The Vicious Circle
Policing and the Culture of White Male Violence
April 13, 2021
When I see the defiant and derisive face of Derek Chauvin, I see the faces of many of the men and boys I knew growing up. Raised in a white working-class neighborhood in Chicago, I knew many sons of police officers. Those boys were almost always afflicted with a compulsion to prove their own nascent capacity for violence. Virtually every one of those sons of cops were among the kids with the worst behavior problems in my elementary school, on the playground, and on the streets. Anecdotally, I would contend that it was the toxic masculinity of their police officer fathers that left those boys with an anxious obsession to demonstrate that they were tough. It turned them into little thugs.
My former brother-in-law was one such son of a Chicago cop. In his teens and early twenties, he positively sought out every opportunity to get into fights and verify his personal capacity for violence. Sometimes, he was the victim of the violent retaliation of others whom he had antagonized or threatened, turning up at family gatherings with the grotesque injuries incurred from having been jumped and brutally beaten. He would randomly seek out anything that he could construe to be a slight or an insult in order to instigate a fight. Frequently he would leap out of his car and confront other drivers whom he perceived to have challenged him on the road or cut him off in traffic. More than once he tried to yank another driver through the open driver’s-side window of a car once the 2 vehicles had stopped at a red light. Such episodes provided him with an almost ecstatic adrenaline-fueled rush, and he would proudly recount them with glee. In one unforgettable incident, when we stopped at a traffic light, he casually instructed me, “Lean back.” He then reached his arm across the passenger seat and took aim with his .357 Magnum at the driver of the vehicle next to us. The dazzling steel blue pistol was literally just a few inches from my 11-year old face.
My brother-in-law’s greatest goal in life was to become a cop like his dad. In his teens, when my sister first met him, he was also addicted to heroin. Over the ensuing years, his addiction shifted to morphine, then codeine and other opiate painkillers. Eventually, he even pitifully resorted to abusing the prescriptions for his children’s cough syrup. That was long before anyone had come up with the notion of “the opioid epidemic.” Because of his drug problem, my brother-in-law was never able to join the Chicago police force, despite his best efforts. But those inconveniences did not impede him from eventually being employed in one or another small suburban police department. He only had to stop working as a cop when his addiction ultimately led him to inflict increasingly serious injuries on himself in order to access prescriptions for ever more potent painkillers that never sufficed to satisfy his agonizing needs.
When I see the cruel face of Derek Chauvin, I see the faces of those psychically damaged boys and the vicious obsession of men like my sister’s ex-husband to satisfy their insatiable craving for violence. It is well known that a remarkably high proportion of white cops come from families in which police service has been an intergenerational affair. As in Lynda Boose’s analysis of the U.S. imperial-patriarchal cultural politics of an “unbroken patrilineage” that takes the form of “a father to son relay transmitted through war,” so it is also with policing: “a refurbished mythology of manhood being tested … [signifies], quite explicitly, the space in which sons confirm their authority with the fathers.”1Lynda Boose, “Techno-Muscularity and the ‘Boy Eternal’: From the Quagmire to the Gulf.” Pp. 581-616 in Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease, eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 582. In a desperate quest for paternal affection and approval and intergenerational masculine connectivity, those who have been tutored all their lives by the grim examples of police officer fathers (and often, also uncles and grandfathers) not uncommonly seek to emulate and embody that model of male power. More generally, regardless of such patrilineal police heritage, young men who aspire to become police come to be animated by a devout belief that their private will to power can be sanctified and their personal penchant for violence can be purified, if only they become the embodied repositories of the state’s sovereign power. Policing, for them, thereby comes to be idealized as a heroic vocation, and seems to afford them a personal route to glory.
Of course, one need not be the son of a cop to become a police thug. Derek Chauvin’s father was an accountant, for instance. Furthermore, the white boys who grow up to become cops are perverted not only by a toxic culture that glamorizes masculinist violence but also the toxicity of white supremacy and its intrinsic, anxious compulsion to manifest itself in racial belligerence. This is surely somewhat different for some men of color who become police. Undoubtedly, it must be different as well for women — above all, women of color — who join the police. But for the white boys and young men who aspire to be part of the so-called “thin blue line,” policing is inherently about license: the license to be violent and, finally, the license to kill. They can get away with anything, as long as they do it wearing a badge and a blue uniform. Literally, anything. In the Chicago Police Department, for instance, there is a gruesome well-documented history of systematic torture perpetrated by white police against people of color, overwhelmingly Black men.2Andrew S. Baer, Beyond the Usual Beating: The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and Social Movements for Police Accountability in Chicago(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020). Ronald Kitchen (with Thai Jones and Logan McBride), My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge’s Police Torture Ring and Death Row (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books/ Chicago Review Press, 2018). Flint Taylor, The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019). In New York City, police notoriously sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a broom stick and then rammed it into the victim’s mouth so viciously that they knocked out several teeth. Afterward, the main torturer paraded through the police precinct brandishing the bloody, excrement-stained instrument and bragging to his colleagues and his supervising sergeant. Several others were ultimately implicated, either as accomplices to the brutality or as co-conspirators in the cover-up.3Marie Brenner, “Incident in the 70th Precinct.” Vanity Fair (December 1997); https://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/1997/12/louima199712. Sewell Chan, “The Abner Louima Case, 10 Years Later.” The New York Times (August 9, 2007); https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/09/the-abner-louima-case-10-years-later/.
It is indeed the culture of violence and impunity that ensures that all cops are subjected to a more or less explicit and overt coercive and retaliatory demand for complicity and collusion with the abuses perpetrated by their comrades. This is the real indoctrination and practical training to which all police are subjected — regardless of what they may or may not be trained is an acceptable, policy-authorized, “lawful” use of force, and regardless of their initial motivations upon seeking to become police, or any arguable good intentions to “serve and protect.” As legal scholar and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler affirms, chillingly, “The crisis in law and order in the United States stems from police work itself rather than individual cops…. Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do.”4Paul Butler, Chokehold: Policing Black Men (New York: The New Press, 2017).
This culture of violence is not confined to the police or the broader criminal “justice” system that includes prisons and prison guards. It is also the regnant culture of the U.S. military. Some of the torture tactics and techniques exposed in Chicago’s police stations, including crude electrocution devices, were directly traceable to their origins in the conduct of the U.S. military during the Vietnam war. Key perpetrators were veterans of the atrocity-ridden campaign of counterinsurgency against the self-determination aspirations of the Vietnamese people. Likewise, when systemic torture was exposed in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, some of the key perpetrators had previously worked as prison guards in the United States. Notably, the abuses in Abu Ghraib included the rape and sodomization of prisoners with broom sticks and other blunt instruments, as well as the degradation of victims with excrement. A truly vicious cycle. It is no accident, after all, that the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq were justified as “police actions.” In short, this culture of violence entails a circular continuum of policing, prisons, and imperial militarism. If we take seriously this cross-contamination between policing and punishment domestically, and warfare abroad, for which mass slaughter is the ultimate manifestation on a larger scale, we must likewise confront the fact that the license for violence entrusted to agents of the state, at the day-to-day and face-to-face level of mundane practice, always at least potentially has atrocity and torture as its most fulsome expression. And from the pervasive racist denigration of “the enemy” in foreign theaters of U.S. warfare and military occupation, to the preponderate evidence of racist police harassment, abuse, and murder across the United States, to the endemic criminalization of Black and Brown people within the wider culture, white supremacy is inextricable.
How could it be otherwise? The very foundation and continuous formation of the U.S. state and its wider sociopolitical order have been predicated on the militaristic conquest, dispossession, genocidal extermination, and colonization of the indigenous peoples of the North American continent and the violent subjugation and enslavement of African Americans, followed by analogous missions of imperial warfare and colonization perpetrated against Mexicans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, native Hawaiians and Alaskans, among many more. The deep grammar of U.S. militarism is inherently colonial and therefore intrinsically racist, just as policing in the United States has been designed from its inception to maintain “law and order” in a social and political order that has always been fundamentally configured by white supremacy.5See, for example: Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1980). Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); see also Nicholas De Genova, “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, 2006); Nicholas De Genova, “The Stakes of an Anthropology of the United States.” CR: The New Centennial Review 7(2) : 231-77. Both “at home” and “abroad,” the ever restless and expansive scope of U.S. power has made people of color its despised “enemies” and the premier targets of its culture of violence.
When we see the face of Derek Chauvin as he knelt on the neck of George Floyd, we are gazing at the face of evil. It is a banal evil. Banal, because the deadly violence and derisive power to kill with impunity is an institutionalized fact of policing in the United States. Such acts of police abuse of lethal force are terrifyingly normal. On average, 2 or 3 people are shot and killed by police every day in the United States. Every day. Thus, objectively speaking, when we see the face of any police officer, we are always gazing at the face of a potential killer. The traumatizing spectacle of Chauvin and his 3 police accomplices in the callous torture and murder of George Floyd, excruciatingly captured on more than 9 minutes of bystander smartphone video, has become perhaps the most widely circulated and inflammatory example of what has truly been an unrelenting barrage of such video documentation of the ubiquitous fact of police violence and murder. And as we know too well, these police killings inordinately target people of color — disproportionately, Black men. The social formation and political order of white supremacy in the United States entrusts the police with the power and authority to deploy violence — and all too commonly, deadly racist violence — in the service of the state.
An awesome power is vested in the police — the power over life and death — but its exercise is institutionalized, legitimated, protected, and shockingly routinized. In television and film, moreover, it continues to be glamorized and glorified. As the putative enforcers of the law, the police in fact exercise an extraordinary power to use their own discretion in the most desultory manner and decide in the most mundane of situations when, where, and how to deploy violence against those whom they deem a menace against whom “society must be defended.”6Michel Foucault,“Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. (New York: Picador, 2003). As Giorgio Agamben argues,
the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterizes the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else…. If the sovereign, in fact, is the one who marks the point of indistinction between violence and right by proclaiming the state of exception and suspending the validity of the law, the police are always operating within a similar state of exception.7Giorgio Agamben, “Sovereign Police” (1991). Pp. 103-08 in Means without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 103.
In other words, despite the pretension that ordinary policing is about enforcing the law, that discretionary application of the violence of the state’s sovereign power over life and death, in practice, effectively operates outside of the law.
Such a fierce power, so frequently exercised with calamitous impunity in the everyday work of the police, signals a culture of violence that inevitably has repercussions far beyond the immediate duties of those whom it empowers with the authority to use deadly force. When such veritable atrocities as the gratuitous torture and murder of George Floyd are examined in the cruel and unforgiving light of their utter banality, we are compelled to confront a toxic culture of policing that is inseparable from both the toxic culture of white supremacy and the toxic culture of masculine violence.
When we see the smug and contemptuous face of Derek Chauvin as he knelt on the neck of George Floyd, then, we are witness to the banality of evil. It is the colossal evil of state power dissimulating its own pernicious pretension of a sovereignty over human life by vesting its imperious violence in the mundane figure of the police and the accidental and idiosyncratic (and ultimately disposable) personality of the police officer. Driven by the anxious compulsions of his own white male quest for glory through domination, indignant at the thought that anyone — least of all, one such as George Floyd — should ever be anything other than utterly docile and reverent in the face of his state-sanctioned capacity for violence, and defiant in the face of anyone — least of all, one such as 17-year old Darnella Frazier — should ever exude the audacity to train her smartphone video camera upon him as he performed his diminutive sovereign power — Chauvin confidently expected that his lawless violence was immune to scrutiny or reprisal. The vast archive of other such incidents of police murder, and the ensuing frenetic scramble of state power to repeatedly and reflexively legitimate and vindicate such violence as lawful and protected instances of the police enforcing the law and defending the social order against the nefarious forces of criminality and chaos, were ever-present to reassure him of his impunity. The culture of white supremacist masculine violence that undergirds all policing and militarism in the United States likewise could only ever fortify and reinvigorate his proclivities to casually brutalize and kill a Black man in plain view on a public street. The petty tyranny of a thug like Chauvin, however — and indeed, the inexorable fact that any individual police officer is always expendable — is an instantiation of a far more fearsome evil, which constantly maneuvers to inoculate and renew itself. That is the tyranny of state power which enshrouds its cannibalization of the creative and productive powers of human life by exalting its own putative sovereignty over life and death.