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by Mitchell Abidor
THE THUGS ARE LOOSE on the streets of Baltimore and New York, and the papers and the TV news are full of scenes of violence. Unlike the rioters and demonstrators frauds like Geraldo Rivera call “thugs,” these thugs wear uniforms, and they kill. And when they kill, until now they have almost always walked.
The killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore has vastly complicated the explanation for the police killings over the past year. The protests and outrage in 2014 and 2015 have revolved around the clearly racist impulse behind the deaths, the rallying cry being “Black Lives Matter.” But in Gray’s case three of the six accused killers are black, so racism — though not race — can be left out of the equation, at least partially. His initial arrest, unjustified as the prosecutor now says, was carried out by three white cops, who — as white cops are wont to do — hassled and arrested a young black man for doing nothing illegal, doing so because they could. Gray would not now be dead had the arrest not occurred, so the crime of being black was what set the drama in motion. But how can we account for the fact that half the squad that abused Gray and snapped his spine were black?
The answer clearly lies in the nature of our police forces, in the nature of our police officers, in the way we have allowed them to do whatever the hell they want. Unchecked power results in those possessing it abusing it, which they know they can do — or could do — with more or less impunity. Police officers, male or female, black or white, view the communities they work in as hostile territory and the people in them as the enemy. This is made clear by accounts in almost every community that has suffered a police killing. Anyone caught by them is subject to their whims, and had Gray not died of his injuries, who knows how many more would have been roughed up in the paddy wagon. And can we really believe that after the initial outrage that the acts that led to Gray’s death will stop forever in Baltimore? And that they haven’t continued elsewhere?
Racism is the basic illness of our society, the outstanding element of our hypocrisy. Like the ancient Hebrews, we have a goat which we can load with all our sins, and it’s the black community. The priestly caste we set loose on the goat is the police. The comforting illusion is that a black police force would never kill black citizens. That assumes that being black would rule over being a cop: clearly this was not the case in Baltimore, nor was it the case in North Charleston, where the second cop to arrive on the scene in the shooting of a fleeing, unarmed man in the back was also black.
IT WOULD BE NAIVE to think that some blacks haven’t internalized the racism of their greater society. One can postulate that policemen and -women, who view themselves as strivers, see the people they arrest as everything that they’ve tried to escape from, and make them pay for it. This idea is not farfetched: though the charge of Jewish self-hatred is too easily tossed around, there have indeed been Jewish anti-Semites. Why should this not be the case for blacks? And didn’t the great Frantz Fanon write about this syndrome in his classic Black Skin, White Masks in 1952?
In the Eric Garner killing, in the South Carolina murder, in many of the cases of police misconduct at demonstrations against police misconduct, the founding idea of the Black Panther Party received an interesting updating. The Panthers’ full name was The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and they made their reputation riding the streets of Oakland and stopping, rifles loaded, to watch interactions between the police and the black community. This made the NRA a pro-gun control organization for a period (since there was nothing they wanted less than to see angry blacks with guns), but also resulted in the death of many Panthers. The Panther tactic has been updated, and people now follow police stops with their cellphones and film and photograph what occurs. If the images don’t necessarily stop the killings and arrests, they at least make their wrongness visible. And perhaps in sensitizing the public they will put a stop to these abuses and injustices.
But probably not.
Polls continue to show that most white people, who clearly live on a planet where facts have no sway, or who view things from an ostrich hole, refuse to accept that blacks are treated less fairly than whites by the police. Or is it that they see nothing wrong with allowing the police to shoot, club, beat, and kill our collective scapegoat. The indictment of the six cops in Baltimore, of the policeman in North Charleston, show that there just might be limits to what can be gotten away with. But even if there are limits (though can anyone seriously believe that no more young black men will be killed by a cop?) it means abuses within those limits are fine. We have a police force that mirrors our society. And what it reflects is not pretty.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his forthcoming translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His latest book is Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.