Violent Cops Don’t Care About Black and Brown People’s Innocence
A few days ago, a video of an undercover cop pulling his gun on Jose Arreola, whom he suspected of shoplifting $1.19 of Mentos made the rounds on social media. Arreola had withdrawn cash from the store ATM and was waiting for change for a twenty after having paid for his purchase. While waiting, he slipped the packet of Mentos into his pocket, and that was enough for the police officer to draw down.
Much was made of Arreola having been a paying customer (it’s how I learned the details). But what if he had been shoplifting the Mentos? Is the misappropriation of a dollar’s worth of candy a good enough reason to pull a gun on another human being and risk escalating matters so much that a human life is taken? The brutality of the act of pulling the gun in the first place needs far more examination. As does the policy of arming officers at all when so many of them continue to demonstrate that they lack the temperament and judgment to shoulder the responsibility. I mean, look at the casual way he pulls the pistol out of his sweatshirt.
Perceived innocence (which is often racially coded) shouldn’t be what protects citizens from state-sponsored violence — their human and civil rights should suffice. There is a reason victims are smeared after a sworn officer of the law guns them down or chokes the life out of them. If they weren’t “innocent,” then they had it coming. We need to stop accepting this toxic framing, and that’s what we’re doing every time we focus on the victims having done nothing wrong. I understand why we do this. I do it too, and if I had to go and identify my family member down at the morgue, I sure as hell would want the world to know they did nothing to deserve their extra-judicial execution. But them being innocent was never going to save their lives, and arguing that it should have is missing a larger point: the police shouldn’t be killing anyone unless they absolutely have to. That license society gives them, the feeling that they can is part of what is driving this. This is too much power for these men and women to wield, and it needs to be clawed back. We also need to keep shining a light on what ends this power truly serves.
Innocence or guilt has little bearing on who is deemed dangerous enough for a cop to shoot to death. In perhaps the most egregious example, after slaughtering nine Black churchgoers, the perpetrator of the Charleston massacre was bought Burger King following his uneventful capture. So many White mass killers, so many White cop killers, who have shown themselves to be armed and deadly manage to be taken into custody without a single shot being fired. American police know how to take people alive, and they are choosing not to. How can a traffic stop escalate into an officer pumping bullets into a car with a child in the backseat, while bringing in an armed mass murderer remains peaceful? It’s racism. But it’s also about the cataclysmically awful decision so many cops make to pull their guns out hastily. Situations often devolve quickly and tragically when firearms are involved — these killing machines make bad choices catastrophic and turn misapprehensions into death warrants.
The United States is awash in guns, but when an American is killed by a stranger, a third of the time, that stranger is a cop. Law enforcement is part of the problem of gun violence, and how racialized policing has always been in America makes officers a particular threat to Black Americans. While I understand the calls for more and better training, that’s not enough. The principles underlying the entire system need to be interrogated by the public. All the assumptions need to be challenged, including whether or not police departments should exist at all.
Is it really necessary for an armed officer to intervene when a packet of mints is stolen? Why do police tactics so often place protecting property above human safety? Why is violence part and parcel of policing? And yes, pulling a loaded firearm on someone is an act of violence, one that can deeply traumatize a person. Not having shot someone afterwards shouldn’t get anyone a pat on the back. Citizens walking or driving away from encounters with police collapsed in relief over not have been shot to death is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong in a society. Living in terror that a routine encounter with law enforcement could end in your execution is not freedom.
And why are there so many “routine” encounters with police? How many of them are necessary to keep the peace, and how many are cash grabs in the form of tickets and citations? How many are ginning up arrest stats to meet quotas? How many are power moves, cops flexing on a population they’ve been tasked with keeping under the heels of their boots? The DOJ report on its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department shows the force’s deliberate predation on the city’s poor, Black residents. I mean, look at the language we’re conditioned to accept: a police department is called a “force.” These choices aren’t benign, and they’re meant to induce a posture of frightened deference from the citizenry.
Given this framework, what sort of candidates does police work attract? Perhaps, the sort of person who believes standing up to protect citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure is an attack on law enforcement.
The Sergeants Benevolent Association of the NYPD isn’t joking when they rail self-righteously against having to be bound by the Constitution, and the sentiment expressed isn’t an outlier among American police. These people firmly believe they are above the laws they are meant to enforce — that’s why they’re so comfortable being loud and wrong about their duties in public. Police officers have been caught on tape busting protesters’ heads open, planting drugs on Black and Brown teenagers, choking the life out of Black citizens in broad daylight, and raining hails of bullets into unarmed Black men. And then there’s the matter of the rate of domestic abuse being two to four times higher among law enforcement than the general population. The absence of consequences for this behavior demonstrates that the “bad apples” argument is a falsehood. The entire system and culture are rotten.
America is a White supremacist, settler-colonial nation whose wealth was built on the genocide of its indigenous population and the chattel slavery of kidnapped Africans. These are crimes so great, there can be no true redress. And this is at the heart of what plagues much of the nation’s White majority: fear of retribution. They fear turn-about being fair play. It’s what all the bizarre, gun-worshipping, Rambo-inspired narratives are really about. In their minds, they’re living on the brink of being overrun by hordes of violent savages bent on rape and pillage. It’s projection. And, make no mistake, that fear is racialized. It’s why the same people who were ranting about “tyranny” and Obama’s non-existent “FEMA camps” cheer Trump’s very real ICE raids and always find a way to blame the victim whenever a video of police killing an unarmed person of color makes the rounds. So long as the people being hunted, penned like animals, and slaughtered aren’t White, it’s all right. But the more violence is perpetrated against these people, the greater the fear of retaliation becomes.
American policing was shaped by this fear. Slave patrols formed the roots of policing in America, and brutalizing Black people (Black men in particular) into submission remains one of its primary goals, superseded only by the protection of White property and maintaining control over stolen indigenous lands. The nation’s inability to have an honest conversation about race based on the principles of truth and reconciliation means this fear will continue to fester. The changing demographics of the country — the diminishment of the White majority — are what is driving this new wave of hysteria, as was fragile White egos having to endure the attack of a Black President. And the police are on the frontline of beating back this encroaching non-Whiteness. It’s why being Black while sitting in a Starbucks for two minutes or not waving at a White woman when leaving your Air BnB is cause enough to deploy a phalanx of police and a helicopter.
Apartheid is encoded into the DNA of America, and it no longer being de jure doesn’t mean much to the people having to suffer the indignity of living under it. The violent over-policing of non-White communities, particularly Black communities, isn’t some misunderstanding that “implicit bias training” is going to fix. What is happening is intentional, and its goal is to maintain the segregation of the races. It is about preserving White spaces. It is also about maintaining the underclass required for capitalism to flourish. America’s police are the storm troopers of this living dystopia. In order for this apartheid to be abolished and for the descendants of slaves in America finally to enjoy the full privileges and immunities of citizenship, the nation’s police have to be disarmed and eventually disbanded.