For a long time now I have been attempting to properly formulate my thoughts about the role police play in our society. The catalyst for my most recent attempt at understanding was an incident which took place not far from where I grew up.
A few nights ago, a group of what I can only describe as well armed and well trained paramilitary soldiers equipped with automatic weapons, Kevlar vests and tazers executed a child on an empty streetcar. Justification for the use of deadly force requires that an officer be in reasonable fear for his or her life. So I’ll paraphrase: a group of grown men and women, sanctioned by our society to exercise a monopoly of the use of organized and premeditated violence, shot a kid dead on an empty streetcar because they were afraid. Is this what I am being asked to believe? It is a lie. Some call it a necessary lie, I however do not. For the purposes of this article, I will call it The Lie.
The whole incident was captured on camera but, in truth, the specifics are not even that important. The kid apparently exposed himself, ordered people off the streetcar and brandished a small knife. By the time police arrived on the scene he was not a threat to anyone but himself. Yet the media keeps saying things like `there are questions that need to answered` or that we should `not rush to judgment`.
A child is dead, and an officer got a paid vacation. What exactly are the mitigating factors that would justify shooting someone nine times on an empty streetcar? What possible context could I be missing? If police are so terrified of a kid on an empty streetcar that they felt the need to execute him, then there are stunning implications to be drawn here. For example: are police capable of dressing themselves or brushing their teeth? Toronto police are not the most professional bunch, even by the comparatively low standards of other urban police departments.
My initial reaction was simply to equate this with another in a long line of incidents that speak to the cowardly nature of police work. Police are scared. They can’t take a punch, they can`t take a beating, they are terrified of getting cut or stabbed, so they escalate to deadly force to spare themselves the messy business of actually doing police work. I really believe this to be true, but it`s not the whole truth.
The fact is the decision to exercise deadly force in increasingly bizarre and illogical circumstances is the natural and logical consequence of what happens when we, as a society, anoint one group of people the ability to exercise a complete monopoly on the use of legitimize violence.
The infallibility of police authority and presumption that they act with good intentions is The Lie that we, as a society sanction. We perpetuate and protect The Lie at all costs. The media and government institutions are complicit but so is the general public. And we perpetuate The Lie because the truth is simply too destabilizing.
Now that many incidents are captured on phone-cameras, some of the justifications have become plain embarrassing. Anthony Bologna pepper spraying college girls at OWS was not an aberration, but the norm. Nonetheless, time and time again, the media has demonstrated that in service to The Lie, they are simply incapable of reporting objective and observable fact. I am not talking about an ideological slant, but instead a practiced, inability to see reality. There is no grand conspiracy here; the apologist for power will protect power without having to be told to do so. They will formulate excuses before the police or government spokespeople even get a chance. They are the protectors of consensus, the guardians of elite opinion and, in my opinion, the ones who do the real damage.
If The Lie is that police are fundamentally flawed but decent people attempting to protect and serve and in most circumstances are justified in their use of force, what is The Truth?
The truth is police do not have good intentions; people who actively seek out the ability to receive remuneration in the form of pay for violence almost never have good intentions. Police do not have good judgment; most people who exist within rigid, paramilitary command structures almost by definition lack the ability to exercise coherent and humane judgment. Police do not react to situations which are outside their control; they actively cultivate and promote the atmosphere that escalates conflicts. Police are not intelligent; anyone who relies on coercion and force to achieve their ends will find little reason to exercise brain power. Lastly, police are not on your side; if you have a mental health problem, are a visible minority, poor, gay, trans, or bi, the police are not your friends.
To summarize, the group of people we entrust with a legitimate monopoly on the use of organized violence do not have good intentions, lack humane judgment, are un-intelligent and not on your side. This is truth that we bury in the increasingly ridiculous justifications for police brutality. And believe me, that is a best case scenario. Being a cop is one of the few outlets for sociopaths to ply their trade with the blessing and sanction of society and for this very reason many gravitate towards the badge. In fact, if many cops were not allowed to be cops, they would be locked in jails or mental institutions.
Most people who live their lives away from the centres and institutions of power within our society understand this. Despite the image projected by media and government, in most communities this is essentially common knowledge. In fact, the only demographic of individuals I’ve ever encountered who view the police positively are educated and affluent, upper class white women. And they tend to talk about the police in the same manner in which they would their gardeners or drivers; as a sort of personal security system designed to protect their property. The irony is these women (and some men) who think highly of police, have an enormous amount of contempt for cops. They basically view them as indentured servants who are paid to risk their lives to protect the integrity of those who consider them completely fucking expendable. Off-duty cops work dual gigs as security for our banks and corporations and everyday men and women in $3,000 business suits walk past them like they do not even exist.
Perhaps one of the reasons we tolerate the lie of police infallibility is because we, as a society, have abdicated our responsibility to protect one another. Perhaps in an industrial-capitalist society notions of solidarity, charity, empathy and welfare cannot co-exist with the dominant narrative that pits everyone in direct competition with one another. Maybe we let the right-wing extremists hijack the notion of civilian protection in ridiculous arguments about guns. Or maybe we just all forgot that those scenes of Occupy Oakland; where police attacked peaceful protesters, and in one case, nearly blinded an army veteran.
Obscured is a more basic truth.
During the months Occupy Oakland was in place, crime dropped by nearly 14%. The suggested reason: in an attempt to destroy and fracture the movement, police were informing newly paroled criminals to go down to the Occupy encampment for free food and shelter. What actually happened is that the Occupiers gave the criminals free food and shelter, and crime went down.
Perhaps, notions of civilian protection should be more associated with giving someone a meal, as opposed to vigilante justice with guns. First Nations communities right here in Canada have had tremendous success dealing with crime (mostly sexually related) through the use of restorative justice. These methods of restorative justice I am proud to say are part of the curriculum of any good social work program, including the one I attended.
I once worked at a community centre drop-in program for Toronto youth. During my time there, we ran a literacy through hip hop program in partnership with other junior high schools in our catchment area. I have absolutely no doubt that these programs prevent more crime in a single year than police officers are capable of in their entire lifetimes.
Here’s my point: in all of our communities we have people living with mental health challenges, drug addictions and systemic poverty. The day we acknowledge that this is our problem and not someone else’s problem or fault, is the day our need for police dramatically decreases. As long as we continue to believe that our actions exist within a vacuum and all of us possess the god-given right to voluntarily disengage from our community and pursue the strange new philosophy that life is a singular pursuit of individualized happiness divorced from all responsibility, we legitimize the need for authority.
In other words, as long as we insist on wielding the tools of power and privilege to individualize systemic oppression ‘crime’ will continue. As silly as it may sounds, the social phenomenon of ‘criminal behaviour’ is not really a problem that can be solved with the tools of law enforcement. Prisons are the logical and natural extension of what happens when the hierarchy and norms of law enforcement are allowed to exist unrestricted. Yet no prison, no laws, no combination of guards or training can eliminate crime or drugs from these institutions as long as the only tools they have are arbitrary punishments and deterrents.
As children, we are all taught to be honest, to share and to be kind. Then we grow up and receive different messages. Within the economic sector, inhumane decisions are justified in the name of profit. Lying becomes standardized, pathological forms of behaviour become the norm and we find ourselves living within a world where notions of kindness and empathy are considered idealistic liabilities. As long as we perpetuate this status quo, we will be dependent on emotionally immature thugs with guns to protect us.
In my ongoing debates about the proper role for police to play in society, many have been quick to remind me that most police are “good people” who are just “trying to do the right thing”. Sure, they are naïve, but good nonetheless. I want to say for the record, this is just plain wrong. Not only is the authority we grant to police officers probably too much authority for any one person to have, but the last people on Earth who should be allowed to become cops, are the ones who rightly believe they are suited for the job and actively seek it out.
The desire to wield authority and the tools of violence over other people is not compatible with doing the right thing. These people, the idealists, are always the ones who are willing to sacrifice half the planet to save the other and operate under the arrogant delusion that is incumbent upon them to even make that decision. It is the people who (under the flag of organized force) ‘just want to help’ that I genuinely fear. In the long and storied history of human violence, war and degradation, it is always these people who do the most damage.
It is within the strange marriage of idealism and legitimized violence that mass graves or concentration camps are produced. If you voluntarily, in a time of peace, pick up a gun and join a militia you are not allowed to feign ignorance or pretend you motives are pure. It is precisely that self-delusion that produces the most dangerous people in the world.
I understand sociopaths and accept their existence. The naked truth is that these people could not operate without the protective cover of those who fight alongside them or the apologists that create the ideological framework that legitimizes them.
After the G20 I got into an argument with a family member of mine who happens to be a highly educated and affluent upper-middle class white woman. She grew up in wealth, attended prestigious schools and eventually became a prosecutor who worked with the Toronto Police. We disagreed over our respective interpretations of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Our disagreement was this: I thought it mattered.
The truth is I am unfairly singling her out because people like her exist everywhere. They exist in government, in mass media and it is a common attitude, or pathology amongst those who spend their days hovering and gravitating around the centres of power. Perhaps they get some sort of vicarious thrill, perhaps they believe siding with authority somehow makes them beneficiaries and a part of the power structure.
I have absolutely no trouble comprehending the motives of the officer who punched me in the face, the officers who told __________ that she imagined the rape she tried to report or the officers who locked up a classmate of mine for calling in a noise complaint because her baby was trying to sleep. We all know these people; those sad, pathetic individuals who feel so small and unimportant, that the only way they can make themselves feel special or like they matter is to exercise petty amounts of authority over others. You will find them in police departments, in high-school teacher’s lounges, at a TTC toll booths, in prison guard locker rooms and, especially, within large, bureaucratic structures that issue passports, welfare or other mundane things. We all know these people.
The people I have more trouble understanding are their apologists. And I hate to say this, but most of the time apologists are left of centre liberals who wield their education and money like a massive shield designed to protect their own privilege. They talk in the language of empathy, pay lip service to ideas of tolerance and inclusiveness, but when the chips are down their loyalties always lie with those in power instead of poor and working people. In my opinion, modern liberals are just conservatives with better public relations.
There is an old saying amongst those of us who learned our politics from the tradition and teachings of Left Anarchism:
“…you can either serve power and privilege or truth and justice but you cannot do both, and the more concessions you make to power, the more you will have to sacrifice in the name of truth and justice.”
To conclude, a couple of nights ago Police officers lit up a child with nine bullets on an empty streetcar.
They murdered a child.
They murdered a child in our name, under our flag, and apparently, to protect us.
I don’t know all the answers and I don’t have some detailed plan for how a utopian society should function or how its institutions would be structured. I just know this isn’t an isolated incident or the result of a bad apple. I also know, with a grim and unsettling certainty, that it will happen again.
The problem of police violence is systemic and could not exist without our explicit sanction and permission. As long as we perpetuate The Lie, we lose the ability to point in self-justified condemnation as we sever one of our own from the heard and offer him up on a platter to sacrifice him to the gods of political calculus and mock outrage for committing the heinous crime of `getting caught` doing what we programmed, encouraged and trained him to do.