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Friday, 15 August 2014 05:38

Police as Occupiers and Agents of Violence: Reflections on the Death of Mike Brown

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mbrownmemorialSigns left after the National Moment of Silence vigil in Chicago on August 14, 2013, commemorate the victims of police killings. (Photo: Joe Macaré)

It is not uncommon for young people of color to be shot by police officers for little other reason than walking down a public sidewalk or street and not being responsive quickly enough when they are told to stop – and the incidents are usually only reported locally. 

But the shooting of Mike Brown took place in Ferugson, Missouri, where there was a perfect storm of combustibles – a majority white police force in a majority black town, a young man with no weapon gunned down by a police officer, follow-up protests in which the racist police force acted as if it was conducting a military campaign, the failure of the police department to disclose public information (including the name of the officer who killed Brown until today), and the ongoing treatment of the black residents of Ferguson as an "enemy" to be abused and arrested. There are even more factors that made Ferguson ignite nationally when other shootings of young male people of color by police have gotten little attention. 

For many older people in the US, the reports and videos of Ferguson evoke anguishing memories of the brutal role of police forces in trying to suppress the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And it's clear that when it comes to police, racist practices are often bound up with political repression. Police powers are still frequently used as a means of such repression - now carried out with advanced military equipment donated or purchased from the Pentagon - as well as occupation of poor areas in cites, particularly large swaths of neighborhoods in which people of color reside who have limited economic means.

Much of the difference in how police treat communities is related to skin color and economic status. If a person lives in a wealthy village, the police tend to be deferential, with their major duties being investigating burglaries and reporting stolen bikes, along with handing out traffic tickets.  If you live in an area that is blighted and has little if any political clout, the police are there as, in essence, an occupying army to ensure that there is not an uprising - and to harass and arrest young people of color and the poor in order to feed the prison system in the US.

In short, the police are not in these communities - as many law enforcement cars have emblazoned on their sides - "To Serve." They are in these communities, in general, as mobile prison guards. They are in these economically abandoned neighborhoods to ensure there is not a revolt on behalf of obtaining dignified lives and jobs; to ensure the perpetuation of "gangs" as being the excuse for violence that is primarily economic and racist at its origin; and to perpetuate the current system of mass incarceration.

The SWAT team, Pentagon-supplied police force today has evolved into a militia to protect the elite status quo in many urban areas, and in cities such as Ferguson where poor minorities are in the majority - and the police force is overwhelmingly white.

Their goal, in many cases, is to ensure that no large First Amendment challenge to the current social order arises. (Think of the way in which police dealt with the Occupy Movement, which posed a danger to those in Washington, DC, and the moneyed - and political - elite around the nation.) Their goal is also to ensure that economic discontent in communities of color and elsewhere does not turn into an uprising.

We mourn the loss of Mike Brown - and we mourn the lack of a society where the police in every town and city serve all communities and assist in the fostering of democracy and not its suppression.

Our police forces are militarized, as if they were fighting in Iraq - and that makes it all the more dangerous for civilians who are not members of the ruling class in the United States.

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