“ Out, damned spot! out, I say! … What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? — Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.”
(Macbeth, act 5, sc. 1)
That policemen have a license to kill sounds a somewhat harsh way of stating the obvious. Most of us don’t think about it as, equally obviously, we assume the police to be the warden of order. I say order and not law for two reasons. For one, experience shows that law can be interpreted, stretched and distorted, according to the whims of its judicial interpreters, as we will see later. And two, “law and order” is a formula that glides easily on the tongue, without requiring the intervention of reason. It functions perfectly as a verbal jingle and is an indispensable weapon in the verbal armory of the electable. Avoiding its utterance implies unelectability.
But when misused, overused or abused, the lexicon seeks revenge. In the instance, “law and order” has fostered and created at large, a progressively regressive mode of thought, and triggered a competition, among the electable and the elected, about who is first in “law and order.” It is well known that America has, proportionally, the largest prison population in the world. And thanks to another judicial and equally rhythmical formula, “three strikes and you are out”, there are extant cases of people condemned to life in prison for shoplifting a loaf of bread at the supermarket. It would be hard to dispute the correlation between the formula, the results and the mode of thought.
Furthermore, there is profit in prisons. An unemployed, disenfranchised individual on the streets, capitalistically speaking, is useless. But in prison his upkeep yields about 43 thousand dollars per year in profits for what, in new-speak, is called the “custodial industry.” Merge law with order and with profit, and you have the proverbial winning combination.
Therefore, according to this noble philosophy, killing a potential inmate is senseless. For, as yet, there is no profitable way of incarcerating a dead body. Still, especially in the last year, there have been applications of the license to kill that have perplexed even some zealots of law and order.
Which brings us to the recent spate of extra-judicial murders of unarmed men, notably African American. Police killings are actually common. The current instances are unusual only for the conditions and the circumstances in which they occurred. For some of the killings have been actually caught on camera. The videos are indisputable and have raised questions about “law” and about “order.” Questions unanswered and probably unanswerable in the present socio-political moment.
Mostly for the benefit of our international readers here is a quick summary.
The first killing to catch media attention was Michael Brown’s in Ferguson, Missouri. And among the recent police executions, Ferguson’s is probably the most open to doubt. Michael Brown was caught on video shoplifting tobacco at a neighborhood store and shoving away the shop-keeper, when asked to pay for the items. This happened minutes before the shooting. It is therefore possible that Brown’s attitude was aggressive towards the policeman, who ordered him to walk on the sidewalk and not in the middle of the road. That is, Brown thought he would be arrested for robbery rather than just being warned for jay-walking. The versions of what happened afterwards are too contradictory to allow a clear conclusion.
However, to cause the ensuing upheaval was what happened in the immediate aftermath – when the victim’s body was left for several hours unattended, in the middle of the road where he was gunned down. The associated image immediately coming to mind is a road-kill. While the obvious contempt for Brown’s body signals a pre-existing contempt for his life, hence his execution.
After Brown’s, there were more police killings across the nation, that, however, went mostly unnoticed by the regime media. But a month later, an alert man with a smartphone recorded the New York killing of Eric Garner, guilty of selling cigarettes one by one. The activity has even a job description, namely, selling “loosies”, suggesting, in the instance, the type of employment opportunities available to a 45-year old man with a family. In the video, Eric Garner is slammed on the floor by 5 policemen, one of whom strangles Garner while he pleads repeatedly “I cannot breathe” until dead. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfXqYwyzQpM)
Here the aftermath adds a touch of macabre irony to the killing. For the policemen involved in Garner’s death were all cleared of any wrongdoing, while the only person in prison is the man who shot the video, Ramsey Orta. The charges? Criminal firearm possession in a previous incident. Orta testified that the police falsely mounted the charges, in retaliation for his recording of Garner’s killing.
Most of us are still reluctant to believe that the police would fabricate a case, though there are instances of innocent people sent to death through invented evidence. Most recently, two people, Anthony Ray Hinton and Glenn Ford, were freed after 30 and 40 years respectively, having been found innocent, while previously condemned to death through false evidence.
Almost to support, at least indirectly, Orta’s point about retaliation and fabrication of evidence, comes the recent case of Walter Scott in North Carolina. Scott was stopped for having a broken brake light on his car. He obeyed but after leaving the car, he ran and the policeman chased him. The 50 year old Scott did not have the body or the stride of a sprinter. But the policeman took aim and repeatedly shot him at close range. Scott fell and the policeman handcuffed him while the man was dying. (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2015/apr/09/north-charleston-shooting-police-scanner-video)
Here too, the aftermath adds macabre irony to the killing. In his report, the policeman stated that he shot Scott out of fear for his life, as Scott had taken his taser in an earlier scuffle. But here too, as with Eric Garner, a bystander had recorded a video of the incident. In which we see Scott on the ground, handcuffed, dead or dying while the policeman returns to his car, picks up a taser and lays it close to the victim.
It is the gross misrepresentation of the event by the police that prompted the video shooter to come forward, for he too feared retaliation. In this one instance, the policeman was charged with murder.
But justice took a very curious turn in the killing of Rekia Boyd by policeman D. Servin in Chicago. Servin was off-duty when he approached a group of 4 youngsters on a sidewalk whom he thought were too loud. While in his car (according to reports), Servin shot at one of the youngsters as he thought that the smartphone in the youngster’s hand was a gun. But one of the bullets hit the back of Rekia Boyd’s head, who died shortly later.
Servin was charged with involuntary manslaughter and tried accordingly. Here, the most extraordinary thing is the judge’s verdict, “The act of intentionally firing a gun at some person or persons on the street is an act that is so dangerous it is beyond reckless; it is intentional, and the crime, if there be any, is first-degree murder.” Note that “if there be any”, which easily escapes notice, given the oratorical tone of the sentence. But here is the surprise ending, “Simply put, the evidence presented in this case does not support the charges on which the defendant was indicted and tried. The motion for a directed finding is granted (translation, what I say is because I say so). There is a finding of not guilty on all counts, and the defendant is discharged.”
After the reader recovers from the shock of disbelief, here is (I assume), the judge’s reasoning. The prosecutor charged the defendant with the wrong crime, which was murder, not involuntary manslaughter. Therefore, if the crime was inappropriately named, it means that no crime was committed.
As Shakespeare would say, “When law can do no right, let it be lawful that law bar no wrong.”(1)
Then we have the case of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, of Cleveland, who did not stop their car after the police flagged Russell for a wrong right turn. Followed a Hollywood-style high-speed chase, involving 60 police cars. At the end of which 13 officers shot 137 rounds into the unarmed suspects. One of the officers jumped on the hood of the car and directly aimed at the victims through the windshield. Russell was hit 23 times, Williams 24.
The officer who jumped on the hood was indicted, but the judge discharged him because it was impossible to prove that the victims were killed by his bullets and not by his colleagues’ bullets.
The case of 12-year old Tamir Rice is also worth mentioning, for a video is extant. He was in a park with a toy gun and a video shows the boy being alone and no one else around. Someone had called 911 alerting that in the park there was a man with a gun, the man probably a youngster and the gun probably a toy. The video shows the police arriving, two policemen getting out of the car and shooting. A few seconds later the boy was dead.
In the recent Baltimore killing Freddie Gray, the victim, made eye contact with a policeman patrolling the neighborhood. Probably scared, he decided to run. Was he to blame? No. Where Freddie Gray lived, a policeman’s presence does not inspire the awe of authority, but the dread of brutality. Still, his flight was sufficient cause for the policemen to chase him, arrest him and stuffing him into a van, from which he came out with his spine almost completely severed from the head. He died after days in a coma.
The last entry in this list of lugubrious events is not a killing. An Illinois judge has just ordered the release of a Polaroid picture. It shows two Chicago police officers crouched, posing as hunters over an unidentified African-American man, who police said was a “drug suspect.”
One officer holds a pair of antlers above the man, while the other holds the man’s head up. Both officers are posing with rifles and clearly ordered the man to stick his tongue out and roll his eyes back, creating the image of a deer hunted and killed by the officers. Not a road-kill as with Michael Brown, but an animal kill all the same.
The debates following the events were and are the usual kaleidoscope of platitudes, uttered by spin-doctors and pundits – lengthy debates about racism, more police training, policemen wearing body cameras etc. I do not wish to augment the vexation or strain the patience of my 25 readers, by repeating what they already know.
As for racism, most have forgotten that electing an African American president was to signal its end. Besides, in the case of Freddie Gray, 3 out of the 6 policemen who arrested and handled him were black, so is the mayor, the public prosecutor and various other authorities in Baltimore.
Furthermore, police violence is not limited to minorities. Where I live I watched a war protester being handcuffed and slammed to the ground while the policeman placed his boot on his back – a mode of insult and a token of contempt. For in no way could the demonstrator possibly get up, with his face on the pavement and his hands tied behind his back. A few years ago, the police chased an autistic man who, allegedly, was seen urinating against a tree. A 250 pound officer tackled him, then jumped and landed full weight on his rib cage, crushing it and killing him.
All in all, and unless blinded by ideology, it is easy to see that the killings and police brutality are not the result of racism. Rather, they are the reflection of the class-struggle in reverse, and the domestic counterpart of foreign policy.
That reverse class-struggle is the inescapable result of neo-liberal ideology, requires no demonstration, as a quick look at the statistics of income distribution proves it.
For, through high level decisions in which they have no say, many minorities are reduced to live in islands of neglect and despair. Almost forced to make a living by dealing in drugs, they are then condemned for drug dealing. Consequently, for a police patrolling the islands of despair every inhabitant is a probable criminal.
Spending one trillion dollars per year in “defense”, does little to improve the lot of the struggling classes or to create jobs in the islands of despair. 25 million dollars are easily found to pay the spy who betrayed Bin Laden (http://yourdailyshakespeare.com/osama-or-you-only-die-twice/equalities). But investing the same in one island of despair, to alleviate the sting of inferiority, to overpower the anguish of oppression and to provide the dignity of a decent job is inconceivable. Neo-liberal philosophy would consider the initiative a pandering to poverty and a sacrilege in the theology of economic Darwinism. Wherein, if killing is more profitable than creating a decent job, the decent job must be sacrificed to killing.
For the current pre-eminent profit makers are wars and the financial industry. The war produces death, the financial industry nothing. It is a casino where the game is rigged and the fraudsters are assured of immunity.
As for police brutality, just like men judge by the complexion of the sky the state and inclination of the day(2), the ruled judge by the behavior of their rulers, the behavior best suited to themselves. Which includes the police force as a whole.
After a brief post-Vietnam hiatus, various administrations have promoted or directly conducted mass murder by the millions. American soldiers have been filmed urinating on their Afghan victims, guilty of fighting back against a foreign force, perceived by them and by other millions as corrupt and arrogant.
Hollywood, which is but a top-down imposed ideology, masquerading as popular taste, promotes the view that the victims of American invasions are inferior beings, objects of contempt, deserving of torture, death and indignity to cadaver.
In the movie “American Sniper”, the viewer is regaled with monologs as follows, “My country sent me out there so that bullshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores. I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them… I loved what I did (killing people). I still do… it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.”
The hero’s motto was, “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems.” He says, “And we spray-painted it on every building and walls we could. We wanted people to know, we’re here and we want to fuck with you. …You see us? We’re the people kicking your ass. Fear us because we will kill you, motherfucker.”
One word describes this pornography of the soul, shit. For the message and tone of “American Sniper” and other similar movies, become embedded in the popular mind at large, as models of manliness and of the best spirit of the Exceptional Nation. And that inevitably includes the police.
It is said that every empire will eventually turn against its own people. Perhaps the recent recorded externations by the police prove it.
To conclude, in the aftermath of these killings there is a consensus that more must be done to combat racism and to better train the police. Poor antidotes to medicate the cup of life of so many. But they gained bipartisan agreement, which is new-speak for doing little, nothing, or worse.
1) King John
2) King Richard II
PS. This site http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database#
gives running statistics on police killings in the US
In the play. Lady Macbeth, now out of her mind, remembers in a trance the bloody events of which she was an inspirer and co-conspirator with her husband.