By its very job description—the border patrol for all the boundaries capitalism and white supremacy generates—policing ensures that none of its agents can be “good.” But these systems depend on making its victims believe otherwise for as long as possible. Charged with sorting the “good” from the “bad,” we’re asked to mourn daily injustice as a glitch rather than a feature of an unjust system and forced repeatedly into renewed calls for “reform.” But police violence makes for grief with no catharsis. It is a state of sustained trauma.
In the hallowed tradition of police procedurals, this issue is a sequel. When we first broached the topic three years ago, public discourse had stalled on the question of “Can some cops be bad?” Now the fact that defenders of the state engage in violent and excessive repression is taken for granted by police apologists and reformers alike. The essays in this issue challenge the presumption that the job itself can be performed without grievous harm to those policed.
The U.S. reproduces the trauma of the police state both in news discussions of its literal instantiations as well as the endless procession of movies and TV shows that glorify police. Far from hiding the aggressions of white supremacy, mass media repeats them and their insistence on black isolation and criminality, building ideological support for the status quo. It’s the daily grind on a profit worshipping, antiblack, heteropatriarchal planet that cops are charged with protecting. So any broad-based effort to end policing must be rooted in transforming the society that the police protect. If we limit the pursuit of justice to reform, then we may be caught off guard when the reformed guards reiterate the different forms of oppression that the essays in this issue investigate.
Modern policing’s roots are international and colonial, held in part to have been pioneered by Britain’s Sir Robert Peel. He established nine “principles” for London’s metropolitan beat walkers, founded on a theory of “policing by consent.” But in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the consent developed into community vigilantism, as Catholic and Protestant police forces engaged in a battle for control. As Simon Gardner writes in this issue, “State recognition means little if the state itself is rotten, at war with its own people.”
Adeola Enigbokan’s “The Black and Blue Line” looks to South Africa to take apart the lie that “community policing” has a softer touch. She reads the apartheid nation’s attempt at “black on black” policing as one front in a counterinsurgency, where a frightened white-supremacist state sent young black men into communities in revolt to restore order. “In black communities, the police act as rangers sent out from the conquered territories,” she writes. “Under these circumstances, police do not so much embody the law as physically demonstrate its limit.” Maryam Monalisa Gharavi’s “The Killing Class,” written in the 2014 “Summer of Death,” notes the legal endorsement the U.S. gives police who take human lives while on the job. “Encounter it enough times and ‘no charges against police officer’ morphs from reportage into eerie command,” Gharavi writes, laying bare the state’s monopoly on legitimate use of deadly force.
The intersection of policing and data science bring familiar strands of corporate logic to the science of oppression, as charted by Ava Kofman’s “Blue Skies.” The Taser Corporation had already found business opportunity in the demands for police accountability and increased legal liability, intervening with its namesake product (which has not be proved to reduce either violence or lawsuits). Now it sees a market in data collection in the demand for visual records of police activity, peddling a “Dropbox for cops” that stores bureaucratic violence in the cloud. New approaches of predictive policing also recast old biases as innovative technology, as artist and researcher Heather Dewey-Hagborg details in “Sci-Fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead.” Such approaches give scientific racism a slick, mechanized sheen of neutrality.
Even a dead cop is on the clock. As Javier Arbona writes in “Forget Me Not,” police memorials don’t enshrine actual moments in history but dehistoricize and glorify police violence. The increasing number of national police memorial sites indicate the countrywide scale of cop memory, an anxious reaction seeking to contain growing countrywide resistance to police control.
In Detroit, the collapse of its industrial base has meant the rollback of city services, opening a space for private security to move in, to protect the people who can pay for it. Campus cops, “threat management” outfits, and latter-day Pinkertons all now swarm the city with deadly force, abetted by a municipal government content with the idea that some people deserve protection and others don’t. Muna Mire and Messiah Rhodes report from the Motor City on the privatization of public safety .
In moving from racism to resistance, Alex Alston argues that black radicalism should throw off qualifiers like “unarmed” and “innocent” in describing victims of police violence, categories available only to the beneficiaries of antiblack modernity in the first place. The question, he writes, is “whether we will lament our place outside and against white (civil) society, or whether we will embrace and brandish that place as the source of power that it is.” The issue also includes Willie Osterweil’s defense of looting, written in August 2014 as Ferguson’s rebels continued to take the streets night after night. He offers a vision of looting—collective expropriation of private property—as a direct attack on the society that police protect, which is why apologists for the system of all stripes find it so necessary to condemn it.
When we say, with poet Miguel James, that all our prose is against the police, we don’t simply mean the ugly racist in a blue uniform over there, we mean the whole world that he stands for and protects. We are against the police because they are both the image and the literal border of this world. And we are desperate to imagine a better one.
Editors’ Note, Vol. 45: Cops 2
The Killing Class
The Black and Blue Line
My Own Private Detroit
Arms and the Man
Forget Me Not
In Defense of Looting
Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead
Policing the Troubles