President Obama announced his decision Monday to limit the flow of military-style weaponry to local police departments via the federal government. While the plan is receiving understandable praise, his comments were all too presidential. Meaning: he talked about optics.
"Law enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations…to minimize the appearance of a military operation," said Obama.
In a short address, no word is extraneous, so let's not let his use of "appearance" slide. The president was clearly referring to scenes from Ferguson and Baltimore that saw warrior cops, guns raised, projecting great clouds of tear gas at unarmed crowds. He's not wrong that optics were critical here: these militarized images set Twitter ablaze. But as I noted at the time, this spoke more to the inexperienced fumbling of the Ferguson police than any Machiavellian attack plan. Military-style without strategy.
It's worth noting that the largest police force in the country, the 40,000-strong NYPD, haven't used tear gas in recent memory; they know how to crack down on dissent without the national outrage inducing optics of smoke and flashbangs. But the NYPD in phalanx is as much an army as any municipal police force dragging out armored vehicles to street protests. It is, in Obama's words, the "appearance of a military operation" that gets minimized when army toys aren't used as threats to protesters; the ferocity remains. And beyond the terrain of protests, the structures of racism and impunity remain, too.
"We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling that it’s an occupying force," noted the president. While his gesture to reform has been welcomed, such a comment is no less than an affront to the work of the Black Lives Matter resistance.
The "feeling" that police are an occupying force is not established primarily by the riot gear visuals. It is evoked by the consistent quota-driven harassment of black and poor communities, the beat cop vertical controls in project housing—the sort that left unarmed Akai Gurley dead by an NYPD bullet for simply walking into a darkened stairwell. In short, the police occupation and denigration of black life is the fact, not the feeling, of an occupying force.
The president's comments, unwittingly or not, echo the words of James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling—the social scientists we can curse for introducing "broken windows" policing to the U.S. with an essay in The Atlantic in 1982. The idea, exuberantly embraced by NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton throughout his career, saw the intensive criminalization of vandalism and petty crime under the pretext that this would foreclose escalations to violent crime. In practicality, it meant treating poor, black communities as always-already criminal. Wilson and Kelling noted that patrolling in broken windows policing was more about creating the feeling of security, rather than actually lowering crime. Obama’s similar focus on the “feeling” of safety around police shows a troubling disregard to the racist and violent recent history of a law enforcement ideology focused on producing affect, rather than addressing underlying problems.
The president's emphasis on militarized policing specifically referenced crowd control—a recognition that those sort of optics can indeed escalate protests into something more riotous. He’s right to point the finger at police violence in these contexts when it is protesters who have been demonized again and again for "turning violent."
But, of course, mitigating the optics of warrior cops does not eliminate the fury undergirding revolt; the violence was already there before the tear gas canisters flew and the tanks rolled up. The violence is the background context in which young black people get shot with impunity. Mike Brown was not killed by a grenade launcher, Darren Wilson had a handgun; it didn't take a BearCat armored vehicle to snap Freddie Gray's spine; Eric Garner was choked to death on a street corner by NYPD officers, no military-grade weaponry needed.
Limiting the flow of military gear to municipal police departments—many already furnished with a surfeit of such gear after over a decade of protracted war hand-me-downs—might at best mitigate the bellicose mindset of contemporary policing. But racist police violence predates the recent history of federal programs bringing military weapons to local cops.
The history of policing in the U.S. is inextricably tied to the control, surveillance, and destruction of black life: the first urban police departments have their roots in slave patrols tasked with capturing escaped slaves. This history has been largely erased by an ideological reframing of cops as those who "protect and serve"—a dangerously unfinished sentence; "protect and serve capital" would be more appropriate, which goes hand in hand with maintenance of white supremacy in this former slave republic.
Jamil Smith pointed out in The New Republic that another aspect of the White House's police reform plan has merited more attention, as well as the focus on militarization. Smith highlights Obama's community-policing plan, which emphasizes data collection on police shootings and citizen encounters; data that will be submitted to the public.
We cannot underestimate the necessity of surveilling cops and ensuring that data is not held behind the thin blue line—it remains a point of absurdity that we do not have collated data on police killings of unarmed individuals, when we can know, say, how many Big Macs get eaten every day. Policing has been data-driven, enabling problematic prefigurative profiling (read: race-based patrolling) for decades; the least that can be done is to apply the same surveillance to the impunity-drenched cops. But it would be basely unempirical to put to faith in transparency equalling accountability, let alone justice.
There was strong, public evidence showing Eric Garner die by police hands (literally) yet no charges were brought against Officer Daniel Pantaleo. And if we believed data were the missing factor, consider the ample statistics we do have of, say, stop-and-frisks in New York: 86 percent of those stopped are black and Latino. We do have the data to show that black male teens are 20 times more likely to get killed by a cop than their white peers. This data, and much more, is necessary, but far from sufficient to end racist police violence.
Still, there is one remark from the president Monday with which I cannot disagree. "We can’t ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face," he said. He meant that it is on all of us to address inequality and racism in this country—which is a platitude dangerously at risk of letting cops off the hook. Taken a different way, though, the comment is correct insofar as we would be foolish to wait for cops to reform themselves, or to ask police to put an end to racism.
As Mychal Denzel Smith forcefully argued in The Nation in favor of police abolition, "What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly? You abolish it."
We need to think about a world in which police are not considered necessary—a world of socio-economic, racial, gender, and political equality; we are far from such a world, but these are ongoing, active sites of struggle, not dreamy utopias. Abolishing police is not unthinkable—it should be unthinkable to entertain armed, uniformed gangs killing unarmed black children with impunity. As unthinkable as slavery, which was also considered a necessary and unending fact of American life and economy, too.
Smith rightly noted that the idea of police as necessary is based in a fear for our safety. "We’re afraid of being attacked on the street, of having our homes shot at, and being left without access to equally violent retribution," he wrote, adding, "But does this mean we want police, or safety and security? Safety and security are ideas, ones that may never be fully achieved, and the police are an institution that have proved themselves capable of only providing the illusion of safety and security to a select few."
Nationwide police reform, going by the president's rhetoric at least, is looking to spread this illusion. It's worse than not good enough.