When analyzing the issues of police brutality in America and the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of the most important aspects of the situation are rarely talked about.
Firstly, we have to ask how the criminal justice system operates and how it relates to power and inequality. The best and most detailed analysis of this that I have found is The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison by Jeffrey Reiman.
It argues that the justice system does not function by identifying and pursuing the most harmful and threatening criminal behavior within society, but instead maintains a laser-like focus on punishing the harmful acts of the poor while allowing and enabling the overwhelmingly more harmful acts of the rich to continue, things such as companies that release toxic chemicals into the air and workers who get killed because of dishonest regulatory practices, or, for instance, when Wall Street destroys the economy and millions of people lose their homes, jobs, and savings… that little thing.
Instead of reflecting the actual threats to society our system acts as a sort of carnival mirror which magnifies the threat of street crime while minimizing that of the much more dangerous corporate crime. At the same time in a vastly disproportionate way it incarcerate the impoverished and disenfranchised for things that all classes engage in, like non-violent drug use.
While doing this, the system has had no discernible success at lowering crime rates, the rates of crime today being roughly equivalent as those of the ’60s (before the war on drugs and our addiction to mass incarceration began).
So what we’re talking about is a system that arbitrarily targets the poor and fails to protect citizens from societies most serious dangers. This of course doesn’t imply that a lot of the criminals in jail aren’t actually bad people who deserve to be separated from society, a lot of them are, but this strategy of zero tolerance is not effective in any recognizable way at lessening the problem of crime. Instead it maintains power relations and supports the interests of one class against the others.
Reiman describes this as what he calls a “Pyrrhic defeat.” A Pyrrhic victory describes a military victory which is so costly in terms of troops and money that it is considered a defeat. The Pyrrhic defeat theory holds that the failure of the justice system yields such positive benefits to those in positions of power that it amounts to a success. In order to maintain this situation, those in power and the dominant media institutions propagate a narrative that the real threat to Americans comes from law-breaking poor minorities, not those at the top. This unrealistic picture of the world then leads Americans to demand harsher “tough on crime” policies aimed primarily at the lower classes. Instead of mitigating crime rates, this kind of system instead maintains a continual criminal underclass while as well even aiding the proliferation of crime. (Reiman describes a study in which students were asked to devise a system from scratch that would further crime rather than reduce it. The characteristics they described, things like arbitrary arrests for non-violent recreational activities – marijuana use – and making it virtually impossible to reenter society after conviction, were almost exact replicas of the way our system currently functions.)
The inability of the criminal justice system to adequately address the problem of crime was understood decades ago. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice observed that the system was “not designed to eliminate the conditions in which most crime breeds.” It noted that “crime flourishes where the conditions of life are the worst”, and thus what needs to be done is “to eliminate slums and ghettos, to improve education, to provide jobs, to make sure that every American is given the opportunities and freedoms that will enable him to assume his responsibilities.” (Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967, p. 279)
Criminal justice in America instead is based upon the idea of individual guilt and punishment, when in reality criminal behavior is a result of the larger structural system around us and all of the various pressures and incentives that exist within it. Crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is a product of environmental forces and the ways in which we are likely to respond to them. For instance, a 1992 study found a strong correlation between unemployment and crime. (Merva & Fowles, Effects of Diminished Economic Opportunities on Social Stress, Economic Policy Institute, 1992)
Coming back to police brutality however, the problem primarily stems from the changes to the economy that began in the ’70s.
At that time financialization began to take hold and the US industrial sector was gutted as corporations began extensively outsourcing production to factories akin to sweat-shops in places like China and Vietnam. This created an entire class of mostly poor and unemployed people without opportunities for work, and it effected the black and Hispanic populations the worst.
Instead of dealing with the “conditions in which crime breeds” decision-makers decided to use police and to build prisons. This “superfluous population” of people that capitalism had no use for (this was how those at the top of the establishment viewed them) were dealt with through mass incarceration. There is extensive documentation, such as in Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America, on the way in which “zero-tolerance” and “3 strike” policies and harsh police tactics swept these people up into the criminal justice system, often times utilizing massive brutality and violations of rights and freedoms while making arrests based on trumped up charges and giving extraordinary sentence lengths way out of proportion with the crime committed. (In one of these such cases a man with 2 decade-and-a-half old charges on his record was sentenced to life in prison after stealing a pair of socks worth $2.50.)
The police resembled an occupying force utilized against the poor that served as a tool of social control and repression.
This all was mainly targeted against black people, who on the whole have been kept to the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder due to a historical pattern of discrimination. The cops largely adopted a racist ideology and targeted people based on their skin color, even though this kind of criminal behavior, mainly 1-on-1 offenses like theft and assaults, are related to deprivation and poverty, not race. Impoverished white communities have the same persistence of crime that impoverished black communities have.
The mechanism for accomplishing all of this was drugs.
H.R. Halderman, one of Nixon’s aides, said that “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” (Christian Parenti, Lockdown America, p. 3)
That system was the war on drugs, which openly was aimed at low level drug users and dealers (how could anyone have taken them seriously with a strategy like that?) which massively incarcerated the disenfranchised classes for something that all classes participate in nearly equally. African-Americans use and sell drugs at about the same rates as whites. Those who filled the massive prison population boom were mainly drug offenders from poor, minority backgrounds.
Recently another Nixon insider, John Ehrlichman, explained the reasoning behind all of this: “You want to know what this was really about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This is what Michelle Alexander, a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer and legal scholar, is talking about when she describes the New Jim Crow, a system of criminalization which puts millions of already marginalized people into a “permanent second-class citizenship” status through their criminal records. Once branded as criminal, even for things like petty offenses, the authorities are then able to further intrude upon people’s lives and violate rights and freedoms, which in turn leads to the branding of more serious criminal labels which furthers the legal ability to violate rights even more.
The initial stage of this process usually begins at an extremely young age, children are arrested in grade school for things like “insubordination” or talking back to teachers.
In The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Reiman describes that when predominately poor and minority children get caught by police for a petty offense, they are more likely to be treated as though they need to be punished and taught a lesson. When children at the top of the socioeconomic ladder get caught for similar offenses, they are more likely to be treated as though they made a mistake and deserve a second chance.
In our society we treat poor minorities as though they are criminals who need to be punished while we treat the privileged as though they are people with problems that are in need of help.
Alexander describes in one of her lectures how she was approached by a young black man who presented her with evidence of systematic police brutality in his community. Alexander, who had dedicated her career to social justice cases, thought the evidence highly convincing, but once she learned that the man was a convicted criminal she turned him down. The reason why is that in the courts a criminal’s word is basically good for nothing, especially when going up against officers of the state. She explains how her epiphany on this issue occurred when the boy became furious at her, stating that she was no “different from them” and challenging her to find one kid in his neighborhood who they hadn’t “got to yet.”
She describes how the stories of those principally abused and oppressed by the police are not being heard “because they have been branded criminals, branded felons, and we, as a nation, have decided that they are unworthy of our care and concern.”
She describes how from then on she began her journey, listening to the countless stories of people who have been cycling in and out of prison while conducting extensive amounts of research in order to try and understand what was really going on, to find out why it was true that she hadn’t been able to find a young black man in that neighborhood who the police hadn’t “got to yet.”
Her conclusions were that there exists an underprivileged class of people that are members of what she describes as a criminal “caste system,” which makes things like higher education, employment, housing and public assistance virtually unobtainable.
The result of all of this, as Chris Hedges points out, is that police officers are now continually carrying out “random acts of legalized murder against poor people of color not because they are racist, although they may be, or even because they are rogue cops, but because impoverished urban communities have evolved into miniature police states.” The reality for people living in these miniature police states is that “police can stop citizens at will, question and arrest them without probable cause, kick down doors in the middle of the night on the basis of warrants for nonviolent offenses, carry out wholesale surveillance, confiscate property and money and hold people—some of them innocent—in county jails for years before forcing them to accept plea agreements that send them to prison for decades. They can also, largely with impunity, murder them.”
Therefore, any minor change like body cameras and increased convictions for brutality, though necessary and needed, ultimately will not solve the underlying causes from which the problem stems and thus will not reform the system. Certainly things like firing this or that individual or advocating that what needs to be done is to appoint “the good cops” will fail as well.
The problem is that we are faced with an institutional system set up to protect the powerful and punish the poor, one which enacts policies and economic restructuring that massively redistributes wealth to a privileged minority and then responds to the problems which arise from those brutalized by these policies with mass incarceration and police repression. Criminal law brandishes a whole class of people into a status of second-class citizenship, and social problems which necessitate education and opportunities are dealt with through violence. All while the major criminals in corporate boardrooms are free to continue harming society as they please while generating massive profits. Highly centralized economic power then translates into political power, and the society is further constructed in the interests of the few against the well being of the majority.
If we do not fundamentally change the justice system into one that handles crime based on its relative threat to society irrespective of class and ethnicity, while as well democratizing the political and economic systems away from rule by plutocracy, police will continue killing black people and the poor, and they will continue to get away with it.