Good Cops, Bad Cops, and the State

Police deployed during a civil disobedience action on August 10, 2015 on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri. The ni
Police deployed during a civil disobedience action on August 10, 2015 on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri. The night ended with over 10 arrests for disorderly conduct. St. Louis County declared a state of emergency Monday following a night of unrest in Ferguson, after a teenager was charged with shooting at police officers. The order was issued as an 18-year-old was charged in connection with a shootout in Ferguson August 9th after a day of peaceful protests marking the first anniversary of the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL B. THOMAS (Photo credit should read Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

As a teacher I have wide and deep connections in my community, running in to former students or their parents in the stores, driving the busses, leading non-profits, and of course some police officers. A good teacher friend of mine has a brother who is an Oakland cop - a really good guy. A former student went into the marines and is now a cop in a nearby community. I like both of these young men and believe they went into the field to help their communities.

The general narrative about police violence, the media response to the Black Lives Matter movement, is that most cops are conscientious working class men and women who are trying to help people but a few bad apples mess things up sometimes. It's an attractive argument - a soporific one that lulls us into passivity and silence. But what if it's not true? What if it's the opposite?

Perhaps those who shoot and beat Black bodies, Brown bodies, are doing precisely what the police are supposed to do - indeed what these armed and validated forces beginning with the Indian killers and slave patrollers have done since the beginning. What if the nice guys are the exceptions, the well-intentioned volunteers whose presence is only window dressing, a cover for those carrying out the core function of policing?

Let's examine here the purpose and function of the police. It makes common sense that someone should be around to keep order, to make sure no one gets out of hand and harms others in the community. But the police are not just neutral peacekeepers. They are special bodies of armed men, empowered by the state to use "legitimate violence" in order to uphold the present order. Imagine the beginnings of class society - when efficient production allowed gradations of wealth and privilege to develop. Many people grew the grain but a few piled up the grain in their storage bins, keeping it for themselves. When people got hungry and came to get some of the grain they themselves had grown, someone with the means of violence, weapons, had to stand guard there, make sure they did not take it. Private property required police to protect it.

And when humans were property, then these armed guardians, the patrollers and police, were there to violently enforce their status as property. With the imposition of colonialist relations, the police were the front line of the status quo. And they carried out their duties with the best and most lethal arms obtainable - paid for by the state, the government. That is how it was and how it has been in a continuous flow of relationships through the history of capitalism. These were not bad apples. They were carrying out the central responsibility of the police.

Notice that in the discussions of social dislocation today, there is very little focus on how production should be organized so people have meaningful and life-supporting jobs; very little discussion about housing, food access, sanitation, and health care. All of these elements of poverty, all of these institutions that leave poor communities without a viable economy, are left alone, considered "natural." But the police are always there to keep a lid on it, to stop the peasants from breaking into the grain bins.

When we think of what a decent, what a humane police force would look like, let's look at the core demand of the Black Panther Party. The BPP was painted as dangerously violent, the radical fringe of the Black Power movement, the ultra radical ones. But their core demand was a simple, democratic principle: "Community Control of the Police." Not the dismantling of the police. Not the ending of police. Just community control. How is that so wild? It is wild, it is far out, because a simple democratic demand from a colonized people might just upset the whole social order. We can't have community control, the cops insisted, because then who would ride roughshod over these seething communities? The full force of the state, the murderous COINTELPRO project of the FBI, had to attack the Panthers because community control of police could never be allowed.

The cops who kill, who racially profile, who stop and search, who seize property - they are doing what cops were set up to do. So the protests about police violence are not simply about getting the "bad" cops out and the "good" ones in. These protests, which have existed since the beginning of police forces, which were behind all the past urban uprisings in the US, and are coming back with renewed focus today, are about the fundamental way that state violence is wielded and the demands by communities for a different relationship to resources and to each other.

So let's applaud our friends and the "good men and women" who are trying to be good cops. But remember that state violence is wielded to keep people from taking control of resources they need in order to live. The goal of policing is not just to control a particular person or even a particular rebellion. It is to keep people too frightened to rebel at all. The Black Panther demand for community control of the police, long suppressed, is raising its head again.