Police Murder, Racism, and the Left Defenders of Capital

On Saturday, August 8th of this year, an 18-year-old African-American named Michael Brown was murdered by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, a working class suburb of St. Louis.  Less than a month before, Eric Garner, also black, was choked to death by New York City police while his hands were raised in surrender.  Just a couple of days ago, the guy who caught Garner’s murder on his cellphone camera, was mysteriously found to be carrying a weapon and was arrested (I suspect the official charge will be a weapons violation, because “recording police murder” isn’t yet a violation of any ordinance).  Meanwhile, the police in Ferguson are using rubber bullets, tear gas, attack dogs, and indiscriminate beatings against those who dare to suggest that something might be wrong with all of this.

These are only a few of many such incidents, and, amid the horror and outrage we feel, we can find one silver lining: The role of the police is becoming clear to broader and broader layers of society.  As the police militarize themselves with automatic weapons, drones, and tanks, and feel more and more free to fall back on plain, simple murder, we become more aware of exactly what they are protecting and who they are serving.  Though hardly a consolation for those who’ve lost a loved one, it at least is a cause for hope that this increased awareness will, sooner rather than later, translate into effective action.  The police are the defenders of capitalism, and the more blatantly they demonstrate this, the clearer it becomes to masses of people in general, and the working class in particular.

But this increased awareness, itself, is a threat to capitalism; the working class is not helpless–far from it!  Every wheel that turns in our complex, international society, is, at the end of the day, turned by the working class; the ruling class is not so blind as to be unaware of this, nor so complacent as to not be threatened by it.  What then to do?  The bourgeoisie has more than one weapon in its arsenal.  While using the police as domestic terrorists with its right hand, with its left, it brings us–the Left.  That is, those who use leftist-sounding rhetoric in order to make sure our outrage remains harmlessly channeled back into support for the system that commits these atrocities.

One must be a fool or a scoundrel to say that race is not a factor in these killings: the racism of police departments is well-known.  But one must be a different sort of fool, or a different sort of scoundrel, to say that race is the only factor.  The Al Sharptons of the world are delighted to take this opportunity to raise support for the Democratic Party,  and close on their heels come the supporters of identity politics who want, above all, to remain in their comfort zones, if not in their comfortable positions.  “This is about racism, that’s all.  There is no need to discuss the mad drive for profit, the protection of private property.  This has nothing to do with the appalling and ever-increasing income disparity, or with imperialist wars prosecuted against the will of the people.  That this is happening at the same time the US helped engineer a fascist coup in Ukraine and is cheering on Israel’s open slaughter of Palestinians is pure coincidence, just as it’s coincidence that as the president orders murders without due process beyond our borders the police carry out exactly the same thing within our borders.  It’s just those darned congressional Republicans.  Capitalism itself is not the issue.  And don’t look behind the curtain.”  But the curtain is getting thin, and all that is required to see behind it is to open one’s eyes.  That dark shape just past the gauze is called the class struggle.  May I make the observation that the chief law enforcement officer of the United States is African-American?  May I point out that we have yet to see these police murders take place in Baldwin Hills, California or Mitchellville, Maryland?

Yes, indeed, racism is a factor.  But–a factor in what?  A factor in the evolving police culture, a culture determined in the immediate sense by interactions among individual cops: what jokes they tell, comments about how willing they are to shoot, mutual encouragement for the worst excesses, the subtle pressures inevitably exerted by and on those who work closely together.  But that is, as I said, in the immediate sense.  What determines that culture in the last analysis is the needs of the job.  The job is protecting capitalism, and the more terrified the bourgeoisie is by the anger they are stirring up against themselves, the more repressive their armed servants need to be.  We saw that in the police response to the Occupy movement, harmless though that movement was, and now we are seeing it ever more sharply.  Those who cry loudest that racism is the only factor are, by and large, those with something to gain from it; either sleazy politicians like Al Sharpton or  Jesse Jackson, or academics who can freely write “anti-racism” essays as a publication credit for their tenure track positions but dare not speak out against capitalist property relations.

It is absurd to claim that we are living in a police state: we still have the right to protest, at least within certain limits, and I still have the freedom to write this blog post without undue fear of official harassment, and Obama and the NSA still feel the need to justify domestic spying: the rights and freedoms we have won are still largely intact.  But it is naive to think that movements toward a police state are not taking place.  This is the lesson of what is happening in Arizona, and the “constitution-free zones,” and what happened in Boston after the marathon bombing, and the way the cops increasingly feel at liberty to take our lives without a second thought.  Police state measures are being prepared, and we need to be aware of it.  Failing to go beyond the question of racism is to leave us ideologically prostrate and theoretically helpless as the enemy forces gather at our border.

Let’s not do that.


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89 thoughts on “Police Murder, Racism, and the Left Defenders of Capital”

  1. When someone suggests something is beyond question, I question it. When I did that in this case, I agreed race is an undeniably huge factor. The town is 2/3 black, yet, from http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-missouri-st-louis-police-shooting-teen-20140811-story.html#page=1

    “Ferguson’s police chief and mayor are white. Of the six City Council members, one is black. The local school board has six white members and one Latino. Of the 53 commissioned officers on the police force, three are black, said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson.

    “Blacks in Ferguson are twice as likely to be stopped by police as whites, according to an annual report on racial profiling by the Missouri attorney general. Last year, 93% of arrests following car stops in Ferguson were of blacks. Ninety-two percent of searches and 80% of car stops involved blacks, the report said.”

    That said, people who only see race should be happy that white males with toy guns also get shot by cops, as do white males who answer the door holding wii controllers and other dangerous objects.

    There is a good explanation by a cop of why cops shoot innocent people here: http://np.reddit.com/r/AskLEO/comments/2d9f3w/in_light_of_recent_and_abundant_media_coverage/cjnkn4v

  2. Ursula LeGuin was just writing about anger in the context of the Feminist movement, “Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.” (http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2014/08/11/about-anger-part-i/)

    I am trying to reconcile conflicting reactions to social injustices. Anger is a powerful indicator of where injustice lies, and at the same time, it’s not the most effective strategist. Males are people too. Capitalists are people too. Even Republicans are people too. An effective strategy for actual justice – not just role reversal oppression – has to recognize the humanity on both sides of a conflict.

  3. Naomi: Very thoughtful comment, thank you. In some measure, I agree about anger. On the one hand, how can one possibly be a decent human being and not be furious about the cold-blooded execution of Michael Brown? And yet, I also agree with the adage, “Not to weep, not to laugh, but to understand.” It is difficult, it is contradictory. But no one said this was easy.

    That said, for my part, I will defend the right of capitalists to be treated as equal human beings–the instant they are no longer capitalists. And may that day come soon!

  4. One related problem here is the popularity of SWAT teams. They seem to be a way to give adrenaline rushes to the “law and order” people. Of course, the right used to define “law and order” as requiring that we respect the president, but now it is to shoot people through doors and borders.

  5. It is a sad thing when my Hispanic neighbors ask me to call the irrigation district to turn on the water because I do not have an accent. It is a sad thing for me and my son to be pulled over by the cops four times in one month because my son has an Afro. It is a sad thing for my Native-American neighbor to be stopped and have his ID checked when he is walking his dog in broad daylight down the street. Rural Southern Oregon.

    It is a pretty nasty cocktail those feelings of anger, injustice, and fear.

  6. The whole situation is grotesque and horrible; but at least we can take some small solace in the fact that it is receiving so much exposure and that Ferguson is taking so much heat. However fraught the struggle for justice and equality may be, at least a very substantial share of the population is horrified by the events and is motivated to speak out against the injustice.

  7. It always surprises me how much I can disagree with your politics, and still love your writing so much. I don’t think capitalism is the fundamental problem here, nor am I willing to immediately say that the police are racist murderers. However, the fact that you have arrived at the same conclusions that I have, through an entirely different view of the world, makes me think we might be on to something.

    The police state has been growing immensely in recent years. I don’t think it is being built to protect capitalism, but to protect power. It may be that in our current system the two things are close to the same, but conceptually they are different. In an ideal capitalist system, everyone wins. Work is up, production is up, profit and earning are up, and everyone’s lifestyle improves. In a corrupt system (capitalist or not), it is those in power who win, and everyone else loses. Those in power have created our current system, building groups of victims that can be more easily controlled by convincing those victims that the big bad “someone” is responsible, be they Republicans, Democrats, racists, police, rednecks, white people, men, etc.

    I think your statement: “That is, those who use leftist-sounding rhetoric in order to make sure our outrage remains harmlessly channeled back into support for the system that commits these atrocities,” is exactly right, but I would argue that it’s not just leftist-sounding rhetoric, but political rhetoric in general. It comes from the left and the right, and anyone in power. We just tend to hear the leftist rhetoric more because we get it in all our entertainment and most of our news (which is itself mostly entertainment unfortunately).

    I’m not sure if there is a solution at all given where we are, but a more knowledgable and educated populace is a necessity. And the immediate leap to “it’s just racism” is, as you say, a problem. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

  8. “In an ideal capitalist system, everyone wins.” Nope. In an ideal capitalist system, the capitalists win. What you’re suggesting is along the lines of “In an ideal slave system, the slaves are treated well in return for their labor,” while the actual ideal slave system is a system in which slaveowners are never troubled by unpleasantness. Substitute “ideal feudal system” if you’d like something a little less pointed.

    That said, I do think a major purpose of the internet is to provide people of all political persuasions with a place where they may rage without harm or effect.

  9. Yes, capitalism, whether you think it’s an effective economic system or not, has absolutely no moral or utilitarian sense of “everyone winning”. That’s not what it’s about at all. Realistically in any capitalist system it’s ridiculous to suppose most people own capital, or even have meaningful capital shares in any enterprise whatsoever. And under capitalism, if you don’t own capital, you are merely a labor cog in the capital machine.

    I’m not a big fan of communism, either, to be honest, but at least it addresses the majority of the populace in its language, system, and goals. I can at least be sympathetic to socialism, as opposed to repelled and indeed even horrified by capitalism.

  10. Any idealized economic system works great. I’m not saying any such a system is possible in the world we live in. People tend to get in the way of idealized economics.

  11. In capitalism’s case, I’m glad people tend to get in the way. Miramon mentions not being a fan of communism, but for me, the equation is different. I prefer democratic systems to totalitarian ones. My complaint with the US is that we live in a bourgeois democracy, where money is considered speech and elections let us choose the plutocrats who will rule.

  12. 1. I’m really concerned about labeling “the police” as a (dangerous) single entity. Policemen are people; some are doing good work and some bad. Worth watching the good ones: http://mic.com/articles/96152/this-cop-just-showed-everyone-how-to-really-stop-and-frisk
    2. As a Boston resident, I’d say that “what happened in Boston after the marathon bombing” was exactly what a lot of Boston residents wanted to happen: police officers working hard to track down killers and make the city safe.

  13. It’s not a great week to stay sober, so I’m probably a bit off my center.

    It’s an easy thing to ascribe a single enemy to what appears to be a single problem.

    But it’s an even easier thing for a complexity of events to shape circumstances in such a way that it looks like there’s a single problem.

    *mumble* *mumble* *laws of history* *mumble* *mumble* *godwin* *mumble* *the only good cop* *mumble* *mumble* *slur* *slur* *hic*

    All that aside, it’s a real shame that there isn’t any legal or historical precedent at all for the sending in of the National Guard to suppress systemic violence against oppressed minorities at the hands of local and state police forces.

  14. Precedent or not, if the governor wants to send in the guard he can. But sending in a national guard unit — kids with rifles with no relevant experience — controlled by state officials and primed to expect mob violence is not a good solution to keeping the peace during a protest. I’d rather import a regiment of Scandinavian blue-helmets as peacekeepers (no, no I’m not serious, okay, but they’d certainly do a better job.)

    I suppose what this really requires is Obama and Holden on the scene with US Attorneys and marshals in tow, making it very clear to local officials that the whole government establishment of the state and the county is liable to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb if they don’t submit to outside orders to relax this ridiculous oppressive control scheme. And of course the local department needs to be removed completely from service and replaced with state police or even with feds of some stripe for the interim. But I doubt any of that’s going to happen. It’s not either of Obama’s or Holden’s style, for sure.

    I suppose Obama is very happy to be on vacation in VP-land just now, especially considering the governor of Missouri is a Democrat.

  15. David Kargar: You’re really going with #notallcops? Seriously? “Policemen are people; some are doing good work and some bad.” Of course. And what you seem not to get is that it is the good ones I’m particularly worried about. It is the good ones who are doing their job. Their job, at this stage of capitalism, requires more and more brutality. Or do you think the increase in police violence is just due to suddenly sloppy recruiting practices all over the country at the same time?

    The number of Boston residents who bought into the need to turn their city into an armed camp makes no difference in the way the event was used as a massive training exercise for large-scale urban warfare.

  16. I’m not sure what “worse” means in this context? Who is worse, a man who takes human life for money, or the guy who pays him to do it? At that level, I kinda don’t care about “worse.”

  17. Tell me the institution of the police is horribly flawed under capitalism, and I’ll agree with you. But ultimately, cops are members of the working class who’re trying to provide for themselves and their families. If we ever have a socialist state, the institution of the police will be transformed before it disappears. But landlords? They’re just exploiters, and there’s no place for them in a fair society. I should hunt around sometime to see if anyone has calculated the number of deaths caused by landlords. At the very least, there’s the life-shortening stress that especially bad landlords add to. And everyone who worries about meeting the rent is paying a life-shortening price to their landlord.

    And yet, I see an awful lot of socialists raging against cops instead of landlords. I keep wondering if more of them know landlords than cops.

    Mind you, I’ve known cops and landlords who I thought were fine people, so I’m not talking about punishing anyone for the current system.

    Oh, now I have an answer. The person who pays people to kill are worse, if we can assume the hired killer wouldn’t kill otherwise. The employer always bears more responsibility than the worker who follows orders.

  18. Well, if you mean landlords in the traditional sense, they don’t exist any more in this country (or much of anywhere else), but when they did, they were a necessary part of the economic system until it became outmoded and was replaced. Do you mean someone like Martin, who owns the house where I rent a room? If you mean, essentially, slumlords, then yes, I agree, but they are more a symptom than a cause. The police are a special section of the working class whose job it is to uphold the system that oppresses the rest of the class, so I see no reason to feel well disposed toward them. Change the system, and I will feel differently about those who have the job of defending it.

    I’m not sure why we’re even going here; I think I’m missing something you’re getting at. The point I’m trying to make is that the change in police culture–the ever greater willingness to murder–is a reflection of the deepening crisis of capitalism.

  19. Will, thank you for the interesting links.

    skzb, you seem to be saying that the Capitalist 1% are ordering cops to kill minorities or people who go against “the system”. I don’t think it is that simple or direct.

    In cities like NY, NY, it may come pretty darn close to this with the belligerent stop-and-frisk directives as well as quotas for drug busts of minorities. Plus retaining cops with a known history of violence and planting evidence.

    I don’t follow how somebody like Sharpton is simply protecting those in power by inciting anger toward whites and the power system.

    I see fear and a lack of control by the cops (which includes poor training) as part of the problem. How come they have guns without safeties (Glocks) as standard issue? Perhaps you feel that this is deliberate on the part of those in charge instead of just poor management?

    I used to watch the TV show “Cops.” I had to stop watching. The cops were so poorly trained that I kept expecting them to kill the poor guy who was trying to obey 3 different cops telling him to do 3 different things at the same time.

    Maybe it is poor training, but during “situations”, cops have so much adrenalin going that they are in a different time zone. Car chases where the driver stops, and 10 cops empty their guns into the car. I’ve seen videos where the cop is in no personal danger what so ever, telling the bewildered person to “drop the weapon,” and shooting before the words are fully out of his mouth. The police want us to accept this kind of behavior as reasonable – but it isn’t. But it isn’t obvious to me that this is part of some Capitalist directive.

  20. “I don’t follow how somebody like Sharpton is simply protecting those in power by inciting anger toward whites and the power system.” Just what “power system” is he inciting anger against? Is he working to convince people not to trust either of the parties of big business?

    “Poor management” does not explain the clearly increasing amount police violence. As for it being a “capitalist directive,” didn’t you read the post? I’m not talking about someone up the chain giving orders, I’m talking about a change in culture in response to conditions. There is no need for such an order (though I wouldn’t be surprised if something like it has been given in some cases, for example, Maricopa County).

  21. Is it really “clearly increased police violence?” Or is it perhaps clearly increased lawlessness and lack of respect for the very concept of law? I don’t know all the facts, and while I subscribe to a healthy amount of skepticism for the “official story,” I also tend to not believe that a policeman would calmly and callously execute an innocent unarmed person in broad daylight… what does that serve?

    skzb, I have been thinking about this all day, and I still think the direction of your anger is misplaced, although I hardly expect you to agree with me ;). However, I will say your perspective has made me reconsider my own, and while I don’t believe the root of the problem is capitalism, I do agree that there is an element of the rich, who also currently maintain power, that is the root of the problem. As I said before, I believe this is a corruption of our intended free market system. Where I principally disagree with those that would claim a communist or socialist system is preferable, is that even if the idealist versions of those economic systems could be put in place, they will suffer the same corruption, as we have seen throughout history.

    The fundamental problem, is that people are both greedy and lazy. I found it ironic that Will Shetterly was suggesting that capitalism is the more totalitarian form, while communism is more democratic. The only way a communist system can function is if there is some way to enforce people to not be greedy or lazy, contrary to their nature. This is the very definition of totalitarianism. Unfortunately, even with a totalitarian enforcement of communism, there is still the near certainty of corruption. The only way I can see things working (no claims to expertise here, only my own idle thoughts ;) ), is if you can play the greedy nature against the lazy nature. This is the theory behind a free market system. You can be as greedy as you want, but you have to put the effort in. Or, you can be as lazy as you want, you just have to accept the lower level of wealth.

    That is not, however, the reality of our current system. We exist in a system where those in power remain in power by those with money, and believe that everyone else should be controlled such that they accept their economic status, or blame others besides those in power for such a status. The increasing police state is one that most do not yet realize is the new arm of those in power, as so far they are being used to increase the stereotypes of class warfare, although what happened in Boston is a very clear warning sign that the police are ready to militarize everything, not just racial riots.

  22. halplm, I see we are thinking along the same lines.

    skzb, Someone sets the culture of an organization (such as a police department). Someone has specifically told the cops (of the kind we have been talking about) that it is OK to kill an unarmed person rather than take the risk that person could be armed. This seems to be especially true for a white cop facing a black man. So I agree that the culture is there for irresponsible killing, particularly of black men. The question is, where does this culture come from and who does it benefit? In NY, the command could ultimately be coming from Wall Street, to make the streets feel safer for rich white men.

    I can see that the 1% would be afraid of a black uprising, so they put pressure on the cops to keep the blacks and minorities under control. As is done in NY city. This ultimately is a distribution of wealth problem, I would think. No different than if the wealthy got wealthy by being nobility or some other scheme to suck wealth from society. The same thing could happen in a corrupt socialist or communist culture. We happen to have a corrupt capitalist culture, the operative term being corrupt.

    Those whites on the lower part of the social/wealth totem pole tend to jealously guard their place in the pecking order. It is emotionally important for them that blacks be kept down below them. This is key to the Tea Party and GOP politics and how they get people to vote against their self interest. I don’t know if that is capitalist or just the way people are. I agree that capitalism easily becomes corrupt without active intervention. But that could be said of any social system I would think.

  23. Steve, what I’m getting at is that I think in this case, you’re letting your anger get in the way of being scientific, and the result is an unhelpful diatribe that targets a subset of the working class instead of the people who are responsible for the conditions those people work under.

    I will try to google this more, but I did find http://online.wsj.com/articles/police-protect-identity-of-officer-involved-in-missouri-teens-shooting-1407861679 :

    “Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said such incidents aren’t on the rise. A combination of social media and recent high-profile cases such as the death of a New York City man, in part from a chokehold applied by a police officer, fuels a perception such cases have become increasingly widespread.

    “”There is no escalation in the use of deadly force. What we are seeing is a proliferation of cellphones and cameras,” she said.”

    I picked landlords because these are people who profit from the needs of others in a way that seems helpful, but I prob’ly should’ve stuck with cops instead of trying to contrast them with a specific capitalist institution.

  24. @halplm “I also tend to not believe that a policeman would calmly and callously execute an innocent unarmed person in broad daylight… what does that serve?”

    That’s exactly what is happening, though. The officer that shot Mike Brown is still not identified, and fully expected to get away with it. Dispatchers were unaware for hours that an officer had been involved in that shooting. So who and what does that serve? Definitely not you or me.

  25. The point is not to “pick on” the cops (although, now that you mention it, one is forced to ask one’s self what sort of person would join a metropolitan police force under today’s conditions) but rather to be clear on the role of the police: the protection of capitalism. The point of the post is that it is becoming increasingly clear to broad layers of society that the police are their enemy, and secondarily, to warn about those who make this purely and simply a question of race, and thus channel the legitimate rage this is causing harmlessly back into support for the Democratic Party.

    There are, indeed, many still who want to put it in terms of “some cops are bad,” or, “it isn’t about capitalism per se, it’s just gone wrong lately.” Those who believe this will not have their opinions changed by argument; but the Ferguson police department (as did Oakland a little while ago, and NYC every day) are making the point for larger and larger sections of the working class.

    As for Professor Haberfeld, rest assured that she is neither the first nor the last professor to tell us that everything is fine, it’s all just business as usual, and there’s no need to worry.

  26. Will, I don’t think the cop thought that, no. But did the cop decide to hassle a couple of kids walking down the street and then it escalated beyond that? That’s a scenario I can believe.

  27. @hajicek at 1:38, since I couldn’t find a Reply button:

    I’m just a humble Midwestern native, so I’ll refrain from commenting on the central topic. However, I’ve been more or less immersed in gun culture for most of my life and feel qualified to educate on the topic of firearms use, design goals, and to a lesser extent their engineering and design.

    Sidearms (read: pistols) are optimized for mechanical reliability. Both false positives (gun goes off by itself) and false negatives (intend to pull the trigger, actually pull the trigger, no shot) are to be minimized within budgetary constraints. Happily, false positives are pretty much entirely eliminated in modern designs; material failure and design modification both make them possible, of course, but not really easy to address in sweeping terms.

    False negatives can be behavioral as well. With a mechanical safety, in a self-defense situation, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that additional step.So, yes, a third layer of false-positive prevention is deliberately removed in some designs. (The first two are rather softer: 1) attempt to deescalate, so you don’t risk having the intent; 2) never point the gun at anything you don’t want destroyed, so if your intent is mis-implemented in behavior and your finger twitches, nothing important is harmed. The PD in question could use a refresher on both, I imagine.)

    The design goal of 0 false positives remains, though, so something has to take its place, and there are many options, none of which impose an additional variable on the user’s mental model of their gun. Some H&K pistols, for example, have a grip safety that requires force to be applied against both the front and back of the grip simultaneously before unlocking the trigger. Glock pistols, commonly used in law enforcement, use a multistage trigger mechanism that exerts strong resistance through the initial majority of its travel, but doesn’t require that entire distance to be re-traveled for follow-up shots.

    I expect this latter option is what you refer to. In my opinion, in the context of self-defense firearms (of which law-enforcement is a subset, design-wise) it’s quite defensible. I admit it sounds less so when phrased as “a gun without a safety.” It’s really not. It’s a compromise point between mechanical reliability, behavioral reliability, and price point. Thanks for reading.

  28. Steve, would you also say “one is forced to ask one’s self what sort of person would join the military under today’s conditions”? I have the same answer in both cases: a working class person who sees more of the good that is done by the institution than the bad. Or to try to stay scientific here, a person whose desire to do good is guided by the institutions of capitalism.

    Jen, I can believe that, too, though I’ve become hesitant to accept all claims that cops are automatically in the wrong since Tawana Brawley’s story was exposed. There doesn’t seem to be an objective account of what happened here. It’s yet another example of why cops should wear cameras and have car cameras as well.

  29. Steve, as for Haberford, sure, you could be right that the cops are getting worse. But I’ll note that perception is faulty. Plenty of people will tell you there’s more crime now than when we were young, but we have the numbers to disprove them. Is there more police abuse? I’m still looking for the numbers. Have you got anything other than your impression to say there’s more?

  30. “Steve, would you also say “one is forced to ask one’s self what sort of person would join the military under today’s conditions”?” Yes, but that was a different post, and involves different answers. In the case of the police, proletarians rarely have the sort of blindness that would be required for that; and those few who have such illusions are losing them more and more every day. Reasons for joining the military are more complex; the police force is much more likely to attract straight up bullies. But, as I said above, that is a side point; I could be proven wrong about that without it affecting my thesis.

  31. Will, I’m not sure what an objective account would look like here. We have eyewitness reports on one hand, and on the other hand a police force that isn’t telling their side but is violently suppressing the media. I very much agree re: cameras.

  32. ” We have eyewitness reports on one hand, and on the other hand a police force that isn’t telling their side but is violently suppressing the media.” Yes, that sort of says it all.

  33. The eyewitnesses seem to be the dead kid’s friend and people who observed this from a distance. In one version, the dead kid was shot down while surrendering. In another, the kid made a threatening move. If the first, it was murder or another case like the one of the cop who used his gun by mistake instead of his taser. Can you point me to the accounts that you find most convincing?

  34. Just FYI tomorrow I will have a piece on Al Jazeera America trying to get beyond racism. I call it the “cult of compliance.” I’ll be interested in your thoughts. It’s an argument I’ve been making from my perspectives on police violence against people with disabilities.

  35. skzb, you are worrying about the good cops; I’m worrying about the bad. These cops are *not* doing what their superiors want. I strongly doubt that the police captain in Ferguson want their cops shooting unarmed civilians—even if that captain wants to impose order and defend capitalism, they certainly don’t want to do it under the scrutiny of major news organizations. So clearly there’s a failure of recruitment/supervision/training/discipline. I also think that there’s an excess of loyalty in these departments, where leaders refuse to punish their cops because they’re afraid it will looks bad to them. If we fixed these problems, people would be safer. They might still be oppressed, but at least they wouldn’t be dead.

    As for Boston, it wasn’t an “excuse for a training exercise”—it was real. You’re implying that Boston citizens got tricked into supporting inappropriate behavior by the police. If so, then even after all this time for reflection, they’re still tricked—most I’ve spoken to seem to believe that police acted appropriately, and would like to see them do the same if similar circumstances arose again in the future.

  36. catkins, you are correct. The problem with a double acting trigger is that the poorly trained cop is going to have his finger on the trigger and the gun pointed at somebody. From there it is really easy (one motion) for the gun to go off by accident. They may even be of the habit to move the finger to remove the trigger safety. Also, it seems that cops have been told/trained to pretty much empty the clip into anybody they shoot (reduced law suits as motive). That’s not so good for non-cops. Cops and others seem to regularly shoot themselves with the new Glocks. So I think this is a poor design (having done risk analyses).

    Steve, you seem to think you have made a case for the current cop violence being primarily a capitalist problem as opposed to a social problem. I would disagree that you have shown the logic behind this statement. This has certainly happened at times (cops shooting union protesters), but what is the linkage here today?

    Will, US capitalism has become corrupt and predatory. But that is not part of the definition of capitalism/corporatism. Like most things in life, it is HOW something is done that makes all the difference. Most companies at least tried for a time to be socially responsible up until the 70s when Regan said, “greed is good”, and then all hell broke loose. I’ve worked for socially responsible companies. Worker cooperatives seem to be happening more. That is still capitalism. I get the feeling that today, universities teach that the ONLY function of a business is to make money. This hasn’t always been the case.

    As Steve points out, some landlords are OK. Having witnessed members of my family trying to be landlords (renting out their house), I can say that there is another side to the coin – bad renters that are more odious than nasty landlords (I’ve seen those too). Somebody smashing all the walls because they didn’t want to have to pay rent is pretty bad. I’ve also known some good landlords. So I disagree that there is something inherently evil in being a landlord.

  37. David, I hope I didn’t say “evil” because I was talking about the institution of landlord, not individual landlords. I completely agree that there are good people in the roles of capitalists, and they try to do the best they can. The very best of them will even let themselves be financially ruined when the logic of capitalism is pressuring them to hurt workers or customers. But most of us bend when the system presses us.

    And sure, there are bad renters. But this does not mean that people who occupy homes are bad. What we’re talking about here are exploiters and exploitees. You can have well-meaning exploiters and vicious exploitees, but that doesn’t justify exploitation.

  38. Here’s a good article on police brutality: http://www.businessinsider.com/why-americas-police-are-becoming-so-militarized-2014-3

    Will, a company’s choice is very seldom to be ruined financially to stay moral and compassionate. Though I have seen where being moral (and legal) can be a handicap (when your main competitor bribes politicians). Sometimes it actually costs less in the long run to do the right thing (say auto recalls). There almost seems to be a perverse pleasure by some company’s executives that they can use the profit motive to justify hurting people and get away with it (is this a parallel to bad cops?). Lawyers act as the corporate high priests to advise and bless immoral (and sometimes illegal) behavior.

    Will, it seems to be your point that being a landlord is typically exploitation. Sure that happens. I do get pissed when I see a landlord trying to squeeze too much money out of a renter. I’ve seen them ruin small businesses by raising rents continuously (ending up hurting themselves in the long run). Yes, I think rents are too high. But why do you think this is pretty much endemic with landlords?

    Rents should logically be going down as renters as a class are typically making less money today compared to even a decade ago. Somehow landlords work together to keep rents high.

  39. Will, There is no “logic of capitalism” that hurts workers or customers. That would not be logical in any respect. Without workers or customers, the owners of a company will not be successful.

    And the greed that exists where an owner would hurt his workers or customers is not limited to the owners of a company. The workers can hurt the owner or customer, and customers can hurt the others as well. Limiting the blame for a bad situation to one group in a symbiotic relationship is the same kind of ignorance that the original post here was arguing against!

  40. David, you may be doing what I used to do, which is confusing exploitation with oppression. Profiting from someone is inherently exploitive, but it may not be oppressive. The challenge for capitalists is to make the people who make them rich think that it’s fair.

    halpm, the logic of capitalism is profit. Period. Customers and workers are both irrelevant to people who follow capitalism’s logic.

  41. An interesting article about a cop raping a gal (with a witness), perhaps cops think they are above the law, so that they can act inappropriately: http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/lawsuit-details-how-ok-trooper-turned-traffic-stop-abduction-and-brutal-rape?akid=12124.308614.XVAkDS&rd=1&src=newsletter1015426&t=25

    Will, I see your point about the distinction. I would argue that making money is not always unfair. Some employer said his workers were extorting money from him, they wouldn’t work unless he paid them. ;>)

    Will, I would disagree that customers and workers are irrelevant. No company can exist for long without them. Even pissing off your customers and workers has blow-back. That’s all part of making money. Please explain.

  42. David, I suspect slaveowners made similar jokes about their slaves. Lest that same a low blow, there were slaveowners who treated their slaves fairly well. That doesn’t justify slavery, just as the kinder capitalists don’t justify capitalism and the kinder kings don’t justify monarchism.

    As for customers and workers being irrelevant, any CEO who didn’t understand that would be out of a job. Capitalism says you do what’s most profitable. If that means gutting the company and selling it for a quick buck, thereby shafting workers who had pensions and customers who had warranties, you do that.

  43. What you are describing is not a free market system. It is a vast oversimplification of the concept. If all that mattered was day to day cash, it might be true, but time goes further than that, and if you have a reputation of gutting companies for a quick buck, people won’t work for you, and people won’t buy your products, because there can’t be any good value there.

    There are elements of what you are saying in our current system (which is not a free market capitalism in almost any way), but its actually worse than you are saying, because companies don’t actually care about profit, they care about their stock price. This is the product of a lot of greedy politicians and insider traders creating a system where they can have unprofitable companies worth a lot, and then screw over people with retirement and mutual funds who aren’t day-traders.

    That’s not profit driven, it’s power driven. Right now, the Stock market is a giant ponzi scheme where rich people get richer through fraud and government collusion. That’s not capitalism, it’s corruption.

  44. halplm, what I’m describing is what happens. I realize that idealistic capitalists think capitalism works perfectly in the land of spherical cows, but in the world where cows have four legs, capitalism doesn’t care about anything but profit. When long term planning is most profitable, capitalists go with longterm planning. When short term is most profitable, they go with short term. When efficiency is most profitable, they go with efficiency. When redundancy is most profitable, they go with redundancy. Capitalism is only about increasing capital. That’s why it’s called capitalism.

  45. Will, there is some truthiness to what you say. But that puts the company out of business. Yes, that does happen where a company has assets worth stealing.

    If that was all a company was for, it would be happening to every company and obviously that isn’t what’s happening. I wonder if banks have gotten any smarter? Restructuring a company just so some money people get a huge bonus for moving paper around results in bad debt which banks could end up eating. That’s a form of corruption.

    Of course, banks are too big to fail. Another corruption.

  46. When stealing assets are most profitable, assets are stolen. Understanding the primacy of profit eliminates all the mystery from capitalism.

    “Too big to fail” means “ready to be nationalized”.

  47. So I’ve been thinking about links between various types of police violence for years, understanding that the specifics – racism, sexism, militarization, etc. – are always front and center in any individual situation. We cannot talk about Ferguson without discussing race. We cannot talk about the death of Ethan Saylor without discussing his Down syndrome and the ways in which it made his reactions unpredictable to law enforcement. But to get beyond these specifics, I’ve been looking for a new lens.


    In the piece, I offer my idea about a “cult of compliance.” I’d be very interested in feedback from the folks who read this blog. And I hope sharing this is ok, Steve. I do think it’s clearly topical to how we talk and think about policing.

  48. Thanks for sharing that. It’s a good thoughtful article. But even if we accept that failure to comply is the reason for a given shooting, as opposed to a convenient excuse after-the-fact, it doesn’t ask the next question: what is happening in this country that is causing the police to believe more and more that they have the right to demand compliance and to use lethal force if isn’t forthcoming?

  49. Speaking of killing for compliance, here’s the most recent story I noticed: http://politicalblindspot.com/cop-shoots-kills-college-student-for-speaking-disrespectfully/

    I keep thinking about the 500 innocent people killed each year by cops, and how that figure becomes as meaningless to the public as the number of people killed by cars: if you really want cops and cars, some innocent deaths are seen as a reasonable price to pay. The solution by the powers that be is not to question our dependency on cops or cars, but to ameliorate them. We see that in Ferguson, where the velvet glove has been put on the iron fist.

  50. That is a good question, skzb.

    Presumably part of the answer at one time was the hypersensitivity that followed 9/11. But that should logically be dying down. And yet the trend toward police militarization and towards increased police aggressiveness appears to be growing in strength, even despite the spotlights shone at the subject lately in mainstream media. If some imbecile sheriff in a podunk county convinces his constituents to pay for a APC “just in case”, that’s nothing more than a curiosity. But when major police departments across the country are arming up as if for war, there’s something very strange going on.

  51. I assume a lot of people have heard about Radley Balko’s book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces”[1], but there was also an excellent piece by him in the American Bar Association’s magazine offering an interesting survey of police in the US, beginning with the question if they’re even constitutional given the Third Amendment.


    An exerpt:
    The founders and their contemporaries would probably have seen even the early-19th-century police forces as a standing army, and a particularly odious one at that. Just before the American Revolution, it wasn’t the stationing of British troops in the colonies that irked patriots in Boston and Virginia; it was England’s decision to use the troops for everyday law enforcement. This wariness of standing armies was born of experience and a study of history—early American statesmen like Madison, Washington and Adams were well-versed in the history of such armies in Europe, especially in ancient Rome.

    [1] http://www.perseusacademic.com/book.php?isbn=9781610394574

  52. Will. I hadn’t seen that story. Thanks for sharing, despite the horror. I just saw one yesterday about a disabled 50 year old woman holding a hammer. So the cops killed her.

    Balko is great. So vital here. Doing the work one would hope all libertarians would do, if we’ve gotta have them around. :)

    Steve that is, I think, absolutely, the right next question. I’m working on it. I might write a book this spring (I’m definitely writing a book this spring, I’m just not sure what I can do/sell).

    I think it’s important to recognize that the “what is happening” to some extent is nothing. Many cops/authority figures have always behaved like this.

    Another thing is that “what is happening” is lots, especially technology, which can include the weapons police bring to bear AND the cheap monitoring of cell phone cameras or label/dashcam cameras in police cars. Digby among others has done great work on tasers. I see Tasers as a gateway tool to further compliance. Police learn that when someone is at all non-compliant, you draw a weapon and shoot 40,000 volts of intense pain through that person. You don’t talk. You don’t wait. You don’t show patience. You tase first and figure it out at the station.

    And then there’s neoliberalism, which I tend to use instead of capitalism, because I think capitalism is a sub-set of the neoliberal state, but I admit I know a lot less about this than plenty of people on this thread. Neoliberalism requires a police force that is mustered to suppress the people rather than defend the people.

    Just a lot of open-ended thoughts not ready for prime time yet.

  53. David, can you gave an example of a neoliberal state that’s not a capitalist state?

    If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

  54. I totally agree that neoliberalism requires capitalism. But I think there are/have been forms of capitalist states that are not neoliberal (i.e. much of American history prior to the develop of neoliberal ideology). So the question for me is how best to talk about the _new_ aspects along with the old ones.

    I’ll put Harvey on my reading list, thanks.

  55. @skzb: “What is happening in this country that is causing the police to believe more and more that they have the right to demand compliance and to use lethal force if isn’t forthcoming?”

    I have a problem with this. What evidence do you have that the police have this idea to such a great extent rather than that people are more aware of police behavior?

    Related to the OP, how do you see law enforcment being handled in your ideal of a society?

    (And why have you gone to requring java script to reply? Or is that a WordPress thing?)

  56. David M. Perry: I read your article with interest. I am the parent of two adult children with disabilities, both inclined to panic under pressure and in danger of reactions that might appear “noncompliant.” So this is an issue I have considered for a long time, not by reviewing statistics, or even anecdotes, powerful as they may be, but day to day.

    The effects of fear on the brain are well-known and documented: chemical reactions that cause a person to flight, fight, or freeze.These reactions are compounded by cognitive misunderstands and brain-based illness, including perseveration on an action or verbal response. All of these can be “read” as noncompliance by uninformed parents, educators, members of the public as well as cops. Multiple incidents throughout childhood create their own forms of PTSD; I think these are rarely considered as factors in reviewing cases like you mention.

    Do I think “training” the police on these issues will change the pictures. It might help (there has been progress in MN through the work of the Barbara Schneider Foundation and others). But under this social system, in the present state of crisis, No; I am afraid not. I will continue to watch with my heart in my mouth as my son, and his friends, attempt to live their lives safely.

  57. Cynthia – My son has Down syndrome, although I didn’t reference that in the piece (I have in other pubs), so this is very personal for me too. He will never be compliant in the way people expect. There’s something called CIT – Crisis Intervention Training – Teams who definitely do better dealing with mental illness than cops who don’t have the training. I wrote recently about a beating that didn’t happen in Sommerville, MA, credit to the training. So that’s good.

    But we’re not in a zero sum game. Police are loaded down with trainings, more and more of them, and they have to actually take the class, pay attention, and then internalizing the findings. Even assuming goodwill from police – and I hope I can assume it for the sake of this comment – it’s hard to implement all these different things.

    So I focus on the bigger principle: Non-compliance may or may not justify a citation or even arrest, but it does not justify violence. It’ll protect my son and yours, and plenty of other people.

    But that’s all assuming police officers of goodwill. What Steve pushes us to think abiut, /I think, are the ways that the system may make such goodwill impossible.

  58. Cynthia, David, I wish you and yours the best.

    The recent problem has come to a head because of what appears to be a change in police doctrine. It used to be that a cop had to have some reason to fear harm for himself or others before he could use deadly force.

    Now, it appears that simple non-compliance to any order (legal or not) is sufficient to justify deadly force. That is obviously unconstitutional. I don’t know where this change came from, but it is spreading. It would be good to know the source.

  59. If the current story is legit—and I haven’t noticed anyone argue that the videotape is of someone else—this may not be about noncomplicance after all. Which isn’t to say that cops like noncompliant people, of course.

  60. The dead guy’s sidekick admits that was them stealing cigarillos. Petty theft.

    The question still remains if shooting the guy several times to make sure he was dead, was the appropriate response. I sure hope that is not what the cops are instructed to do.

    I would think the cop had other means at his disposal. Tazer, mace, radio, warning shot, shoot to disable (not kill). But I think cops are instructed to always shoot to kill these days (not to disable).

  61. There is still the problem for the police that the guy was supposedly standing with his hands in the air when the fatal shots were taken.

  62. My grandson in St. Louis, mixed race, has graduated high school with honors, is taking classes to become a legal assistant and works his ass off at work and various volunteer things. His grandfather left him a specific amount of money to get himself a new car. Grandson wanted a credit rating so he bought it making payments, but it’s a zero interest note. He got a nice PT Cruiser that can also haul the family travel trailer That’s not the point.

    The point is he gets stopped by police almost once a month. Not for a violation, not for anything wrong with his vehicle. He gets stopped and asked, “Where and when did you steal this car?” That is fucking ridiculous.

    I tried to write more on this but I’m in London and my brain is scrambled eggs. This I read the following. He says it all, exactly what i feel about the whole situation.


    It IS about race and privilege. It doesn’t help the police have decided to militarize. It is stupid and needs to stop.

  63. @David Hajicek
    From what I have read it appears that it is simply very difficulty to shoot to disable unless you are a very good shot, or the person isn’t moving, so that may be why it isn’t done very often

  64. Paula, so long as racism exists, there will be racist cops. But statistics matter when trying to find the truth. For example, among anti-racists, it’s a truism that black folks can’t get taxis in New York. Yet the studies a few years back found that the percentage of taxi drivers who don’t pick up people because of their race is less than 1%. Which is wrong, of course, but hardly a sign that racism is pervasive among taxi drivers.

    Your grandson should document the stops, then sue the city.

  65. You are correct, of course. I doubt many cops have an anatomy course either. The TV and movies are often showing somebody being shot in the shoulder, which is supposed to be safe. There are several major arteries running through there. Good chance the guy would be dead in a minute or two.

  66. james1gal, my point was more that there were other options to consider than just automatically going to full-on lethal force. Especially since it sounds like the cop was in no personal danger at the time of his shooting.

  67. I agree completely, I simply wanted to point out that that particular option was unlikely to work

  68. Being a black man who grew up in a poor community, I can say that there have been many times where I was stopped for no particular reason. We always called it, “walking while black”. This business in MO is just something that has been brewing for a long time. If it didn’t happen there it would happen somewhere else.

    Despite all that, I do think that everyone has to look at this with a level head. We’re talking about people and everyone should take that into consideration, even if it’s the police. There’s nothing to be gained by all the violence and looting. My family is all up in arms, but I told them to step back and think about what’s happening and how they could say what they want to say without the “hate”. Unfortunately, many of them grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Their view is colored by their experiences growing up and that just complicates everything. I just hope everyone is able to find a peaceful solution so that a real dialog can start to possibly lead to some reform and ultimately justice. Michael Brown didn’t deserve to die.

  69. James, agreed, and I’d like to think everyone here agrees. There’s an observation about generals fighting the previous war that applies to most of us, I think, and often, the thing that makes us blow up isn’t the thing itself. So even if it turns out Brown was acting as aggressively toward the cop as he was toward the clerk, the whole thing is still a symptom of a greater problem.

  70. From K A-J, “The U.S. Census Report finds that 50 million Americans are poor. Fifty million voters is a powerful block if they ever organized in an effort to pursue their common economic goals. So, it’s crucial that those in the wealthiest One Percent keep the poor fractured by distracting them with emotional issues like immigration, abortion and gun control so they never stop to wonder how they got so screwed over for so long.”

    Those seem more like poor white issues. What are the poor black issues that are being played? Perhaps most are so deep in poverty survival mode they have become non-political. To be sure, there don’t seem to be any political candidates or party that would help them much.

    I’d add that I’ve seen what seems to be a sophisticated propaganda effort to make educated blacks hate specifically whites that may be sympathetic to the blacks. In other words, prevent whites and blacks from working together. The added benefit is to have a buffer (sacrificial whites) for the 1% should TSHTF.

  71. Among some white people who are loudly crying that this is about race-race-and-nothing-but-race there is a distasteful element of, “I have no stake in this, I am in no danger, but here I am helping the cause anyway. Aren’t I great guy?”

  72. Steve, can you explain why you said this? You seem to be mixing several things.

    As you have said, it is not just about race, it is also about economics. The trouble is, race is the easy focal point for those who want to keep the blacks (and others) poor. It is easier to see who is black than to see who doesn’t have money in the bank. So while it may ultimately be about economics, on the ground, it looks exactly like race.

    If the blacks have whites helping them in their cause, it is counter productive to snarkily point out that the whites are not good enough to help because they can go home at the end of the day. Your effective point (because of the snark) becomes that whites should NOT be helping the blacks to get changes nor should the blacks accept their support. If you need allies, it is stupid to turn them away because they have not met whatever arbitrary gold standard you have in mind.

    If your point is that the demonstrations or whatever should be just about economics and not race, see above. Remember that race really is a wedge issue among a large part of the (especially poorer) GOP base. Even if it appears to you that race is being used by the 1%, it is still very real. It will be hard to gain economic benefits if most of the GOP feels blacks should be poor, if for no other reason than they are black.

    Some practical things to do: Raise the minimum wage (that is happening). Stop usury/predatory banking and loan practices. Improve education. Clarify economic issues (don’t use GOP talking points). Point out that it is not just blacks who depend on food stamps, food shelves, SS and Medicare.

  73. David: I said it because I’ve been noticing it on my twitter feed, and it is galling. And no, I am not saying, “It should be about this, not that.” More like, “it is, in fact, about this AND that.” This does not seem to be an area where we disagree. We are all of us in danger from the increasing militarization of the police, and the moves toward a police state. We will never fight that danger if we let race issues drive us apart; either the overt racism of the police, or the racial division encouraged by identity politics. We are all in this together whether we’d like to be or not.

    Taking the opportunity to trumpet one’s self is, as I said, distasteful, and I’m seeing some of that going on. So I snarked. This is my place to snark, and it is worth snarking about.

  74. Steve, you peaked my curiosity. Why do you think somebody would say the problem is only about race? There have to be half a dozen major problems coming to a head there.

  75. Because it’s being said constantly on my twitter feed, along with nasty remarks about anyone who would dare to suggest something else is involved.

  76. I’ve run into this kind of thing on other hot button issues. My feeling was that if I suggested things were more complicated than their single hot button issue (race in this case), they thought I was trying to: 1) confuse the issue, 2) weaken their case, 3) trick them, 4) work against them. There could only be the one issue in their mind. Anything else is heresy.

    Some people just think that way for whatever reason.

  77. NPR did an interesting piece the other day that touched on all this. It posited that part of the problem with police everywhere is that, over the last 30 years, police training has become more and more like military training, and as one of the interviewees, the current director of the Washington State Police (who is concerned about all this), said, “The mindset of a guardian is I am here to protect. The mindset of a warrior is I’m here to conquer.”


    They also touched on some of the reasons for this increasing militarization of training and equipment. It’s not very long, but worth a listen.

  78. Cops are taught to “take control of the situation.” That is not always the appropriate action. It is not always possible.

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