Police State: Power and accountability in the US

By Skyla Baily 

Note from the author:

I, like so many other people, am always trying to educate myself on these matters and so I am by no means an authority on the subject nor do I have exhaustive knowledge. The information in this article merely scratches the surface of the systematic exploitation that is so deeply rooted in American society; it is not to ignore the problems we face in the UK, but to highlight what academics have learnt from the US in particular. This is one small attempt to drive focus towards the institutional corruption that makes victims of people like George Floyd.

The protests in the US and the solidarity marches that have sprung up around the world are drawing vital attention to the senseless murder of people of colour by police. Whilst the energy and focus around this matter is at its highest, it is essential that we question how and why the police officers in the US are given such unquestioned and unlimited power, its implications, and what must be done to change this. 

So how and why are police arbitrarily given this power, with zero accountability? 

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, complied by Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton offers insight into the ways that police officers are given the authority to distinguish between acceptable behaviours and occupations of space. In sum, the militarised nature of the US, where police officers and the military are glorified as heroes, protectors and the enforcers of safety, automatically positions their victims as “assailants” and “enemies”. This is fuelled by and perpetuates the idea that people of colour are ‘other’, and allows police officers to justify their disproportionately violent actions.

“Under these zero-tolerance policies, police sweeps have become standard procedure as cops remove whole portions of communities from the streets—the houseless, queer and gender-nonconforming people, sex workers, day laborers, youths—under the rationalization that their very presence creates disorder. […] Exacerbating the long-standing demonization of Blacks and Latinos, and the poor, zero-tolerance policing unleashes its potent magic like a laser beam against the menacing hordes.”

Rachel Herzing in Policing the Planet

Evidently, they tell us that this discourse is so ingrained in the consciousness of those who are not victims of such violence themselves, that police officers are excused for their criminal behaviour; how can the defenders against crime possibly be criminals themselves? 

The power given to the police officers and their methods are also reified from the very top in complex and insidious ways. Herzing further makes clear the incredibly destructive and racialised policy of Broken Windows Policing, introduced by NY City Police Commissioner William Bratton in the 1990s. 

Supposedly, the logic of the policy is that by showing zero tolerance towards small offences such as loitering, drunkenness and graffiti, this will lead to the eradication of larger crime. A broken window is said to send the message that crime is allowable, and so such offences must be made intolerable. All people are seen to be suspicious under the justification of large scale crime prevention, so their actions in these areas are strictly criminalised — a system that will always be racialised when those seen to be suspicious are deemed by the police officers to be Black and Brown. 

Policing that focuses on order maintenance undeniably intersects with gentrification processes, where once again police officers, in the interest of city planners and officials, are given the power to determine who belongs where and in what capacity. This deterministic criminality at the discretion of a powerful force has been weaponised and has led to the arrest and murder of countless individuals. 

Essentially, the practical enforcement of this policy is completely unregulated; Eric Garner was murdered when police officers suspected him of selling loose cigarettes, one of these small crimes that the policy targets, and Tamir Rice was killed by police who were only supposed to be on duty patrolling a public park. In both instances, the police’s targeting of these individuals in the first place for ‘suspicious activity’ is justified by broken window style policing policy, in the name of order maintenance.  

The implications of financial prioritisation are astounding 

Racial profiling of those deemed to be ‘suspicious’ has an astounding financial consequence. Fines, arrest warrants and fees generate profits in the millions for municipalities; in Ferguson in 2013, the courts issued 33,000 arrest warrants to a population of 21,000 people, generating an income of $2.6 million

Meanwhile, the redirection of over half of LA’s $100 million city budget for ending homelessness towards police officers demonstrates how officers are given the power and the financial directive to act as the dominating authority on the order of society’s most vulnerable, where arrest is preferable to housing or mental health support. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg; one does not have to look far to discover the obscene amount of money that goes towards the police in the US. In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, it must be asked why the country cannot afford to provide essential PPE to its frontline workers, but can afford to launch an immediate military response to peaceful protests. One Twitter user estimated that a riot gear load for one officer could provide full PPE for 55 front line care workers

There is more to be done than is immediately obvious 

The #8cantwait campaign puts forward 8 ways that the police can instate policies to decrease violence by supposedly 72%, including banning chokeholds and requiring warning before shooting. However, the obvious change that needs to be made is to defund the police and redirect resources.  

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, calls for an abolitionist system of self-determination rooted in meeting community needs. Though it may be difficult for people to imagine, maybe it is time to question to what extent the police, in the capacity that they currently exist, are actually needed. 

Could the exorbitant amount of money that is given to the police not be redirected into education, youth centres, jobs, community renovation schemes, scholarships, health care, and other means of reducing structural violence perpetuated by the state? Would this not be more conducive to a peaceful and crime reduced society than the surveillance state that criminalises people of colour and constantly feeds into the prison industrial complex? 

Black Americans represent some 33% of the sentenced prison population, proportionally nearly triple the 12% of adults they make up in US society. Whilst we protest police brutality and overhaul police officers’ powers, it is essential that we also recognise the gross injustices that are committed by the courts and prison system in America, as well. 

Private prisons that work hand in hand with the policing practices touched on in this article represent a form of modern day slavery says the No Exceptions Prison Collective, an American charity committed to prison abolition. They draw attention to the wording of the 13th Amendment, which states that ‘Neither Slavery nor Involuntary Servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; shall exist in the United States.”

When the criminalisation of black people is so commonly unjust, and sentencing is applied with such bias, groups like the No Exceptions Collective recognise the insidiously racist servitude that still continues to exist. It is not enough just to dismantle the police; sentencing reform, improving internal conditions and abolishing private prisons are all necessary.  

There is so much work to be done to bring about the changes that are needed in the US, let alone refocusing our attention on the problems in the UK justice system. We can hope that by maintaining pressure on authorities and those in power, and by supporting organisations that have been working tirelessly to bring about reform, the narrative can be changed.  

Donation Links:

No Exceptions Prison Collective:

https://noexceptions.net/donate/

The Bail Project:

https://secure.givelively.org/donate/the-bail-project

ActBlue Mega Fund:

https://secure.actblue.com/donate/bail_funds_george_floyd

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