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Police brutality: Is America teetering on edge of sectarian violence?

The tragic shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile occured because soldiers and police officers alike view themselves on the frontline and dangerous edge of preventing terrorist and criminal attacks.

Peter Bloom
21 July 2016
Protests against police violence

Thomas Hawk/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In what are now tragically familiar scenes, America, and much of the world, was rocked by two more videos of US police officers shooting and killing unarmed black men. Only a day later, it stood in shock as police officers and civilians were gunned down in Dallas, in what appeared to be retaliation. In little more than a week, three police officers would be shot dead and seven more wounded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – where earlier that month police were recorded killing the black citizen Alton Sterling with seemingly little cause. 

The primary focus has been on the continuing history of racial violence by law enforcement – particularly against black citizens. From slavery to Jim Crow to the present, the country’s racial divisions have been preserved through official and unofficial terror. It also brought to the forefront rising fears (whether or not statistically justified) that this will only escalate racial tensions and violence while creating a hostile and deadly social climate for law enforcement.

However, they also reflect a deeper racial discourse of “policing” that permeates US politics and culture more generally. Notably, it frames US authority as having to constantly protect the country against national and international “threats” to its order. This leads to a top down pre-emptive justification of “lawful” force, especially against stereotyped populations. Thus soldiers and police officers alike view themselves on the frontline and dangerous edge of preventing terrorist and criminal attacks, respectively. The results of this “policing” culture are as fatal as they are racist – creating a perpetual cycle of violence and reaction both at home and abroad.

Beyond “Good Policing”

In the wake of these latest filmed outrages, there was renewed public outcry for better policing. Indeed this year alone over a hundred black citizens have been killed by police officers, a statistic that reinforces how necessary and urgent it is to ensure that black lives matter.   

Such calls only intensified after the killings in Dallas – though they took on a decidedly different, more pro-law enforcement tone. The attempt to paint all police officers as “racist” or “bad” was not only supposedly wrong, but also downright dangerous.  

Bubbling to the surface was a troubling social division pitting “cops” and against angry and victimized “civilians.”  It was no long a matter of a professional police force serving the public. It was now entrenched partisans groups with calls for “Black Lives Matter” on one side and “Blue Lives Matter” on the other.

Between these extremes are supposedly “moderate” and “sensible” voices seeking to understand the exact police culture that is giving rise to this toxic environment of death and retribution. In the words of a former black police officer:

“Because of this legacy of racism, police abuse in black and brown communities is generations old. It is nothing new. It has become more visible to mainstream America largely because of the proliferation of personal recording devices, cellphone cameras, video recorders — they're everywhere. We need police officers.  We also need them to be held accountable to the communities they serve.” 

While informative, these perspectives still ignore a fundamental problem. They fail to fully grasp how the very modern concept of “policing” is contributing to these ongoing tragedies. It is the same mentality of paranoia and aggression that is fueling the seemingly perpetual war on terror. The US needs to do more than stop bad police – it must also put an end to its broader politics and culture of race-based “policing” both inside and outside its borders.

The War at Home

The attacks on September 11th dramatically altered US and global politics. Finding and rooting out “terrorists” domestically and internationally became the top priority for the world’s biggest military superpower. 

At the heart of these policies was a fresh vision of authority at all levels. The primary responsibility of all those in power – whether the military, police or politicians – was to prevent terrorist violence. It created a mindset in which threats were waiting behind every corner, forcing the government to be ever vigilant against hidden terror wherever it may be lurking. It has become “terrorized by the War on Terror”.

This led to the justification of pre-emptive attacks and extra-juridical killing – from the disastrous invasion of Iraq to the current policies of assassination and drone bombings. The target of this aggression has been “radical Islam,” a code word used far too often for terrorizing entire non-white Muslim societies. While official rhetoric has tried to downplay this racial connection, the narrative of crusade and a “clash of civilizations” stoked domestic racism. Calls to ban Muslims from entering the country and building a wall to stop Mexican “criminals and rapists” at the border reveals this worrying politics of terror and scapegoating.

Less discussed, perhaps, but no less significant has been the spread of this terror mentality to the domestic police force. One obvious change is the pronounced “militarization” of modern law enforcement. Cops on the street increasingly look like soldiers patrolling foreign territory.

The similarities go far deeper than armored uniforms and advanced weaponry. They extend to the very ways in which they police. Officers were already divided between whether they were “warriors” or “guardians.” In this new era of terror, they are now crusaders actively defending the sacred security of law-abiding, “free” citizens.  They are literally “preserving the peace” of their communities, now against the “extremist” elements that supposedly imperil them. 

It is in this heightened world of mass paranoia and racial prejudice that these murders must be understood. Philando Castile was shot by police only days before the Dallas attacks. Previous to this fatal encounter, he was stopped 52 times. This was not the scrupulous action of a traditional police force. It was the putting in place of mobile checkpoints against an oppressed population presumed to be armed and dangerous. 

Here the difference between terrorism and crime disappeared into a larger mission to protect the safety of good “American citizens” menaced by the barbarism of homegrown drug dealers and gangbanging. Je suis the Suburbs.

Just as every Muslim is a potential suicide bomber, every black male is a possible gun wielding thug. The thin racial line between privilege and prejudice has become ground zero for terrorist prevention. The War on Terror has come home. 

America’s Deadly Terror Policing

The police have thus taken on a new and dangerous role as part of a global security force against terrorism. Just as international law can be contravened for the sake of international security, so too can legal niceties such as due process and judicious restraint be forsaken when confronted with a potentially perilous criminal element.

On the surface it seems utterly preposterous that Castile should have died for having a “wide set nose” that linked him spuriously to an armed robbery. However, this makes complete perverse sense when placed within the extreme calculus of terror. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair exemplified this misguided thinking in rationalizing the Iraqi invasion, declaring 

“The crucial thing after September 11 is that the calculus of risk changed … it is absolutely essential to realise this: if September 11 hadn’t happened, our assessment of the risk of allowing Saddam any possibility of him reconstituting his programmes would not have been the same … The point about [9/11] was that over 3,000 people had been killed on the streets of New York, an absolutely horrific event, but this is what really changed my perception of risk, the calculus of risk for me: if those people, inspired by this religious fanaticism could have killed 30,000, they would have” 

The hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths exist alongside the thousands of black deaths at the hands of police as collateral damage in the ongoing struggle to protect 'civilization' safe from destruction.

The Black Lives Matter movement remains a simultaneously restrained and progressive response to this policing terror. Their attempted marginalization by many with the at best naïve proclamation “All Lives Matter” only fans the flames of an already volatile situation. Sadly the Dallas shootings – stained with both police and civilian blood – were an all too predictable consequence of a world war that is now invading American shores.

The immediate response by Dallas officials has only reinforced this climate of terror. They referred to the suspect – not coincidentally a veteran of the Afghanistan war – as connected to black extremists while many in the media as well as politicians falsely associated this action with the Black Lives Matter movement. It is crystallizing a fatally familiar 'us versus them' narrative of good 'authority' versus evil 'radicals'. The recent shooting in Baton Rouge – though the full details of the case remain unknown – speaks to the precipice the country finds itself on. America is a nation teetering on the dangerous edge of sectarian violence between a population that believes they must seek their own justice after the courts have failed them and a besieged occupying police force fearful not only for their authority but their lives.

Instead this escalating violence must be a wake up call for the US to end such a divisive and repressive mentality, to challenge its doublespeak belief that 'policing is peace', and to see that the real terror is rooted in its own fears and racism. The US must understand that its embrace of terror policing will ultimately lead to its self-destruction, leaving a trail of black and blue tragedy in its wake.

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