Because They Can
By Carl Finamore
June 3, 2015
The FBI reports 404 civilians were killed by police in 2011. All were listed as “justifiable homicides.” Under more intense questioning, it was then revealed that figures are not actually kept for “unjustified” police murders and, remarkably, their statistics rely exclusively on incidents self-reported by the cops.
Nonetheless, even with the problematic figures at hand that are surely underestimated, the number of people killed by police stands starkly apart and darkly atop the rest of the world.
The differences are staggering.
For example, in contrast to the FBI’s numbers of 404 killed by police in 2011, Australian police killed six people, police in England and Wales killed two people and German police killed six.
In England, one person was killed by police in 2014 and none in 2013 with only three reported incidents of cops even firing their weapons. In Germany during those years, zero police killings.
These national trends are not flukes.
Looked at locally, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, police killed 26 people during 2010-2014. The southwestern city had, with one percent of England’s population of 52 million, more than six times the number of fatal police shootings.
Why Police Violence?
To get an answer, let’s look at what is the same and what is different between the United States and European countries.
First, let’s dispense with the notion that the top rulers in the States are more violent than their upper-crust cousins across the pond. Absolutely untrue.
The French in Algeria acted like barbarian colonizers, as did the British in Northern Ireland. No better than the U.S. in Vietnam around the same time. More recently in the Middle East, it’s clear both Europe and the U.S. conduct murderous operations in total unison to protect their property and profit interests.
Now, let’s look at some other explanations for the extreme police violence in America.
Some say it results from cops not being screened, not being trained and not being supervised. This argument is extremely weak because it focuses on correcting individual behavior of a few “bad apples”.
In fact, contrariwise, it has been more credibly argued that racial discrimination is deeply entrenched in the institutions of society and in the policies of government.
Others blame militarization of local police departments for the excessive force while still others fault high rates of incarceration in this country which, true enough, represent almost 25 percent of all people imprisoned in the entire world.
Without a doubt, the cumulative evidence definitely shows criminalization of an entire section of the population with particular targeting of Black and Latino youth, especially for minor drug infractions.
However, regardless of the merits of some of the arguments above, I do not believe any adequately explain the blood-stained history of police violence in this country and why our record is so vastly worse than other industrialized countries.
Different Traditions, Consciousness & Organization
Essentially, I argue there is more extreme repression in the U.S. primarily because of our extremely racist and genocidal historical record, because of the high residual level of racial division and because of the low level of political organization of the working class.
The very formation of this country was rooted in genocide against indigenous people and the enslavement of millions of African peoples. Our heralded pioneer expansion westward and into the southwest in the 19th century also involved the very violent forced land expropriation of Mexican residents, some of whom were settled on the lands for centuries.
After the Civil War, extreme cruelty continued to suppress the former slaves and this, as we know, lasted until appalling Jim Crow segregationist laws were torn down through the work of the massive civil rights movement only some 50 years ago.
Such extensive brutality against peoples of color is what truly defines the much-touted “American Exceptionalism” and it has affected and infected the consciousness of the white population to this very day.
According to current polls, a large percentage of whites still disbelieves discrimination against people of color even exists. Worse, one canvass recently showed that most whites believe there is more “anti-white” discrimination than bias against Blacks. Incredible.
It is important to note that the deeply troubling formative experiences of white American settlers, as they explored and conquered, was absent in the more established nation states of Europe.
In effect, the rulers of Europe offshored their violent ways to their colonies where, as I have just argued, horrific vestiges remain deeply encrusted in the backward, racist prejudices of the white population.
By contrast, in Europe during the formative years of 19th and 20th century industrialization, workers organized mass labor, socialist and communist parties that created a strong class identity and an emphasis on collective action.
Consequently, this led to stronger social bonds that ultimately united the population in common pursuits for labor rights, government health care, more vacation time, social security, child care and maternity leave; reforms far superior to anything in the U.S.
Because of the absence of America’s violent traditions that pitted working people against each other, the European working class was better able to unite and more effectively struggle on both social and economic issues which, I believe, also explains the more measured restraint of their rulers against massively popular desires for reform.
Unfortunately, in the last 25 years, this solidarity consciousness has steadily declined and, consequently, has resulted in significant setbacks eroding social programs and the standard of living.
It was during this period that the largely nationally homogenous European white working class was also confronted for the first time by large numbers of immigrants of color. Regrettably, racism against the new arrivals has fractured the once successful and powerful national unity of the working classes.
We can expect more police violence directed at immigrants, I suspect, as the native European working class trends more like the divided working class in America.
As previously mentioned, the U.S. working class has always been separated by race and, therefore, has neither enjoyed the unity necessary to defend its most oppressed sectors nor enjoyed the substantial social gains of the European workers that can only be produced by a united movement.
This is the high price we pay for our ignorance and is a repudiation of the false notion that white workers somehow gain an advantage from their racist “white-skin privilege.”
There are no privileges that accrue from division of the working class except those that are solely advantageous to the bosses.
Disorganized Rebellion Becomes a Riot
When the most oppressed sections of the working class can no longer tolerate degrading social conditions, resistance inevitably flares up.
But, because oppressed communities of color are politically isolated and left to fend for themselves without support from organized labor or from the white majority, their frustration sometimes explodes into disorganized, individual acts of random violence which then makes the community even more vulnerable to police attacks.
This has happened in both the U.S. and Europe.
For example, authorities ruthlessly repressed the 2011 rebellion in London’s Tottenham immigrant neighborhood. Over 3100 arrests were made after a fatal shooting by police of a local resident triggered large protests.
I maintain that Tottenham residents were more endangered and police assault against them more escalated because they were isolated politically and socially from the rest of British society and particularly from the rest of the working class and its organizations.
This partitioning mirrors precisely the situation of people of color in the States.
Without question, the same sharp decline of divided U.S. labor awaits the European working class if their unity is further eroded.
Stand Up & Stand Guard
Do not expect America’s elite to change their stripes and offer a prescription for reducing police violence.
We are the ones who must change – our solidarity, our consciousness and our organization must be strengthened to end the segregation of those most oppressed among us who suffer the severest forms of police repression for rebelling against conditions few would consider livable.
There are vivid examples in our history of how militant labor fought to stay united against policies designed to pick off more vulnerable sections of the working class.
For example, Teamsters in Minneapolis during the 1930s depression patrolled the streets to move evicted poor families with their belongings strewn on the sidewalk back into their homes. Again, very conscious of being divided, the same union actively worked to unite with the unemployed, joining mass picket lines of the demanding more jobs.
Unions on the east coast and the midwest along with the International Longshore union (ILWU) on the west coast during the same period took similar militant solidarity actions in support of victims of racist courtroom frame-ups and physical assaults, all designed to keep the working class united.
With this legacy in mind, ILWU Local 10 members in the 1970s stood 24-hour guard outside the home of a Black family in Concord, Calif. that was being terrorized by Ku Klux Klan cross burnings on their lawn.
Continuing this honorable tradition, the same union conducted a May 1, 2015 shut down of the Port of Oakland in support of “Black Lives Matter.”
And, in my own city, the San Francisco Labor Council recently supported mass picketing of homes hoping to prevent “predatory loan” evictions that targeted homeowners in the city’s besieged Black community.
These are singular acts of political courage that reveal the true heart of labor solidarity. But, they are the exception, not the rule.
Contingents of organized labor should take their example and stand up and stand guard whenever people of color experience repression that otherwise would surely never be tolerated by whites.
In fact, labor in America has made its greatest accomplishments only when the gaping racial divide was breeched such as during the massively successful steel and auto union organizing drives in the 1930s.
Protection and justice for a minority can only be achieved through action by the majority, united by a common sense of fairness under the time-honored emblem of “an injury to one, is an injury to all.”
To do otherwise is to limit us all from making social gains denied us by a power structure contemptuously looking down upon a people divided as they imperially tower over us all.
Carl Finamore is Machinist Local 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org