in many cases may go deeper even than concern about the coming minority demographic status. Perceiving urban Blacks as predatory “takers” at war with hard working family men stills doubts working class whites’ may hold regarding their place in society and the sacrifices demanded by this capitalist order.

The situation, however, is not static. For good or ill politics seldom stands still. Growing skepticism about drug and terror wars opens up possibilities. Funds spent on foreign wars might better go to our decaying urban infrastructure, creating jobs that would improve the quality of urban life for all.

The tensions between police and urban Blacks are one more reason to suspend the war on drugs. It has fostered dangerous encounters as inner city residents are inclined to do whatever it takes to escape the police, who in turn feel threatened.

American history also might be revisited. Johnston reminds us: “Once upon a time, resistance formed a (more) regular part of the American political tradition. Most Americans think of the founding of the country in highly romantic, even melodramatic terms: thirteen small colonies suffering from terrible oppression joined together to defeat the world’s greatest empire … While there is no gainsaying the stunning achievement of the Revolutionary War, there were elements of the resistance prior to the fighting that have been largely sanitized … We tend to think of the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party… as quintessential patriots … We do not think of them as criminals who resorted to violence against property to help achieve their political aims….”

In this context it is important to discuss looting in ways that might foster broader coalitions. Private and public sector pensions — including police pensions — are under attack, often because of losses inflicted on municipal governments by fraudulently marketed swaps and other derivative instruments. This looting exceeds by orders of magnitude any during recent demonstrations. Democratic politics could expose these abuses and advance employment security, expand free time, and provide healthcare and retirement benefits for police. With more time and resources to develop their own individual interests police as well as many others may come to respect and protect the growing diversity of contemporary life.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. Email Jbuell@acadia.net.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2015


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