Police brutality is a savage wound to everything a democracy stands for. Ultimately, a democracy requires that its people feel safe in non-violently opposing its government, and police brutality is but one in a growing list of violations of that safety: warrantless searches, wiretaps, indefinite detention without trial, and now torture.
To white America, the increasing government exercises of power must feel like a declaration of war against civil liberties. But it is not a war, it is a simple wound born of a desire for perfect security. Such an idea should be unthinkable, given America’s founding principles, with Benjamin Franklin himself saying “those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. However, the American identity has become more and more bound up in the military, and while economic prosperity has not, the military mindset has trickled down into our society, and extended war from the international to the domestic.
This wound to civil liberties was opened by the War on Drugs, with President Nixon saying “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse”. The War on Drugs had clear military beginnings, marijuana use common among Vietnam servicemen, and mandatory heroin testing for returning military servicemen from Vietnam. Even to this day, drug use is one of the strongest targets of surveillance, with almost 90% of wiretaps being used for drug arrests. However, for most Americans – especially younger Americans – while the wound to civil liberties may have been opened by the War on Drugs, it was aggravated by the War on Terror. After 9/11, the US government increased the strength of its surveillance and detention programs in order to provide a semblance of security to a scared subset of the population.
Both of these wars have been fought with on the same two fronts with the same weapons: surveillance and police-driven detention at home, complemented by border control and paramilitary action abroad. It is hard not to see the pattern if you aren’t actively avoiding it: both wars are targeted at black and brown folk from country to country, whether it be in American urban environments, Central and South America, or the Middle East.
For example, from the beginning, SWAT teams have been used as a form of oppressive and unwarranted violence against minorities.
While SWAT teams were initially marketed as a tool against high-stakes hostage scenarios, the first substantive SWAT team deployment was a raid on the Black Panthers. Ultimately, the arrested members of the Black Panthers were acquitted of the charges against them, but the precedent was set: use heavily armed and militarized police officers to isolate, intimidate, engage, and arrest subversive elements regardless of whether not they were actually guilty of anything.
But SWAT tactics and equipment had been used before SWAT ever existed. In fact, the idea had initially come from Delano Police Department responses to United Farm Workers union protests led by César Chavez, protests which were nonviolent, and yet required heavily armed crowd and riot control and constant surveillance.
Now, SWAT teams conduct tens of thousands (more than 50k in 2005 alone) exercises commonly referred to as “no-knock raids”, where they do not announce their presence before breaking into people’s homes with guns drawn. This has led to a number of shoot-outs where homeowners mistakenly thought they were subject to a robbery or home invasion, and fired upon officers.
It might be easy to see the increasing violations or even redefinitions of civil liberties as part of a concerted war against Americans. In reality, they are simply collateral damage. If we ended the War on Drugs and War on Terror today, demilitarizing our police departments, that would be it. There would be no lasting damage to American civil liberties, no need to do anything else. Why? Because all of these things are born of fear of the other: black and brown people. This is plain to see from even a cursory glance at the execution of these “wars”.
The War on Drugs has not lead to a heavy crackdown on gangs, or violent drug dealers abroad. Instead, it has largely been used to support military dictatorships against liberal revolutionaries in Central and South America, as well as the Middle East. In America, however, the vast percentage of drug arrests are not for dealing, but drug possession. Those drug arrests fall disproportionately on black Americans, with black Americans significantly more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white Americans, despite approximately 15% lower use rates.
As well, the conviction rates for drugs commonly used in “urban” or “black” communities are much higher. The perfect example is the oft-cited crack vs powder cocaine distinction, where average sentences for crack cocaine are almost 50% higher than for powder. The US Sentencing Commission stated “that no class of drug is as racially skewed as crack in terms of number of offenses”, while studies suggest that crack cocaine is no more addictive than powder.
Self-defense is one of the greatest examples of security outweighing liberty in American society. Self-defense in America has been largely centered around the debate to gun rights. However, the states with the highest gun-death rates are not – as commonly thought – coastal urban centers. California and New England have some of the lowest gun death rates, while the south has the highest.
Troublingly, these are also the states with the highest levels of implicit racial bias, an impactful but hidden form of racism. The Implicit Association Test measures people’s subconscious biases by judging their reaction times when asked to sort positive and negative words, or weapons and non-weapons, while they simultaneously sort black and white faces. In this test, Americans – especially white Americans – struggle with sorting positive words with black faces, and consistently see weapons in the hands of blacks where there are none.
The culture of gun possession and racism combine to make an analog Fugitive Slave Act, where black men can be gunned down by white “defendants” who get off scot-free even despite evidence that the black “assailants” were unarmed and had no role in initiating the conflict. Why? Once again, it comes down to racial bias. Blacks are implicitly associated with words like “violent” and “dangerous” and are more likely to be seen as possessing weapons even when they aren’t. This association causes people to actually be more afraid for their lives in engagements with black men, and probably actually think they acting in self-defense in many cases (although George Zimmerman seemed more concerned with making sure that Trayvon Martin not “get away”). On top of that, it makes their claims that they were acting in self-defense and in fear for their lives seem rational and acceptable. This is how Darren Wilson – a grown man – can get away with comparing his conflict with Michael Brown – a teenager – to “a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” and say that he looked “like a demon”, and be taken seriously.
As a result, Stand Your Ground suits are far less likely to be accepted when it is a white person fearing a black person than the reverse.
Stand Your Ground is far from the only instance of self-defense being selectively applied on the grounds of race. The majority of SWAT raids are in drug busts, and the majority of those are against black defendants. One tactic SWAT employs is simply busting the door down and making an arrest. Unsurprisingly, many people confuse the raids for robberies, and shoot back at SWAT teams. While there is no data on the disparity in such cases, two high-profile cases make the case just fine. Six months apart, two no-knock raids ended in the death of an officer. In one case, marijuana was found, and the defendant “awaits trial for felony possession of marijuana”. However, the grand jury found not enough evidence for him to stand trial on the murder charge, ruling it a clear self-defense case. In another case, no drugs were found, but the defendant remains in jail while awaiting trial with the potential for the death penalty. Any guesses which defendant is white and which is black?
John Crawford was gunned down in Walmart after having dropped a toy gun to the ground. Much of the justification for his shooting has hinged on the top gun causing him to look like he posed a threat. One should recall that Ohio is an open carry state, and that even had he been carrying a real gun, he would have been well within his rights. Meanwhile, gun-rights activists – predominantly white – continue to stage “educational” open carry demonstrations with no injuries, and often only a quick conversation with the cops to determine if the gun was lawfully owned or not. But they are simply the low-hanging fruit. When found to have been in violation of federal law for 20 years, and despite having been warned 15 years ago, Cliven Bundy responded to a lawful seizure of property by making violent threats against the responsible government agency, staging an armed standoff from which the government eventually backed off. Similar actions have been taken since by the Patriot Movement, a collection of “various conservative… militia members, tax protesters… quasi-Christian apocalypticists, or combinations thereof”.
It is from these examples and more that we can see a simple truth. We are not facing an increasingly federalized and militarized state bent on micromanaging every aspect of American life at gunpoint. In fact, if anybody is holding political power at gunpoint, it is conservative militiamen. Coincidentally (or perhaps motivated by racial bias, you decide), the Patriot Movement has grown almost 700% since President Obama’s election. Yes, the police have seen increasing use of military equipment by police officers, but mostly in “urban” (read: black/brown) environments in conjunction with the War on Drugs. However, the American sociopolitical system continues to largely reject police violence against white Americans, as is shown by the success of reactionary movements such as Cliven Bundy’s.
Violence against black Americans is largely overlooked, whether it be by the police, vigilantes, or subjective notions of self-defense that have historical roots in anti-black violence. And why not? America was born amidst systemic violence against black people via slavery, and appears to have become inured to it to such a degree that they perceive blacks as feeling less pain.
This is why it is important not to see killings of unarmed black men such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, or John Crawford as somehow indicative of increasing police brutality. While there may occasionally be collateral brutality that falls on white Americans, but these are more akin to the fever your body gets while trying to fight off an infection: the fever may be inconvenient, painful, or even deadly, but the war is against invading antibodies. America continues to see black Americans as not belonging in “their” society, and finds new ways to fight them off with each generation.
America has never *not* been at war with black people. It is a war we have been fighting since this nation’s inception, and it feels like a war that can only be won with generation after generation of sacrifice. The last thing we want is for white America to heal its wound by “fixing” our many *recent* civil rights violations (wiretapping, police brutality, and even torture) for white America, while continuing to execute them in silent upon black America. The fact that white Americans are now noticing how bad they have gotten is only a sign of how harshly this war has intensified, thanks to increased white supremacy in reaction to a black president.
White America and black America may both be bleeding for once, but black America has been suffering from a chronic, terminal condition for its entire existence. I think these voices can come together (I can only hope), because ultimately what they both need is a doctor. We just can’t have that doctor show up, give both patients a tourniquet and blood coagulants, think the problem is solved, and move on.
To treat the systemically unequal as equal only serves to reinforce historical racism and inequity.