When Europeans invaded the American continent in the 15th and 16th centuries, they either sought to plunder the wealth of the indigenous population or to establish colonies as an extension of the war capitalism practiced by their competing nation states. To satisfy the need for labor, European settlers imported African slaves in the 17th century, enacting, in the process, a harsh regime of exploitation throughout the colonies. Once these North American colonies achieved their independence through the formation of the United States in the late 18th century, those states continued to engage in war and expansion against the indigenous populations and to enslave people of African descent.
Indeed, the foundational document of these United States, the Constitution, was a perfect reflection of a slave republic, built on empire, expansion, and exclusion. The Second Amendment to that Constitution inscribed militias as a vehicle of state violence against both the indigenous and slave populations. As William Appleman Williams asserts in Empire as a Way of Life, “the routine lust for land, markets, or security became justifications for noble rhetoric about prosperity, liberty, and security” (62). Hence, hiding beneath the ideological veil of liberty and security was an iron fist of state violence, especially against people of color, whether red, black, or brown.
When state militias became less reliable in the 19th century as a consequence of class conflict, private security agencies, like the Pinkertons, vigilantes, and eventually police forces were the new vehicles to control and repress any resistance, whatever its color. On the other hand, white supremacy as the dominant ideological order through the 19th and 20th centuries consigned to the police the role of patrolling and brutalizing African-Americans. In the southern states in particular, right through the 1960’s, police were part of a terror network that punished any black person who violated the rules of white supremacy.
White supremacy did not disappear with the overcoming of segregation and second-class citizenship. If it no longer relied on white sheets to promulgate its terror, it could always find blue uniforms to hide behind whenever travesties were committed against the African-American community. With cries for “law and order” and the pointed use of drug and criminal justice policies, the African-American community faced renewed state violence and police brutality in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Therefore, the unending and vicious murders by the police of unarmed black people is not an anomaly or the work of a few “bad apples.” It is inherent in the nature of white supremacist social order that inscribes disadvantage and oppression against people of color.
We have to pose the question: Why is it that no matter how abhorrent or heinous the cases of police violence may be, the guilty policemen are most often exonerated? What is it about the American conscience that permits these outrages against humanity to persist? An attempt to answer leads us back to slavery at the foundation of this society, and to the critical intersection of race, personal and collective identity, and power.
African American novelist and essayist James Baldwin pointed out to his nephew in The Fire Next Time that historically White men have secured their own identity in the subjugation of Black people — that abuse and degradation of African Americans have been essential to White men’s sense of well being and power. Baldwin’s insight sheds light on the addiction to violence against people of color that is at the heart of American culture. During slavery the need to abuse and brutalize Africans was satiated in the everyday violence of the plantation system. Protected by that violence, slave owners could look out over their holdings, both land and human, and gloat in their power. Poor white overseers, identifying with whiteness and the owning class, could inflict pain regularly and ruthlessly to engorge their tenuous egos. The ritual of lynching served as the iconic pinnacle. And so developed a deeply implanted culture of violence, a way of life that has prevailed from slavery, through Reconstruction, through the eras of peonage, Jim Crow, and the contemporary policies of mass incarceration of African Americans.
The function of the police in the United States is to protect the property of the wealthy; but in this function, police officers also uphold the racist assumption that some lives are more valuable than others. This is the underlying assumption that emboldens Whites in their current trend of calling the police to arrest African Americans who are going about perfectly normal and legal activities in their lives, but are perceived as threats, even criminals. In these instances, Whites view the police as their protective guardians against African Americans who are treated as trespassers. In these frivolous appeals to the police, Whites place the lives of African Americans in danger, given the readiness of policemen to resort to use of deadly force in any given situation.
When policemen satisfy their habit of brutalizing and murdering African Americans, they are fulfilling also the needs of millions who observe and derive their own private satisfactions. When multiple police officers rush to collectively kick, choke, pummel a person’s head, as we have observed in numerous news clips, their orgiastic assault assuages their craving for “manhood” and power, and serves up to every witness — who doesn’t have to fear being subjected to such inhumanity — some dark gratification as well. Otherwise there would emerge a wide scale outcry within the dominant society for ending police brutality. When White society, primarily White men, poor and wealthy, have reached a point in their development where they are no longer obsessed with the brutalization of Black bodies, but repelled by such evil, they will join the call for an end to police violence. Such men will be able to say, “Not in my name.”
African Americans’ resistance to the unremitting violence of the dominant society has taken many forms from the slave era to the present: sabotage of plantation crops and property, organized revolts, as with Gabriel Prosser of Nat Turner; detailed strategies for escape to the North, legal actions against the abuses of Jim Crow, and national campaigns against lynching. In the late 1960s, African Americans’ outrage over police repression erupted in rebellions in major cities across the U.S., and for the last several decades, the Black community has mounted steady protest against unjust, blatantly discriminatory mass incarceration of African Americans, another feature in the apparatus of state violence.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) is only the most recent organized resistance mounted against the perpetuation of state violence and police brutality. We stand in solidarity with BLM, and call on all social justice advocates to join the efforts to bring justice in egregious police cases, and transform the criminal justice system — and, indeed, the white supremacist social order that informs that system.