To understand why police violence works, we must turn to capitalism and how it created modern policing and how that always meant that black lives never mattered. As a result, it means that those who argue for "All Lives to Matter" don’t matter either.
by Martin McKinney
Anyone who has ever had a beer with me knows that I am not much for religion. I do attend church, but I struggle with institutional structure in general and for that reason, I back away from religious conversations and sermonizing. But I've always been enamored of the story of Jesus on the cross where the thief professes his guilt, and begs for Jesus' release, saying, "for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." I always wonder how he knew that Jesus was innocent of the crimes for which he had been convicted. Where was he when the persecution was occurring? Was he awaiting his own execution in some prison, and if so, how did he know that Jesus was innocent if he was indeed in jail?
As the nation reels from yet more killings of black men at the hands of the police, this Jesus on the cross story returned to the top of my mind. It became clear to me that the consideration that Jesus was given, likely by a person who was in prison during the height of his ministry, was not extended to Alton Sterling and Philandro Castillo, or the millions of people who are routinely accosted by the police, in jails, detention centers, prisons, on street corners, in their homes and in other places frequented for their daily business. In other words, this thief had looked at the crimes for which Jesus was executed from the perspective of the accused, not the accuser.
Police officers routinely approach us with war like precision, demanding uncompromising deference and with an assumption of guilt, reasoning that our compliance is the currency that saves us from fatal encounters.
Police officers routinely approach us with war-like precision, demanding uncompromising deference and with an assumption of guilt, reasoning that our compliance is the currency that saves us from fatal encounters. Police officers often join together to promote their own lawlessness without question, never seeking to calm one another, instead simply joining in the melee. Our courts reinforce this behavior by presuming the objectivity and goodness of police, and the perilous nature of the job. We need not get into the statistics about the perilous nature of the job, which is safer than it's ever been.
Policing in this nation has always been one of suppression. It was borne out of the need to restrict the possibility of slaves revolting. It was gangs of white men, called "pattyrollers," who ran around with guns, and the state as an enabler, saying "we are here to protect the good (white) citizens of Anywhere, America." Imagine my surprise when I heard the Dallas police chief say "police risk their lives to protect freedom of expression and other rights." This is a black police officer. It occurred to me, in that moment, that an effective way of crushing dissent is to appeal to people's sense of police heroizing.
I still come back to the cross story, because I reason that if the thief was in jail, and Jesus was throwing over tables, rebuking religious folks and turning water to wine, all high crimes for the time, why would he, the thief, throw his life in front of Jesus in an attempt to protect it? I wondered if I were in the same situation, would I throw my life in front of some guy, who someone told me was, except for a few run-ins with the law, deserving to have his life preserved? I will not answer that, but know that I'm not significantly courageous.
The creation of a ravaging neoliberal agenda, joined with unchecked capitalism, has created an economic tinderbox for people around the world, including people in the West. We are literally fighting for scraps as our nations begin to more and more resemble oligarchies, where a million people are controlling the vast sums of the wealth, and the rest of us are fighting for what remains. Everything around us, from our criminal justice systems to even our means for connecting romantically, is being financialized, which only serves to add pressure to already economically insecure households. Our schools are being defunded, and we are being trained that government is not supposed to level the playing field, but that it is supposed to continue to retreat while the damage gets worse and profit is the sole motive, even while police budgets continue their outsized growth. We in the West are continually asking for more, while some of us are advocating for more for the global South. Few of us are thinking of how to find enough: that for today, I will have simply what I need.
We should want police officers who recognize that this nation was born out of protest, violent protest.
In this global push for more, we are all fighting to not be at the bottom of the barrel, and those at the rim have enlisted our police forces against us as enforcers of status quo, cloaked in statements of protecting nonincendiary free speech, peaceful protest, all while we fight to cobble together, through multiple jobs, what we need to meet escalating costs of necessities. These police are armed with the heaviest armor, the latest equipment, the fastest wheels, a quick temper, and a justice system that is so efficient that they can have you in and out, metaphorically, of course, faster than you can go through the express line at the grocery store. And be damned if you think you want to fight it out, the system is designed to entrap you, bankrupt you and destroy your reputation. I don't want to end mass incarceration; that presumes that the system is good. I want to tear it down and build it again with the hearts and complexity of people in mind, not the needs of capital.
This system is designed to suppress us all, but it deftly uses racism to further its goals. It is assured that the masses will fall into the loving arms of white supremacist thinking to feed itself. It knows that spit-dripping racists will embrace a justice system that uses blackness as currency, never recognizing that they too are at the receiving end of the gun scope. It knows that progressives will call for reforms that protect the outlines of the system, and thus maintain what reform reveals about their implied bias. It knows that the workers in the criminal justice system will do what it takes to maintain the system because they've got to eat. And it knows that marginalized communities, in their quest to get a piece of the pie, a pie with a giant hole in the center, will join with the very system that suppresses it to further pathologize itself.
Right now, we have police officers who have been enlisted to enforce law and, consequently, thinking that certain communities are inherently bad, and need to be tightly managed. These officers were the former high school omega kid and the jock alpha athlete. The one who couldn't get a job, and the one who wanted to do the job all her life. These officers are of various racial and ethnic origin. These officers are mentally healthy and others are troubled. They all share an understanding that we have invested them with power that subjects us to them. At this revelation, we should all be afraid. These officers are, on one hand, restrained by the political elite where corporate interests want to block the traffic for their events that reinforce their images, but let loose by those same elite when ordinary citizens want to block traffic to hold their government accountable. They are effective at inciting anger from the citizen who is tired and stressed at the end of the day, but knows that the frustration can be easily reserved for the co-citizen because the corporation is all too powerful.
And we should want more. Like that thief on the cross, we should want police officers that stand alongside the citizen and say "me," not "you." We should want police officers that don't want to trick us into confessing to crimes. We should want officers who find pride in never having to un-holster his weapon, or instead choosing to retreat. We should want officers who will wait as long as the person holed up in the house needs her to, as long as her life is preserved. We should want police officers who recognize that this nation was born out of protest, violent protest, and shall not maim their fellow citizens who want to do all they can to preserve the freedoms of all, or as Christopher Flowers says, "recognizing citizenship from the perspective of those who have to insurrect to achieve it!" We should want officers who, like the crew in the spacecraft, ask their families to recognize that the comet must be destroyed. We should really want officers who see value in every person they encounter; every day is meant to wipe clean yesterday's slate. And we should want prosecutors who demand that the rights of the citizen, and the expectation of the constitution, presume that the citizen is predisposed to a not-guilty verdict, just like the officer who fires his weapon and claims "it was him or me."
I'm concerned about how the political and economic elite uses this heroizing to invest police officers with outsized power to arrest and detain, in their judgment, and destroy the lives of people in the United States.
I have been accosted by police officers and just about all of my five brothers have had terrifying experiences with police officers from adolescence to adulthood. These officers have identified as black, white and brown. They have identified as male and female. I've also been helped by police officers when I was in trouble. But early in my former career, I had a supervisor, while completing my annual employment review, tell me that I would only receive an average score for attendance. This was my only average score and I was stingingly angry. Upon my request for an explanation, he said, "Martin, coming to work and doing your job is the least you can do. Why would I give you an outsized score for simply doing what you're supposed to do?” I came away from that exchange with different expectations about what it meant to show up, and also what I was entitled to as a result.
I'm concerned that we have created a climate that requires us to honor police officers simply for showing up for the job that they've agreed to do. I'm concerned that we are required to honor the lives of folks who should put their bodies between danger and us. And I'm concerned about how the political and economic elite uses this heroizing to invest police officers with outsized power to arrest and detain, in their judgment, and destroy the lives of people in the United States. We must counteract this before emerging economies further adopt these policing policies under the guise of democracy. Most importantly, we must recognize that alleviating the power of the officer on the street by opening police records, punishing bad officer behavior — even down to the ones who can't seem to wait for the traffic light to change — requiring officers to live where they work, giving citizens greater direct control over policing, and requiring officers to respect the citizen as the boss is necessary to take hold of the democracy we say we want, and honor the lives of all citizens, especially those who are most marginalized.
I am tired of policing as we know it.