Police Violence in the USA: A Necessary Cost of Empire

Terence Crutcher. Keith Lamont Scott. Korryn Gaines. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Alfred Olango. Charles Kinsey. Laquan McDonald. Antwoyne Johnson. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. The list goes on and on. Black men and black boys shot and killed by the police.

Every day, it seems, we can expect another shooting, many of them captured on video. They start to scramble in our minds, unless we happen to be the girlfriend, the wife, the sister or the mother of the victim.

But the killings seem to fit a pattern; there seems to be a method to the madness. The confrontation with a police officer often starts with a traffic stop. Or someone calls 911 to report a black man or boy behaving suspiciously. The man or boy may have a gun (but this is usually not the case). Sometimes a relative of the victim has called police, expecting help. In the case of Quintonio LeGrier, a young Chicago man, the victim himself called for assistance.

Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old father of five, was selling CDs outside a convenience store when police officers arrived and tased him, held him on the ground with their hands and knees, and then shot him multiple times at close range.

Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy, was playing with a toy gun outside a recreation center when two police officers pulled up in their squad car and jumped out. Within two seconds, Tamir was dead.

Alfred Olango, 30, was reportedly acting erratically when officers approached him in a strip mall in suburban San Diego. Olango was holding up his hands when he was tased by one police officer and then shot five times by another officer. Olanga’s sister had called the police. “I called you to help me but you killed my brother,” the grieving woman told the officers, who were aware they were responding to a mental health emergency.

In an eerily similar incident just a week earlier, police in Charlotte, North Carolina shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in a parking lot where he had been waiting to pick up his son after school. Scott’s wife, Rakeyia, recorded the murder on her cellphone while pleading with the police not to shoot her husband, explaining that he suffered from traumatic brain injury.

The day after Christmas, 2015, Quintonio LeGrier, 19, a student at Northern Illinois University, was shot seven times by police in his home on Chicago’s Westside when they responded to a call from the boy’s father. LeGrier, who had mental health issues and had already called 911 three times, to no avail, was armed with a baseball bat. Bettie Jones, a 47-year-old neighbor who had opened the apartment house door for police, was also shot. When the family filed suit against the police officer who killed the young man and the neighbor, the officer filed a counter-suit claiming “infliction of emotional distress.”

“You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”

 . . . Diamond Reynolds  

Just yesterday, a New York City cop shot and killed a 66-year-old black woman in her apartment in the Bronx. She too was armed with a baseball bat. The police officer had a taser but chose to use his revolver instead.

All of these incidents are shocking and abhorrent, but sometimes they are so grotesque that they border on “black humor.” Did you hear about Mary Knowlton, a 73-year-old white woman in Punta Gorda, Florida? She visited her local police station as a student in the citizen police academy. She was chosen to play the victim in a role-play of a lethal force simulation, in which officers demonstrate how and when they decide to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, the officer’s gun had real bullets. Mary, a mother, wife and career librarian, died.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching video to watch was the one live-streamed by Diamond Reynolds right after watching her boyfriend, Philando Castile, being shot four times by a police officer after their car was pulled over in a suburb of St. Paul, MN. In the video, (viewed almost 2.5 million times by the following afternoon), Reynolds informs the police officer that her boyfriend was carrying a licensed, concealed handgun and had been attempting to retrieve his wallet when he was shot. The video shows Castile moaning and losing consciousness as the officer curses and brandishes his revolver at the couple. Not visible is Reynold’s four-year-old daughter in the back seat of the car.

“You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir,” she is heard saying. “Please don’t tell me he’s dead.”

Reynolds is soon handcuffed and spends the night in jail. She claims that officers failed to check Castile for a pulse or render first aid, but instead comforted the officer who fired the shots. Castile died in a hospital 20 minutes after being shot. Reports differ on how many times Castile had previously been stopped for minor traffic infractions, ranging from 52 up to 82. Most were eventually dismissed.

For those of you who fret that a victory for Donald Trump on November 8th will usher in a fascist state, all I have to say is: don’t fear, it’s already here. And if it’s not here yet, it’s very near. All the necessary ingredients are in place: a prison industrial complex, a military industrial complex, rampant racism and the most sophisticated surveillance state in the history of the planet. And all these fixings for fascism work hand in glove like ham and eggs or pepper and salt.

For those who prefer to think that the problem with our police is merely a matter of a “few bad apples,” I would refer them to a recent monologue by talk show host John Oliver. He reminded his listeners that the expression goes “a few bad apples spoil the barrel.” At this point, the whole barrel is rotten. It doesn’t smell sweet like apple cider. It’s a stench more like stale piss.


Street march at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this past August.

Due in part to the fact that there are nearly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies spread across the US, no one appears to know for sure how many people are killed by the police each year. But The Guardian newspaper in England has been keeping tabs with a user-friendly database anyone can access. Their count for 2015 was 1,146 deaths, and over 840 so far this year.

(Interestingly, the Guardian data shows that police killings of Native Americans has outpaced that of blacks this year. Other data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other ethnic group, according to an October 18 article in In These Times. Peaceful protests by Native Americans at Standing Rock in North Dakota this autumn have been met with massive displays of police power including automatic firearms, riot gear, batons, pepper spray, dogs, armored vehicles and helicopters hovering overhead.)

Citing CNN, Oliver noted that 77 officers had been charged with murder or manslaughter since 2005 and only 26 of these, to date, had been convicted. The US Justice Department found that 4,813 people died from 2003 to 2009 while a law enforcement officer was attempting to arrest or restrain them. Data compiled by Colorlines and the Chicago Reporter in 2007 showed that nearly 9,500 people in the US were shot by police between 1980 and 2005, an average of almost one fatal shooting per day. Chicago alone had 435 officer-involved shootings between 2010 and 2015 and four out of five victims were black.

Aislinn Pulley is a cofounder and lead organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago. She declined an invitation to attend a White House meeting with President Obama and civil rights activists this past February, convinced that it would be a “sham” and a photo opportunity for the president. In an editorial in Truthout, she asked why Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, is not considered a criminal for closing half the city’s mental health centers and for conducting the largest public school closing in US history. We must ask what criminal justice is “when not one officer, including former Commander Jon Burge, has been held responsible for the torture of over 100 Black and Latino men that occurred over 30 years in Chicago,” she wrote.

I think back about four decades to my former life in the central city. While an activist and community organizer in Milwaukee, there was a lot of concern about “police brutality.” It was a common expectation that the police would rough people up from time to time; it was how they maintained control. But murder, not so much. That fate was reserved for people perceived as a real threat to the power structure, like Chicago Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, assassinated by Chicago police in collusion with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

All they have to do is read from his weekly “kill list” and push a computer button. Technology does the rest.

While some people referred to the police as “pigs,” there were others who still considered them “peace officers.” How quaint that term sounds today! Unfortunately, preserving the peace has never been the purpose of police and law enforcement agencies. Since the rise of nation states and the concept of private property, the role of law enforcement, “criminal justice” and, by extension, the military, has always been to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful and to preserve the empire.

So if we take it as a given that the role of police is to intimidate and brutalize in order to keep the motley rabble in place, why does it appear they have ramped it up, so to speak, skipping the brutality stage in favor of outright murder? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I can offer a few theories.

First, the idea of efficiency is a dominant value in the neoliberal state. Why waste time with arrest and torture when you can just shoot to kill? Second, our country is drenched in violence, drowning in violence. It is usually the first and often the only solution to a problem. Third, people on “both sides of the law” learn by example, whether a kid on the street or a cop on the beat. Who do they learn from? Corporations (Wells Fargo, Dakota Access LLC, Goldman and Sachs, BP  … take your pick), the man in the White House, and our government, the largest and most lethal murder machine in history.

Fourth? Let’s face it, certain people are just not needed anymore. The economy can do fine without them. There’s hardly room for any more in the cages we call prisons. They’re not even of any use as cannon fodder, now that Obama has his drones. All he needs is a few people (preferably without a conscience) sitting behind computers, thousands of miles removed from his “targets.” All they have to do is read from his weekly “kill list” and push a computer button. Technology does the rest. In other words, a lot of people are now disposable. There’s no place for them in the system.

Kathy Kelly had an essay published on Common Dreams this past July in which she compared the shooting of Alton Sterling to the US war machine. Kathy is a peace activist from Chicago twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. (The well-meaning folks who nominated her were probably not aware that you need to have real credentials to win this prestigious prize, like being a president who bombs seven different counties at once.) Kathy’s essay starts with an account of Sterling’s murder in a Louisiana parking lot. A witness-recorded video captures one of the police officers shouting “If you f_ _ _ _ ing move, I swear to God!” just before Sterling is shot to death. She then mentions that police arrest and often kill citizens based on “racial profiling” and, nowadays, “patterns of behavior.”  (This latter is a trick our cops picked up from our friends in Israel. More on that in a minute.)

“The past 15 years have institutionalized and validated the killing process. President Clinton or Trump will be able to do more of the same.”

  . . . Philip Giraldi

The same week that Sterling was killed, the US released a report on drone strikes and civilian deaths, covering “four countries with which the US is not at war,” according to Kelly. The US admitted to killing between 64 and 116 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya from 2009 through 2015, but Kelly points out this is probably only a small fraction of the most conservative estimates by independent reporters and researchers. “Few eyes in the US watch for cellphone video from these countries,” she added, so we only get the official version of what actually transpired.

A March 2015 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility claimed that more (perhaps far more) than 1.3 million people were killed during the first ten years of the “Global War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. When you add Syria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, the count may exceed two million deaths, with some estimates at four million or more. Kelly quotes Philip Giraldi as saying: “The past 15 years have institutionalized and validated the killing process. President Clinton or Trump will be able to do more of the same, as the procedures involved are ‘completely legal’ and likely soon to be authorized under an executive order.”

Drone warfare eliminates the very notion of trial, evidence and rule of law, Kelly notes, “making the whole world a battlefield. The frenzied concern for our safety and comfort driving so much of our war on the Middle East has made our lives far more dangerous.”

You may have heard of Michelle Alexander, the Ohio State University law professor whose book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, makes the argument that, “rather than rely on race, we now use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

Within a span of 30 years, “for reasons unrelated to crime rates,” she notes, US incarceration rates quintupled and the prison population exploded from 300,000 to well over two million today, with nearly five million more on probation or parole. The country created a penal system unlike any other in world history, with incarceration rates far exceeding those of Russia, China or Iran, countries portrayed here as particularly repressive.


Myra Brown, from Rochester, New York, at a march for justice for Dontre Hamilton, a young black man shot and killed by Milwaukee police in 2014. The march was part of the Call to Action convention in Milwaukee.

“No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities,” Alexander points out. In fact, more African American adults are in prison or under correction supervision or probation than were enslaved in 1850. Black men are sent to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 57 times greater than white men, even though government statistics reveal that people of all races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate.

“Stop and frisk” searches and traffic stops used as pretext for unlawful searches, along with the increasingly militarized nature of our police forces, have transformed our inner cities into virtual occupied territories. Which brings us back to Israel.

The United States and Israel, its junior partner in the security state business, share many things in common. You might say they are soul sisters. Both were settled by European colonists who appropriated the land of indigenous people, both consider themselves “exceptional,” both have armed themselves with nuclear weapons and decry the efforts of other states to do likewise, both practice “targeted killings” or extrajudicial executions of suspected terrorists, (and Israel is second only to the US in global sale of drones), and both have created economies largely dependent on the production and sale of weapons and security technology. Oh yes, conveniently enough, both benefit from occupied territories on which to test weapons and security technology. After all, what responsible entrepreneur would sell a product on the world market without testing it first?

I had long been aware of Israel’s history of selling weapons and providing military training to repressive regimes in Latin America. But it was not until I picked up Ali Abunimah’s excellent book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, that I learned of Israel’s role in providing domestic law enforcement agencies in the US with weapons, training and security technology.

Abunimah quotes Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) as saying that Israel has become the world’s “shopping mall for homeland security technologies.” Israel’s arms and security exports escalated from $3.5 billion in 2003 to $7.5 billion in 2012, making it the world’s sixth largest weapons exporter.

“The occupied territories are crucial as a laboratory not just in terms of Israel’s internal security, but because they have allowed Israel to become pivotal to the global homeland security industry,” according to Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Since 9/11, pro-Israel lobbying groups “have created a veritable industry” of shuttling US police chiefs to Israel to “learn from the best,” Abunimah reports.

Groups such as the Jewish United Fund, Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange have sponsored delegations of police officials from dozens of cities including Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin and Houston, so they can observe how the experts keep a population subjugated. One group alone, the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, a neoconservative Washington think tank, boasts that it has brought more than a hundred federal, state and local law enforcement officials to Israel and has trained 11,000 more officers across the US since 2002.

The New York Police Department, which has systematically spied on and infiltrated Muslim communities for years, has even set up a branch in Tel Aviv, headed by former Israeli and veteran NYPD detectives. Journalist Max Blumenthal has reported that the “Israelification” of US policing came to full fruition with attacks on the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. According to Blumenthal, “former Israeli military officers have been hired to spearhead security operations at American airports and suburban shopping malls, leading to a wave of disturbing incidents of racial profiling, intimidation, and FBI interrogations of innocent, unsuspecting people.”

“Colonized territories have long served as laboratories for new forms of violence and social control.”

Of course, US law enforcement agencies hardly need Israelis to teach them about spying, profiling or harassment of minorities. But Israel has helped them repackage racial profiling as “behavior pattern recognition,” Abunimah contends, giving US police an opportunity to “spin discrimination as a sophisticated technical solution.”

The detention, abuse and torture of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities closely parallels the experience of black youth in American cities. And the virtual immunity bestowed on US police for their crimes against citizens mirrors that granted to Israeli police, soldiers and settlers who shoot and torture Palestinians. An Israeli legal advocacy group found that 94 percent of criminal investigations by the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division against soldiers suspected of violent criminal assault on Palestinians and their property were closed without indictment.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the tail is wagging the dog or vice versa when it comes to the militaristic policies of the US and Israel but one thing is certain: “national security” is good for business. Occupation zones, whether the West Bank and Gaza or American cities, are an integral feature of the business. Palestinians and African Americans are “lab rats” on which the empire can test its newest weapons, security technology and confinement techniques.

Abunimah ends his chapter on the “shared values” of the US and Israel by quoting another author who observed that “colonized territories have long served as laboratories for new forms of violence and social control and should thus be viewed, in an important sense, as ahead of their time.” As the US continues to expand its wars at home and abroad, Abunimah notes, it’s bound to have dire consequences for Palestinians, Americans and others, “especially those targeted by mass incarceration and the escalated brutality of militarized and racist policing.”

Freelance journalist Chris Hedges seems to concur with this warning in his article titled Legalized Murder and the Politics of Terror. “The miniature police states are laboratories,” he writes. “They give the corporate state the machinery, legal justification and expertise to strip the entire country of rights, wealth and resources. And this, in the end, is the goal of neoliberalism.”

Ever since the media and eye-witness videos have begun to shine a spotlight on the epidemic of police shootings, there have predictably been calls for reform of our law enforcement agencies. It has been pointed out that our police are ill-equipped to deal with the national mental health crisis. Some are demanding that all police wear body cameras to record their actions. Others say the training that police receive is inadequate. (A National Public Radio story in mid-July reported that some police in Minnesota receive only 16 hours of training a year, and that much police training is of the “us versus them” variety.)

But it is doubtful that more training can help so long as the focus is on producing warriors rather than peace-keepers. It is doubtful that more technology can fix the problem either, since the real purpose of technology is to pacify and punish huge segments of the population at home and abroad, and to enrich the arms industry. As Hedges wrote in his essay, “The so-called “professionalization” of the police, the standard response to police brutality, has always resulted in more resources, militarized weapons and money given to the police. It has been accompanied, at the same time, by less police accountability and greater police autonomy to strip citizens of their rights as well as on expansion of the use of deadly force.”

What is needed, of course, is a major disinvestment from the prison and military industries and a commensurate investment in education, mental health, full employment, safe housing, social services and restorative justice. With many people, this will not be a popular proposal. Some will claim that divesting from the prison-military machine is not practical. As I write, liberals in Madison, WI and elsewhere are organizing to denounce divestment as “anti-Semitic.” You see, institutions like the British-Danish multinational security corporation G4S make a lot of money from torturing and detaining Palestinian children. It is also the leading security company in the US, contracting with federal, state and local police and operating various prisons and juvenile detention centers.

I was recently re-reading part of a 1950 book by Alex Comfort, a poet, novelist and biologist from London. In his book, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, he maintains that some forms of delinquency are tolerated in contemporary civilized cultures. In fact, he posits that “refusal to participate in the persecution of a racial minority, or in the military destruction of civilian populations,” have recently become crimes in civilized Western societies. The “tolerated delinquents” often gravitate to the machinery of legislative and political power, becoming policy-makers and rulers, but more often are attracted to the machinery of enforcement, which intervenes between the policy-maker and the citizen.

As highly-centralized Western democracies have evolved, he argues, there has been “an increasing tendency for fear, insecurity and an orientation toward war to become permanent features of such cultures.” In these centralized societies, he adds, the tendency has been for those who comprise the machinery of enforcement–the police and prison system–“to be drawn increasingly from those whose main preoccupation is a desire for authority, for powers of control and of direction over others.”

The challenge we face now is to begin to think beyond the circus of the current political campaign of Clinton and Trump and to start to ask ourselves bigger questions, such as what kind of culture and society we want to evolve toward. Do we want to continue down the road toward a prison state, fascism and permanent warfare, or is there a better path we can take? We can begin by demanding disinvestment from prisons, the war machine and all the other forces that oppress people. Then we will begin to discover who our friends are, those with whom we share basic values of freedom and human liberation. And then we can begin the major revolution that calls us to transform the soul of this country.