Ari Paul in Souciant (via Doug Henwood):
Brown wasn’t killed by fancy military weaponry but with a simple pistol. Eric Garner, the Staten Island man whose killing by an NYPD officer this year has furthered the anti-police outrage, was choked to death with a man’s bare hands. Protests against police may bring out the heavy artillery, but the incidents that spark the unrest involve police in their civilian ideal.
The real problem is unseen. It’s in the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file. And more troublingly, it’s a reflection of anxieties in American culture.
Kristian Williams, an activist with the Committee Against Political Repression and author of Our Enemies In Blue: Police and Power in America, explained in a phone interview that Americans have tended to focus on aspects of militarization easily seen, but the mentality of the police force began to change dramatically in response to the upheaval of the 1960s. “There was a move toward community policing, a reorganization of police departments away from the model of individual cops, ones and twos on patrol more or less at random around the city, and more toward things like strategic deployment, and organizing police into platoons,” he said. “One of the results of that was that police self-identified as a military apparatus, as sort of a domestic soldier.”
That hasn’t just changed the nature of law enforcement where citizens are regarded as potential enemy combatants, where social inequities are viewed simply as breeding conditions for a new front line, rather than something to be addressed with public services. Unionization, Williams told me, also led to police acknowledging themselves as an independent political organization, a kind of extension of the existing law enforcement system, accountable only to cops and not pesky taxpayers or legislative oversight.
And quite unlike others unions, which had an inherently conflictual relationship with their employers, Williams said “in policing there’s vertical solidarity.” Cops are able to perpetuate the notion that they should get the benefit of the doubt because they have dangerous jobs, because that mythology also allows department heads to insist on more funding and staff. By contrast, job titles with higher at-work fatality rates don’t carry the same kind of mythology, because while new safety regulations would benefit construction workers, they would stifle surplus value extraction for company owners.
Bolstering the cops’ hand is prevalent public fear of crime, despite the various metrics showing that the United States has gotten safer since the 1980s.
The idea of “police reform” obscures the task. Whatever one thinks of the past half-century of criminal-justice policy, it was not imposed on Americans by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are, at the very least, byproducts of democratic will. Likely they are much more. It is often said that it is difficult to indict and convict police officers who abuse their power. It is comforting to think of these acquittals and non-indictments as contrary to American values. But it is just as likely that they reflect American values. The three most trusted institutions in America are the military, small business, and the police.