American Carnage

Police Racism, Riots, and Racial Justice

June 15, 2020

I had said I wasn’t gonna write no more poems like this
I had said I wasn’t gonna write no more words down about people kicking us when we’re down
About racist dogs that attack us and drive us down, drag us down and beat us down
But the dogs are in the street …
The dogs, rabid, foaming with the energy of their brutish ignorance
Stride the city streets like robot gunslingers …

The reality of our city, jungle streets and their gestapos
Has become an attack on home, life, family and philosophy, total …
The motherfucking dogs are in the street

I had said I wasn’t gonna write no more poems like this
But the dogs are in the street
It’s a turnaround world where things are all too quickly turned around …
It was turned around so that those who marched in the streets with bibles and signs of peace became enemies of the state and risks to national security
So that those who questioned the operations of those in authority on the principles of justice, liberty, and equality became the vanguard of a communist attack …

I had said I wasn’t gonna write no more poems like this
I made a mistake

— Gil Scott-Heron, “Jose Campos Torres” (1978)

Always our deepest love is toward those children of ours who turn their backs upon our way of life, for our instincts tell us that those brave ones who struggle against death are the ones who bring new life into the world, even though they die to do so …

— Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices (1941)1Wright, Richard 1941 12 Million Black Voices. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, p. 136

The police murder of George Floyd has become a watershed moment in U.S. history. Captured on video and exposed to the global public in its excruciating entirety, Floyd’s lynching by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, May 25, 2020 has provoked a veritable insurgency of indignant protest that has rocked the United States from coast to coast. Protests and civil unrest have been recorded in more than 2,000 cities and towns across all fifty states, and protests in solidarity have proliferated internationally. Nothing comparable has occurred in the United States since the African American rebellions that erupted in at least 110 cities during the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. In 2020, following the outrage of George Floyd’s torture and death perpetrated by four police officers, mass multi-racial mobilizations against the systemic racism of police harassment, brutality, and murder have effectively sustained a two-week-long “memorial day” for Floyd and all of the countless lives of African American men, women, and children so mercilessly and continuously sacrificed to the repugnant impunity of the police.

Predictably, confronting the mass repudiation of police violence, the vicious response by police forces across the country has been a disgraceful rampage of still more unconstrained police violence. “The dogs are in the street,” Gil Scott-Heron memorably proclaimed, “racist dogs that attack us… and beat us down… like robot gunslingers.” Thus, the righteous protests have inevitably been accompanied by often fierce rioting, which has been only further inflamed by the recalcitrant belligerence of the police. True to his narcissistic authoritarian reflexes, Donald Trump bombastically responded to the U.S. racial crisis with an unabashed and explicit call for the necessity to “dominate” the civil unrest with aggressive repressive force, and he resorted to an (officially illegal) pledge to deploy the military domestically against the U.S. polity (citizens and non-citizens alike). Trump then mobilized a makeshift force of unidentifiable militarized riot police, operating under a concealed chain of command, to ambush peaceful protesters outside the White House with tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets in order to stage a ham-fisted spectacle of dominance, and even deployed combat helicopters to use counter-insurgency tactics to intimidate protesters in Washington, DC. “American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump had proclaimed in his Inaugural address on January 20, 2017, on the occasion of his assumption of the presidency of the United States. After three and a half years of unrelenting carnage inflicted under his reign—from crass corruption and flagrant criminality to astounding governmental incompetence, the cynical sabotage of the rule of law, and brazen abuses of power, culminating in his impeachment, and crowned by the worst COVID-19 epidemic in the world and the ensuing cataclysmic economic depression—Trump’s reactionary urge to appear to be in control of a country plainly out of the control of the police or any other public authorities, convulsed by unrelenting mass protests and riots, only underscores just how much “American carnage” has truly been the shameful signature of his occupation of the U.S. presidency.

Police racism is not exclusively an expression of specifically anti-Black racism but rather the systemic reflex of an all-encompassing regime of the white supremacy that has been the bedrock of U.S. national formation.

The police murder of George Floyd — an unarmed 46-year old African American man, in handcuffs and prone, face-down on the street, with two police officers kneeling on his back and legs and another kneeling on his neck as he pleaded that he could not breathe until he took his final breath — was a catalytic event. Nonetheless, it was quite horrifically “normal.” Indeed, its electrifying power derived precisely from the frightful and finally intolerable normalcy of such routine acts of police disregard, degradation, and wanton cruelty. Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized public awareness and sensitivity to the callous brutality and murderous violence of police toward African Americans, and George Floyd’s killing was merely the most recent spectacle of barbarity in a perverse and incessant succession of analogous acts of police racism.

While these grievous and all-too-often lethal acts of police lawlessness and impunity have been inordinately targeted against Black people in particular, they have always also been similarly directed against other people of color. The first epigraph that opens this essay comes from Gil Scott-Heron’s poem commemorating the police murder of José Campos Torres, a.k.a. Joe Torres (December 20, 1953 – May 5, 1977), a twenty-three-year-old Chicano Vietnam veteran who was ruthlessly beaten to death in 1977 by several Houston police on Cinco de Mayo. Six police officers responded to an incident at a bar in Houston’s Mexican East End neighborhood, arrested Torres for disorderly conduct, and then transported him to a secluded spot known as The Hole next to the Buffalo Bayou on the outskirts of downtown Houston, where they descended into an orgy of sadistic violence, beating him continuously for six hours.

The officers finally took Torres to the city jail, where the Desk Sergeant on duty refused to process him due to the severity of his injuries. The arresting officers were ordered to take him to a hospital that specializes in severe trauma; instead, the brutalizers returned to the Buffalo Bayou and dumped Torres into the water, one saying, “Let’s see if the w*tb*ck can swim.” After three days, his lifeless and tortured body was found floating in the creek. It was May 8, 1977, on Mother’s Day.

Following the discovery of the body, two of the arresting officers were charged and later found guilty of negligent homicide (a misdemeanor), by an all-white jury: they were sentenced to one year of probation and a one dollar fine. Three other officers were fired, but no criminal charges were brought against them. Community outrage at the sentencing was manifested in a protest movement that finally culminated in the Moody Park Riot on Cinco de Mayo, 1978, the one-year anniversary of the murder. A federal review of the case by the U.S. Department of Justice eventually led to three of the police murderers’ federal convictions for violating Torres’ civil rights, for which they served a mere nine months in prison. In this example, as in countless others, we are reminded that police racism is not exclusively an expression of specifically anti-Black racism but rather the systemic reflex of an all-encompassing regime of the white supremacy that has been the bedrock of U.S. national formation2De Genova, Nicholas 2006 “Introduction: Latino and Asian Racial Formations at the Frontiers of U.S. Nationalism.” Pp. 1-20 in Nicholas De Genova, ed. Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2007 “The Stakes of an Anthropology of the United States.” CR: The New Centennial Review 7(2): 231–77..

It is important to underscore that police racism must be understood to be not merely a matter of racist thoughts or feelings among aberrant individual police officers, but rather a material and practical system of state power for which the maintenance and enforcement of a sociopolitical order of white supremacy is a defining mission and vocation. In short, policing in the Unites States is inextricable from the perpetration and perpetuation of racism.

Gruesome examples such Floyd’s and Torres’ murders by police could tragically be multiplied by the tens of thousands, across the full extent of U.S. history. This is what Ralph Ellison famously described as the “changing same” of racism in the United States. Indeed, since the very origins and institutionalization of policing as such in the Americas, particularly in the form of slave patrols in the antebellum U.S. South, the police have always been a central, constitutive, and indispensable apparatus of armed force dedicated to the subjugation of people of color3Wagner, Bryan 2009 Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; cf. Martinez, Monica Muñoz 2018 The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.. In this respect, it is important to underscore that police racism must be understood to be not merely a matter of racist thoughts or feelings among aberrant individual police officers, but rather a material and practical system of state power for which the maintenance and enforcement of a sociopolitical order of white supremacy is a defining mission and vocation. In short, policing in the United States is inextricable from the perpetration and perpetuation of racism.

This is why the police in the most racially segregated ghettos in the United States have long been likened to an occupying army4e.g. Balto, Simon 2019 Occupied Territory: Policing Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. The militarization of policing in the United States escalated dramatically as an effect of the institutionalization of the Homeland Security State following the events of September 11, 2001 and the proclamation of the so-called War on Terror (see Balko 2013; Hall and Coyne 2018; Shrader 2019; Steidley and Ramey 2019; Wood 2014). For an excellent analysis of militarized policing as a more generalized global phenomenon, see Graham (2010). . Writing in the aftermath of the 1964 riot in Harlem (New York) and the 1965 riot in Watts (Los Angeles), and published on the eve of rioting on Chicago’s West Side—all of which were sparked by incidents of racist police abuse—James Baldwin in his essay “A Report from Occupied Territory” (1966) reflected prophetically on the inevitability of riots as an effect of a system of law and law enforcement that routinely culminates for Black Americans in police brutality and killing:

We will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t…. Now, what I have said about Harlem… is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function… and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty. This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.

It is in this respect that most of what have been branded as “riots” have, in fact, been veritable urban insurrections, albeit largely spontaneous insurgencies against the systemic violence of the racial state, embodied and actualized in everyday life through the casual and ubiquitous violence of police racism.

With sage clarity, Baldwin insists that the sole function of the police in African-American communities is their violent subordination, which objectively situates the police as an enemy and a colonizing occupation force, and generates a toxic cycle of resentment and contempt that fuels the outright cruelty of the enforcers of the law. Confronted with the obscenity of law enforcement that repeatedly proves itself to be nothing less than torture and murder, the enraged response of aggrieved racially oppressed communities repeatedly finds itself with no other option than rioting and other forms of defiance toward the law. It is in this respect that most of what have been branded as “riots” have, in fact, been veritable urban insurrections, albeit largely spontaneous insurgencies against the systemic violence of the racial state, embodied and actualized in everyday life through the casual and ubiquitous violence of police racism.

For African-Americans, none of the systemic racist violence of the police can be separated from the enduring legacies of centuries of enslavement. The slavemasters’ ownership of human beings meant an absolute power of life and death over them: torture, rape, mutilation, and murder were intrinsically and integrally built into the system. For the enslaved to rebel against that absolute power over their lives and bodies could mean nothing less than the absolute destruction of that system of power. Consequently, in virtually every slave revolt in American history, the enslaved burnt down the master’s house and slaughtered him, his entire family, and all of his whip-cracking overseers and enforcers. Slave revolts were the ultimate manifestation of the collective will to stake life itself against a way of life, a sociopolitical order, and a system of organized violence, which were nothing less than a protracted lifelong way of death for the enslaved.

The disgraceful fact that the simple proposition that Black Lives Matter remains a matter of controversy and dispute in the United States merely reconfirms that those historic struggles have yet to be resolutely concluded. It is in this respect that Richard Wright5Wright, Richard 1941 12 Million Black Voices. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, p. 136. so eloquently reflected on the heroic self-sacrifice of “those who turn their backs upon our way of life… those brave ones who struggle against death… who bring new life into the world, even though they die to do so.” As Wright plainly intimated, writing in the mid-twentieth century, modern confrontations with the organized violence of the sociopolitical order of white supremacy, including riots, are the inexorable contemporary analogue of the same dynamic that animated slave insurrections throughout the history of slavery.

There has literally never been any progress toward racial justice in the United States without riots. By instigating a political crisis of social control, riots create a state of emergency for the state. Historically, riots that erupted in response to racist police abuse were predominantly confined to the specific racial communities targeted by the particular incidents of police violence. In this respect, the Los Angeles rebellion following the acquittal of the police brutalizers of Rodney King in 1992 marked a major turning point, as the massive explosion of civil unrest by African Americans was amplified by the extensive participation of Latinos in the rioting. In 2020, the George Floyd insurgency has involved an utterly unprecedented multi-racial mobilization, remarkably vast in scale and extent, in emphatic support of the central themes and motifs of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The large-scale participation of whites in support of the George Floyd protests, while truly inspiring and promising, is inevitably a complex and contradictory phenomenon. It has raised important and significant debates about leadership, autonomy, and political diversity within the protest movement, for instance. It has also unfortunately provided inadvertent cover for the devious infiltration of some of the protests by white supremacist militants seeking to cynically exacerbate the ferocity of the rioting in order to provoke still more intense repressive violence by police and National Guard troops against the protests, in a bid to accelerate the advent of their desired fascistic goal of a cataclysmic race war.

Yet, none of these contradictory features of the George Floyd uprising can detract from the breathtaking upheaval of genuine protest against the unrelenting anguish and agony of police racism and its deadly violence for Black Americans and other people of color. More fundamentally, the George Floyd protests have inspired a far-reaching and searching confrontation among people racialized as white with the moral and political necessity to interrogate how whiteness itself has been invented and constantly reinvigorated as a strategy and technology for incarcerating them within the treacherous seductions of the sociopolitical order of white supremacy6See (Baldwin 1984; Du Bois 1920; Editors of Ebony 1966; Harris 1993; Morrison 1992; Roediger 1998; Wright 1957.. For those of us racialized as white, it is now becoming more clear than ever that we must embrace an understanding of our “race” as anti-white as we commit ourselves to the project of an unapologetic renunciation and unwavering demolition of whiteness itself in the larger struggle to subvert and dismantle white supremacy.

The movement for racial justice that has arisen in response to the murder of George Floyd has been so devoted, resilient, and simply enormous that it is indeed the police who have resorted repeatedly to rioting in panicked, desperate, and fervent convulsions of violence, dedicated to restoring order for a sociopolitical system that has been overwhelmed and outflanked. The righteous rage of a broad coalescence of anti-racist protests is rapidly beginning to formulate new demands and press new questions about re-imagining and re-making the elementary forms of organization of U.S. sociopolitical life.

Furthermore, this moment confronts us with the bitter fact that U.S. nationalism itself, from its inception, has always been a racial formation of white supremacy72006 “Introduction: Latino and Asian Racial Formations at the Frontiers of U.S. Nationalism.” Pp. 1-20 in Nicholas De Genova, ed. Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2007 “The Stakes of an Anthropology of the United States.” CR: The New Centennial Review 7(2): 231–77.. But these aspirations for racial justice and social and political transformation would have none of the ominous gravity and poignant force that they are currently able to marshal were it not for the ferocity of the rioting that has answered the social and political American carnage of our era82020 “‘Everything Is Permitted’: Trump, White Supremacy, Fascism.” American Anthropologist 122(1). Commentary, online supplement to Special Section on “The Anthropology of White Supremacy.”http://www.americananthropologist.org/2020/03/23/everything-is-permitted-trump-white-supremacy-fascism/ with monumental acts of physical carnage, and which has thereby sent an earthquake of deeply unsettling shocks and enduring tremors throughout the U.S. racial state.

Baldwin, James
1966 “A Report from Occupied Territory.” The Nation (July 11, 1966); https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/report-occupied-territory/

1984 “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies.” Pp. 177–80 in Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, ed. David R. Roediger. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Balko, Radley
2013 Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Public Affairs.

Balto, Simon
2019 Occupied Territory: Policing Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

De Genova, Nicholas

2006 “Introduction: Latino and Asian Racial Formations at the Frontiers of U.S. Nationalism.” Pp. 1-20 in Nicholas De Genova, ed. Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

2007 “The Stakes of an Anthropology of the United States.” CR: The New Centennial Review 7(2): 231–77.

2020 “‘Everything Is Permitted’: Trump, White Supremacy, Fascism.” American Anthropologist 122(1). Commentary, online supplement to Special Section on “The Anthropology of White Supremacy.” http://www.americananthropologist.org/2020/03/23/everything-is-permitted-trump-white-supremacy-fascism/

Du Bois, W. E. B.

1920. “The Souls of White Folk.” Pp. 29–52 in Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil. New York: AMS Press, 1971.

Editors of Ebony

1966 The White Problem in America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing.

Graham, Stephen
2010 Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. New York: Verso.

Hall, Abigail R. and Christopher Coyne
2018 Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Harris, Cheryl
1993 “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 106(8): 1707-91.

Martinez, Monica Muñoz
2018 The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morrison, Toni
1992 Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Roediger, David R., ed.
1998 Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York: Schocken Books.

Schrader, Stuart
2019 Badges Without Borders: How Global Insurgency Transformed American Policing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steidley, Trent and David M. Ramey
2019 “Police Militarization in the United States.” Sociology Compass 13(4)

Wagner, Bryan
2009 Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, Lesley J.
2014 Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing. New York: Pluto Press.

Wright, Richard
1941 12 Million Black Voices. New York: Thunder’s Mouth.

1957 White Man, Listen! Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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