Why are American cops so brutal?
There’s a widespread sense that the police in America are running amok. On the one hand, news about police murders is so routine that it is widely acknowledged as systematic. On the other hand, everyone, including protestors, is quick to deny that this brutality is a requirement of police work; it is said that the police are misusing their badges, taking the law into their own hands, or violating their public responsibilities.
This contradiction is dealt with by treating each new incident of police violence as an abberation; individual policemen or whole departments or even the entire American way of policing is said to be out of line with the official ideal of policing. But doesn’t the rogue nature of so many police tell us something about what the police stand for in American society? How does a cop do the work of a cop without being a cop?
Some activists and politicians are calling for more community oversight, resignations or shake-ups, accountability or cooperation from the police. This is how the public’s anger about murderous police is guided by the media and politicians. Citizens are always encouraged to think in terms of: how can we get more effective policing? Not: what is policing actually about? If you ask that question, it’s a joke to think that the cops could behave in a civil manner. They are what they are by design.
This can proved simply by observing what the police need to prove as police: they are the personified determiner of the law. When police cars pull up at a scene, their mere appearance puts everyone on notice that the state is there to settle any and all disputes. Power is on their side. Their whole posture and demeanor has to announce the superiority of the law. Everyone tells the police their side of the story and the police then make a decision about what happened and what is to be done. The shock and awe has to make a statement to people: you are subsumed under my rule. This is not a message that can be delivered politely.
Liberals deny that brutality is a necessity of police work. The British Guardian, for example, points at the disproportionate number of people killed by American police in contrast to their British counterparts, nodding approvingly at the unarmed British bobby as a more civilized method of policing. Yet these types of policing are based on the same principle as in the USA: the police are servants of the people’s need for law and order in any and all disputes. British police do not prove that a state can function without brutality, but that they aim at the same thing: a monopoly on force.
In school, everybody learns that the rule of law is what distinguishes the enlightened modern state from forms of rule where the strong push around the weak; it represents the rule of reason over the rule of the fist. The ideology is that the state exists to protect humans from being ruled by beasts. But it’s just the opposite: beastliness and thuggery do not disappear, they are just monopolized by the state. The rule of law never abolishes the use of force in the pursuit of state interests. It only denies the use of force to the citizens; the state’s use of force is always legitimate.
Good citizens regard this as acceptable because the state doesn’t side with any one individual, but makes its decisions on the basis of laws that apply to everyone, equally and without exeption. But what does the rule of law stand for? For the fact that there are antagonisms in the society that have to be regulated. These antagonisms seem to just exist, as if conflict is an inevitable consequence of people living together. The law is seen as simply setting the rules that are required so that reasonable people can live together in peace. It says: you are not allowed to kill, rape or steal; you can’t act against the will of another person and their personal possessions. Everybody sees killing for personal motives as disgusting. On the other hand, the state regularly kills and frequently calls its citizens to arms. It also celebrates its violence. So its not considered immoral when the state orders its citizens to kill people they have never met before, but killing people you know is beastly. That’s absurd.
The law puts in place an entire economic system that is based on the recognition that other people have a free will that has to be respected; it is illegal to deny their free will, to treat them as slaves. However, the state does offer a way to break their will: in court. But just because it’s fought in court, that doesn’t mean it’s ok. The courtroom itself is proof of the brutality of the state. The judge has to distance herself from the people she is ruling. The judge has to demonstrate that she has an uncontested monopoly on the power to decide all questions. The courtroom must constantly regulate and demand a type of behavior from people: they have to demonstrate that they are submitting. A Judge Judy does’t even have to say anything before she makes it clear with her expression: whatever I decide is the law for both of you. She gives credence to one party or the other; she tells both that they may be correct or incorrect, but in every aspect, she is the personification of the state. As such, she doesn’t give a shit about either of them. And even more importantly, in any legal dispute, e.g. a landlord tryng to evict a tenant, she doesn’t care whether one side is screwing over the other. She is concerned solely with whether or not there was a contract – not whether a tenant is able to pay, whether they were unemployed or sick or any other circumstance. In other words, she has no interest in the very core of the conflict. The conflict is just considered to be there, as if it’s part of the nature of living together in a society – apart from what the conflict is about.
These antagonisms can be seen in all the various disputes people have with each other. Who’s going to pay damages from the negligence on the side of a dog owner? Actually, the vast majority of court cases are about these kinds of disputes. Once in a while a case captures the public’s attention, like the OJ Simpson trial, but even for OJ the same applied: he has to show that he accepts being the state’s culprit, that he is being sued by the state. The legal system for ordinary people is the natural way of settling disputes. It is thought that the law civilizes disputes in general. The stupidity of the law is that it ignores what disputes are all about and the underlying necessity of solving disputes.
So all the obvious stupidities that characterize everyday life in American society – people killing each other, cops killing people – shows that this big community called “the USA” is constituted in such a way that people killing and hurting each other is part of the daily routine of people living together. Why do all these acts of violence occur so regularly in this society? The law has no interest in this question, even if the nightly news is full of crimes in which “he killed her just for the money” (which, by the way, shows that murder is often a consequence of people being sorted into poor and rich).
Liberal critics concede that a capitalist society may not provide the best conditions for people to obey the law, but there is a general agreement that crime is a matter of personal character. Whether you follow the rules or disobey them shows what you are made of. The law is not taken as an indication of the brutality of this society, but as a reflection of the people who live in it; it is assumed that by nature they are brutal and in need of restraint. The message is always that American society is basically good and good people need to be protected against the savages who for some mysterious reason are always running amok in it.
This turns everything upside down. This view doesn’t pay any attention to what is being protected or secured. And yet everybody also knows that the police are more brutal in Baltimore than in Chevy Chase or in South Central than in Beverly Hills. The police know they can’t show the same attitude in the two places. They know who they are protecting and who they are watching out for. This is a social order that has to be secured by force; if the social system really did come from nature, the law and the police to enforce it wouldn’t be necessary. No matter how much America may promulgate the myth that it is a society of self-made individuals, it reminds everybody that it is a class society that can only be maintained with violence – and lots of it.