On Monday, July 18, the police shot disability therapist, Charles Kinsey as he attempted to calm a man with autism who had run away from a group home. When the police arrived on the scene, Kinsey laid on the ground with his hands up, in a position of total submission to police authority, to make it clear beyond doubt that he posed no threat to the officers. He explained to the officer, “Sir, there is no need for firearms. I’m unarmed, he’s an autistic guy. He got a toy truck in his hand.” In a video of the incident, which has since gone viral on social media, Kinsey clearly says to the officer, “All he has is a toy truck. A toy truck. I am a behavior therapist at a group home.” The officer shot Kinsey in the leg. Kinsey, still on his back, still with his hands up, still maintaining his calm and respectful demeanor even after being shot asked the officer, “Sir, why did you shoot me?” The officer responded, “I don’t know.”
The cellphone video of that incident was released on the birthday of Aiyana Jones, who was killed by the police at the age of seven. As she lay sleeping on the couch in her apartment, a militarized police officer burst through the door and immediately shot her in the head with an MP-5 submachine gun. Wrong apartment. “Mistakes were made.” “It’s a stressful and dangerous job.” The officer who killed her faced no discipline or accountability of any kind. White supremacist USA was willing to give him the benefit of a doubt that did not exist. Every day another scene like these plays out. Every day the police injure and kill more people. It plays out in the North, the South, the East, Midwest, and West. It happens in blue states and red states, liberal cities and conservative towns. The list of names of people unnecessarily killed by police is longer than the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. With the proliferation of social media, police violence is playing out before nationwide audiences who can no longer deny – though some try – that this violence is systemic, widespread, and constant.
This has led to a crisis of legitimacy for police departments, as a decentralized, eclectic nationwide movement against police violence grows under the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” As police unions have retrenched, doubling their efforts to vilify protestors, and to protect even the worst, most murderous police; as the police continue to murder people daily, and consistently face no accountability for it – indeed, the entire floor of the Republican National Convention cheered enthusiastically for the police who severed an innocent man’s spine – the demands of protestors have shifted from calls for minor reforms, better training, and body cameras to “Disarm, Disband, and Defund” the police. The analysis has shifted from liberal reformist to radical abolitionist. People increasingly see the authority of the police as illegitimate, and police departments as colonial officials and invading, occupying armies. The police have brought this crisis of legitimacy on themselves through their own unaccountable cruelty.
Their first response to this crisis of legitimacy was to stick to the tried and true tactic of sending police union leaders to intimidate politicians into siding with the police, and to talk to media to ensure that the media conform to the police narrative. This tactic has backfired on the police, as seeing right-wing authoritarian extremists like Patrick Lynch and white supremacist biker gang member Bob Kroll (both are police union leaders) defend torturers and murderers while victim-blaming Black people has only bolstered the case that law enforcement, as an institution, is rotten.
The hopelessness that there can be any kind of accountability through the official channels of the system has become so strong that two military veterans engaged in suicidal armed attacks against police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. An Army veteran killed five officers in Dallas (one of whom had neo-Nazi tattoos) before police killed the shooter with a bomb attached to a robot. A Marine veteran who suffered from PTSD killed three officers in Baton Rouge and wounded others. Both men acted alone, completely unconnected to the Black Lives Matter organization, or to any anti-police violence organization. They were tragic acts of desperation that no reasonable people in the movement against police violence celebrate. Here we see the wretched intersections of US militarism, violent masculinity, imperialism, white supremacy, and police violence. Here we see American culture and politics unmasked. Here we see an unjust system sowing seeds of discord and reaping the whirlwind.
More sophisticated police departments, seeing that their most effective weapon – public belief in the legitimacy of police authority – is threatened, have turned to smarter tactics: public relations. They have flooded social media with videos of “nice guy” cops playing basketball with kids, interacting kindly with community members, having a barbecue with Black people, and they have even hosted “hug a cop day” events in which people gather to hug police officers, as the police dance and act goofy. These are obviously staged PR stunts, but they are effective at taking the steam out of the anti-police violence movement. My own social media newsfeeds have changed from people demanding “Disarm, Defund, Disband,” to “Isn’t this great! A Barbecue! We need more of this!”
Solid radical analysis that aims at the roots of the institution of modern policing, strategies to weaken the control police have over marginalized communities are replaced by meaningless liberal “we all just need to come together” nonsense. Whose interests does this heartwarming police propaganda serve? Does it decrease the level of police violence? Does it increase accountability? Does it lessen the power of the police? Does it increase the strength of communities? No, it does not. These barbecues and hug a cop events are not community initiatives, they are police initiatives, they happen on the police’s terms in the interest of protecting, perpetuating, and expanding police power. It is disempowering for those of us who have been victims of police violence to meet with our oppressors on their terms for heartwarming propaganda events.
I understand that much of the enthusiasm for these “improve police-community relations” events is rooted in a desire among well-meaning people for common humanity. The hope is that through these friendly interactions between police and policed, we will come to better understand one another and there will be less violence. As an anarchist however I recognize that the precondition for common humanity is equality. Inequality is structural. It is a question of systems, not individual attitudes. Even the nicest, friendliest cop will brutalize, arrest, and jail me if he is ordered to, and he has the full power of the state upholding him in doing so. Improving colonizer-colonized relations is a strategy that serves to make colonialism function more smoothly. What we need is a strategy of decolonization.
Yesterday in Oakland, Black Lives Matter organizers chained themselves to the doors of the police union headquarters and demanded the city divest from the police department. The police department responded by inviting the protestors to a barbecue. The protestors refused the offer. When asked why they refused, organizer Karissa Lewis answered: “Barbecue’s aren’t going to stop the brutality that black folks are facing. A barbecue is definitely not going to stop this blockade. And as a radical-black farmer from East Oakland — I eat pigs, I don’t eat with them.” Our movements would do well to take Lewis’s attitude as our own. If it isn’t about empowering poor and working-class communities, and weakening the authority of the police and the white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchal system the police function to protect, then who is it for?
Tariq Khan lives in Champaign, Illinois with his partner and their three children.