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Police-Perpetrated Killings Are Public Executions — We Must Abolish Them

The normalization of extrajudicial killings is a hallmark of fascism where police assume the powers of judge and jury.

Demonstrators protest following the release of a police video showing officers beating Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 27, 2023.

As Memphis, Tennessee, police beat Tyre Nichols to death, he, like George Floyd, called out for his mother. And when Los Angeles police were killing Keenan Anderson, he said, “They’re trying to George Floyd me.” They discharged a Taser on Anderson at least six times and, not long after torturing him to death, they began spreading their version of events. Like Floyd, he begged for his life before authorities ended it, and he too was blamed for his own death. Back in Tennessee, police and media released the body camera footage of Nichols’ killing like a debut feature film. There was a suspenseful buildup, commentary from early viewers, and even an anticipated release date. All of this shows we have not escaped the ritual of public execution. The way these killings take place so publicly and are pulled into a vortex of reaction, punditry, and consumption says less about the victims and more about the culture of death penalization.

One of the most striking things about these killings is how they reference one another. For Anderson to mention Floyd during his final moments on earth should clarify something egregious about the frequency of extrajudicial killing. The regularity of police terror is so common, and officers have the discretion to embody the judge, jury, and prison. Since they can decide whether we live or die, they are — in effect — carrying out an endemic expansion of formalized capital punishment. We are used to hearing the “last statements” of new victims because we are perpetually enclosed in the metastasizing customs of the execution chamber.

Anderson’s killing at the beginning of a new year marked a cyclical condition wrought with far too much public intransigence regarding policing. Despite the uprisings of 2020 and a monumental shift in public discourse, there is still so much that has not changed. Abolition became a buzzword almost overnight, but the police received more funding via pandemic relief, followed by bipartisan efforts to keep their increases flowing. President Joe Biden summed it up with a cold directive in his March 1, 2021, State of the Union address saying, “We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police; it’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training.” He even went as far as urging cities to spend leftover relief funds on policing.

In 2020, a year before Biden’s address, 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa also referenced Floyd before police killed him. In his last text to his sisters, Monterrosa “asked them to sign a petition for George Floyd,” according to CBS News. He was executed not long after in Vallejo, California, when police officer Jarrett Tonn fired five times through the windshield of an unmarked pickup truck. Like Anderson, Monterrosa had Floyd on his mind. In 2022, the police would break their own record for killings. They took at least 1,176 people’s lives, while bipartisanship increased the funds that made these homicides possible.

This country is undoubtedly a police state, so officers’ authoritarian embodiment of the criminal legal system comes with consequences like “qualified immunity” that protect police from any crumbs of “accountability.” But they’d still be fine without it because what we call “reform” merely bends and changes the law to complement policing.

Nonetheless, by seeing the regularity of public execution, we also see the societal extension of carceral rationale. As I’ve written before, what happens in prison will not stay in prison. These facilities that officers carry on their person are the breeding grounds for fascism. It’s not just that they can detain you at any time, it’s that they are the personified form of the prison themselves. The psychological augmentation of the police state shows up as accepted fascistic violence normalized as “law enforcement.” We often don’t see it until it’s too late because the fascist outgrowths have already been rationalized and accepted as obligatory parts of social life. This may be: public killings, open sexual assault, torture, medical malpractice, police robbery (civil asset forfeiture), and much more. The police are the vehicle to making fascism seem logical and appropriate. Furthermore, they are the way fascism is argued as being anything but facism; it becomes defined as “public safety.”

We cannot tolerate this, and the police must be abolished.

It’s important not to become used to the enlargement of the execution chamber. The year has only just begun, and we already know the names of Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, Tyree Williams, and Chiewelthap Mariar. Let us always emphasize they were executed. Endless debates about violence versus nonviolence are impractical because the terms have already been set. The state engages us violently whether we provoke it or not—that’s the standard of the social order under the reign of capitalism, ruling-class billionaires, and corporations. The relationship to violence is one-sided because the state maintains a monopoly on violence, raising questions of collective social defense, counterviolence, and abolition.

It’s clear there is no guaranteed protection from the oppressive state, but how will we choose to protect one another? Surely there has to be more than marches and reactions. If we’re unable to get ahead of the problems we face and outmaneuver oppression, we will be stuck in this endless cycle. Can we think outside of the past and look toward the future to lead with new strategies, new organizing, and new theory? Or will we be frozen in rhetoric and traditions of past revolutions that surely educate us, but do not fight today’s battles? Will we be stuck in disconnected organizations and collectives that struggle to fulfill their own organizing mandates? How do we help ourselves out of the trap of predictability? Part of the danger lies not only in the monotony of what kills us, but in how anticipated our responses to it can be. The state keeps killing us to instill a warning and then shows us videos of its agents doing it.

Fascism requires fear, and state forces use public execution to make an example of a victim to maintain an environment of fear. A lynching isn’t only to satisfy the bloodthirst of empowered spectators; it’s also done to invoke fear in witnesses from oppressed populations. People’s bodies become warning signs that say, “you could be next” or “you will be next if you don’t stay in your place.” So if this place is nothing more than a country that is a bordered execution chamber, are we living or waiting to die or be killed?

The weight of this question sits heavily on the heads of Black people, poor people, Indigenous people, disabled people, people of color, and immigrants, among others. This circumstance can easily consume those of us who are disproportionately targeted. We cannot tolerate this, and the police must be abolished. Since they keep making brutal displays out of us, how will we sabotage the process and return fear to the purveyors of state violence? Perhaps things will change for the better when those who maintain power through execution are stripped of their ability to do so or, at least, feel afraid to kill again.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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