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.