The words “I can’t breathe” were not only uttered by Eric Garner and George Floyd as they were murdered by police. They were also uttered by over 70 others who died in law enforcement custody over the past decade after saying those same three words, according to the The New York Times.
Policing in the United States is a force of racist violence that is entangled at the core of the capitalist system. As Robin D.G. Kelley pointed out on Intercepted With Jeremy Scahill, capitalism and racism are not distinct from one another: “If you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, then the outcome is you cannot eliminate capitalism, overthrow it, without the complete destruction of white supremacy, of the racial regime under which it’s built.”
Police in the United States act with impunity in targeted neighborhoods, public schools, college campuses, hospitals, and almost every other public sphere. Not only do the police view protesters, Black and Indigenous people, and undocumented immigrants as antagonists to be controlled, they are also armed with military-grade weapons. This police militarization is a process that dates at least as far back as President Lyndon Johnson when he initiated the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which supplied local police forces with weapons used in the Vietnam War. The public is now regarded as dangerous and suspect; moreover, as the police are given more military technologies and weapons of war, a culture of punishment, resentment and racism intensifies as Black people, in particular, are viewed as a threat to law and order. Unfortunately, employing militarized responses to routine police practices has become normalized. One consequence is that the federal government has continued to arm the police through the Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 Program, which allows the Defense Department to transfer military equipment free of charge to local enforcement agencies.
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The scope of the 1033 Program is alarming given that “Since its inception, more than 11,500 domestic law enforcement agencies have taken part in the 1033 Program, receiving more than $7.4 billion in military equipment,” according to CNBC. There is also the federally run 1122 Program which allows the police to purchase military equipment at the same discounted rate as the federal government. In addition, there is the Homeland Security Grant Program, which provides funds for local police departments to buy military-grade armaments and weapons. The military-grade weapons provided through these federal programs include armored vehicles, assault rifles, flashbang grenade launchers, bomb-detonating robots, and night vision items. Arming the police with more powerful weapons reinforced a culture that taught police officers to learn, think and act as soldiers engaged in a war. Moreover, as Ryan Welch and Jack Mewhirter write in The Washington Post, the more militarized and armed the police are, the greater the increase in civilian deaths. As they point out:
Even controlling for other possible factors in police violence (such as household income, overall and black population, violent-crime levels and drug use), more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police. When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.
This arming and militarizing of the police were intensified after the 9/11 attacks and privileged a police ethos defined by “the use of violent tactics and non-negotiable force over compromise, mediation, and peaceful conflict resolution.” Police brutality is endemic to American history. As Mariame Kaba argues,
There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against Black people. Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich. Everywhere, they have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.
Police brutality cannot be separated from the lethal nature of white supremacy, and in its recent incarnations became “the war on crime.” Under President Nixon and every American president after him, the war on crime continued to expand and intensify into a war on Black communities. The call for “law and order” repeatedly served as a smokescreen for racist and militarized police practices that equated Black behavior with criminality and authorized the use of force against them.
As the reach of the culture of punishment expanded, its targets included protesters, immigrants, and those individuals and groups marginalized by class, religion, ethnicity and color as the other — an enemy. This is the organizing principle of a war mentality adopted by the police throughout the United States in which the behavior of Black people and other marginalized communities is criminalized. It comes as no surprise that as one study reports, “Police kill, on average, 2.8 men per day…. Police homicide risk is higher than suggested by official data. Black and Latino men are at higher risk for death than are White men, and these disparities vary markedly across place.”
A militarized culture breeds violence. It wastes money on the security industries and policing, and drains money from the socially necessary programs that could actually prevent violence. Violence is both shocking and part of everyday life, especially for those who are poor, Black, Indigenous, trans, disabled and/or otherwise disenfranchised. In the last few decades, Francesca Mari writes, “the US has had the highest homicide rate of any high-income country, and according to preliminary data released in March by the FBI, it rose by 25 percent in 2020, when an estimated 20,000 people were murdered — more than fifty-six a day.”
Police brutality became code for a more violent expression of racism that emerged with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s. This was especially obvious under the Trump administration as the racist adoption of both white supremacy and a wave of police brutality against Black people and undocumented immigrants was presented to the American public as a badge of honor and an act of civic pride.
As the power of the police expanded, along with their unions, social programs were defunded. These included job programs, food stamp programs, health centers, healthcare programs and early childhood education. In many states, more money was spent on prisons than on colleges and universities, as documented by Ruth Gilmore in her book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Targeted cities inhabited mostly by poor Black and brown people were now under siege as the war on poverty morphed into the war on crime. Instead of “fighting black youth poverty,” the new crop of white supremacist politicians fought what Elizabeth Hinton called “fighting black youth crime” in her book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.
As Jim Crow re-emerged in more punitive forms, immigration was criminalized, the war on youth of color intensified, and the culture of punishment began to shape a range of institutions. This was particularly evident as mass incarceration became a defining organizing institution of the narrow racially inspired policies of criminalization in the U.S. and, by default, the prison its most notorious welfare agency. The U.S. has been in the midst of an imprisonment binge since the1960s. As Angela Y. Davis writes in Abolition Democracy:
But even more important, imprisonment is the punitive solution to a whole range of social problems that are not being addressed by those social institutions that might help people lead better, more satisfying lives. This is the logic of what has been called the imprisonment binge: Instead of building housing, throw the homeless in prison. Instead of developing the educational system, throw the illiterate in prison. Throw people in prison who lose jobs as the result of de-industrialization, globalization of capital, and the dismantling of the welfare state. Get rid of all of them. Remove these dispensable populations from society. According to this logic the prison becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.
The numbers speak for themselves. Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad makes this clear in his new preface to The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. He writes:
By population, by per capita incarceration rates, and by expenditures, the United States exceeds all other nations in how many of its citizens, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants are under some form of criminal justice supervision…. The number of African American and Latinx people in American jails and prisons today exceeds the entire populations of some African, Eastern European, and Caribbean countries.
Michelle Brown has argued persuasively in her book The Culture of Punishment that the rise of police violence, especially against people of color, indicates that increases in the scale of punishment cannot be abstracted from a parallel rise in both power and apparatuses of punishment — extending from the law enforcement, military services, private security forces, immigration detention centers, to intelligence networks and surveillance apparatuses.
Moreover, the culture of punishment increasingly defines both subjects and social problems through the registers of punishment, pain and violence. How else to explain the actions of the South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who in 2021 signed legislation giving people on death row the grotesque choice between a firing squad and electrocution. Frank Knaack, the executive director of South Carolina’s ACLU, stated that capital punishment and the new law “evolved from lynchings and racial terror, and it has failed to separate its modern capital punishment system from this racist history.”
Policing cannot be understood outside of the history of criminogenic culture and a racist punishing state marked by both staggering inequities in wealth, income and power, as well as a collective mindset in which those considered non-white are considered less than human, undeserving of human rights, and viewed as disposable. The journalist Robert C. Koehler rightly argues that underlying both the larger culture and the culture of policing is a deeply ingrained white supremacy marked by a system of growing inequalities in which economic rights do not match political and individual rights. Koehler writes:
it is racism that is the trigger that disproportionately escalates police encounters with people of color. However, even more sadly, it is systemic racism that normalizes it, or legitimates it, making it largely acceptable to white American eyes and consciences. For it is not only the police who have this problem, but our entire society.
As neoliberalism failed to deliver on its promises of upward social and economic mobility, it shifted attention for its broken social experiment to attacks on immigrants, Blacks, and other populations deemed unworthy, inferior and a threat to white people. In doing so, gangster capitalism has become armed, spiraling into a form of authoritarianism that has merged the savagery of market despotism with the rancid ideology of white supremacy. Cornel West is right in arguing that neoliberal capitalism with its emphasis on materialism, racism and cruelty “allows for endemic inequality and a culture of greed and consumerism that [has trampled] on the rights and dignity of poor people and minorities decade after decade.”
Sociologist Alex Vitale rightly insists that calls for change regarding policing should not be about producing “better” police through technocratic reforms such as the increased use of body cameras and bias training, but rather with a “larger structure of economic life in America.” In the age of neoliberal austerity, the defunding of the welfare state has given way to a range of social problems — extending from the criminalization of homeless people and the relentless erasure of human rights to the mass proliferation of surveillance and the placing of police in the schools — all of which have contributed to the expansion of police power as a way to control people removed from meaningful involvement in the broader global economy. Turning over every social problem for the police to fix is more than an impossible task; it is a failed, if not diversionary, political decision.
Police violence can be understood as a form of systemic terror instituted intentionally by different levels of government against populations at home in order to realize economic gains and achieve political benefits through practices that range from assassination, extortion, incarceration, violence, and intimidation or coercion of a civilian population. Some of the more notorious racist expressions of such terror include the assassination of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police Department on December 4, 1969; the MOVE bombing by the Philadelphia Police Department in 1985; the existence of COINTELPRO (an illegal counterintelligence program designed to harass anti-war and Black resistance fighters in the 60s and 70s); the use of extortion by the local police and courts practiced on the largely poor Black residents of Ferguson; and the more publicized killings of Ma’Khia Bryant, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by the police — to name just a few instances of acute state violence.
The American nightmare that has descended upon the United States points to a crisis of power, agency, community, education and hope. The effects of neoliberalism’s death-dealing-machinery are everywhere, and police abuse is only one thread of this criminogenic social formation.
Rather than fade into the past or disappear beneath the propaganda techniques of right- wing disimagination machines, widespread poverty, racially segregated schools, rampant homelessness, ecological destruction, large-scale rootlessness, fearmongering, social atomization, voter suppression, and the politics of disposability are alive and well. It is now unabashedly reproduced and defended by a Republican Party that has become the overt symbol of white supremacy, economic ruthlessness and manufactured ignorance.
Widespread corruption is now matched by a climate of fear and a willingness on the part of Trump’s political allies to inflict violence on undesirable members of the public along with anyone voicing criticism or dissent. The scaffold of resistance now faces a malignant fascist politics growing across the globe. Fascist politics, especially in the United States, has been on steroids, especially true both during Trump’s reign in office and after his defeat, with the rule of the Republican Party in Congress and among a majority of state legislatures. If the systemic violence and lawlessness that denies Black communities a claim to human rights, citizenship and dignity are to be challenged, it is crucial to understand how neoliberal fascism becomes a machinery of dread, tearing the social fabric, while cancelling the future. As a regime of ideology, neoliberal fascism wages a political and pedagogical war against the conditions that make thinking, agency, the search for truth and informed judgment possible.
The heart of American violence does not reside merely in the culture and practice of policing in the U.S., or for that matter, in its prison-industrial complex. Its center of gravity is more comprehensive and is part of a broader crisis that extends from the threat of nuclear war and ecological devastation to the rise of authoritarian states and the human suffering caused by the staggering concentrations of wealth in the hands of a global financial elite. The roots of these multilayered and intersecting crises lie elsewhere in a new political and social formation that constitutes a racialized criminal economy that has embraced greed, violence, disposability, denial and racial cleansing as governing principles of the entire social order. This is the rule of neoliberal fascism on steroids. It is also an extermination machine rooted in a vapid nihilism that fuels the celebration of materialism and social atomization with a belief in unshakable loyalty, purification through violence and a cult of heroism.
It is crucial to understand how the threads of racial violence in its broader historical context, comprehensive connections and multidimensional layers shape capitalism in its totality to produce what David Theo Goldberg calls a machinery of proliferating dread. It’s no wonder that the same activists who are working to defund the police are also part of a collective movement to bring an end to neoliberal capitalism. Mariame Kaba writes:
People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.
The challenge that Kaba and other abolitionists are posing does not advocate for liberal reforms. Their call is to advance a radical restructuring of society. Central to their call for social change is that such a task be understood as both political and educational. This necessitates the development of political and pedagogical struggles that take seriously the need to rethink the attack on the public imagination and attack on critical agency, identity and everyday life. Also at stake is the need to identify and reclaim those institutions, such as schools, that are necessary to produce and connect an educated public to the struggle for a substantive and radical democracy. The current crisis cannot be faced through limited calls for police reforms. It demands a more comprehensive view not only of oppression and the forces through which it is produced, legitimated and normalized, but also of political struggle itself.