Why Police Violence Will Not End

Let's begin with the obvious. There can be no justification for the murder of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling or any other innocent person, and anyone denying that African-Americans suffer disproportionately from police violence is either deluded or disingenuous. Amongst the deluded and disingenuous are those who carry such reactionary banners as "All Lives Matter" or "Blue Lives Matter." A steady stream of death is not a series of missteps or errors in judgment; it is a willed choice, an approach to policing in action. To acknowledge this is not to tolerate the murder of police officers by sniper fire: protesting the murder of innocents with more murder is never legitimate. Three names of those killed in Dallas have been released as of this writing, and they deserve to be recorded: Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarippa. Outrage about the murder of police officers and outrage about murder committed by police officers are not mutually exclusive: we can, and I think should, feel both.

Why won't the killing stop? Can't we just give cops a few sensitivity seminars, teach them a bit of black history, and have the whole thing go away? To say so is to fundamentally mistake the nature of the problem we face. This is not about the personal racial attitudes of police officers. We know, if we've been watching, that some of the police officers who kill black boys and men are black themselves. The officers charged in the Freddie Gray case are equally split, three black and three white. While this feels like an exception, it also suggests that the racial attitudes of officers cannot entirely explain police violence.

A more compelling explanation runs much deeper, implicates many more of us, and is centered on two facts. Fact one: we live in a deeply segregated country. Evidence suggests that our cities are more segregated now than they were half a century ago. Fact two: we live in a country where explicit policies of segregation are illegal. So how does our system of segregation perpetuate itself? The ways are legion, but especially relevant to this discussion are interactions with authorities that take place on the margins of the law: all the sub-legal, and extra-legal, and quasi-legal zones in which minorities are harassed to enforce the borders that middle-class Americans have been trained to desire and expect. And these are precisely the zones in which policing happens.

So we come to another point that should be obvious: we cannot reasonably expect police to do the dirty work of twenty-first century segregation without also expecting them to commit routine acts of violence against minorities. While they are certainly culpable for their actions, they are also pawns in a game perpetuated by every middle-class person with a racialized view of what constitutes a "desirable" neighborhood with "good" schools and "safe" streets. These terms thinly veil a dirty social bargain, one where law-abiding working-class minorities must live under a cloud of suspicion. We complain about the militarization of the police, but those who subscribe to these views are the ones who give them their marching orders.

The killing will stop when segregation becomes a distant memory rather than a living fact. That means forcing all levels of government to make integration a serious objective. Government certainly made it an objective get us where we are--suburbanization is a direct result of transportation and lending policy, the building of freeways and extension of tax exemptions for developers--and by any conceivable measure government has an obligation to fix its own mess. This is not social engineering, but social therapy. Government-sponsored programs created our segregation problem; and government-sponsored urban planning can solve it by prioritizing the creation mixed-income neighbourhoods. It is only when the fortress mentality afflicting middle-class America is abandoned that we won't need trained murderers at the gates. The more that the bonds of community cut across race lines, the less that policing will take the form of racial exclusion.

Though the episodic violence that has taken place since Ferguson has filled time on networks purporting to carry news, the peaceful efforts of Black Lives Matter must not be lost in the noise. Just as Occupy made broad segments of society think about rising inequality, Black Lives Matter has brought together broad segments of urban society, of all races, to demand an end to the violent legacies of white supremacy. One of its virtues is that it is decentered and multi-polar, a tacit recognition that race problems are often local--even hyper-local: micro-segregations taking place between city blocks, creating boundaries known to locals that police are expected to defend. That means we cannot blame the Dallas shooting on a group of leaders: the movement has no chain of command.

No other protest movement in recent memory has achieved so significant an awakening on the question of race. We must keep that in mind, and allow that achievement to take root and flight, in the coming weeks and months, when Dallas will be used as a pretext to discredit Black Lives Matter as a whole. That will happen in unsubtle ways, as when those who were already filled with racial hatred will find a new excuse for their bigotry. But it will also happen in subtle ways, as when people feel a little less ethical pressure to make change happen the next time that a police officer kills a young black man. We must be vigilant against both.