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Policing Does Not Have Problems — It Is the Problem

Policing is neither reformable nor redeemable.

Black-led groups lead a rally to defund police across from the Chicago Police Department's Homan Square facility in Chicago, Illinois, on July 24, 2020.

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Watching the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols for me drove home a deeper understanding that policing as an institution can never be reformed, and that policing itself is structurally tied to inherent forms of repressive control, “legitimate” violence and surveillance.

The activity of policing has embedded within it a normative construction of the social world that identifies what must be subdued. Hence, the police are (by definition) those who are on the side of “law and order,” the side of the status quo, which thereby means that others (you, me, us) are rendered immediately vulnerable to their draconian judgments and their militarized proclivities, ones that are implicitly backed by the state and its police. It is this understanding of policing that forces us to think critically about policing as a mechanism, an instrument, for those in power vis-à-vis those who are not. The state constantly seeks as many devotees as possible, and it demands broad latitude in arbitrarily defining those who need to be brutalized as well as how it can actually carry out that brutalization.

Flooded with all these thoughts in the wake of the killing of Tyre Nichols, I reached out to Laurence Ralph, who is professor of anthropology at Princeton University and the director of the Center on Transnational Policing. Ralph’s voice is indispensable in a world of violence: His work powerfully helps us to understand the various social forces that produce variegated forms of social injustice. He is the author of two books. His most recent book is entitled The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. In this exclusive interview, Ralph discusses the violence that cops perpetrated against Tyre Nichols, how the perpetuation of fear props up policing and why policing itself is not redeemable.

George Yancy: In your engaging book, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, you write about fear. You note, “The most basic of instincts is the desire to keep ourselves alive; thus, we are inevitably attuned to danger, and fear shapes much of our emotional life. Because we are fearful of threats, what we crave — perhaps even more than food or companionship — is a sense of safety.” As you know, the world has witnessed, through recently released horrifying videos, the brutal and sickening police beating of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man. He was beaten by five Black Memphis Police Department officers. Nichols tragically died three days after the beating. As I painfully watched yet another video of a Black man being brutalized by those who are purportedly there “to protect and to serve,” I could see Nichols’s fear. It was palpable and justified. What is not so obvious is the sense of constructed paranoia that was conceivably experienced by the five Black police officers. To be clear, I say this not to exonerate the police officers. They must be held accountable. Much of my work has attempted to get at the problematic ways in which the white gaze operates. Historically, the white gaze constructed the Black body as “criminal,” “evil,” “inferior,” “primitive.” In both the U.S. and Europe, such assumptions were even supported by such sciences as anthropology. I don’t believe that the white gaze is static; it is mobile, which means that it can be internalized. Black people can internalize the white gaze and begin to see those who look like them as ontologically (in their being) dangerous. Policing can itself be understood as a process of bringing control to bear upon that which is “chaotic.” It could be argued that when Europeans came to this part of the world that they came with a “policing attitude,” they were here to tame this “wilderness,” including those Indigenous to this land. They came to implement white supremacist policy. It is interesting to note that the root meaning of police means policy. You also talk about the concept of the frontier in your book. What’s my point? To what extent do you think that irrational fear of the Black body added to the brutal beating of Nichols even though the five police officers were also Black?

Laurence Ralph: What struck me about the police officers in the Tyre Nichols beating was not only that they were Black, but that they were part of a specialized unit called SCORPION.

In my ethnographic work on policing, I have interviewed officers who are members of specialized units like SCORPION in Chicago and New Orleans. I found that these units often revolve around specific cultural norms, such as the notion of the “heroic cop,” who must always be on guard in dangerous situations. The officers I’ve spoken with identify with representations of police officers and detectives in popular culture. They constantly reference TV shows like “Cops” or “Law & Order” when describing their work. But the most troubling thing I found is that, because of their specialization and “elite” status, these units are, by mandate, unconcerned with ordinary “crime control” and instead operate as if always already in a state of emergency, which goes to the question of fear. This perspective has profound implications for how the leaders of these units speak about law enforcement in the communities they serve. They call for a war against crime, a war on drug dealers and a war on violent gangs. This language, in turn, legitimizes the police’s view of the situation facing them when, for instance, they pull over someone like Tyre Nichols.

When I saw the video footage of Tyre Nichols’s severe beating — a beating which would cause his death — I understood that his assailants had perceived him, from the outset, as an enemy combatant. They believed him to be the source or potential source of violence and, therefore, responsible for the violence he received. It is no secret that there is broad discretion for the police officer to decide who looks suspicious and what constitutes suspicious activity. Nor is it new or surprising to note that juries often believe that the police should fear Black urban residents and that this fear is a valid and “reasonable” response to police violence. The difference in the troubling video of Tyre Nichols’s fatal beating is that it is clear that the police officers involved were not motivated by fear. The police officers seemed to approach his beating as a sport. And thus, to comprehend the excessive nature of this violence, we must first understand how some police officers are attracted to units like SCORPION as a source of thrill-seeking entertainment and not merely a job.

I agree with you that Black police officers can internalize anti-Blackness with horrific results. As James Baldwin once said, “In Harlem, Negro policemen are feared more than whites, for they have more to prove and fewer ways to prove it.”

That is an astute and scary analysis. Your point powerfully raises the issue of televisual fantasies and the idea that policing is a site where those sanctioned by the state can externalize such fantasies. And your point about their perception of always already being in a state of emergency “justifies” (as if a priori) the use of all “necessary” violence. In your work, you also write about the torturing of predominantly Black men within the context of U.S. policing. When I think about torture, I think about deep and severe physical and mental pain. There was nothing lawful in what we witnessed in the beating of Tyre Nichols. Of course, personally, when I think about the death of George Floyd, I also think about deep and severe physical and mental pain. When I watched Tyre Nichols being beaten, I was reminded of many violent movies where a person is being held up by some and then brutally beaten by another. Either they are trying to get information or just making sure to send a message, to make sure that the person beaten understands never to cross them. Of course, this is real life. In this case, it doesn’t seem that the police officers wanted a confession, but how was this brutal beating different from torture? I ask this with no intention to conflate differences between a beating and an instance of torture.

My research for The Torture Letters taught me that I could not talk about police torture in isolation. For Chicagoans, torture was uniquely horrible, but it was never unique. Chicagoans could not talk about torture without discussing all the other things they experienced at the hands of the police. In speaking with Chicago residents, I understood that torture exists on a spectrum or continuum.

Policing itself is structurally tied to inherent forms of repressive control, “legitimate” violence and surveillance.

For my research on torture, I examined the police’s use-of-force continuum. This refers to the guidelines that the police are supposed to abide by when determining how much force to deploy during an encounter with a civilian. Chicago police are required to de-escalate situations whenever possible to reduce the need for them to use force. If police officers confront someone agitated, they are trained to reason with that person and persuade them to calm down. If that person is not harming anyone, the police can allow the person to cool off for a certain period. Or, if someone has a history of mental illness, the police can call on a crisis-intervention team to assist in making the arrest.

Police officers are required to make their way through “all reasonable alternatives” before deploying force. In reality, many Black Chicagoans feel that the use-of-force continuum is inherently flawed. They argue that because of their skin color, the police judge them as threats prematurely and then use that prejudice to exhaust the alternatives to violence too quickly. To add insult to injury, the police often face no consequences whatsoever for their role in escalating violence. They have to state later only that they felt scared. By doing so, police officers are often given the benefit of the doubt.

All of this to say, I don’t think seeing the Nichols beating as qualitatively different than torture is helpful. I believe it exists on the same continuum, which can easily slide into legal definitions of torture at any moment. The question is, why is this violence escalating so quickly, and how do we stop it?

Based on what you have said, it is as if there is no “use-of-force continuum” regarding Black people. The concept of a continuum, after all, suggests a range or a scale. There’s a sense in which the Black body or Black Chicagoans don’t get the benefit of the doubt to be anything other than threateningly capricious. To return to the issue of torture, you’ve thought a great deal about the ways in which Black men have been disproportionately tortured by the police. I’m thinking here specifically within the context of Jon Burge, the Chicago Police Department commander who, along with his cronies, tortured over 100 Black men into false confessions over two decades that began in the early 1970s. I realize that this happened in Chicago, but what is it about policing and anti-Black racism that is so persistent in the U.S.? When I think about the torturing of Black bodies by Burge and other police officers, I also think about the obscene and brutal practices of lynching Black bodies. Think here of Black male genitals being electrically shocked in the former case, and Black male castration in the latter case. There is a deep perverse obsession with Black male genitalia. Are we missing something that is deeply embedded within the U.S. psychic frontier mentality of whiteness? We also know that slave patrols began in the Carolinas in the 18th century. One purpose of such slave patrols was to terrorize Black bodies, to keep them in a state of fear. There was also the purpose of returning enslaved Black people to their “owners.” I can only imagine the brutal beatings, the pain and suffering, the blood and tears, the expletives. Black people just wanted to be freed. There is a way in which Tyre Nichols wanted to be free; he didn’t want to be subjected to such unprovoked violence. So, he ran. Looks like Black people have been running for a long time. Do you see any connections here? Is there something systemic, psychic and diachronic here?

I do see your connections. And they remind me of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. As your readers may know, President Woodrow Wilson praised the film for its artistry and political commentary. In it, Griffith advanced portrayal after portrayal of Black male criminals as the primary threat to society in the aftermath of the Civil War. Based on a famous 1905 novel, The Clansman, Griffith’s film is now thought to be responsible for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and the thousands of lynchings its members and other vigilantes enacted between Reconstruction and World War II. In Griffith’s film, the police vigilantes had to catch the Black male predator because he threatened to rape White Women. So culturally speaking, I think this is where the fascination with genitals and torture begins. But of course, it doesn’t end here. We can draw a direct line between this false image of Black male predatory violence that gets sexualized, to the historical case of Emmett Till, who was lynched while visiting his family in Mississippi after a white woman claimed that he whistled at her. The vigilantes who hunted, tortured and killed Till were all exonerated. This fantasy also resonates with the more recent notion of the “superpredator” Bill and Hillary Clinton made famous through their support of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

In support of this Act, signed into law two years before her speech, Hillary Clinton addressed the need to punish Black urban youth: “…they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.” When this quote resurfaced during her 2016 presidential run, it drew substantial criticism from criminal legal reform advocates. Even so, instead of apologizing, Bill Clinton, while campaigning on behalf of his wife, doubled down: “I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African American children,” the former president said. For him, “superpredator” was still the appropriate term.

I have described this as the “logic of the slave patrol” because once you convince the public that a “predator” is on the loose, anything becomes possible to contain him.

Yes! Your deployment of “the logic of the slave patrol” speaks to patterns, and systems — not to discrete exceptions. Some will say, yet again, that the police beating of Tyre Nichols is a case of a few “bad apples.” I’m sure that you’ve heard it before. But what if the entire structure of policing is rotten to the core? This doesn’t mean that there are no decent police officers. Even if it is false to compare “benevolent” police officers to “benevolent” slave holders, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. My point here is that there are no “benevolent” slave holders. I don’t think Black people want to be under the protection of “benevolent” slave holders. We want to be free! This means that if there are Black people who are instruments of the slave master, we want to be free from them as well. I can only imagine that those same five Black police officers know what it is like to be Black and male in the U.S., what it is like to be perceived as a racial “threat.” After all, Black police officers must, at some point, take off the blue suit. Once the ensemble is removed, they become a George Floyd, a Tyre Nichols. I’m saying a lot here, but what must happen systemically? How do we revamp policing that is not tied to brutality, racial capitalism, anti-Black racism, controlling forms of surveillance, the white gaze? Perhaps revamp is the wrong term, especially as it suggests refurbishing.

This question reminds me of a scene from a recent documentary called Descendant. It’s about the current residents of Africatown, Alabama. Three white men had illegally smuggled the ancestors of these residents into the U.S. decades after the government abolished the slave trade. The most famous Black captive on the trip was Cudjo Lewis, the subject of a Zora Neale Hurston book. Timothy Meaher, Burns Meaher and William Foster had stolen him and 110 others from West Africa. But miraculously, in 2019, marine archeologists found the Clotilda, the slave vessel that the Meahers burned beneath the Alabama River.

We must examine proactive ways to address the social issues that lead to crime and violence, which does not necessitate more police.

In a climactic scene in the documentary, some of the descendants of Cudjo Lewis and William Foster visit the wreckage site. They travel by way of a speed boat, which gently bobs up and down above the murky water, the engine purring softly. Some in the boat had been standing for the journey, but everyone settled into their seats as they reached the site. A contemplative silence descends upon them. Finally, Foster’s relative breaks the stillness. “I don’t know if there’s any more writing on this,” he says, “but from what I’ve read, Cudjo said the way that William Foster treated them on the boat. …” He trails off, gauging the reactions of those around him. “I mean, obviously, the conditions were unacceptable and degrading, but it sounded like he [Foster] still had some respect for them.”

Ben Raines, the white man who found the wreckage site, interjects, his voice cutting through the quiet like a knife. “Cudjo said he was a good man,” he said, referring to Foster. “But he didn’t say that about Timothy or Burns.” There’s a note of finality in his tone, a resoluteness that brooks no argument. “He said the opposite. In fact, he said Burns was a bad man.”

As the boat floats above the water, the discussion turns to the treatment of the enslaved people transported on the Clotilda. Foster’s relative speaks up, proud that his ancestor treated them more decently than the others involved in the illegal enterprise. But a Black man on the boat chimes in, speaking up about his perspective. He explains that it’s hard to differentiate between enslavers based on whether they were “good” or “bad.” To him, they were all equal in their dehumanization of Black people. “A good master, a bad master,” he says, “It’s equal in my book.”

I feel the same way. And so, I think “revamp” is not the right word because the system, like slavery itself, is not redeemable. I believe we need to “reimagine” safety, which includes reimagining society’s investment in fear. We must examine proactive ways to address the social issues that lead to crime and violence, which does not necessitate more police. In fact, police often exacerbate the very problems they are tasked to solve.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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