Now that there is no denying the rotten racism running through the police department in Ferguson, there’s no question remaining over why riots erupted after black teen Michael Brown was killed by police bullets last summer. We should wonder instead: why didn’t those riots happen sooner?
The report painted a picture of a police department mired in racism, both in practices and in the actual attitudes of officers. Black residents, 67 percent of the suburb's population, have been subjected to a vastly disproportionate number of arrests, citations and traffic stops. Nine out of ten instances of officers using force were against black individuals. All of this driven by an insatiable metabolism to fill city coffers.
This is not unique to Ferguson; the same patterns are woven into the fabric of US policing, from suburb to major city. A landmark class action lawsuit against the NYPD revealed the same issue: racial discrimination undergirded stop-and-frisk practices. Little wonder that the furious protests in Ferguson were swiftly reiterated nationwide; racist police violence was alien to no city.
It's tempting to call this policing gone awry, to argue that law enforcement must be scrubbed clean and returned to its purported intention: to protect and serve. But such reformism, well-intentioned as it might be, is dead wrong. We're looking at something more horrifying than policing done wrong. This is policing done right.
That’s not to suggest that there is some explicit directive passed around police departments to oppress and mistreat black communities. It doesn't need to be explicit. Take the fact that city budgets rely on revenues from police-issued tickets. Traffic stops are the second largest source of revenue for the city of Ferguson. Black motorists comprise 85 percent of the vehicle stops. The harassment by police of black individuals literally keeps America running.
Consider, too, that of America's incarcerated population of 2.3 million, 1 million prisoners are African-American, and the prison industry is one of the fastest growing profit-makers in the country. If you need to ask why poor black communities are consistently targeted by cops seeking easy arrests and stops, then take a glance at American history.
The historic oppression of black lives is inextricably tied to the production of wealth, the maintenance of property, of the white and powerful. It's no hyperbole to call the treatment of black lives in the criminal justice system modern day slavery. New slaves, same principle — violence against black bodies as a source of revenue. Police aren't screwing up when they enforce this, they're doing their job. When protesters chant "who do you protect, who do you serve?" at stern police lines, the question is rhetorical: they protect capital, they serve property.
No single officer has to believe this to perpetuate it; that's the dark magic of entrenched structures and prejudices. It just so happens, as some interdepartmental emails between Ferguson cops revealed, that a very explicit racism drenches police departments, too — it doesn't require an obvious racist to do the work of racism, but it certainly makes it easier.
At the same time the DOJ released the damning review of the Ferguson Police Department, it announced that federal charges would not be brought against Michael Brown's killer, Officer Darren Wilson. It is right to see injustice here, as it was when a Ferguson grand jury failed to indict the cop. But there is no dissonance in the Justice Department slamming the Ferguson PD's racism, and refusing to indict Wilson's act as one of violent racism. This makes total sense: the report affirms that the context is one of racist policing, thus Wilson was indeed doing his job and doing it right.
In response to the DOJ report, a handful of Ferguson cops have been fired and predictable calls for better training and fiercer accountability have been issued. That’s fine. But so long as we frame such chilling racism as a problem of individual bad police, or even bad policing in general, we miss the real battle we're up against. It is the problem encapsulated by another famed protest slogan, "police existence is police brutality." This is not trite anarcho-vitriol. It is to recognize that historically and actively, law enforcement is tasked above all with defending property.
The struggle to end slavery was not a struggle to reform it. And the fight against racist policing can’t be won through reform, especially of the tepid kind that’s being proposed. Policing, as it currently exists, needs to end.
Alternatives for ensuring public safety based on community engagement and shared accountability for each other's safety have long been circulated in radical communities with a historic distrust of police. But while the continued existence of police forces goes unchallenged, the space does not open up to take the very idea of alternatives seriously.
Skeptics take note: It once seemed impossibly radical to argue for the end of slavery, too.