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Gangs of the State: Police and the Hierarchy of Violence

Police can only be abolished by a movement which has correctly identified and been equipped with the tools to dismantle the hierarchy of violence.

(Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Hierarchy of Violence: A system of oppression in which those with power, existing above those without, enact and enforce a monopoly of violence upon those lower on the hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is normal and is accepted as the order of things. When violence is attempted by those lower on the hierarchy upon those higher, it is met with swift and brutal repression.

December 15th, after the killings of Officers Liu and Ramos of the NYPD, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted “When police officers are murdered, it tears at the foundation of our society. This heinous attack was an attack on our entire city.” On July 18th, the day after Eric Garner, a longtime New Yorker and father of six, was choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, the mayor of of the Big Apple had only this to say: “On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Eric Garner.”

In his condolences there was no mention of a “heinous attack” against the actual people of New York City. There was no mention of the “tearing at the foundation of our society” either. Still further, in the case for the police officers, de Blasio went as far as to use the word “murdered” long before a shred of evidence was provided. Yet in the face of video footage (that pesky thing called evidence) of Eric Garner’s actual murder at the literal hands of an NYPD officer, de Blasio showed no “outrage”, only platitudinous sentiment.

Such reactions are typical, but there is nothing shocking about them when we understand that our society operates on a clearly defined, yet often unarticulated, hierarchy of violence, and that the function of politicians and police is to normalize and enforce that violence. Thus, as an institution, police act as state-sanctioned gangs charged with the task of upholding the violent, racist hierarchy of white supremacist capitalism and, whenever possible, furthering a monopoly of power where all violence from/by those higher on the hierarchy upon those lower can be normalized into business as usual.

Any deviation from this business as usual, any resistance - the threat of force displayed in massive protests after Garner’s death, or any displacement of state power whatsoever - by those lower on the hierarchy upon those higher is met with brutal repression. This is why cops are always present at protests. It is NOT to “Keep the peace.” We have seen their “peace” - tear gas, rubber and wooden bullets, mace, riot gear, sound cannons, and thousands of brutal cops leaving dead bodies. They are not there for peace, but rather to maintain at all times the explicit reminder of America’s power hierarchy through the brutalization of black and brown bodies above all others.

This is why de Blasio offered worthless platitudes to Eric Garner’s family instead of outrage or solidarity. To him, as heinous as choking an unarmed black person to death is, it was business as usual.

Normalizing the Hierarchy of Violence

By framing this power dynamic as business as usual or “just how things are”, it follows that the deployment of violence by police is always justified or necessary. This framing takes a myriad of forms almost always working in tandem to control how we think about the violence enacted by the state and its domestic enforcers, the police. Below are just a few of the tactics employed 24/7, 365 days a year.

Cop Worship and the Criminalization of Blackness. In this hierarchy of violence a cop’s life matters infinitely more than a black person’s life, and Americans, like NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, are expected to demonstrate sympathy with the lives of police officers. By contrast, Americans are encouraged to scrutinize and question the humanity of black and brown people murdered by police before questioning the lethal force used in otherwise non-lethal situations. This social reality illustrates how power is coordinated and wielded unilaterally, directed against the masses by a specialized minority within the population.

Police repression is framed in the mainstream media in such a way that when police commit violence against black and brown communities, it appears to white Americans as if they simply are protecting white communities from black criminality. This is the active dissemination of white supremacy. From it police accrue social capital and power within a conception of black bodies that perpetuates their dehumanization and murder. Completing the cycle, racist white Americans, after participating in the process of dehumanizing black people slain by police, then offer their sympathy, material support, and privilege to killer cops.

For example: George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson received over a million dollars for their legal defense funds. Both were either acquitted or not indicted by majority white juries. Officers Liu and Ramos of the NYPD, their families’ mortgages are being paid. And thousands of other (white) officers are awarded paid time off (vacation) and non-indictments for what would otherwise be brutal crimes.

Ultimately, cops are praised because they enforce violence on behalf of the moneyed class. They protect existing power, wealth, and the right to exploit for profit, while simultaneously appearing to exist primarily for public safety. Straddling this paradoxical position, cops are worshiped because they are explicitly and implicitly attached to the rewards of privilege under capitalism.

Victim Blaming (Lynching the Dead). Seeking to justify hierarchical violence, the police collude directly with the mainstream media to exalt those who “uphold the law,” while eroding the humanity of those whom have had their lives stolen by the police. Most often in the extrajudicial killings of black and brown people this has happened through a process of character assassination, or the process by which authorities and the media dredge up every possible occurrence of a “bad deed” of the victim’s to discredit their innocence. It is effective considering dead people cannot defend themselves.

Erasure and Decontextualization. Time and time again police and the mainstream media will attempt to divert attention from the violence of the state by focusing on the retaliation of an oppressed group. This purposeful refocusing is a method of erasing the previous violence visited upon oppressed peoples in order to delegitimize any resistance to police domination. If those higher on the hierarchy can erase the history of those lower on the hierarchy, they effectively erase the oppression they themselves committed and make invisible the power they obtain from it.

We have seen this in the establishment’s constant prioritization of defending private property over black and brown lives. As an example, after Mike Brown was slayed in the street by killer cop Darren Wilson the media headlined stories about “looting” instead of the fact that an unarmed 18-year-old child’s life was snuffed out. The role of “looting” rhetoric served to remove the context of a white supremacist power structure, its history, and to allow for a game of moral equivalence to be played - one where property damage was as heinous as killing a black child.

In addition it served to usurp the fact that America’s justice system has always been and continues to be racist. From its racist policing built on profiling, to its war on drugs which dis-proportionally incarcerates black (and brown) people, to its sentencing laws that increase in severity if you are black, to the fact that a black person is killed by cops or vigilantes every 28 hours. It is murderous and racist to its core, but the neither the mainstream media nor the state will ever admit it.

Narrative Restriction. To build off what Peter Gelderloos said in his piece The Nature of Police, the Role of the Left, discussions in America operate by fixing the terms of debate firmly outside any solutions to the problem. This happens by first establishing “fierce polemics between two acceptable “opposites” that are so close they are almost touching”. Surrounding the national “discussion” about police terror, this has manifested as a polemic between “good cops” versus “bad cops”. Second, encourage participants toward lively debate, and to third “either ignore or criminalize anyone who stakes an independent position, especially one that throws into question the fundamental tenets that are naturalized and reinforced by both sides in the official debate.”

By creating a limited spectrum of discourse an ideological foundation is created for the hierarchy of violence. The end result is a set of normalized choices (reforms) which restrict or repress any competition an actual solution to the problem might bring. What is valued as acceptable within this limited spectrum then is only that which reflects the range of needs of those higher on the hierarchy of violence (reforms which gut radical resistance in order to maintain status quo power structures) and nothing more. In the current “discussion”, the prevailing and unapproachable axiom is that the police represent protection and justice, and therefore they are a legitimate presence in our lives. Anyone who says otherwise is an agent of chaos.

This narrowing of the discourse never allows us to deconstruct the fact that policing in our society has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with punishment.

As Against Hired Guns put it, “Regardless of laws that claim we are all innocent until proven guilty, the results of wrongdoing and office referral, investigation and trial, always start and end in punishment. Our society takes this punishment as justice, and even though it is the nature of this system to attempt to prevent crime by deferment regardless of circumstance, many of us still cling to the idea that at its core the system means well. Many of us think to ourselves that aberrations of this are merely “bad apples” and we must expunge or punish them, but the reality is that this is not a unilateral system of justice at all. The police enforce a steady system of punishment on our streets, and punishment is specifically and intentionally directed at Black or Brown people.”

The Law and the (In)Justice System. Institutions designed exclusively for punishment, primarily the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), expose the inability of a penal system to produce justice and the conditions for liberation. Here, the deliberately narrowed discourse concerned only with crime and punishment fabricates a perceived necessity for police that appears undeniable. This is an exploitative deception obscuring the socio-economic conditions that produce poverty and suffering within oppressed communities. On its own terms, the mechanisms of hierarchical violence fail to provide the resources and opportunities necessary for assimilation into a white supremacist capitalism. The ultimate limitation of capitalism is that it will always need an exploitable class of people to produce profit for an insignificantly small wealthy population.

The System Isn’t Broken, It Was Built This Way

Since its formative days as an institution of slavery, policing in America has always been about the maintenance of this country’s racist power structure. The major difference today has been an increased technological and military capacity for politicians, the media, and the police to march locked in step with each other in controlling the narrative we see. Politicians like Bill de Blasio still make laws informed by white supremacy. The police still enforce them through the same hierarchy of violence. The media still kowtows to the powered elite’s depiction of violent oppression. And we the oppressed are still fighting for our liberation. Thus by now we ought to know that police, as the Gangs of the State tasked with the preservation of white supremacy and capitalism, can only be abolished by a movement which has correctly identified and been equipped with the tools to dismantle the hierarchy of violence.

Editor’s Note: This piece was the first of a series written in collaboration with PraxisandCapital. We hope to continue deconstructing the hierarchy of violence in the future. Suggestions for clarification in later installments will be useful, so please, inbox either of us and we will make notes.

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