An institution under siege

The foot soldiers of American law enforcement should not seek to cast blame on politicians and protesters. Instead they should look to the gilded system which has placed them in the line of fire.

Peter Bloom
26 January 2015
Police officers turn their backs on de Blasio at the funeral of Wenjian Liu. Demotix/Georgio Savona. All rights reserved.

Police officers turn their backs on de Blasio at the funeral of Wenjian Liu. Demotix/Georgio Savona. All rights reserved.The murder of the two New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on 20 December 2014 capped off a year of escalating tension between police and citizens. The string of deaths of unarmed black men and youths at the hands of the police, stretching from Ferguson to Cleveland and to New York, has sparked mounting and at times violent resistance to police brutality. In response, many Americans have rallied in support of law enforcement.

The death of these officers has only contributed to increasingly hardened battle lines.  In the heated aftermath of the killings, the president of the largest police union in the city, Pat Lynch, accused New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and anti-police violence protesters of undermining the authority of law enforcement and placing them in danger. He declared that there was “blood on many hands tonight” including “those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest” and starting with “the office of the mayor.”

As tragic as the assassination is, the blame is misplaced. Instead, the anger should be directed at the economic and political elites who have used the police to preserve their power against an increasingly deprived, repressed and angry population. It was not the protesters or the mayor who unfairly placed these officers in the line of fire but the oligarchs and gilded system that law officers are unjustly asked to protect.

The uproar over the killing of officers Ramos and Liu was intensified due to the emerging evidence that the perpetrator Ismaaiyl Brinsley had been motivated by desires for revenge against the police. In a message Brinsley posted online before undertaking the attack, he wrote: “I'm putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let's take 2 of theirs." He also employed the hashtags “#Shootthepolice #RIPErivGardner (sic) #RIPMikeBrown”.

For his part, the Mayor maintained that: “When a police officer is murdered, it tears at the foundation of our society. It is an attack on all of us. It’s an attack on everything we hold dear. We depend on our police to protect us against forces of criminality and evil. They are a foundation of our society, and when they are attacked, it is an attack on the very concept of decency.”

Any unity was short-lived. A number of law enforcement representatives and supporters swiftly accused the Mayor and protesters for creating an anti-police culture that set the stage for the murders. New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated: "I think when the mayor made statements about that he had to train his son – his son who is biracial – to be careful when he's dealing with the police, I think that set off this latest firestorm." These views were echoed by the conservative political class. The former mayor Rudy Giuliani declared: “The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”

With two of their own now murdered, law officers from across the ranks went on the offensive against those they felt had undermined their authority and in doing so directly put their lives at risk. These sentiments continue in the form of a virtual work stoppage by the police as well as public displays of officers turning their backs on the city’s mayor.

Under siege

These actions taken by the police reflect a deeper anxiety of an institution under siege. The need to protect themselves against not only criminals but also public ‘enemies’ is fundamental to their identity. They are engaged in an ongoing battle against all those in society who would threaten their authority.

Historically, this defensiveness has centred on politicians, activists and those in the media who have, in their view, prioritised the rights of criminals over their ability to effectively deal with crime. Popular entertainment is replete with instances of the ‘hard-nosed’ cop who has to do whatever is necessary, even breaking the law, in order to “serve and protect” society.

The roots of this militaristic worldview can be traced back to the cold war paranoia where all dissent was seen as a potential existential threat to national security. In more recent times this outlook has emerged again in the shift from fighting the internal dangers of Communism and dissidents to drug users and terrorists associated with the ‘War on Drugs’ and ‘War on Terrorism’ respectively.

A ‘war mentality’ has had dramatic real-world consequences. According to a recent Department of Justice investigation into the Cleveland police department, following the shooting by police of a 12-year-old boy armed with a toy gun, police often view their 'beat' as a 'war zone' leading them to resort to maximum force with little to no repercussion from their superiors.

In the twenty-first century this polarising mindset of the American police has reached new extremes. It is now common for law enforcement to employ the same gear and rely on similar tactics to those of the armed forces. In this respect, it is not simply that the police think like those in the military. They are also increasingly militarised.

These are worrying trends, especially in a country that prides itself on its democracy. As Joy Rohde presciently asks: “which is more dangerous to democracy – the small-scale violence that might occasionally accompany protest, or a militarized police force?”

This is more than just a matter of perception. It also represents a reality where police are often on the front lines in dealing with the effects of the country’s worst socio-economic problems.  The stark images of officers acting with brutal aggression against many of the most vulnerable and oppressed Americans should not hide the fact that they are largely reacting to and are not the underlying cause of these injustices.

It must be asked, who most benefits from the wars that increasingly pit police and citizens against one another? The militarisation and brutality associated with the ‘War on Drugs’ is deployed in the name of a growing private prison industry.

This issue is perhaps even starker in the present era. The rising inequality and erosion of the social safety net linked to ‘free market’ policies of the past 30 years has intensified the demand on law enforcement to successfully 'police' increasingly socially and economically deprived communities. While the bankers and politicians responsible for the financial crisis not only survived but also thrived in its aftermath, it was the police who were forced to confront a crumbling Main Street for their continued benefit.

A meaningful conciliation

This is by no means meant to excuse the excessive actions of the police. A foot soldier found guilty of war atrocities should similarly be held accountable. Yet it does demand that we as a society ask hard questions about who is putting these individuals in this difficult position and for what reason.

Within present-day America, the police oath to “protect and serve” the public is being transformed into one where they are expected to protect the ‘haves’ against the rising mass of the ‘have-nots’.  Like the many American soldiers being asked to fight in foreign wars that are at least partially, if not primarily, motivated by corporate interests, the foot soldiers of law enforcement are at the mercy of larger financial and political designs that are not their own. 

The deaths of these officers merely add to the casualties of a destructive cycle of violence for whom the only winners are the country’s elites who profit from these social divisions. This tragedy reminds us both that “Black Lives Matter” and “Police Lives Matter”. Neither should be sacrificed to the preservation of an unfair system for whom both are often used as little more than pawns set against one another.

Commentators and leaders from all sides have called for ‘peace’ and ‘conciliation’. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams made it clear: “This is about the voice of the entire city crying out for unity, crying out saying, “How do we come together and deal with real issues in policing, and at the same time protect our officers?””

Yet this peace will only truly be meaningful when those on both sides of the ‘war’ – police, community members, protesters, progressive politicians, activists, indeed all Americans – stop fighting each other and instead unite in the fight for a more just society.

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