Is it the Cops or the Cameras?
Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Author’s note: In light of today’s continuing “uprising” of black, brown and white people against police brutality and even the whole idea of “policing,” I offer this re-print of an earlier essay (September, 2019). The goal here is to contextualize what we are witnessing now on a daily basis.
Many argue that we have reached a “tipping point” or “watershed” moment and/or that an actual, new and effective “movement” has finally arrived, and that real change or real reform is upon us.
But given this history, I am not so sure or so sanguine. Oppressive cops have always been problematic for black people. Anti-blackness is built into the DNA of this nation-state. That is, the “problem,” therefore is not just bad cops but the whole idea of whiteness itself.
In the dim-to-dazzling light of now almost daily videos and images of black people being brutalized by America’s “finest,” the question arises: Are we really in the midst of a surge in police brutality against black folk? Or, has the widespread use of more and more sophisticated yet user-friendly video and audio technologies simply made capturing and documenting these “events” easier and more likely?
Black people have been complaining against, fighting against, marching against, writing against, singing and praying against police brutality since the slave patrols of old.
But nobody other than other black people would believe us. “Well meaning” whites both North and South did not want to believe (or admit) that it was the local sheriff who led the nightly lynching raids of the Klan, or who supplied the explosives and fuel oil used to blow up and burn down black churches, black schools, black businesses and black homes.
Nobody other than other black people would believe (or admit) that it was the city, county or state policemen who supervised and often administered the beatings to those uppity blacks who insisted on registering to vote.
And when black people seemed to regularly, mysteriously disappear into the misty swamps and bayous along the Gulf Coast, nobody other than other black people would believe (or admit) that the “disappeared” was last seen stopped on the side of the road under the flashing lights of a “police” vehicle.
Today, of course, it seems that almost daily we are subjected to the unfiltered depravity of yet another police outrage perpetrated against a clearly innocent black woman, black boy, black girl or black man.
And, just like their slave patrolling and law enforcing predecessors, it does not seem to matter much to this generation of white cops — and they are overwhelmingly white in the overwhelming number of cases — that the whole world now knows of, even witnesses, their brutality in real time.
And, as these videos are showing, these cops need little or no reason at all — no technical nicety like “probable cause” — to “stop and frisk,” question, harass, intimidate, beat, arrest, or murder anyone wearing a black or brown skin.
No. What matters to these modern-day slave patrollers is that you, black woman, you, black man, you, black boy and you, black girl, at all times keep both hands where they can see them; have your identification (“freedom”) papers on your person — preferably affixed to your shirt or blouse; and never, ever say anything other than obsequious “Yes, sirs!” or “No, sirs!” to any uniformed, plain-clothed or “under cover” representative of this republic.
One would think, hope, however, that these cops would temper their behavior since they now know that very likely somebody is recording their misdeeds.
Yet, that is not happening, though, now is it? And why not? Because these cops know and understand full well that even in the blazing light and clear sound of video and audio recordings of their brutality, they may always fall back on either the “fear for my life” or “split-second decision” excuses; and that their uniformed and civilian bosses — themselves extensions of the dominant white community at large — will absolve them of any wrongdoing.
Indeed, in many instances, killer cops are rewarded for keeping “the blacks” under wraps; rewarded with promotion, medals, bonuses and, always, always, all expenses paid vacations (otherwise known as “administrative leave”). This brutality is acceptable among most white jurists and juries (in the unlikely event that a case of police brutality should ever get before a judge or jury). Why? Because as an Austin, Texas cop explained to Breion King after he was manhandled by one of his colleagues, it is just plain, common sense and common knowledge amongst most white people that black people are just… well… scary. And that their scariness is due to their innate “violent tendencies.”
Recall that Darren Wilson, the Missouri cop who killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, told a grand jury essentially the same thing, as he described Mike as a crazed, “Hulk-like” figure who just had to be put down–just as one would dispatch a foaming-at-the-mouth, rabid dog.
From Slave Patrol to Ghetto Patrol
These men (and not a few women) are direct descendants of a “subgroup” of white people who have historically exercised inordinate power over most so-called “minorities,” but especially over black people. These are the descendants of the original slave patrollers, those dirt poor white farmers and unskilled laborers who could never afford their own slaves, but eagerly served as overseers, drivers, disciplinarians, bounty hunters — enforcers of the Slave Codes as promulgated by the richer white slave holding elite, whom they looked up to and upon as kindred, even if more fortunate, souls.
Over one hundred years later, President Lyndon Johnson called these people out as “the lowest white man” — men (and women) who in the service of whiteness happily vote against their own self interest, accept and endure the harshest of treatment as long as they are assured that black people have it even worse. So sayeth President Johnson:
If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.
Long before Johnson identified his “lowest white man,” the great black sociologist, economist, philosopher, historian, and Pan-Africanist, W.E.B. Dubois, famously explained why, precisely, not just lower-class whites, but the great mass of white people, willingly, readily accepted over-rule and domination by their “betters” so long as they were allowed to over-rule and dominate black people. Whiteness, wrote Dubois, served as a kind of “psychological wage” or emotional, yet visceral, payment in lieu of actual hard currency, fair wages and salaries. In his classic 1935 tome, Black Reconstruction In America —An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880, Dubois laid it all out:
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white….The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.
To encourage lawlessness…..The point here is that a very large number Johnson’s “lowest white man’s” and of Dubois’ “psychological wage” earners’ descendants populate this nation-state’s police forces. They, however, face a much different socio-political and economic dispensation from that faced by their forebearers. They have read the demographic tea leaves and appreciate and interpret them in ways most of us do not — that “other” rapidly growing subgroups will soon, from their vantage point, rob them of their inheritance, their majority, and therefore, surely, their heretofore always dominant status — especially their domination over even the “best colored man.”
And so, they release their pent-up frustrations upon the nearest or any black person — young, old, female or male — who might, in their myopic worldview, present even the slightest challenge to their God-given inheritance and historic “authority.” And so, when they Tase, shoot, choke-out, beat, stomp, false-arrest, false-convict and kill innocent black people, they are making a last-ditch attempt to right the white ship, to bring it back to even keel so that they and their progeny will enjoy the same “rights, privileges and immunities” as their fathers’ fathers did.
Finally then, the question answers itself: Cops have not suddenly gone crazy and out of control. The new technologies and social media are simply, finally, and without blinking, showing and telling, exposing to the world what black people have endured daily, weekly, monthly, and for every single one of the last 400 years since being forced upon these shores.