Like the possibility of arrest, the threat of violence is implicit in every police encounter,” writes Kristian Williams in Our Enemies in Blue. “Violence, as well as the law, is what they represent.” This acclaimed and influential book, now in a revised and updated new edition, draws on history and detailed research to make a provocative but convincing argument about the nature of law enforcement in the United States. Click here to order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!
The following is Kristian Williams’ preface to Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America for the 2015 edition.
In the summer of 2014, as I was working on the revisions for this new edition, rioting erupted in a Midwestern suburb. The incident that sparked the unrest was, in most respects, sadly typical. A white cop confronted a black teenager over a trivial violation of the law – literally, an everyday occurrence. And, as has happened many times before, at the end of the encounter, the young man was dead.
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Michael Brown had been walking in the street with a friend when police confronted them. Police say that Brown attacked Officer Darren Wilson and tried to take his gun, but witnesses insist that he had his hands in the air when he was fatally shot. Police also note that Brown had stolen some cigars from a convenience store a few minutes earlier, though Officer Wilson did not know that at the time. What is indisputable is that Wilson shot and killed Brown, and that Brown was not armed.1
This story was painful, and familiar. In fact the only reason we know these details – the reason it is a story and not simply a statistic – is because of what happened next: The people of Ferguson, Missouri fought back.
Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. The next night, August 10, marked the beginning of a cycle of antagonism and escalation, with police in riot gear and crowds looting stores. By August 11, cops were firing rubber bullets and tear gas.2 Soon the crowds were battling them with rocks, bricks, bottles, firebombs, and occasional gunfire.3 “The effect,” as USA Today described it, “was a city turned war zone.”4 The police response surely helped to inflame the situation. One resident told a reporter: “When I … see a cop in riot gear, first thing I think is, ‘Riot.’ When I see someone that looks like they’re ready to fight me, I’m going to put up my fists.”5
The cops wore camouflage fatigues and body armor; some carried assault rifles, even aiming them at protestors. They blocked off streets with armored cars, set up sniper’s nests, and filled middle-class neighborhoods with tear gas. In an effort to de-escalate, the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over crowd control. Captain Ron Johnson, a Black man from the area, expressed sympathy with the demonstrators and promised not to use tear gas; but faced with ongoing rioting, his officers did so regardless. Soon the governor imposed a curfew and deployed the National Guard. Amnesty International sent observers and called for an investigation into the police action.6 Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement “condemn[ing] the excessive use of force by police,” “call[ing] for the right of protest to be respected,” and accusing the United States of practicing “apartheid.”7
Clearly worried, the White House began calling civil rights leaders around the country – 1,050 of them – “to enlist these participants to help keep the situation calm and focused.”8 Mediators from the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service facilitated town hall meetings, inviting in Ferguson residents, police, and city officials – but excluding the media.9 Some members of the clergy took to the streets to urge peace, a few even calling for an end to protests altogether.10 Meanwhile, the right-leaning militia-style Oath Keepers started sending armed volunteers to guard area businesses,11 and the Traditional American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan issued a warning to “the terrorists masquerading as ‘peaceful protestors,'” threatening them with “lethal force.”12 A separate Klan group, the New Empire Knights, claimed to be “guarding homes and businesses of whites that feel threatened,” and held a fundraiser for Officer Wilson: “All money will go to the cop who did his job against the negro criminal.”13
Rioting would continue, on and off, for months – igniting with renewed vigor in late November, when a grand jury announced its decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Louis Head, Michael Brown’s stepfather, screamed in rage outside a Ferguson police station, “Burn this bitch down!” That evening, police reported at least twenty-one buildings set on fire, 150 gunshots, damage to ten police cars, and sixty arrests.14
Twice in Two Weeks
On November 24, the Ferguson grand jury announced its decision: no indictment. A few days later, on December 3, in New York City, another grand jury reached the same unsatisfying conclusion in a separate case of police violence, declining to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for the killing of Eric Garner.
Earlier in the year, on July 17, 2014, New York City police confronted Garner, another unarmed Black man, allegedly for selling single untaxed cigarettes called “loosies.” Video shows four officers pulling Garner to the ground, one with an arm around his neck. Garner gasps repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” He died on the way to the hospital.15
“In the span of two weeks,” US Representative Marcia Fudge, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, observed, “this nation seems to have heard one message loud and clear: there will be no accountability for taking Black lives.”16 Phrased this way, she invited a comparison, deliberately or not, between the recent grand jury decisions and the nineteenth-century legal principle, solidified in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling, that African Americans represent a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.
Or, more simply: “they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”17
For Dred Scott, the issue was slavery; for Brown and Garner, it was murder. Connecting the cases was the failure – or rather, the refusal – of the judicial system to extend its protection to the African American population. That sense of existing without rights, of living under threat, of being discounted was sadly, insistently, conveyed in the slogan that arose in connection to the protests: “Black Lives Matter.”
It is shameful, I feel, that we even have to make this point. That it is necessary to say, even once, that Black lives matter is itself a testimony to the racism of our society. It ought to be obvious that Black lives matter, that Black people matter, and by implication, that their murder, especially at the hands of the state, cannot go unanswered. And yet it is not obvious. In the context of the legal system, the recent evidence suggests that it is not even true. The slogan represents, then, not simply a fact, but more importantly a challenge. If we believe it, we must make it real.
When the Ferguson grand jury announced its decision, protestors mobilized in more than 170 cities across the country, blocking streets and even freeways, enacting “die-ins” at police stations, briefly occupying the mayor’s office in Chicago. Most were peaceful. Only Oakland matched Ferguson in terms of intensity: breaking windows, looting businesses, blockading a police station, building and burning barricades.18
The protests grew when the New York grand jury likewise declined to indict Officer Pantaleo. Approximately 10,000 people joined protests in New York City, chanting “Shut the whole system down!” while blocking the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and sometimes skirmishing with police. In the first two days, 302 people were arrested, three for felonies.19
Displays of solidarity started appearing in some unexpected places. Across the country, individual athletes and sometimes entire teams – professional and college, men’s and women’s – began wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts during their pre-game exercises.20 And, in the rush of one of the busiest weeks on the Congressional calendar, dozens of Capital Hill staffers walked out of their offices, gathered on the Capital steps, raised their hands in remembrance of Michael Brown, and prayed for forgiveness.21
In the midst of the turmoil, on December 20, a disturbed man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley approached two New York City police officers as they sat in their squad car. Brinsley shot both officers, Wenjan Liu and Rafael Ramos, firing at point blank range and killing them instantly. He then killed himself. He had posted messages on the Internet earlier that morning announcing a plan for “putting wings on pigs” to avenge Eric Garner: “They take 1 of ours. Let’s take 2 of theirs.”22
Naturally police and politicians, from New York Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio to US Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama, were quick to condemn the shooting and express sympathy and support for the police – as did prominent civil rights leaders and Eric Garner’s family. Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), however, put the blame on the cops’ political enemies: “There is blood on many hands,” he said, “from those that incited violence under the guise of protest … [to] the steps of city hall in the office of the mayor.” He later repeated: “The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies.” The PBA went on to declare war, though with the perpetrator dead, it is unclear against whom: “we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”
The PBA also offered its own instructions to patrol officers: “At least two units are to respond to every call, no matter the condition or severity, no matter what type of job is pending, or what the opinion of the patrol supervisor happens to be.” Meanwhile, patrol officers began an unofficial, and likely illegal, slowdown. In the days following the ambush of Liu and Ramos, police made 66 percent fewer arrests and wrote 94 percent fewer tickets.23
The rift between the cops and the mayor seems particularly deep: Lynch has complained repeatedly of a lack of support after Garner’s death, in part because Mayor de Blasio spoke publicly about a conversation in which he advised his bi-racial son to “take special care” when interacting with police. In retort, the PBA began offering a form for officers, instructing the mayor not to attend their funerals if they die in the line of duty. Then, when de Blasio spoke at Liu and Ramos’s funerals, hundreds of police turned their back to him.24
“A Legitimacy Problem”
The death of Eric Garner, and that of Michael Brown, the grand jury decisions, and even the riots – all fit an established pattern, one we’ve seen repeatedly in just the past few years, beginning in Oakland in 2009, then Portland and Denver in 2010, Seattle and San Francisco in 2011, Atlanta and Anaheim in 2012, Santa Rosa, Flatbush, and Durham in 2013, and Salinas and Albuquerque earlier in 2014.25 But the scale of the crisis sparked by Brown’s shooting, and its duration, make it truly exceptional, and both political and cultural elites seem to have understood it as such. Police unions, and some commanders, as well as the reliable right-wing pundits, have obstinately defended their positions and cynically used the deaths of two hapless patrolmen to go back on the offensive. Other authorities, however, have been more careful and conciliatory, offering modest reforms and adjusting their rhetoric to match the nation’s overall mood. As journalist Matt Taibbi so succinctly put it, “the police suddenly have a legitimacy problem.”26
President Barack Obama did his best to equivocate, while calling for “peace and calm”: “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting…. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”27 Attorney General Eric Holder added, “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”28 Soon thereafter, the president ordered a review of the police use of military weaponry.29
It’s too early to know whether any lasting structural changes will result from the current unrest, but if nothing else it has certainly changed the terms of the debate. Time magazine, for example, ran a surprising piece titled “In Defense of Rioting.” It cogently argues:
Riots are a necessary part of the evolution of society…. [Until human rights are respected] the legitimate frustration, sorrow and pain of the marginalized voices will boil over, spilling out into our streets…. Blacks in this country are more apt to riot because they are one of the populations here who still need to.30
Rolling Stone, likewise, published a short piece looking at historical – and, in retrospect, entirely justifiable – uses of property destruction, pointing to precedents like the Boston Tea Party, slave rebellions, the Suffragists, the anti-nuclear movement, and ongoing resistance to fracking.31 The magazine then went a step further, arguing that “It’s time to start imagining a society that isn’t dominated by police,” and offering suggestions to help build a “Cop-Free World.”32
Even some conservatives – among them Senator Rob Portman, Senator Ted Cruz, Representative Paul Ryan, and the writer Erick Erickson – expressed concern about the crackdown on protests.33 “There is a systemic problem with today’s law enforcement,” Senator Rand Paul wrote in an op-ed, pointing to “militarization … [paired] with an erosion of civil liberties and due process” represented by “national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, [and] pre-conviction forfeiture.” Then, unexpectedly, he departed from the Tea Party script:
Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them…. Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.34
It may be that the video of police literally strangling an African American man – is it too much to compare it to lynching? – disturbed the conscience of the nation, even those on the political right. And it may be that the sight of armored vehicles on suburban streets proved disconcerting to the “small government” crowd. But the cops kill Black people with some regularity, and the militarization of local police has been underway for decades, often with the support of some of the same figures now expressing their somber concerns. The simple fact is that the authorities are responding, not to the deaths or to the military-grade weaponry as such, but to the riots.
Rioting made policing a problem for elites. On its own, the death of a Black man is what economists call an “externality” – somebody else’s trouble. Racial profiling and zero-tolerance policing – the treatment of whole communities as suspicious in themselves, and the idea that the cops might stop, arrest, or even kill you simply for jaywalking – are just business as usual until they provoke a crisis. Neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric Holder had any qualms about giving the police military hardware; it was only when the armored vehicles and assault rifles started showing up on the television news that they started to worry.35 It was the riots that put these issues on the national agenda. No number of petitions, lawsuits, op-ed columns, or books on the subject could have had the same effect.
The riots of the previous few months pulled into focus some of the most troubling aspects of policing, and with them, some of the deepest injustices in our society. The unrest was not just about Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Officer Wilson, Officer Pantaleo, gunshots, and chokeholds. It was also about racial profiling and the standards of public order. But beyond that, too, it was about race, class, and violence – ultimately, about questions of freedom and equality.
Our Enemies in Blue first appeared in 2004, ten years before the events described above. Yet so many of the themes central to the book have suddenly found themselves in the headlines – race, class, violence, standards of public order, rioting, crowd control, the militarization of local departments, the power of police unions, collaboration with racist paramilitaries, the co-optation of social movement leaders, the promise and perils of reform, and alternatives to policing. History, suddenly, seems very present.
I have, in this preface, only begun the story of Ferguson and the nationwide wave of resistance that followed Michael Brown’s murder. We do not yet know how that story ends, but I hope that it comes to represent, not merely a new chapter in the history of policing, but a decisive break from the past.
It is with the future, as well as the past, that this book is concerned. I began my research on policing, nearly twenty years ago now, not as an academic exercise, but because in my political organizing I was confronted with pressing questions that I did not then know how to answer. I turned to the past to help us understand the present, so that we might change the future.
Returning to the book, ten years later, my aims are largely the same. This new edition brings the history up to date and revises some of the earlier material, while keeping the same general structure, argument, and narrative as the original. As one might expect, the bulk of the revisions come toward the end of the volume. In addition to updating statistics, adding more recent examples, and correcting some mistakes or oversights, I have also substantively adjusted my analysis when new developments – or just new ideas – require it. For instance, the implications of the USA Patriot Act, shifts in crowd control strategies, and even the domestic effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all far clearer now than they were ten years ago. Fortunately, the decade’s changes are not all in the same direction. As policing intensifies, resistance also seems to be growing – not only in the recent riots, but in the immigrants’ rights movement, in the short-lived (but long-reverberating) Occupy encampments, and in a marked increase in experiments with community alternatives to the criminal legal system. I have tried to incorporate all of those developments into this new edition.
There is much, still, that I could have added. Historical accounts are by their very nature incomplete. There are other stories that could be told, other histories still to be uncovered – and, with each new day, more that could be said. So I begin, here, not at the end, but in the midst of a crisis. We can see in these moments of rebellion – and this is true, however they turn out – not only anger and grief, but also an almost instinctual feeling for the demands of justice, an urgent recognition of the humanity of the oppressed, and a sense of possibility, however vague or distant, for a different kind of life, a new society.
The fires of rebellion burn with rage, but they shine with the light of hope.
1. Manuel Roig-Franzia, “In Ferguson, Three Minutes – and Two Lives Forev- er Changed,” Washington Post, August 16, 2014, accessed August 28, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com; and Amnesty International, “On the Streets of America: Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson,” October 24, 2014, accessed December 29, 2014, www.amnsetyusa.org; Larry Buchanan et al., “Q&A: Ferguson, Mo., Under Siege After Police Shooting,” New York Times, Au- gust 15, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, www.nytimes.com; “The Killing of Michael Brown: Missouri Police Shooting of Unarmed Black Teen Sparks Days of Protests,” Democracy Now, August 12, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, www.democracynow.org.
6. Jon Swaine and Rory Carroll, “Ferguson Cop Who Walked Middle of Road Finds Critics Coming Both Ways,” The Guardian, August 16, 2014, accessed August 28, 2014, www.theguardian.com; Mollie Reilly, “Amnesty International Calls for Investigation of Ferguson Police Tactics,” Huffington Post, August 17, 2014, accessed August 28, 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com; Margaret Hartmann, “National Guard Deployed After Chaotic, Violent Night in Ferguson,” New York, August 18, 2014, accessed August 28, 2014, www.nymag.com.
8. Quoted in Chuck Raash, “Obama Administration Called Thousands of Civil Rights, Black Leaders on Ferguson Crisis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 19, 2014, accessed December 31, 2014, www.stltoday.com.
10. One activist, seventy-nine-year-old Percy Green, was critical of such efforts: ”Nothing has changed in terms of the establishment…. You’ll get ministers to say, ‘Oh Lord, you shouldn’t do none of that.’ You get some people to say that violence will get you nowhere…. But yet, still the establishment will perpetuate violence against you…. What they want to do is make the demonstration [as] ineffective as possible.” Quoted in Raven Rakia, “Be- tween the Peacekeepers and the Protestors in Ferguson,” Truthout, Septem- ber 9, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014, truthout.org.
11. Manny Fernandez and Alan Blinder, “On Rooftops of Ferguson, Volunteers Patrol, With Guns,” New York Times, November 29, 2014, accessed Decem- ber 28, 2014, www.nytimes.com. For more on the Oath Keepers’ politics, see: Justine Sharrock, “Oath Keepers and the Age of Treason,” Mother Jones, March/April 2010.
15. Annie Karni et al., “Two Cops Pulled Off Streets, Staten Island DA Look- ing Into Death of Dad of Six After NYPD Cop Put Him in a Chokehold During Sidewalk Takedown,” Daily News, July 18, 2014, accessed Decem- ber 29, 2014, www.dailynews.com.
18. Steve Almasy and Holly Yan, “Protestors Fill Streets Across Country as Fer- guson Protests Spread Coast to Coast,” CNN, November 26, 2014, accessed December 29, 2014, www.cnn.com. For a timeline of events in the Bay Area, see: Some Oakland Antagonists, “From Ferguson to Oakland: 17 Days of Riot and Revolt in the Bay Area,” October 12, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014, www.crimethinc.com.
20. A partial list would include members of the St. Louis Rams, Chicago Bulls, Georgetown Hoyas, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (women’s), Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Jacksonville Jaguars. Jeff Gray, “NFL Won’t Discipline Rams Players for ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Gesture,” SB Nation, December 1, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014, www.sbnation.com; Al Lesser, “Notre Dame Women’s Players Wear ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-Shirts,” Elkhart Truth, December 14, 2014, accessed December 29, 2014, www.elkhart.com; Joseph White, “Georgetown Play- ers Are Latest Athletes to Wear ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-Shirts,” Huffington Post, December 10, 2014, accessed December 29, 2014, www.huffingtonpost. com; William C. Rhodes, “Social Convictions Don’t Tuck Neatly Into N.B.A.’s Interests,” New York Times, December 9, 2014, accessed December 29, 2014, www.nytimes.com; and Curtis Crabtree, “Jaguars Players Wear ‘I Can’t Breath” Shirt in Pregrame Warm Ups,” PFT, December 19, 2014, accessed December 29, 2014, profootballtalk.nbcsports.com.
21. Chappell, “Staffers Walk Out.” Senate Chaplain Barry Black prayed, “Today as people throughout the nation protest for justice in our land, forgive us when we have failed to lift our voices for those who couldn’t speak or breathe for themselves.” Quoted in “Senate Chaplain Barry Black Leads Congressional Staffers in Prayer During Walkout,” Huffington Post, December 11, 2014, accessed December 30, 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com.
31. Jessie A. Myerson and José Martín, “Smashy Smashy: Nine Historical Tri- umphs to Make You Rethink Property Destruction,” Rolling Stone, October 21, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014, www.rollingstone.com.
32. Instead of police, they offer six alternatives: “1. Unarmed mediation and intervention teams…. 2. Decriminalization of almost every crime…. 3. Re- storative Justice…. 4. Direct democracy at the community level…. 5. Com- munity patrols…. 6. Mental health care.” José Martín, “Policing is a Dirty Job, But Nobody’s Gotta Do It: 6 Ideas for a Cop-Free World,” Rolling Stone, December 16, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014, www.rollingstone.com.
33. “Many conservatives were unsettled by the militaristic response from law enforcement officials in Ferguson – a show of force that they said danger- ously resembled the actions a police state would take.” Jeremy W. Peters, “Missouri Unrest Leaves the Right Torn Over Views on Law vs. Order,” New York Times, August 14, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, www.nytimes.com.
34. Rand Paul, “We Must Demilitarize the Police,” Time, August 14, 2014, accessed August 28, 2014, time.com. Blacks represent 63 percent of the population of Ferguson, but 86 per- cent of those the police stop, and 92 percent of those they arrest. Buchanan, ”Q&A: Ferguson.”
35. The New York Times pointed out that Holder’s Justice Department paid for the rubber bullets and tear gas used in Ferguson, as well as body armor and surveillance equipment. Homeland Security provided the $360,000 Bearcat armored truck. And the military supplied machine guns, armored vehicles, and aircraft, some of it retired after use in Iraq or Afghanistan. Bosman and Apuzzo, “In Wake of Clashes.”
Copyright (2015) of Kristian Williams. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, AK Press.