The problem is the barrel

January 6, 2015

The job of police is to be the first line of defense for a massively unjust status quo--that's the main reason individual cops act in unjust ways, writes Marlene Martin.

"A FEW bad apples." That's what gets tossed around in many discussions about police brutality. It's not that all police are bad, just a few of them.

But is it true? Is police violence just a matter of a few bad apples? Because if that's the case, it stands to reason that we could weed out the bad ones, the out-of-control crazies. The government could require intensive retraining to make police understand that they are supposed to "serve and protect" the public--all the public. We could come up with checks and balances, so any cop who did step out of line would be punished.

But it isn't just the case of a few bad apples that need to be picked out of the barrel. The whole barrel is the problem.

The "few bad apples" argument falls short because it misunderstands the role of the police in society. What we are taught to believe about the police is very different from what their job actually is.

The police came into being as a social institution to control crowds and to keep dissent at bay, not to catch the bad guys and lock them up. That explains the function the cops play today. They are an arm of the state that answers to the political elite, who themselves answer to the business elite.

San Francisco police surround a woman being placed under arrest
San Francisco police surround a woman being placed under arrest (Thomas Hawk)

What the police do and how they conduct themselves is not something that the general public is allowed to have any power over. Who decided that the best way to fight crime is to constantly patrol the poorest, most segregated urban areas, arresting nonviolent violators of drug laws--overwhelmingly people of color--rather than station officers to sit outside corporate boardrooms and arrest the corporate criminals? We know that tens of trillions of dollars were stolen from American taxpayers during the 2008 Wall Street crisis--yes, stolen--yet none of these criminals go to prison.

The state under capitalism--what we commonly refer to as the government, at all levels, both its elected and non-elected parts--isn't neutral. It plays favorites. Those in charge of the state want it to appear neutral, but it is structured to keep one class of people in power and to maintain the status quo.

In general, laws are designed to help keep things the way they are--to protect the wealth and power of those at the top. Those laws need to be enforced, and so it's necessary to have enforcers, which is the role police play on the ground, in local communities.

THE U.S. is the most unequal society in the industrialized world. It is no coincidence that America locks up a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the entire world.

When there is a low level of social struggle to challenge the status quo, the system can carry on with these incredible inequalities--where a few people "earn" thousands of dollars an hour doing "jobs" that are little more than gambling on the stock market, while millions of people can't get more than the minimum wage, still set at $7.25 an hour at the federal level.

What happens when movements start to pick up and more people get organized to resist? To question the authority of the state, and why things are so unequal? In a society like the U.S., some protest is tolerated, but only to a certain point. And when that point is passed, you will see the police step up to be more robust in cracking down on protests.

The Occupy Wall Street movement was very much nonviolent and dedicated to sending a legitimate message that a majority of people in the U.S. sympathized with. But the decision to crack down on Occupy and push demonstrators out of their encampments wasn't a majority vote. It was made by the people in charge of the local, state and federal governments. And the police were the enforcers of that decision.

When the order came to crack down, the individual police didn't get a say-so in the decision, and they couldn't opt out of carrying out an order, even if they didn't agree with it. Some cops acted sadistically in carrying out their orders--for example, spraying pepper spray directly in the faces of protesters--and others didn't, but no cop could not choose not to use pepper spray or otherwise inflict violence on demonstrators once the order came to crack down.

Some people have relatives or acquaintances who are police officers, and their experience of what these individuals are like in a personal setting is different from what demonstrators face on a picket line or what people of color face in a poor neighborhood on a daily basis.

Plus, there are people who want to become police officers because they want to help people--because they want to stop violence and crime. They truly believe that the job of police is to "serve and protect."

But anyone who truly wants to help people or stop violence should not become a cop. What they are required to do to enforce the law and maintain the status quo requires that they go against any positive ideals they may have.

I AM for curtailing any powers the police have--whether through civilian police review boards, or taking away their tanks and military equipment, or making cops wear body cameras, or disarming them, or just having fewer of them around. But whatever success we have in achieving that, we have to understand that we are never going to change the nature of cops' mission.

You can decree that people with knives must keep them in a sheath, that the knives can only be used in certain circumstances, that the people must be trained to use knives in ways that cause the least danger to everyone else. But guess what? You can't change the fact that the purpose of a knife is to cut. That's what a knife is designed to do. A knife is never going to be a playground or a school.

We should organize to rein in the police and to redirect the resources that go into law enforcement toward education or jobs--anything else but the cops. But no matter how hard we try, nothing will ever change the unfair, unjust and biased way they operate--because the police are the first line of defense for maintaining a massively unfair, unjust and biased system.

I live in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, which had the highest number of shootings in the city last November. Every night, when I take my dog out to the park, there are several dozen mostly Black and Brown teens and young adults playing kickball. It's freezing cold and dark, but they're out there for hours--and, by the sound of it, having good time.

Spend some money to give them lights, get them portable heaters, hire coaches and trainers, give them access to the park buildings. Devote the city's resources to making their lives more stable, safer and more fulfilling. That would be a far better use of public funds and a much more effective way to reduce homicides and crime than having patrol cars driving through the neighborhood even more often.

Further Reading

From the archives