“Police” “Reform:” An intervention into an inadequate idea, and where we can go from here

 The following is the best outline of my take on the current situation regarding police violence, the ongoing protests, and how they fit in with the larger situation we now find ourselves in that I could produce in time to be of use. I urge everyone to check out Glen Ford’s latest at Black Agenda Report, as well. There is a link to the article at the end of this post, or use the one to the right.

The spontaneous uprisings taking place throughout the US in the wake of the death of George Floyd call for a general examination of the common American understanding of police brutality and criminal justice reform – specifically, the inadequacy of that understanding. There are, of course, those who do have a more thorough understanding of this issue – but you won’t see them consulted in any context where their words might reach an audience.

To begin with the present – the case of George Floyd is among the most clear cut and undeniable examples of casually deployed excessive force in my lifetime. To reference my own experience, in the 11 years I spent working in security and emergency management I was obliged to complete several training programs that were originally designed for police before being modified for use by healthcare, residential and higher ed. private security. Every single one of them not only did not include any technique even remotely similar to the horrific images of Mr. Floyd with the knee of the infamous “officer” on his neck, all actually went out of their way to explicitly state that under no circumstances should any weight ever be placed on a subject’s neck. In other words there is absolutely no credible possibility for Chauvin to claim he was trained to do what he did, and if it were to turn out that Minneapolis did teach its officers to do what Chauvin did, it would only serve to indict the entire department at the deepest level. This has resulted in considerably less knee jerk defense of the police in this case relative to many past cases. Unfortunately, it hasn’t changed the mainstream view of police brutality or criminal justice reform. In general, commentary about these events appears to come from those most distant from the reality on the ground and/or the well-meaning but poorly informed love and unity will heal us crowd. The limit of easily accessible discourse will be police reform, with perhaps a fringe mention of those who want to abolish or defund police departments. Some circles will consider it extremely important to note that or decide if individual police can be good people/not racist/not part of the problem. Still others will talk about Trump, or go on at length about how racism is America’s original sin or built into the nation’s DNA, or something white people must confront in themselves. But the limit of practical action will be police reform, unless the uprisings succeed in making it go farther. Hopefully they will succeed, because the nebulous concept of “police reform” is, and never has been, equal to the needs of the moment. That’s not to say it isn’t worthwhile to implement reforms; but it’s delusional to think that reforming police departments will actually solve the problem. Sure, it’s better than nothing … but nothing is a pretty low bar.

To add a personal note before I really get into it, I spent quite a lot of time being mocked as a “rent-a-cop” while working security before I finally managed to get into another line of work. George Floyd was also a security guard, and likely heard the same. In light of his murder by the “real” cops, surely all of those who thought nothing of laying into a guy who needed a job and took the one that was available would now have to acknowledge that the rent-a-cops kept them a lot safer than the “real” ones.

Police work is always brutal

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. -Anatole France

The central flaw in the police reform thesis is the fantasy that police work can be done without brutality. It can’t. To explain, a true story: around three and a half years ago, my fiancé and I went to a supermarket north of Boston. As we arrived, a man exited with a cart full of food, pursued by a clerk and the police officer working the detail commonly requested by that particular store. The man ignored the officer’s commands to stop. The officer then brought the man to the ground and placed him in handcuffs. My fiancé took video of the incident with her phone, in case any brutality should occur. (It’s worth noting that the clerk told the officer “she’s recording!” He clearly didn’t know it was perfectly legal to do so and was surprised when the officer said that was fine). The man on the ground, like George Floyd, said he couldn’t breathe. Unlike in Minneapolis, the officer at this incident wasn’t a killer, never touched the man’s neck, and appeared to do everything by the book. My fiancé was convinced she’d caught an incident of police brutality on video. She was both right and wrong. I’ll explain here what I explained to her then: The officer she witnessed did things properly – with no excessive force and no injury to the suspect – and it was still brutal. That’s what “reformers” can’t confront about the truth of police work; the bottom line is that a cop’s job is to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. There is no way to do that that is not brutal. There are more violent and less violent ways to do it, sure – but all of them involve a core brutality. Deep down, we all understand that, yet many imagine we can reform the brutality out of forcing people to do something against their will. The reality is that all societies tolerate a level of brutality in law enforcement, because there is no way, really, to have NONE of it. The only real path out is democratic control of law enforcement, so that that force is deployed only in cases where the society being policed deems it appropriate or necessary. We don’t have that control, because our people do not make our laws.

To return to the example of the arrest my fiancé and I witnessed, the root of the brutality in that arrest – an arrest that went by the book without excessive force and with an immediate end to force when the suspect’s resistance stopped – did not come from a rogue cop, or corruption, or racism (both the cop and the suspect where white in this case). It came from the law itself, because ours is a society that has made it illegal to steal food. Bear in mind who needs to steal food – the law itself is a brutality against the poor. The brutality in that incident existed outside of the actions of that one officer. Had he done the same to a rapist or a hedge fund fraud, I don’t think my fiancé would have considered it brutal (and I would probably have considered it not brutal enough). The brutality came from the use of force where force was not called for, not from improper execution of force. You can reform police work all you want, but if you don’t change THE LAW ITSELF, there will be a limit beyond which you will never progress. The law protects property and profits. It does not protect the people from hunger, because the people do not make the laws. And so a man north of Boston was arrested with nothing that would meet the legal definition of brutality, and it was still a brutal act, a brutal act that began with a system of laws designed by and for capitalists, set in motion a century ago with the stroke of a pen, not three and a half years ago outside a supermarket north of Boston. The final brutality in the exchange was the realization that the cop himself was separated from the arrestee by the space of one layoff, and the true beneficiaries were the owner of the supermarket and whatever professional managerial class DA got to add another conviction to his or her self-interested careerist resume. Reforming police operations and tactics is not sufficient.

The cop and “criminal” class vs. the legal PMC … and each other

(enter the rant)

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. -Upton Sinclair

For one, I want to give the residents of Ferguson the knowledge there are some police that do support them. The second thing, I want to try to get a message to mainstream America that the system is corrupt, that police really are oppressing not only the black community, but also the whites. They’re an oppressive organization now controlled by the one percent of corporate America. Corporate America is using police forces as their mercenaries.

-Retired Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis, when asked why he was supporting the protesters in Ferguson, MO.

It is no coincidence that mainstream discourse rarely recognizes the inadequacy of police reform as a goal. To go deeper would result in a serious indictment of the criminal justice system beyond the point of arrest. Remember, the cop on the street is an entry level drone whose part in the larger scam ends when the paperwork reaches the lawyers. The arrestee’s freedom generally ends as the result of a plea bargain (very few cases actually go to trial) reached by dropping charges the suits never planned on seriously pursuing anyway in exchange for guilty pleas on others. Sometimes the arrestee then goes to a private for profit prison where he or she functions as a source of revenue (in payments from the state) and cheap labor (the 13th amendment outlawing slavery contains language that exempts prisons. In other words, slavery is still legal in prisons. The implications of this are not complicated, nor are they even limited by race, as America’s original chattel slavery was). The thing is, the professional-managerial class (PMC) includes virtually the whole of the legal system above the level of the cops. They don’t want reform beyond the level of police procedure for several reasons: First, they believe in their own merit and their own expertise. Their system couldn’t possibly be part of the problem, just look at all the fancy degrees on their office walls! Besides, they’ve learned how to navigate the careerist paths of the justice system, and reform might change what those are – which could derail their PMC salary and social capital gravy train. Second, of course the cops are 100% of the problem – they’re filthy blue collar types who didn’t go to expensive schools! Third, if the drive for reform reaches their level, it might also go beyond – to the law itself. Their bosses don’t want that, and like good professionals, they do the job they were hired to do – even when they aren’t white. (Kamala Harris? Harris? Bueller?)

This clash, where a class divide separates the police from those above them, yet fails to unite them with those they arrest is where much of the human tragedy of this situation unfolds. Here there is a commonality between cops, those they arrest, actual criminals, soldiers, protesters, and other emergency responders. (This wording is no accident; I absolutely do consider protesters to be emergency first responders every bit as important as EMTs or firefighters. Political fires generally consume more than the regular kind, after all). All of these groups find themselves living within the contradictions created by the larger system. As covered above, the laws are written to protect property and profit. The system that administers the laws is constructed to benefit the PMC types who run it. When this structure breaks down by design or under the weight of its contradictions, the powers that be rely on cops (among others) to occupy the gap so those above them can pretend it isn’t there. And so cops, like protesters, like the marginalized, like actual criminals, like soldiers, like many other emergency response types quickly understand how it feels to be sent out to the fringes of society where the system breaks down, make difficult moral choices with inadequate information, then return to be judged by those who did not. Consider Amy Cooper, the so called “Central Park Karen,” a member of the centrist professional class who was so woke, she went out of her way to use the politically correct “African American” instead of black while she was abusing 911 to make a violent racist threat by proxy against a man who had done absolutely nothing wrong. It’s not hard to picture her viewing the George Floyd murder footage with disgust for the violent blue collar Chauvin, who she nevertheless depends on to sustain her social position and keep her walks in the park free of undesirables. Every protester in the street right now who challenges police, or throws a brick or a water bottle or whatever, then turns on the evening news to see some latte liberal commentator who’s never missed a meal or faced arrest drop syrupy thick lip service about how important the protests are followed immediately by judgmental finger wagging about violence knows this feeling, too. The tragedy is that it rarely forms a basis for common ground or personal revelation. Instead, police usually circle the wagons, nursing resentful feelings for their superiors and feelings of betrayal by the public, who they imagine should be thanking them. After all, many cops are cops because they bought into the “protect and serve” rhetoric; cognitive dissonance and mental gymnastics serve to justify problems. Or they resign, or keep their heads down and count the days until retirement. Or they were always crooked or violent. In the end, this usually quells the potential spark of understanding that might otherwise offer us a more direct way forward. Cops, despite being united in social class and circumstances with those they are unleashed against seldom realize they are being used. Their pay and future prospects have been structurally arrayed to encourage them not to realize it, even as they often resent their handlers. This is why so many cops reach eagerly for Trumpian conspiracy nonsense about “outside agitators” or antifa. This allows them to explain why there’s so much anger against them without having to confront how they are used, what role they play, and most upsetting, how they are structurally placed in that role no matter how they as individuals see their work. What this means, of course, is that if the law and the legal apparatus were not constructed to create this contradiction, it would not be there. We could turn the page on alienation among the police and the policed – if our people made our laws, if our justice system pursued truth over convictions, if our prison system had no place for slavery or profit, and if we didn’t insist on locking up more people than any other nation. Sadly, sudden mass solidarity from serving police officers is unlikely due precisely to the cognitive dissonance encouraged in police themselves by their professional environment. While it is understandable, even admirable on a personal level that one may call for love and understanding, or cite stories of individual police and protesters agreeing or getting along, this understanding will be as effective as a kick against a brick building if it is not supported by larger structural change. A moment only lasts a moment, no matter how emotionally poignant it might be. No amount of nice moments will save us.

Decorum vs. Deeds, Woke pseudo-protestant confession vs. Actual work

or

Conservatives are paralyzed, Liberals are terrible

Nonviolence is fine as long as it works. -Malcolm X

You may delay, but time will not. -Benjamin Franklin

History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals. -Malcolm X

It doesn’t take a brilliant analyst to determine that neither liberals nor conservatives will produce a solution to the current situation. Conservatives are generally either with Trump and the police state agenda or opposed to him not because they object to violence or racism or repression, but because his version of that project is insufficiently neoconservative and too rude. Liberals, meanwhile, have retreated into the world of decorum, confident that a “return to normalcy” is possible if only we could just speak kindly to each other. These are the alleged reformers in the room. Joe Biden, who recently pushed the ridiculous Hollywood fantasy of “shoot them in the leg” is the apparent savior here? Anyone who knows anything about guns or marksmanship training knows that it’s hard to shoot someone in the leg. That’s why police and military train to aim for “center mass,” the largest, easiest target. Even the elite snipers of right wing militarist wet dreams don’t “go for the headshot, bro!” in the manner of some online gamer. They too aim for center mass. There’s also the matter of the femoral artery. And the popliteal artery. And the anterior tibial artery. And the peroneal artery. And the posterior tibial artery. (ok, I’ll stop there. We only have so much space). In short, shooting someone in the leg is not a nonlethal option. It just means bleeding to death marginally more slowly. Not to mention the larger implication – that the one we’re supposed to back so he can save us from Trump has literally just proposed that we should combat police brutality by asking police to shoot at slightly less vital areas. That’s American liberals for you; the solution to racialized capitalist oppression by militarized police is to have the police not hit quite so hard. Our alleged savior still wants to hit us. Thank god the American liberals of today weren’t around during the interwar years. They’d probably have argued we should’ve backed Goering to oppose Hitler. Look at the way liberals discuss police violence – racism is the only factor they recognize, and for them it ends the conversation. Bad things happen because of racism. It’s as though they believe racism is an eternal and natural law; they pronounce odd pseudo-Protestant confessions and describe racism as sin. They do not examine it. They do not investigate its history. They do not acknowledge that it was absent from much of human history and they do not study its origins in Victorian “scholarship” that mysteriously classified everyone the British colonized or dominated or wanted to as “afro-asiatic” races, including Native Americans, Slavs and the Irish. How convenient for them. I guess it’s easier to confess an original sin and keep your wealth than it is to study history, discover there are material causes we can identify, break them down and admit that racism can be defeated … as long as we’re also willing to defeat the conditions that produced it. But that would mean no more capitalism, and it looks like when push comes to shove, the liberals aren’t willing to go there. They’d rather pretend racism can only be fought through education, that it’s an idea with a life of its own, that somehow if every white person succeeds in some kind of new age guided meditation to face down The Beast Within™, these problems will magically go away (and if they don’t go away it just means the deplorables didn’t “work on themselves,” because as we know, impoverished victims of outsourcing with no money and no power can magically sustain a retrograde social order by failing to believe hard enough while having less melanin than someone else. But wealthy, powerful woke centrist libs couldn’t possibly be part of the problem, no). They will not do what is needed to allow all to see the idea of racism fail the test of reality. They will not actually level the playing field, because they are not willing to give up the USA’s internal colonies. They will not come to terms with the mechanisms through which racism and the class system are mutually reinforcing, because admitting that means admitting that both must be defeated if either is to be destroyed. They will not redistribute wealth. They will not share power. They will not even permit an open and honest primary election, as they’ve now proven twice. They’ve even bought off what the folks over at Black Agenda Report call the “black misleadership class.” That’s corporate thinking for you – spot a problem, hire a manager who specializes in solving it. Real efficient.

Malcolm X once pointed out – rightly – that both the Republican and Democratic parties are racist. The difference today is that Republican racists find their muse in Chauvin, while Democrat racists find theirs in Amy Cooper, who so wokefully controlled her vocabulary while threatening to call her local Chauvins to perform violence for her. Neither the sitting president calling for the military to occupy US cities nor the presumptive “opposition” leader who crafted most of the repressive and racist legislation currently in place to prop up private prisons and defend the capitalist order will do anything to help anyone outside their club unless they absolutely have to. The murder of George Floyd is about police violence, yes; but it is also about much more. It is about the social conditions that foster police violence, the incentives built into the legal system that encourage police misconduct such as evidence planting and other frame-ups, it is about the laws themselves that criminalize behavior more likely to be necessary for the poor and working class – black people, of course, are more likely to be poor or working class due to the history of racist oppression they are still forced to carry with them – and it is about the drive to prop up the prevailing economic order; the drive to protect profit. We the people are beaten four times by the same stick; we are beaten as workers by exploitation, then as citizens by a rigged politics, then many of us as minorities by racism, our internal colonialism, and again through our police themselves as they are cynically used to do the elite’s dirty work, then return afterwards to our communities, where they have married our sisters and daughters, live among us, and slowly grow inhuman as their masters knowingly push them beyond the limits of human psychology to punish their own people. There is no shelter from the causes or consequences of police violence, even in the ranks of the police themselves. The only ones who appear to suffer no ill effects are those who directly benefit from the system violent policing defends – a comparatively small number of mostly wealthy and mostly white elites. There are many who echo the wishful thinking of some of these elites, those calls to defend the rule of law, for example. Unfortunately, the law itself is part of the problem here. Much of it would need to be changed, because the aim and orientation of the law in who, what and how it regulates forms the starting point of the larger legal system that requires police violence in the first place. Even calls to abolish or defund the police ultimately have to face the reality that if new institutions for law enforcement replace the police, they are likely to become quite similar to the police if the current structure and incentives of the legal system and the content of the law remains the same. Any solution that only addresses police will not be enough. It may be better than nothing, at least in the short term, but the same structural incentives to develop the situation we have now will in time just produce that situation again. When an institution becomes entrenched, it is no longer as simple as swapping out “bad” people for “good” ones. An institution is a social technology that has the capacity to change the environment in which we live – that is why we establish them. However, this also means that they set incentives that shape us as well, because we then respond to the changed environment. Plugging “good” people into a system that incentivizes them to be something other than “good” only produces resigned alienation, despair, or adaptation according to the incentives, i.e. they become “bad.” We need to do more than reshuffle personnel or change procedures that can then be changed back.

You show me a capitalist, and I’ll show you a bloodsucker. -Malcolm X

As for the rule of law, it’s a nice idea. But it matters how we get those laws. The man the US government called “Uncle Joe” for a while in the forties once famously said “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” Apart from being eerily relevant in the era of closed box proprietary electronic voting machines, this observation is easily adapted to address the stumbling block in the rule of law. The law rules nothing. Those who make the laws rule everything. The rule of law is, ultimately, the rule of those who make the laws. As noted earlier, our people do not make our laws. This means that even a complete overhaul of police procedure and the larger legal system will provide only temporary relief unless 1. The laws are re-written from some sort of post-capitalist perspective and 2. Our government and electoral process becomes actually democratic so that the political and class forces that have for so long dominated our legislative process can no longer do so, so they can’t simply roll back whatever reforms we achieve. That this even needs to be done, incidentally, proves we haven’t actually had a democratic society for a very long time.

The rule of law and the specter of Victor Serge:

The laws are always burning

There is a brilliant scene in Victor Serge’s famous novel depicting uprisings and unrest in Europe in the wake of World War I, including the Russian Revolution, Birth of Our Power. During the Russian Civil War, the protagonists are taken by the young Bolshevik government to new housing, as were many who were displaced during the war. They are given an apartment that was once the residence of a lawyer in the days of the Tsar. With shelter now accounted for, they begin to search the apartment and soon realize that the winter cold will still be a danger – until one of them starts a fire in the fireplace. When the others rush in, wondering how he accomplished this, he indicates a dusty bookshelf containing the vast catalogue that was the old imperial legal code, volume upon volume of the laws of what was once a continent spanning empire, deemed eternal and unbreakable. He says simply, “The laws are burning.” In that moment of total social upheaval in which the old order had fallen, but the new was not yet solidified, what did the law mean? What really creates order in a society on a day to day basis? To use a less lofty example, what stands between you and victimization of some kind anytime you’re in an elevator with someone else alone? Does the law actually prevent the other person from harming you? Not really, no. It’s a piece of paper that may as well be a million miles away. What protects us most of the time is the good will, or at least the absence of ill will, in those around us. If we are concerned about public safety, our first duty is to foster material conditions that make good will possible. There is a great story from the Russian Civil War I first heard from a UMass professor years ago that always stuck with me. An unemployed woman is discovered stealing food from a bakery to feed her child in a town held by the Reds. She is brought before the commanding officer of the unit stationed in the town. The soldier escorting her explains the accusations and evidence against her. He then says “Let justice be swift.” The woman is convinced she is going to be shot, but the commanding officer says “You shall be provided with housing for you and your child and we will give you a job in the bakery. Justice is done.”

What if, three and a half years ago at a supermarket north of Boston, the arresting officer had instead charged the groceries in the man’s cart to a public account, then scheduled a follow up visit by a social worker empowered to find that man a job under the terms of a federal job guarantee? Impossible, as long as the law exists to defend property and profit. It’s telling that the crime George Floyd was accused of was passing a counterfeit $20 bill (if he did, he almost certainly didn’t know it, as is usually the case when that happens). Chauvin may have acted outside the letter of the law when he murdered Floyd, but he was acting in the spirit of the law – to defend property and profit at all costs. Using a fake $20 bill is a nonviolent crime by any definition. It is the first line most obvious example of a crime that could be addressed at a later date with no immediate action and no physical aggression. It creates no need for an urgent response of any kind. It’s debatable in the era of instant trillion dollar bailouts and artificial scarcity that passing a counterfeit bill even necessarily hurts anyone at all unless we decide it should. This situation did not need to exist in the first place; our religious defense of property and profit conjured it, then Floyd’s race and class signified to a corrupt institution that he was safe to abuse, that he would have no power to resist. Now the establishment is trying to cram justified anger back into the bottle and is at war with itself over which of its institutions to undermine to bail itself out if we won’t stand down. Who has the power now?

I will leave you with the closing line of Glen Ford’s recent article over at Black Agenda Report. I highly recommend you read it.

“When things seem like they’re coming apart, we need to ask: for whom? It may be that things are finally coming together. All power to the people!”

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