Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Military and Police Abuse

The way we think it used to be but never actually was.

There is constant discussion about the fact that "since 9/11" US police forces have been militarized.

Anyone who's been following the problem of police abuse in the United States would likely take issue with the notion that police militarization has only been an issue "since 9/11." In fact, the military model is at the root of modern urban policing, dating back to the 19th century, and the hyper-militarization of American police forces is an outgrowth of the Perpetual War on Drugs which has its roots in Nixon-time.

In other words, militarized police have been with us for a long time. The anomaly is not militarized police, it seems to me, it is the ideal of the "helpful officer in blue" -- something that we read about in children's books but which has only rarely been the reality.

This children's book from Britain's Ladybird series makes the point...

Prior to the modern era, law enforcement was often made the responsibility of the military. This was true in New Mexico during Spanish and the Mexican rule as well as afterwards under Anglo-American occupation.

The military often used extreme measures to enforce its rule in New Mexico, starting with Hernan de Coronado, who is said to have burned 200 rebellious Tiguex Indians at the stake as punishment for their temerity and slaughtered numerous others who tried to escape. That was in 1540.

Coronado said the Indians had declared war on him and his adventurers when they tried to stop the ravage of their fields by Coronado's horses and the rape of their women by Coronado's men.

The attitudes of those in power hasn't changed all that much since then.

Last week, Sam Markwell posted at La Jicarita his exploration of the specifically American tradition of "publicly sanctioned killing" as a way of providing context to the current protests against APD's bloodthirsty behavior. His point is much the same as mine: what's going on is baked in to the culture of policing in New Mexico and in the country at large. It is derived from the military culture that preceded the modern civil police forces, and it is deeply imbued with racist and classist notions about who should be subjected to the full force of the law.

Markwell puts it this way:

People and groups that identify primarily as citizens tend to locate APD’s problem in its supposed deviation from American norms of policing and see the solution as reestablishing a more authentic form of American policing. It is usually claimed that a prior moment of national life, when“good policing” prevailed,was lost during 9/11, World War II, or some other event of dramatic national transformation. This fall from grace, it seems, is always repairable by returning to the origins of the U.S. national project.

The trouble is, that's not the way it is. There was never a golden age of policing in this country, at least not for designated out groups, and there was no fall from grace from some better time.

Markwell continues:

But the claim that the militarization of police and technological surveillance are solely due to post-9/11 invasions into citizen freedoms does not take seriously the decades-long problems with APD, or the historical dynamics of how citizenship has been racially defined and policed in the U.S, and in particular Albuquerque. To put it differently, legal killing did not arrive in Albuquerque with the execution of James Boyd and the 25 killings APD has committed under Mayor Berry’s administration. Killing has been part of operative logics in the various legal regimes that have been enforced since the U.S. occupied the region in the mid-eighteenth century. As David Correia’s work in the Alibi and La Jicarita has emphasized— echoing the work of generations of Native, Chicano, and Black social justice activists—the problem must be situated in a much longer historical trajectory that is shaped by the racial structures and dynamics of U.S. colonization projects.
It isn't just race dynamics, though that's a key component. Class matters almost as much.

In New Mexico:

“The two principal problems which the territorial government faced …were to establish satisfactory relations with the military, and to bring the Indian menace under control.”  [According to UNM professor Thomas Donnelly.] The formation of militia’s to kill “red thieves” and the construction of penitentiaries to imprison “white thieves” reveals the racial logics enshrined in the U.S. law and policing systems. These systems mutually determined how violent forms of policing targeted different populations to establish public order for the new U.S. settler regime.
The ethic of policing in the United States has long followed the same path. The "Indian menace" in New Mexico Territory was no different than the "Indian menace" faced by Anglo colonists from the outset of their efforts in North America. The native population had to be suppressed and dispossessed, and if they resisted -- or were thought to be about to resist -- they had to be exterminated. Black chattel slaves had to be controlled and punished if they resisted their enslavement -- or were thought to be about to resist. The same with Hispanics who became "Americans" with the seizure of the Southwest from Mexico.

It was always the same.

These violent processes are the preconditions for U.S. civic rule, which deems who is a valued member of the national body and who is a killable “threat.” The military is not invading domestic police forces in an unprecedented fashion. They have long been interdependent entities whose boundaries are co-determined in and through the territorial and political contestations that shape them, and the national labor pool that provides them bodies to be set out on violent trajectories. The jurisdiction of the militias and police forces that secured the new settler legal order has been transformed since the beginning of the U.S. occupation in 1848. Essentially, this legal order has been organized around the protection of settler-citizen life and property against perceived threats (the Indian, the criminal, the homeless, the mentally ill).
Who, specifically, is subject to the kinds of violent processes that police and the military engage in changes from time to time, but always the race and class component is paramount. It's often been said that the APD doesn't kill citizens who live in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque. They wouldn't dream of it. They, after all, are the property owners and settler-citizens for whose benefit the police force exists.

Just as the military would not ordinarily attack their own general staff.

Native communities in New Mexico have been critical of this system since its inception, pointing out the inadequacies and injustices of U.S. governance. For instance, at the 1934 Congress of the All Indian Pueblo Council, Pablo Abeita, a representative from Isleta Pueblo who had served a term as a judge, spoke to the ways that colonially and racially produced inequalities structured the U.S. legal system: “I can say, without hesitation, that when it comes to pure meanness, the white people take first prize, the blue ribbon, because when the Indians have killed one, they have killed thousands. When the Indians steal or rob 15 cents the white man has already stolen fifteen million or more. And that is not all; when the Indian is caught doing these things he is either jailed or hanged, and when the white man is caught he is given a good lecture, told to be careful so he won’t be caught the next time.” These asymmetries persist, and the U.S. legal system continues to police people in ways that create violent situations that result in killings or locking the dispossessed in cages.
These days, however, it's not just Anglos doing this to protect themselves from the browner and blacker savages -- although that is a part of it. Racial (and gender) prejudice may have diminished somewhat, and the police forces may be made up of a diverse membership, but their targets haven't changed all that much. They still see their principal function as enabling and enforcing the overlordship of those with status against those without, those with property against those without, those with power against those without.

The military once did that, especially in the West, and replacing their arbitrary authority with the civil authority of police was thought to be progressive. But in many cases, police authority was just as arbitrarily imposed, and police brutality was often worse than that of the military, especially when police combined with militias to enforce rough justice.

The problem with American policing runs deeper than its current fashion for militarization.

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