Every morning, my feeds are full of videos and stories of police indiscriminately beating, macing, tear gassing, and arresting peaceful protesters. While corporate media coverage has euphemized, obfuscated, and legitimized the brutal repressive response to nationwide demonstrations, independent journalists have accurately documented police violence and protesters themselves have detailed events in real time on social media. Each incident is shocking by itself but together the picture they paint is truly horrifying.
There are endless scenes of cops shoving or throwing people to the ground. There are countless images of groups of cops viciously clubbing people. In a widely circulated video from Brooklyn, NY, two NYPD vehicles drove into a crowd; but there are multiple other cities where police also used their cars as weapons to attack protesters. Cops have penned in people so they can’t move and attacked them with batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and/or tear gas. One incident involved an officer pulling a man’s facemask off and then pepper spraying him at point blank range. Children have been maced. Police have attacked businesses and homes offering protesters shelter from the violence. There’s a photo of a man with his toddler on his shoulders and a cop in full riot gear pointing a gun at the child. There are stories of cops attacking medics and journalists. In Washington, DC, National Guard troops tear gassed and shot rubber bullets at thousands to enable Trump’s Bible photo op for the white Christian nationalists. In Seattle, the police ran out of tear gas because they’ve used it so indiscriminately.
Tear gas and pepper spray are chemical weapons that are outlawed in warfare, but, inexplicably, just fine to use on your own people. In Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, Bureau of Prisons staff pepper-sprayed Jamel Floyd to death on June 3.
The level of violence by law enforcement institutions in the United States in the last two weeks has been truly staggering.
Of course, not just the last two weeks. Since 1492, systemic violence has been used to repress, control, or exterminate indigenous and Black people as well as immigrants defined as non-white. Since industrialization, it has also been used against workers who are organizing even when they fit the current definition of white.
The violence is also organized and justified by laws and courts, and the pronouncements of government officials and media.
But I want to focus for a moment on the actual physical assaults on people — predominantly BIPOC people — happening by the thousands on a daily basis in the U.S. right now. For perspective, I want to share a story of the arrest of an outspoken anti-racist minister from a different time:
“After this, Hildebrandt was arrested. A scene ensued in which Hildebrandt protested his arrest. Then the congregation joined in, growing louder and louder. The noisy crowd followed as the officers escorted Hildebrandt outside to their car. The congregation crowded around the car, continuing their protests, and watched as the officers tried to start the car and failed. After several embarrassing minutes, the humiliated officers conceded defeat, got out of the car, and began walking with their prisoner…. as they walked down the street, they were the objects of a jeering congregation, outraged that their pastor was being taken from them, and letting everyone within earshot know about it.”
Can you imagine this scene unfolding this past week without pepper spray and nightsticks swinging? I can’t. I can imagine the crowd’s response in any city in the U.S. in 2020, or 2014, or pretty much anytime, but I can’t imagine the NYPD, or the FBI or ICE, responding with anything other than both immediate violence and massive numbers of militarized officers. Want to venture a guess when and where this story is from?
In fact, it happened in Nazi Germany in 1937, four years into Hitler’s fascist rule. The original text says “Gestapo officers” where I simply wrote “officers” above. (The story appears in Eric Metzxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Except for omitting the modifier “Gestapo” in front of the three mentions of “officers,” the text is unaltered from Metaxas’s.) I was struck by this story when I first read it, long before the current uprising and the brutal police repression of it, and I’ve returned to it now for a reality check. I shared it without the identifying historical information to give you, the reader, a similar reality check.
I am in no way suggesting that the human rights abuses of the United States against its own citizens and residents is worse than that of Nazi Germany; trust me, as a non-Jewish German immigrant, I’ve been haunted my entire adult life by the barbarity of the Third Reich. But as a matter of everyday social control, U.S. law enforcement is both a more violent and a more saturated presence in our communities than it was in the Germany of 1937 — and of course, mostly in our Black and Brown communities. This reality should shake us to our core.
At the height of New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, the NYPD was stopping an average of 2,000 New Yorkers per day on city streets. (Full disclosure: I worked for the organization that brought the class action lawsuit that led to stop-and-frisk being ruled unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.) And if you need a more exact historical parallel for the Gestapo arrest recounted here, recall that in February ICE shot a man in the face because they deemed him to be interfering in their arrest of one of his family members.
What is my point? My point is that we in the United States live in society that is soaked in state-sponsored violence. Violent police repression is our “normal” and because we live with it so constantly, we can become numb to it or somehow come to see it as acceptable. “We” here is particularly white and wealthier USians, since we are by far the least affected by this violence. Much like the constant violation and violence against women is invisible as a social catastrophe in part because it is so ubiquitous, systemic state violence is a largely unquestioned baseline for our supposedly free society. Certainly, corporate media treat it as acceptable, and are a powerful force in normalizing it.
Of course, this has everything to do with white supremacy. All you need to do is consider that a few weeks ago groups of heavily armed white men (and a very few women) descended on state capitals and not a single one of them was beaten or targeted with chemical weapons. The contrast to the rebellion in defense of Black lives could not be starker.
Racism and extreme racist violence are baked into the very foundations of USian policing in the enforcement of the two systems of extreme violence on which the nation is built: the genocide of Native peoples and the enslavement of African and African-descended peoples.
Beginning in the 1670s, settler colonizer authorities started offering a bounty for Native scalps and laid the basis for a system of warfare and subjugation that lasted until the late 19th century. Settlers themselves functioned as a vigilante/police force (see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States). Slave patrols began in the early 1700s and by the end of the century were well established in every slave state. The slave patrols hunted down escaped slaves, suppressed uprisings, and punished slaves accused of breaking rules. Slave patrols were empowered to forcefully enter any home where they suspected a runaway was being harbored. Privatized police violence continued after the Civil War through lynching and other terror tactics. It is worth remembering how normalized — indeed, celebrated — this was for much of that history. Lynchings were often spectator sports, with picnics and postcards.
In a nation that has never repented of its sins of white supremacy, is it any wonder that formalized, state-sponsored violence continues to be the hallmark of social control, from policing to prisons? The United States is so saturated in violence that it even penetrates our hallucinations; researchers have found that the voices people with schizophrenia hear are more violent in the U.S. than elsewhere. The United States is so saturated in violence that when two Buffalo police officers were charged for assaulting a 75-year old, all 57 members of the police department’s Emergency Response Team resigned from the unit and over 100 people showed up outside the courthouse to protest the charges against the officers. The police are entitled to violence with impunity, in the view of these people and many others. Mind you, the man they assaulted did nothing to provoke it, and was left on the sidewalk in a pool of blood afterwards.
None of this makes rampant police violence any more excusable. On the contrary, it should define with utter urgency the need to name this violence plainly and abolish once and for all the institutions that perpetuate it — the police. It should make clear that U.S. police forces are inherently anti-democratic: they function to reinforce racist social control and suppress popular protest — protest allegedly protected in the First Amendment’s right to peaceably assemble. In two weeks, protesters have forced the Minneapolis City Council to propose disbanding their police department and the mayor of New York to propose mild reforms and a reduction in the police force. Are these reforms adequate? Of course not, but recognize that they were won by the people in the streets. Imagine how much more the democratic force of peaceful protest could achieve if they had not been met by massive police repression. Imagine how much more we will win if we keep going despite the repression.
The current rebellion in defense of Black lives is ultimately about fulfilling the promise of democracy in the U.S. Nothing could be more important to our future than its success.