Aggressive policing is the bulwark of a segregated America. (Photo: Mr. Fish / Truthdig)
The police forces in impoverished urban communities, equipped with military-grade weapons and empowered to harass and kill largely at will, along with mass incarceration, are the principal tools for the social control of the poor. There is little pretense of justice and even less of protection and safety. The corporate state and our oligarchic rulers fear a backlash from those they abandoned in deindustrialized enclaves across the country, what Malcolm X called our “internal colonies.” The daily brutality and terror keep the poor, especially poor people of color, in bondage. On average, more than 1,100 people, or one every eight hours, almost all unarmed, are killed every year by police in the United States. These killings are not accidents. They are not the results of a failed system. The system works exactly as it is designed to work. And until the system of corporate power is destroyed, nothing will change for the poor, or the rest of Americans.
Every police reform going back decades, including due process, Miranda rights and protocols for filing charges, has only resulted in increased police power and resources. Our national conversation on race and crime, which refuses to confront the economic, social and political systems of exploitation and white supremacy, has been a whitewash. The vast pools of the unemployed and underemployed, especially among people of color, are part of the design of predatory corporate capitalism. And so are the institutions, especially the police, the courts, the jails and the prisons, tasked with maintaining social control of those the system has cast aside.
The elites are acutely aware that without police terror and the U.S. prison system, which holds 25% of the world’s prison population, there would be intense social unrest. Outrage over the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York City, Walter Scott in Charleston, S.C., Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Laquan McDonald in Chicago—fanned by video recordings or social media exposure—may have led to the rise of groups such as Black Lives Matter but it has done nothing, and will do nothing, to curb police abuse. More training, body cameras, community policing, the hiring of more minority members as police officers, a better probation service, equitable fines and special units to investigate police abuse are public relations gimmicks. No one in power has any intention of loosening the vise. Authorities are too afraid of what might happen.
The lack of work in the legitimate economy and the bottomless need for governmental revenue have turned policing into a sustained war on the underclass.
Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, the loss of industrial, unionized jobs with sustainable incomes, and the collapse of public institutions have decimated city and county budgets. Police departments are used to make up lost revenue through the constant imposition of fines on the poor, often for manufactured crimes such as blocking pedestrian traffic (which means standing on a sidewalk), drinking from an open container or selling tax-free cigarettes. Arrests and consequent fines for such violations are called “quality of life” actions. Poverty has forced many, especially the young, to derive an income from the illegal economy. The lack of work in the legitimate economy and the bottomless need for governmental revenue have turned policing into a sustained war on the underclass. It was in this war that Garner, attempting to provide for his family by selling tax-free cigarettes, became a repeated target of police harassment and was eventually choked to death by police officers on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island.
Matt Taibbi’s book “I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street” uses the killing of Garner to expose the architecture of state repression. None of this repression and abuse, as Taibbi illustrates, is accidental, and none of it will be fixed until the social, political and economic injustices perpetrated upon the poor by corporate power are reversed. [Click here to see Hedges interview Taibbi.]
“Eric Garner was murdered by history,” Taibbi writes. “The motive was the secret sin of a divided society, a country frozen in time for more than fifty years, stopped one crucial step short of reconciliation and determined to stay there.”
The war on poor people of color has been a bipartisan project. No one was executed in the United States between 1968 and 1976, but drastic changes in laws occurred in the 1990s. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, Democrats and Republicans passed a series of “law and order” bills that saw the number of crimes punishable by death leap to 66 in 1994. In 1974, there had been only one such crime identified in federal law.
The two parties, in the words of Naomi Murakawa, engaged in “a death penalty bidding war.” Then-Sen. Joe Biden was one of the leading proponents of expanding the death penalty. Biden boasted that he had “added back to the Federal statutes over 50 death penalties.” The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, pushed through by Clinton and Biden, provided funding for tens of thousands of community police officers and drug courts. It banned some assault weapons. It mandated life sentences for anyone convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including for drug crimes. The mandated life sentences were known as three-strikes provisions.
The population in state and federal prisons during the Clinton administration rose by 673,000 inmates—235,000 more than during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The police became omnipotent on the streets of poor communities. The courts became a conveyor belt transporting the poor into the nation’s jails and prisons.
Taibbi writes at the opening of his book of an unprovoked police assault in 2014 on Ibrahim Annan, the son of two immigrants from Africa, while he was seated in his car in Staten Island. Annan, in his late 30s, was beaten mercilessly on his face and head by police with what is believed to have been a telescoping metal baton. His left leg was broken in three places. A year later he would still be walking with a cane. As is typical in police abuse cases, a number of charges were filed against him: menacing; criminal possession of marijuana in the fifth degree; obstructing government administration; unlawful possession of marijuana; assault in the second degree, and assault in the third degree, among others. Taibbi writes:
The long list of charges slapped on Annan were part of an elaborate game police and prosecutors often play with people caught up in “problematic” arrests. A black man with a shattered leg has a virtually automatic argument for certain kinds of federal civil rights lawsuits. But those suits are harder to win when the arrest results in a conviction. So, when police beat someone badly enough, the city’s first line of defense is often to go on the offense and file a long list of charges, hoping one will stick. Civil lawyers meanwhile will often try to wait until the criminal charges are beaten before they file suit.
It’s a leverage game. If the beating is on the severe side, the victim has the power to take the city for a decent sum of money. But that’s just money, and it comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. The state, meanwhile, has the power to make the losses in this particular poker game very personal. It can put the loser in jail and on the way there can take up years of his or her life in court appearances. As Annan would find out, time is the state’s ultimate trump card.
Victims of such violence are uniformly vilified to a public that has a predisposition to fear people targeted by police. And so are those who bear witness, such as Ramsey Orta, who used his phone to video-record the killing of Garner.
“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness,” Taibbi writes. “Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”
Success in policing is not measured by combating or investigating crime but in generating arrests and handing out summonses, turning the work of police departments into what Taibbi calls an “industrial production scheme.” At the same time, there is an imperative to suppress as many reports of felonies as possible to produce favorable crime statistics. This creates a situation where, as Taibbi notes, police are “discouraged from reporting real crime in the community, which [has] the effect of letting people know that police weren’t interested in committing resources to their actual needs.”
Police are empowered to stop anyone for a long list of reasons, including “inappropriate attire” and “suspicious bulge.” This provides legal cover for the random stops and searches carried out by police, especially against boys and men of color. Garner was harassed in this way throughout much of his life.
“Garner was harmless, but he was also a massive, conspicuous, slovenly dressed black man standing on a city block during work hours,” Taibbi writes. “People like him would become the focus of a law enforcement revolution that by the late 2000s had become intellectual chic across America with a powerfully evocative name: Broken Windows.”
At its core, the broken-windows policy—the idea that arrests for minor violations prevent major violations—was warped by what Taibbi calls a “chilling syllogistic construct: New Yorkers who are afraid of crime are already victims. Many New Yorkers are scared of black people. Therefore, being black is a crime.”
It is under this construct, as Taibbi writes, that “90 to 95 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses in New York in the nineties were black and Hispanic, despite studies showing that 72 percent of all illegal drug users in the city were white.”
The random stopping and searching of poor people of color became known as stop and frisk, a bulwark of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York. The city government argued that it was not engaging in racial profiling. It stopped poor black and brown people, it said, because they were statistically more likely to be criminals. In 2011 and 2012, Taibbi writes, “blacks and Hispanics represented 87 percent of all the people stopped. The city of New York justified these stops by stating that ‘approximately 83 percent of all known crime suspects and approximately 90 percent of all violent crime suspects were Black and Hispanic.’ ”
It is a startling admission by the city, but one that explains the war on the poor. There was, Taibbi writes, “a single, blanket justification that covered ‘reasonable suspicion’ for at least 80 percent of those searches: they were black or Hispanic residents of high-crime neighborhoods.”
The police targeting of black people is part of a long continuum in American history. It has its origins in the post-Civil War era’s Black Codes, which prohibited blacks from owning weapons, restricted their property rights, forbade them to assemble in groups and imposed severe penalties on them for minor or meaningless crimes. “No matter what the time period, police from the Civil War through the later Jim Crow period always had a series of highly flexible laws ready if they felt the need to arrest any black person uncooperative enough not to have committed an actual crime,” Taibbi writes.
Ghettos and crime-ridden neighborhoods, our “racial archipelagoes,” he writes, were “artificially created by a series of criminal real estate scams.” Real estate companies in the 1960s used scare campaigns to drive out white residents. They brought in “a new set of homeowners, often minorities, and often with bad credit and shaky job profiles. They bribed officials in the FHA to approve mortgages for anyone and everyone. Appraisals would be inflated. Loans would be approved for repairs, but repairs would never be done.”
The typical target homeowner in the con was a black family moving to New York to escape racism in the South. The family would be shown a house in a place like East New York that in reality was only worth about $15,000. But the appraisal would be faked and a loan would be approved for $17,000.
The family would move in and instantly find themselves in a house worth $2,000 less than its purchase price, and maybe with faulty toilets, lighting, heat, and (ironically) broken windows besides. Meanwhile, the government-backed loan created by a lender like Eastern Service by then had been sold off to some sucker on the secondary market: a savings bank, a pension fund, or perhaps to Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage corporation.
Before long, the family would default and be foreclosed upon. Investors would swoop in and buy the property at a distressed price one more time. Next, the one-family home would be converted into a three- or four-family rental property, which would of course quickly fall into even greater disrepair.
This process created ghettos almost instantly. Racial blockbusting is how East New York went from 90 percent white in 1960 to 80 percent black and Hispanic in 1966.
Once poor people of color were quarantined in these ghettos it was almost impossible for them to get out.
Aggressive policing is the bulwark of a segregated America. The police patrol the borders between our urban wastelands and affluent white neighborhoods. This policing, Taibbi writes, “maintains the illusion of integration by allowing police officers to take the fall for policies driven by white taxpayers on the other side of the blue wall.”
“Follow almost any of these police brutality cases to their logical conclusion and you will eventually work your way back to a monstrous truth,” Taibbi writes. “Most of this country is invested in perpetuating the nervous cease-fire of de facto segregation, with its ‘garrison state’ of occupied ghettos that are carefully kept out of sight and mind.”
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
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