The Fourth of July week was bloody and heartbreaking. Even as Chicago celebrated a less violent holiday weekend than we had endured in previous years, such “success” was promptly followed by the police killings of Alton Sterling, a thirty-seven-year-old black man, in Baton Rouge after midnight on July 5, and Philando Castile, a thirty-two-year-old black man, in the Falcon Heights suburb of St Paul, Minnesota a day later.
The holiday week concluded with more horror: a mass shooting carried out by a lone gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, who targeted Dallas police officers assigned to an anti–police brutality march. Loose talk of race war drifted through the ether and airwaves.
Unlike the phalanx of heavily armored police who routinely confront protesters in other cities, in Dallas many officers donned plain dress uniforms and did not wear flak jackets. In the end, Johnson killed five officers, and wounded six others. After an extended standoff, he was killed when police equipped a robot to deliver a bomb.
Johnson’s actions brought together all the contradictions of the seemingly intractable problem of violence in America. And in one night of carnage, he may have threatened the efforts of those who want to see the demilitarization of policing in this country, and the beginnings of real public safety.
The Orlando massacre, the rising death toll from police shootings and other violence, and the Dallas massacre are all grim reminders of how little has been done to address America’s gun problem and the interconnected problem of policing. But the aftermath of each of these events, and the outpouring of mourning and protests reflects the diverse, growing body of citizens demanding substantive changes.
Rightfully, various advocates of criminal justice reform have called for renewed struggle, and since the Dallas incident mass demonstrations and marches have been held across the country. The Dallas massacre has shifted the terrain, however, with demonstrators facing police repression in Baton Rouge, Rochester, and elsewhere over the past week, and a torrent of right-wing attacks and misinformation intended to derail any movement for reform.
How might progressive forces respond to these developments? What are some of the new social contradictions and political possibilities in the wake of Dallas and this latest wave of public debate and protests?
In the morning after the Dallas shootings, images of Johnson circulated widely, with most corporate news opting for the picture of Johnson giving a black power salute and wearing a purple dashiki, rather than photos of him in military dress. The Right has quickly seized this tragedy to discredit the wave of anti–police brutality campaigns that have spread across the country since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri two years ago.
Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the supreme booster of “broken windows” policing, was quick to attack Black Lives Matter activists, claiming that BLM is “inherently racist because, number one, it divides us.” He also chastised activists for allegedly ignoring violence within black communities and suggested that they were responsible for civilian-police conflicts because their criticism “puts a target on the backs of” police officers.
Other conservatives have echoed claims that the Obama administration and Black Lives Matter protests have created dangerous conditions for police officers. They are wrong. Policing is not the most hazardous occupation in the United States. In fact, it is not even in the top ten.
And contrary to the claim that the Obama administration — no unwavering supporter of anti–police brutality efforts — has enabled anti-police sentiment, violence against police officers has decreased during Obama’s tenure, especially when compared to the George W. Bush years. Over 70 percent of the violence against law enforcement that has occurred so far this year has been carried out by white men.
Finally, anti–police brutality struggles should not be reduced to the “movement for black lives.” Surely the hashtag and slogan, and the network of activists who align with BLM, have been instrumental in drawing national and international attention to the issue of police violence, but on the ground, protests are comprised of all manner of people representing victims’ families, traditional civil rights organizations, neighborhood and community groups, labor unions, civil liberties advocates, youth and student organizations, various left political tendencies, and solitary actors. And organizing against police brutality has a much longer lineage, one that certainly predates the birth of BLM’s millennial spokespersons.
In the hands of conservatives, Black Lives Matter has become an easy foil for dismissing a longer-standing set of struggles against police violence and mass incarceration. The willful distortions of the Right should be contested anywhere and everywhere, but our side has a few distortions of its own that need to be jettisoned.
The Isolated Gunman
In the wake of Dallas, I’ve heard some friends and acquaintances draw comparisons of Johnson’s assault on police to earlier, Black Power–era advocates of armed self-defense. As we all tried to make sense of the Dallas massacre, one academic colleague of mine made a passing reference to the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a splinter organization of the Black Panther Party, which wanted to wage guerrilla warfare and engaged in deadly skirmishes with police.
These comparisons couldn’t be less helpful or more misleading. The only similarity here is that neither the Black Liberation Army nor Micah Johnson had any popular legitimacy, not even among black people, for their armed confrontations. Aside from this immediate commonality, I think such comparison is a disservice to the BLA, whose actions grew out of more deeply held political commitments and protracted engagement with black urban social struggles during the sixties.
From what we can gather so far, Johnson has more in common with Colin Ferguson, the shooter in the 1993 Long Island Railway massacre; Christopher Dorner, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer who killed several law enforcement and civilians in a 2013 standoff; and maybe most closely, Mark Essex, an AWOL navy man with Panther sympathies who killed nine people, five of them police officers, and wounded over a dozen others in New Orleans in 1973.
All embraced sound bites and symbols of black political rhetoric, but we must reject associating their words and actions with left democratic, popular struggle, whether such comparisons come from the Right or the Left. These black mass shooters were all disturbed and out of step with the popular movements whose slogans they parroted, and the will of the majority of African Americans. Comparisons like this only aid the other side, especially at this moment of right-wing backlash and attempts to distract from the growing popular unease and opposition to libertarian gun culture.
Micah Xavier Johnson’s actions were a grotesque misrepresentation of the issues at hand, a caricature that seemed directly conjured up by the enemies of left popular struggles to transform policing in the United States. The isolated gunman is the polar opposite of the peaceful protestor. The former is alienated and seeks resolution through death, while the latter are drawn together en masse in defense of life, sharing a vision of social transformation and a better world.
In the street demonstrations and marches that have fanned out across the country over the past years from Ferguson to Baltimore, Chicago and Baton Rouge, we see a different set of values in motion — not anger, hate, and despair, but optimism, solidarity, and exuberance.
Antiracism Is Not Enough
Although the slogan “Black Lives Matter” has become a powerful rallying cry, the implicit diagnosis of the problem is limited as a means for ending the policing crisis. During the July 4 week, corporate and social media, activists, and many progressive writers focused primarily on the slaying of Sterling which was captured from multiple angles by cell phone and store surveillance videos, and the police shooting of Castile, whose girlfriend Diamond Reynolds had the presence of mind and incredible composure to begin live-streaming immediately after he was shot.
Because of the widely circulated video, the deaths of these two men became the flashpoints for street protests, but in total, ten civilians were killed by police during that week: Delrawn Small in Brooklyn, Dylan Noble in Fresno, Anthony Nuñez in San Jose, Pedro Erik Villanueva in the Canoga Park section of Los Angeles, Raul Saavedra-Vargas in Reno, Melissa Ventura in Yuma County, Arizona, Vinson Ramos in Los Angeles County, and Alva Braziel in Houston.
The deaths of five Latinos and a white youth at the hands of police were totally ignored by mainstream corporate media and some activist networks. The killing of two black victims, Small and Braziel received less attention, as well. The problem of framing here stems in part from media, whether the incident was captured on video, and how rapidly it was circulated publically, but it is also a problem of ideology.
Some have argued that there has been less mobilization around Latino deaths because in many of the communities where these conflicts occur, residents fear speaking out because of immigration status and the prospect of further state harassment.
This may be part of the problem, but the dominant framing, which presupposes that blacks are the primary, and for some, exclusive targets of mistreatment and violence by police has had the effect of mystifying social reality.
The slogan “Black Lives Matter” and the assertion from celebrities and activists that police are an “occupying army” within black communities speaks to the grim fact of systematic racial bias and concentrated risks, that blacks are killed by police at a rate twice that of whites.
Such rhetoric, however, often neglects the fact that police violence is widely felt across racial and ethnic groups. And contrary to the refrain that unlike blacks, whites can never understand what it’s like to be hyper-surveilled and policed — Marco Rubio and Newt Gingrich have now jumped on this bandwagon too — many whites do understand what it’s like because they and their families have been on the receiving end of repressive policing as well.
In fact, white victims made up a plurality of arrest-related deaths recorded in the United States in 2015 — 581 of 1146 victims, more than the raw numbers for blacks and Latinos combined. And when we isolate the rate of police killings of white Americans, they are still much higher than other mostly white nations. For instance, white Americans are twenty-six times more likely to die at the hands of police than are Germans.
Some see such facts as a distraction, a means of evading a focus on racial injustice as the core problem. They should not. These actually existing social relations should be seen as an opening for building an even broader, and potentially more powerful, coalition capable of changing the nation.
We should think through these complex social realities and develop an analysis of the root causes of the current crisis that do not limit themselves to the older discourse of the Civil Rights Movement. The scale, intensity, and nature of policing today have more immediate origins.
It is commonplace nowadays to hear many trace a direct line from the slave-catching patrols of the antebellum era through the police repression of nonviolent civil rights marchers and the urban rebellions of the late sixties to the video-recorded police killings of our current moment.
For some, policing seems to have derived almost exclusively as a means of securing white domination. As Bryan D. Palmer and others have illustrated, however, the institution of modern policing originated and evolved as a means of protecting the interests of capital more broadly, whether that meant recovering the troublesome human “property” of the Southern landlord class, or crushing worker rebellion in mines, docks, and factories during the period of industrial expansion.
The “new Jim Crow” rhetoric posits universal black injury where in fact, police violence and the carceral state are experienced more broadly across the working class, and more intensively among the most submerged segments of the black population.
It is the black poor who bear the brunt of police violence. The class character of many well-publicized police shootings of blacks is often brought to our attention through reactionary attempts to demonize the victims by pointing to their criminal convictions.
When we look closely at the biographical details of victims, a common portrait of dire material conditions comes into focus. Eric Garner sold loose cigarettes outside a storefront for income. Alton Sterling sold CDs and DVDs in front of a gas station and convenience store. Walter Scott ran away when he encountered a police officer because he was behind on child support payments, only to be shot in the back.
The unemployed, the homeless, those who work within the informal economy, or who live in zones where that economy is dominant are more likely to be regularly surveilled, harassed, and arrested. This is not to say that middle-class blacks cannot be racially profiled or victims of police abuse.
Many of us have horror stories to tell, but a black professional is less likely to face regular contact and conflict with police than an unemployed black youth or a sex worker of any color. Under the current policing regime, some black lives matter, and others do not. And if we engage in any useful class analysis, some white lives matter, and others do not.
The root cause of the contemporary policing crisis is not the prevalence of new Jim Crow racism, but rather the advent of zero-tolerance policing and prisonfare as the dominant means of managing relative surplus population in an age where the nation has abandoned the use of state power to guarantee a modicum of material comfort and worker protection from market volatility. By surplus population, I am referring to those strata of the working class who have been dispossessed and made obsolete through technological change and deindustrialization.
Of course, the revival of the liberal welfare state is itself inadequate to address the current malaise. Today’s movements must go beyond the limited social amenities extended by mid-twentieth-century capital, and create a society where there are no disposable people, and where the right to health care, education, housing, and to one’s creative capacity, leisure, and life are not determined and circumscribed by compulsory wage labor.
A first step, however, as many activists have insisted, is to decriminalize poverty and the ways that the working poor rely on the informal economy to survive.
Activists across the country have been struggling to make effective addiction treatment an alternative to incarceration. Some states have already moved towards decriminalization of marijuana possession, although in places like Chicago the law is administered in a racially biased manner with blacks receiving disproportionate misdemeanor arrests and citations.
In New Orleans, Women with a Vision and other organizations worked to end a retrograde policy of placing convicted sex workers on the sex offenders registry, a practice predicated on an archaic, two-hundred-year-old “crimes against nature” statute. This measure punished and further stigmatized working-class, minority, and trans women, making it more difficult for them to obtain housing and engage in basic activities like volunteering at their child’s school.
Activism aimed at decriminalizing the means of basic survival should be expanded, and seen as a central part of any viable pro-labor politics. We need to address inequality through public works and living wage legislation, rather than punish those who rely on the informal economy to survive.
Ending the current crisis also requires shrinking the police’s sphere of activity, and transforming how we approach mental health and other medical emergencies. There are any number of incidents, like the 2012 police shooting of Stephon Watts, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, and the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald, both in Chicago, which show why the police should be out of situations where other trained technicians are better prepared to defuse personal or domestic crises nonviolently.
The deteriorating conditions around mental and other health services are the result of decades-long raids on the public sector. We cannot expect to change the current situation, a form of policing rooted in the decimation of social welfare and municipal infrastructures, without also advancing a broader social-democratic urban agenda, addressing deep inequality in wages, education, and health.
A More Just Order
How do we develop popular consensus and political pressure capable of producing public safety standards comparable to other liberal democratic capitalist countries? The Dallas massacre is a clear reminder that there can be no end to the policing crisis without the transformation of the very notion and practice of policing.
And in this, anti–police brutality campaigns may find solidarity with police as workers. Policing emerged as a mechanism for defending capitalist property relations, but the actual working lives of police are more contradictory than this larger societal function.
Should activists pursue something akin to the old G.I. coffeehouse model, which provided a means for building anti–Vietnam War sentiment among those who bore the psychological and personal weight of its violence — the soldiers themselves?
I am not suggesting police-youth basketball leagues, precinct-level meet and greet socials, or some other means of defusing social conflict without addressing inequality, but rather sustained efforts to build opposition to the current order that would include minority law enforcement professional organizations, whistleblowers, and dissident officers, and other progressive elements who are also searching for an alternative that will make their work less hazardous and unpopular, and more meaningful.
Mass demonstrations have played a powerful role thus far in raising public consciousness and opposition, but to achieve real power, the capacity to realize a different vision of society, deeper solidarity is needed.
That will not be achieved solely through social media debates nor at the barricades, but by the less publicized, but no less crucial work of honest, patient, and sustained conversation among activists, victims’ families, and reformist elements within police unions and departments. Perhaps spaces like this can embolden internal dissent, widening the ranks of those willing to break the “blue code of silence” and counter the most vocal, reactionary police elements.
None of this is to suggest support for entrenched police unions, but it is to say that officers are neither monolithic nor devoid of internal contradictions. It is clear that some are unfit to work with the public and especially in minority and working-class communities.
Others however come to the profession out of an earnest desire to serve, and like millions of other Americans, they tolerate alienating conditions in exchange for some semblance of job security, decent pay, health care, and a pension. They often bear less visible scars of occupation, and beyond the haunting video imagery of police assaults, most of what they do in a typical day, e.g. filing reports, criminal investigations, escorting parades and funerals, providing emergency medical services, cataloging evidence, responding to domestic complaints, managing traffic incidents, etc. — are tasks which cannot be simply subsumed under the meta-narrative of state violence.
When we lose sight of either their humanity and predicament as workers, or our responsibility to provide useful analysis of our historical moment, we doom ourselves to irrelevance. We need to develop a left politics which is intimately connected to the world that we live in and yet ruthlessly dedicated to creating a more just order.
Activists around the country have proposed all manner of policy remedies for the demilitarization of police departments, such as the rerouting of funds earmarked for policing to youth programming and the revival of older ideas like community policing and civilian review boards.
Without the capacity to compel city councils or state legislatures, let alone a recalcitrant GOP-controlled Congress, these ideas will remain largely symbolic appeals.
Ruling elites in different cities have responded to mass protests through criminal charges of some accused officers, firings and suspensions, internal investigations, and technological remedies like body cameras. After Dallas, we should be especially leery of the technocratic fix, because if history is any indication, such fixes may only serve to make police violence less susceptible to democratic pressure and accountability.
Against the Technological Fix
Another disturbing dimension of the Dallas massacre, one with long-term consequences, was the use of a drone to end the standoff with Johnson. This has been reported as a first in American history. If so, it further perpetuates what has been the technological relationship between the military-industrial complex and domestic policing for some time.
The hardware of international war-making always seems to find a domestic market, cycling from foreign battlefields back to urban police departments and rural counties, and from there into the military surplus stores, gun shows, and pawn shops.
As the details of that decision become more well-known, many questions must be answered. Why wasn’t the robot equipped with non-lethal weapons, e.g. concussion grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.? Such options would have provided a way to end the standoff quickly and avoid putting officers any further in harm’s way. If as the Dallas police originally assumed, they were dealing with a group of conspirators, why wouldn’t they have tried to apprehend the suspect alive, in the hopes of securing more information and revealing others involved in the plot?
The use of a robot to end the standoff immediately reminded me of Neill Blomkamp’s 2004 short film Tetra Vaal. Here, Blomkamp workshopped the unique visual style that would become a centerpiece of films like District 9, an ultra-realistic aesthetic that employs CGI to create a likely dystopia, one that integrates futuristic technology and megacity slum conditions.
The short is presented as a corporate advertisement where Blomkamp imagines the use of robots to police the black poor in South African townships. I’ve been somewhat disappointed with Blomkamp’s bigger budget films, which despite their bold class analyses always seem to slide back into a liberal politics of individual heroism and self-actualization, but his formative short film is chilling and prophetic.
In Tetra Vaal, we glimpse a slender robotic guard patrolling township dwellers as they go about their daily lives, and they appear either acclimated to or dominated by its presence. We even momentarily view the urban landscape of traffic-choked streets, smoldering barrel stoves, goat herds, playing children, and market stalls, all from the robot’s perspective, before witnessing it engage in an intense firefight with an unseen combatant.
An unnamed narrator, perhaps the robots’ designer or maybe a corporate pitchman, reassures the viewer that unlike a highly-skilled human officer who may be affected by stress, cold, fatigue, and other conditions, this fully-automated alternative is “unbeatable.”
Scientists, military, and law enforcement personnel have debated the ethics of using robotics and artificial intelligence in the field for some time now, but with the exception of fleeting protests over the use of weaponized drones, much of the US public still sees unmanned weaponry as the realm of science fiction. What we witnessed in Dallas has troubled civil libertarians, anti-police brutality protesters, and some law enforcement officials alike, but I fear that it may be the remedy some are looking for.
The use of drones either with remote operation, artificial intelligence, or some combination of these, replaces human judgment and responsibility with algorithmic decision-making and bureaucratic detachment, potentially evading the legal morass that might stem from shootings committed by flesh-and-blood officers.
One could easily see the fiscal appeal of such technical fixes to the policing crisis for departments in places like Chicago, which has paid out $642 million since 2004 in court settlements with victims of police abuse.
We already have an exhaustive network of surveillance cameras, shot-locators, and the like throughout the urban terrain, but have we glimpsed the next phase in Dallas? And are we prepared to counter with a more humanistic and socially just vision of how to maintain public safety?
Building deep solidarity that stretches beyond mass protests and the ranks of the most “woke” activists will be crucial to achieving any real gains and bringing an effective end to the policing crisis. Despite their rhetorical power, antiracist arguments are too imprecise to describe the origins and dynamics of the current policing crisis.
Inasmuch as activists and citizens can popularize criticism of over-policing that reveals its class character and widely felt burden, they can effectively counter the divisive rhetoric of pro-policing voices on the Right, who will continue to reach into their yellowing, tattered playbook of racist blame-labeling and anti-poor invective.
We must continue to propose concrete solutions to the current crisis, those that both demand greater public oversight and department accountability, and attempt to dismantle the carceral state. As such, we must work to decriminalize poverty, and remove the various measures that penalize the poor economically and socially. At the same time, we should defend and expand progressive state interventions in the realm of labor rights, wages, education, and health care.
Progressive elements of the police may be an unexpected ally in crafting more just forms of public safety. Like other public workers, they are increasingly expendable, and subject to the same pressures of fiscal austerity, expected to “do more with less” especially in large urban jurisdictions.
Perhaps a more ominous challenge for anti-police violence organizers and reformers going forward may well be the resistance of affluent urban settlers, large real estate developers, and their politicians who rely on the current regime to secure their downtown commercial cores, gentrified zones, and tourist playgrounds.
The current policing regime was produced over the course of decades, through a powerful alliance of Republican and New Democratic politicians, anti-drug crusaders, specific business interests, and citizens’ groups, and it will take an even more powerful force to create public safety predicated on democratic accountability and nonviolence.