- Policing and the “War on Black Bodies”
I hope it is not controversial to say that any discussion of policing in the United States must proceed from the acknowledgment that there has never been an ethical and effective system of policing in this country. To suggest otherwise is to argue that the lives of those who have been unjustly denied human, civil, political, and cultural rights as a result of policing do not matter.
To continue to state the obvious, it is only during the very short period between the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and now that the question of ethical policing has been entertained at a national level with any pretense of sincerity. In all the years before this period, policing extended from the legally encoded and broadly embraced preservation of an explicit caste hierarchy. It is only during this recent period that ethical and effective policing even enters the legal imagination as a possibility and confronts the modern United States as a problem.
A colleague recently asked me if I thought that the language of war accurately applied to the current spectacle of policing in the United States.1 He asked this in response to a scholarly presentation that I had just given on a panel about media production in the context of Ferguson and other Black-Lives-Matter-related protests. Even before the many protests that I have attended since August 9, 2014, the analysis of policing as part of a broader “war on black bodies” has been commonly accepted and frequently articulated among politicized Black folk and social justice advocates. [End Page 252] Public institutions have also caught on to this war metaphor: “American Policing: The War on Black Bodies” was the title of a September 2014 panel organized by the New York Public Library at the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture.
Although the interpersonal violence and militarization of policing in the United States is increasingly visible and disturbing, I have worried that using the term “war” as a primary analytical framework lacks precision and sufficient explanatory power. I have wondered if “war” should be reserved to describe the conditions in places such as the Central African Republic, Yemen, or Syria, where the scale and urgency of everyday danger feel qualitatively different. But my mind also flashed back to the feeling that I had upon arriving in Ferguson, Missouri on the evening of November 26, 2014, the night after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown was made.
On the way to protests in front of the police station, my wife and I passed a Target parking lot that looked similar to how one might imagine central command in Iraq. It was completely filled with news tents and vehicles that looked and felt like tanks but were probably bomb-proof 600 MRAP armored personnel carriers. At the edge of the parking lot, both police and National Guard soldiers blocked off the intersection of West Florissant, making it impossible to enter the street by car and intimidating to enter the street on foot. When we approached that intersection soldiers abruptly advanced on our cars and gestured at us, waving large automatic weapons and ordering us to turn around.
After navigating various road blocks and a neighborhood that seemed drenched in a haze of blue and red lights, the piercing sound of sirens, and the rumbling of large military vehicles, we arrived at 222 South Florissant in front of the Ferguson Police Department. Facing the police station, protesters faced off against a long line of officers dressed in the combination of military-style clothing and weaponry that we have come to call “riot gear.” Helicopters flew ominously overhead and a shrill voice from a bullhorn barked out orders for everyone to evacuate the area because, the voice announced, this was no longer a peaceful protest.
Two different kinds of large black armored personnel vehicles passed slowly back and forth in front of the line of Special Units and Tactics (SWAT) officers. Five police officers on top of the vehicle trained their automatic weapons outward towards us, the protesters. Sandbags stood in piles between...