US police kill approximately 1,000 people per year according to Federal statistics, disproportionately targeting African and Native Americans and other minority groups. The UN expert panel on people of African descent observed this week that these killings “demonstrate a high level of structural and institutional racism. The United States is far from recognizing the same rights for all its citizens.”
The two men widely known to have been killed this week by police were both armed, though particularly in the case of Philando Castile, it is largely felt that choosing to shoot the men multiple times in the sternum from a distance of approximately three feet or less went beyond what an objective, reasonable person’s reaction would have been.
However, many have noted that US history and current culture leads the US public in general, including police officers, to be less than objective in dealing with African Americans and other minority groups.* One way of addressing this issue has been to implement measures to improve various kinds of police training and monitoring, but the UN expert panel noted that “existing measures to address racist crimes motivated by prejudice are insufficient and have failed to stop the killings.” Indeed, so far this year, US state forces have killed nearly 600 of their own people, largely targeting minorities.
The problem now, says the UN group, “lies in the lack of accountability for perpetrators of such killings despite overwhelming evidence against them, including video footage of the crime, being present.”
Thus the next step to decreasing police terror, the panel suggests, is for the US state apparatus to increase the consequences officers face; to begin taking clear, fair, publicly visible accountability measures for officers who cross the line from protecting and serving into murdering and terrorizing.
Since, as the UN notes, this has not yet occurred, some in the US, both in popular culture and academia, have argued that there may be times when the public must apply consequences for police terror that go beyond peaceful protest.
Rapper The Game wrote in response to the killings by police this week:
What happened to the generation of people who stood together, held hands and took to the streets peacefully or violently if it had to come to that…? … We ain’t havin this shit no more!!!
In a recent lecture, attorney and history professor Gerald Horne was asked this question by a member of the audience:
Given that you argue in your book, Confronting Black Jacobins, that the Haitian revolution, which was decidedly a violent insurrection, precipitated the abolition of slavery in the United States, what is your opinion of violence as protest, and a vehicle for change in today’s political climate? For example, the riots that resulted from the murder of Freddie Gray, or uprisings in response to mass incarceration?
I find myself in strange agreement with US secretary of state John Kerry, who, during his visit to Hiroshima, the site of the first and hopefully only use of atomic weapons, was compelled to say that he saw war as the last resort that should be arrived at. He did not exclude war altogether, just that it should be the last resort arrived at. And I would say something similar with regard to that very probing question that was just posed. That is to say that I don’t think, given the correlation of forces in North America, with many of our folks not being armed, only armed with strong lungs to yell in protest, and given the militarized nature of the police and the militarized nature of these police guards, who, by the way, in places like California and New York have very strong unions who make political contributions to politicians and therefore help to entrench their power even further, given the correlation of military forces, I don’t think that violence should be our first option with regard to pushing them back. However, if you push people into a corner, and if you brutalize them, as has happened in this city of Baltimore, and if you have these examples like Freddie Gray, where a person enters into the custody of police alive and leaves dead, it’s perfectly understandable why there are forces in this city who refuse to accept that in a supine fashion, and I think that’s reasonable. Because they are trying to understand the lessons of history as well. And they recognize that unless you give a forceful rebuff to that kind of violence, then you are guaranteed to have a slew of Freddie Grays going forward, which I find wholly and totally unacceptable.
As has occurred in China in response to apparently far more rare killings by police officers, some in the US have responded to the lack of accountability for police terror by targeting police officers themselves. This week, 5 officers were killed and 12 wounded by snipers after the killings of Castile and Sterling.
*Horne’s work explores many of the historical foundations on which the US’s “structural and institutional racism” (UN panel) stand. Like John Kerry, Horne stresses that violence should always be a last resort, and that, indeed, the US peace and civil rights movements have, to their detriment, mirrored US culture in that they have grown increasingly insular, and have thus not in recent times fully utilized all of their options for peaceful protest:
If you are trying to understand the tribulations and trials and travails of black people in America over the centuries, particularly post 1776, you have to understand in the first place the reality that the United States of America was established as a slaveholding republic. … I can understand why lawyers, as a rhetorical device, will often speak warmly of the founders and their ‘noble documents’ and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and how they were so ‘flexible’ that they were able to expanded to all of the rest of us who were initially excluded. I understand that as a rhetorical argument, but the reality of the matter is that the founders did not have people like myself in mind when this country was established, just like they did not have cattle or furniture in mind when this so-called republic was established. We were considered on the same level as cattle and furniture, but we have been able to fight a glorious struggle to overcome those Antediluvian points of view. But once again, we were able to fight that glorious struggle not least because we had support in the international community. And for those in the Black Lives Matter movement, for those in the anti-police terror movement, until and unless you ingest that basic lesson, that is to say that international solidarity is a prerequisite in order to achieve some success and victories in the United States of America, you’ll be left sprawling in the dust.
Horne’s works explore these points in depth.
Curtis Bunn, in the popular magazine Atlanta Black-Star, notes some other historical foundations that seem to remain relevant to killings by police in the US (particularly the killings this week):
Robert J. Barsocchini is an internationally published author who focuses on force dynamics, national and global, and acts as a cultural intermediary for the film and Television industry. Updates on Twitter. Author’s pamphlet ‘The Agility of Tyranny: Historical Roots of Black Lives Matter’.