How They Police vs. What They Police: Reflections on Ferguson, Race, and “the Rule of Law”

First published on ZNet, November 27, 2014.


Throughout its coverage of the drama sparked by the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, US corporate media has framed the basic racial issue at stake as how police carry out their tasks: how they police.  The issue is not minor. How cops do their jobs is a serious matter in an age of ever more militarized, high-tech policing. How those jobs are performed in and around Black communities is a particularly grave question during a time when a Black American (usually a young man) is killed by a (usually white) police officer, security guard or self-appointed vigilante on average once every 28 hours. Just in the last week, white police officers killed a 28 year old Black man (Akai Gurley) in Brooklyn and a 12 year old Black boy (Tamir Rice, shot twice in the chest from close range) in Cleveland.  Numerous other police shootings of Black men and youth have occurred since the Brown killing last August 9th.  The terrible beat goes on.


Still, just as important but missing from the national media coverage and commentary is the fundamental question of what government authorities police in the US. What they police is, among other things, persistent harsh racial segregation and intimately related racial inequality so steep that the median wealth of white US households is 22 times higher than the median wealth of black US households.  The Black joblessness rate remains more than double that of whites – as usual. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that an astonishing 40 percent of the nation’s Black children are growing up beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Roughly 1 in 5 Black and 1 in 7 Hispanic children live in “extreme poverty” – at less than half the poverty measure – compared to just more than 1 in 18 White, non-Hispanic children.

This radical race disparity both reflects and feeds a four decades long campaign of racially disparate hyper-incarceration and criminal marking.  More than 40 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million prisoners are Black. One in three black adult males carries the crippling lifelong stigma (what law Professor Michelle Alexander has famously termed “the New Jim Crow”) of a felony record. Criminal marking is a deadly barrier to employment, housing, education, voting rights and more for the nation’s giant and very disproportionately Black army of “ex-offenders.”  It makes re-integration next to impossible for many, feeding a vicious circle of poverty, black market crime, joblessness, family disintegration, jailing, and recidivism.

Contemporary US policing is about keeping Blacks in their place in more ways than one. The St. Louis region is just the seventh most segregated metropolitan region in the US. It has a residential “segregation indice” of 72.3, meaning that nearly three-fourths of the region’s Blacks would have to move to be geographically distributed exactly like whites. Such extreme residential segregation has little to do with Black choices.  It is a product of class and racial bias in the functioning of real estate markets and home lending and the persistent reluctance of many Caucasians to live in racially mixed communities. It is highly relevant to the nation’s steep racial inequalities because place of dwelling is strongly connected to social and economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives. Housing markets don’t just distribute dwellings, they also distribute education, employment, safety, insurance rates, services, and wealth in the form of home equity; they also determine the level of exposure to crime and drugs, and the peer groups that one’s children experience.” By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a certain restricted number of geographical places. US de facto apartheid reinforce Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. That basic underlying concentration of poverty and its many ills (including crime, addiction, and family fragility) is deeply reinforced by the nation’s four-decade campaign of “racially disparate” (racist) mass imprisonment and felony branding, conducted under the cover of a “war on drugs.”

What the US police police is persistent steep racial apartheid and related harsh racial inequality both reflected and reinforced by racist mass incarceration and felony marking in the neoliberal era.  None of this has changed to any significant degree because a small number of Black Americans have moved into highly visible high places. The cause of justice requires much more than merely improving how separate and unequal is enforced by local gendarmes.

Obama Speaks

“The Rule of Law”

Speaking of technically Black faces in high places, US President Barack Obama did not shed much light on the deeper problems beneath the Ferguson turmoil during the remarks he gave while violence flared after a grand jury exonerated Brown’s killer two nights ago. First and foremost,” Obama said, “we are a nation built on the rule of law.  And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” Dare we mention the United States’ clear origins in genocidal conquest and in Black chattel slavery, which was of course thoroughly legal in the United States until the Civil War (and then significantly reconstructed in all but name in the South)?  The “rule of law” would seem to be a fairly thin moral basis for preaching calm.  The Holocaust was technically legal in Nazi Germany.

As for “the rule of law” today, the former Constitutional Law professor Obama might want to have a look at Matt Taibbi’s latest book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.  Taibbi exposes the great class-race division in real world US law, revealing “the fun-house-mirror worlds of the untouchably wealthy and the criminalized poor.” On one hand, we have the elite financial looters who crashed the national and global economy through selfish and criminal arrogance and deception.  They destroyed jobs and households on a mass scale and went almost completely unpunished. On the other hand, Taibbi journeys into “the front lines of the immigrant dragnet; into the newly punitive welfare system which treats its beneficiaries as thieves; and deep inside the stop-and-frisk world, where standing in front of your own home has become an arrestable offense.”  Here people are punished with abandon, spending years and often lives behind bars for victimless crimes.  They lack the legal resources and official legitimacy that “the 1%” possesses on a giant scale.

“A Tough Job”

“Understand,” Obama said, “our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day.  They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.”

The president forgot to mention that members of the corporate and financial elite routinely escape the slightest measure of accountability. And dare we mention that the police are as involved in protecting private privilege and state power as much as “maintaining public safety”? Cops are often deployed against many of “us” when we seek to protect and advance public safety by challenging the destructive power of the privileged few to do things like ruin livable ecology, bust unions, and crash national and global economies.

No Excuse for Violence

“There’s never an excuse for violence,” Obama told protestors in Ferguson and elsewhere.  It’s hard to know what to make of that statement: has Obama become a pacifist?  If he believes his comment, why does he order bombings and missile, drone, and Special Forces attacks and other deadly military actions across the world on a regular basis? Why did he secretly extend the US war in Afghanistan and why has he launched a new war in Iraq and Syria?

“Enormous Progress in Race Relations”

“We need,” Obama said, “to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation…. there are still problems and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.” True enough. But the only challenges and problems Obama mentioned were the “deep distrust [that] exists between law enforcement and communities of color” and how “the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion [just “feels as if”?!]… Some of this,” Obama added, “is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic, because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates.”

There’s that key distinction again – the one between how they police (in a way that breeds mistrust and protest) and what they police (societal and institutional racism: systemic racial oppression).  Obama said he wants to see change in the former (where he fails, however, to acknowledge that the problem is about active and ongoing racial discrimination, not just “the legacy of racial discrimination”).  He had nothing to say about the latter, though he claimed as usual (on the rare occasions when he explicitly discusses racial matters) that “We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I’ve witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change.”

Have we really made such “enormous progress”? And if one answers no, does that really mean that one denies the country’s capacity for change? For this writer, at least, the answer to both questions is a resounding “no.” The second “no” is also a yes, however. No, the data do not support the claim of enormous racial progress.  Yes, the nation can move forward toward racial equality on the basis of a harsh but honest appreciation of social and historical reality regarding the limits of racial progress.  Indeed, it only on that basis that serious and transformative change can occur.

Postscript: Bring it Down

Whites are supposed to recoil in horror at a video clip that US corporate “mainstream” media has distributed in which Louis Head, Mike Brown’s stepfather reacts to the announcement of the Grand Jury’s non-indictment by saying loudly and angrily “Burn this bitch down! Burn this bitch down!”  I am not horrified at all.  If anything, I’m encouraged. Watching the video, I see Head being straight up human, nothing less and nothing more. Furthermore, I think he’s got a point. The system of savage race and class inequality and abject plutocracy and eco-cide needs to be taken down. Let’s take it down. It won’t always be pretty. For what it’s worth, the 1% and its hydrocarbon-addicted profits system are burning this whole planet down, right now. The sooner we shed calls for “order” and respecting authority (including the so-called “rule of law”) in pursuit of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the real issue to be faced – the radical reconstruction of society itself” – the better humanity’s chances for a decent, just, and democratic future are going to be.

Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, where he recently marched with 200 others in solidarity with Mike Brown and other victims of US racist police violence. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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By | 2014-12-06T15:30:02+00:00 December 6th, 2014|Articles|