The following paper was given on a panel that explored the connections between police crimes and violence in black and Latino communities. I included parts of the paper that I omitted at the event due to time. The event, organized by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, was held on October 20, 2012 at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Also on the panel were Patricia Hill, former Chicago Police Officer and Adjunct Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, and Lawrence Kennon, former Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney.
On the Relation between Police Crimes and Violence in Black and Latino Communities
Let me begin by saying that this is a massive field of inquiry, one that for me personally is an organic scholarly pursuit that I’ve only recently embarked upon in the aftermath of being brutally assaulted by Chicago police officers in February 2010, an experience that continues to change my life, and reshape my intellectual interests in unforeseeable ways.
When we speak about violence in black and Latino communities, we need to speak about the rise of both a highly-aggressive, punitive “police” or “carceral-state,” and the simultaneous economic and political transformations in the United States over the past 40 years. The highly aggressive mode of policing instituted in the US during this period is the concrete, interpersonal form of domination over communities of poor blacks and Latinos, so aggressive that it produces horrific police crimes like the numerous individuals – overwhelmingly from these ethnoracial groups – shot and killed right here in Chicago by police each year.
Police institutions can thus be seen as the Blue Front of both abstract economic forces and real-world political decisions that have decimated these communities over the past 40 years. The series of liberalization reforms instituted during this period, coupled with new job-replacing industrial technologies, have resulted in unsustainable levels of joblessness, making black and Latino men in the American city expendable, an army of surplus bodies, with few prospects in the formal economy.
In the political sphere, the War on Drugs, initiated by President Nixon in the early 1970s and sustained and intensified by successive Republican and Democratic administrations and law enforcement agencies nationwide, has effectively led to the warehousing of these surplus bodies as objects of profit in the booming American carceral system.
Contrary to the rhetoric of less-state intervention in the economy over the past thirty-plus years, we have seen an enormous redistribution of resources from social welfare programs to the carceral-police state, as anthropologist Loïc Wacquant shows. For example, the US in 1980 spent $21 billion on public aid such as food stamps and $7 billion on corrections. In 1996, so in just 16 years time, the spending on corrections in America increased to a whopping $54 billion per year, by then surpassing welfare spending by some $8 billion. To repeat: $7 billion was spent on corrections in 1980, $54 billion in 1996.
The police in the US represents the frontline in this “racialized penalization of poverty,” as Wacquant calls it, with state-sanctioned violence used to subdue these marginalized populations of highly-expendable surplus humanity, a population whose labor is no longer necessary. Instead of creating wealth through labor in the industrial sector, aggressive policing tactics confront this surplus to create economic growth by filling jails and prisons to the profit of everyone from the federal government, through a prison labor corporation which it owns, to the Taser manufacturer. The result has been an absolute explosion of the prison population in the US, from 380,000 in 1975 to over 2 million in 2010. Jails nationwide process 12 million bodies per year.
Using one state as an example, in Pennsylvania for instance, population increased 7 percent from 1970 to 2010, while the prison population exploded by 800% over the same period. This “Police hyperactivism,” according to Wacquant, “is disjoined from trends in crime,” as crime itself is not the cause of the dramatic rise in aggressive policing and incarceration. Indeed, if we hold the crime rate constant, the US penal state is shown to be six times more punitive than it was in 1975.
The working-class in Chicago, as in other rust-belt cities, has suffered from simultaneous deindustrialization and the cutting of the social safety net in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, in 1970, 72% of black men in Chicago, ages 16-64, were employed. By 2010, that level fell to just 48.3%, which says nothing of the difference in quality of jobs – a transfer from industrial jobs to highly-flexible, low-wage service economy jobs. Further, Chicago’s black population has a poverty rate of 32.2%, making Chicago home to the poorest African-American population in any US city. It is no coincidence that these same places of joblessness and let’s say, hopelessness, are precisely the same communities where deadly violence is concentrated, as Steve Bogira recently showed in the Chicago Reader.
The intensification of police aggression in poor communities of color only ripens conditions for violence in these communities. As Tyler Zimmer argues, more aggressive policing only worsens crime and leads to new, egregious instances of police misconduct, police crimes, and civil rights violations. “The CPD itself has an unsavory track record of misconduct and illegal activity in the very communities — overwhelmingly populated by people of color — where the violence is the most acute.”
The constant intensification of police violence against poor black and Latino populations produces excesses of state power and a myriad of extrajudicial police abuses in these communities, with responsible law enforcement agents rarely if ever punished. This impunity amounts to the state-sanctioning of violence, but also the state-sanctioning of criminality, which highlights the hypocrisy and duality in the application of the state’s laws.
I’ll go further to suggest that systemic police violence against these communities (leading to the criminal actions of law enforcement agents) is not an error or in some way excessive, but rather achieves the desired result. It is a psychological tool if you will that is very much within the goals of creating disciplinary subjects through helplessness, insecurity, and fear – the type of feelings that lead poor youth to join gangs for security, which only fuels the cycle toward greater incarceration and criminality.
All of this might itself seem counter-intuitive to the regular Joe. Why would there be a connection between police aggression and violence in poor neighborhoods? Police are there to fight crime and violence, we are told, the way firefighters respond to fires. Yet this perception is extremely narrow and limited. Using more aggressive policing to combat crime that is the result of deep structural conditions is more akin to fighting the heat of global warming with the more widespread use of air conditioners: the irony here of course being that the more widespread use of air conditioners only further contributes to the greenhouses gasses that produce global warming.
But then the question is how this simplistic narrative – that more aggressive, or better police tactics can combat a broad social problem – persists in light of the enormous data showing how aggressive policing destroys communities, is deeply racist and classist in origin, application, and function, and rather than breaking the cycle of violence, forms the very structural core of that violence, thus further contributing to it.
In this way, I think it might be useful to look at the rising public awareness of violence in Chicago neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Englewood, and Washington Park. In the spring of 2012, the news of violence in these neighborhoods hit the Chicago mainstream media with a vigor not seen in recent memory. Why has the issue of violence in these communities suddenly become of interest to the public? I see two different groups with highly divergent interests raising awareness:
1. Concerned citizens and activists seeking to make the violence in black and Latino communities visible to the public in a way similar to the violence of rampage shootings that victimize mostly white Americans. This is an extremely important and noteworthy endeavor, that is, to show that the value of all life (black, brown, white) is the same, and that the effects of violence are just as deep and traumatic no matter the color or class of the person it touches. Beyond this, they ask the public to consider the level of trauma and emotional distress caused by experiencing such forms of violence and insecurity on a day-to-day basis. To sum up, this first position stresses civic equality, the equal value of all life regardless of race, ethnicity, or class.
2. The other major source, and by far that with the most reach, is this awareness co-opted by the police force, the police union, segments of the mass media, and “law and order” politicians who feed on the reproduction of racism and fear. These activists portray the violence in a highly decontextualized manner, or reconfigure crime to be of ethnoracial or individual moral failings, rather than a social problem of poverty. Aggressive policing is thus shown to be the facile method to stem violence. This position further enables the association of these already-marginalized populations with criminality, which results in increased targeting and criminalization of minor deviance. This message is especially useful in shaping public opinion against the diminution of police ranks in a time of significant municipal government austerity.
Without understanding the context and social causes that lead to crime, the easy solution is more aggressive and racially targeted policing of minorities. News reports devoid of context tacitly justify race-based policing without recognizing how race-based policing contributes to cycles of violence, both state violence and violence among poor people.
Naturally, these reports fail to grasp how Draconian policing in the drug war leads to real forms of social stigmatization, diminishes life opportunities, limits basic rights, creates mass joblessness, and leaves individuals with few alternatives to the informal economy. Meanwhile, at the socially general level, targeted arrest of people of color for things like petty drug possession, though drugs are statistically used equally by all populations, recreates the stigma of criminality attached to black and brown skin.
[I should add quickly that this association of blackness and criminality, held so closely in the minds of Americans today, is a really recent historical phenomenon that took off in the 1970s, as Wacquant shows. The racial makeup of the American prison for example, once 70% white and 30% non-white, has over the last four decades reversed to become 70% African-American and Latino, even while the percentage of blacks arrested for murder, rape, robbery and assault has declined over the same period].
Though policing solutions to socially produced phenomena (like labor-replacing technological advancements, inequality, racism, and segregation) are in the best interest of the police as a bureaucratic institution, corporate profiteers in the penal-state apparatus, and the police union, these solutions produce nothing more than cyclical violence and a poverty to prison life-path for millions. In fact, we can say that the aforementioned interests benefit, even profit, from this cycle of violence.
But we should not think that the individuals who create and implement policies are unaware of this larger context. For example, in response to a Chicago Reader report on the racial disparity in pot arrests (the ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession in Chicago is 15 to 1, with convictions at 40 to 1, despite equal use and possession among all residents of Chicago), a spokeswoman for Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy said “Crime and disorder issues emerge from a complicated web of social ills which law enforcement alone cannot correct.”
It is an incredibly honest and accurate statement on the limits of policing solutions to deeper social problems, directly from the police superintendent’s office.
But it only grasps part of the equation. Not only does crime emanate from a complex web of socio-economic issues, but policing solutions to social problems only further concretize the second-class citizen status marked by race and poverty in the United States, and increase the police violence meted out against these already marginalized communities, both nationally and right here in Chicago.