Why I don’t use the term “police brutality”

It’s not that it doesn’t pain me to read the stories and watch the videos. It’s not an unwillingness to accept the degree to which Americans of color are subjected to police violence. It’s definitely not fear of confrontation. It’s semantics.

A video reported on last week at the Daily Kos shows Matthew Ajibade, a Savannah art student arrested on January 1st “after a mental health crisis,” being tortured to death by police officers:

Soon, we see that the Taser is moving closer to his genitals. As the camera gets closer to his genitals, it is deployed. You hear the awful shock of the Taser, followed by the unforgettable screams of Matthew Ajibade. The video then ends – perhaps as the Taser is turned off, but we don’t know. What we do know is that Matthew Ajibade died in his cell, strapped to this restraining chair, soon after being Tasered here. The timestamp on the video states that it is 4:45AM on the morning of January 2nd. Police claimed they found Matthew “unresponsive” in his jail cell at 1:38AM.

Here’s the video, via MSNBC (warning: it is disturbingly graphic):

[iframe width=”635″ height=”500″ src=”http://player.theplatform.com/p/2E2eJC/nbcNewsOffsite?guid=f_taser_video_151012″ scrolling=”no” frameborder=”0″>]

Although the subject of police violence might be a tired topic among the nation’s more apathetic citizens, the degree of savagery in this video is sure to arouse even the most jaded American. No longer able to hide behind the security blanket of “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here,” Americans must confront the fact that what we call police brutality has a more appropriate name: state-sanctioned terror.

The tactics are reminiscent of something you’d see on 24. Or in photos from Abu Ghraib. Strategies normalized by post-9/11 fearmongering and honed during the War on Terror have finally reared their ugly heads on the homefront. Torture is merely the latest military technique to work its way back home. We watched as the federal government provided local police departments with lethal military equipment, and we watched as this equipment was deployed by “warrior cops” against citizens engaged in civil disobedience. We watched as Chicago PD held people in a warehouse compared to a CIA black site, where detainees were kept anonymously, indefinitely, and illegally.

Ferguson, Missouri, by Wikipedia user Loavesofbread.

Ferguson, Missouri, by Wikipedia user Loavesofbread.

And we have watched as our nation’s law enforcement agents, sworn to serve and protect, have engaged in a decades-long campaign of violence against black Americans. This pattern of systematic state-sanctioned violence against a disadvantaged minority group is not unique to the United States. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Nazis used their political position to institute legal discrimination against Jews while their paramilitary arm — the SS — committed acts of terror against these German citizens. Augusto Pinochet, installed as military dictator of Chile in a U.S.-sponsored coup, appropriated land from the Mapuche people and excluded them from civil life. Narendra Modi of India has been accused of abetting violence perpetrated against Muslims in the state of Gujarat while he was its governor.

States throughout history have used discrimination to secure their own power and divide those over whom they rule. By reinforcing the idea that “our boys in blue” are here “to serve and protect,” the state grants its enforcement arm an aura of unimpeachability. The suggestion that law enforcement agencies exist purely to protect the citizenry ignores the degree to which enforcing the law means perpetuating injustices codified in a racist system.

So when people talk about “police brutality,” I can’t help but wonder about their words. Obviously, on a surface level, yes. These are brutal acts committed by police officers. But the inclusion of “police” makes the act seem like it was committed in response to duty’s call. Whether consciously or not, in the minds of certain segments of the population these acts are imbued with the same protected status granted by the state with its propaganda. Furthermore, minorities — including Latino and Native Americans — being executed by the enforcement apparatus of a racist state is no mere “brutality.”

America spent nearly two hundred years engaged in the sale and purchase of human beings from Africa. America grew through expansion into a “frontier” which had been settled for countless years before the arrival of Columbus. America prospered by laying claim to the Western Hemisphere, taking the markets of South America as its own. American policy since the inception of the nation has been characterized by terror against those whose rights were disregarded in the pursuit of power.

As it stands today, our legal system is deliberately structured to protect the perpetrators of these grotesque crimes. As resistance to the American system increases, expect to see more state-sanctioned terror inflicted on those at home.


Raghav Sharma is a writer, filmmaker, and political activist studying at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes on electoral and campaign finance issues, foreign policy, and economic affairs.

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21 Responses to “Why I don’t use the term “police brutality””

  1. mf_roe says:

    The most dangerous aspect of this is the Brutalization of the police. the current state of affairs corrupts any worthy motivations of those who choose to become police officers. They are trained to view ANY non cop as a enemy of the state worthy of the most extreme response possible.

    Talk to any cop on a personnel level and you will discover that almost all of them feel threatened and misunderstood. They really believe the “Thin Blue Line” propaganda that they are the ONLY legitimate force protecting our system. They feel OBLIGATED to do WHATEVER it takes to enforce their will. With the mindset that “they are the last hope ” comes the willingness to behave like a monster.

    Most of them weren’t Monsters when they joined the force but the culture and the reward system insures that huge numbers of them do become self-righteous brutes.

  2. Bill_Perdue says:

    Don’t injure yourself.

  3. Bill_Perdue says:

    Show us a poll.

    Democrats and Republicans are both enemies of working people.

  4. Max_1 says:

    Bill… Bill… Bill… smh.

  5. NotHardly says:

    Raghav Sharma, great article, very well done.

  6. Max_1 says:

    When living in The Land of It’s Not When They Do…
    … It’s never murder when the police murder you.

  7. Max_1 says:

    The officers involved, as far as I am concerned, tortured and murdered a man in their custody…
    … But I wasn’t on the jury.

  8. texcynical says:

    Nope. Republicans are worse. How many of these cops do you think are Democrats, by the way?

  9. Don Chandler says:

    Yeah, some cities have these review boards and they can help but they are also undercut by the system and rendered ineffective. Another problem is the police are represented by a strong lobby which immediately starts to find fault with the victim. It’s not a just situation. It’s a continuation of “police abuse.” So not only are the people killed or harmed, there starts a process which justifies the ‘abuse’ and/or blames the victim for their own death. Sandra Bland was demonized by the people representing the police department in Texas. It was a nasty smear campaign. I’m not sure how it will play out.

  10. BeccaM says:

    As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head down. We’ve had problems of increasing police unaccountability and increasing militarization going back to the 1970s. The ‘War on Drugs’ was a big part of this, as has been the notion that police everywhere need access to military-grade equipment.

    Even as a kid, watching that hit TV show ‘S.W.A.T.’, I remember feeling a little unsettled, seeing police who more closely resembled special ops soldiers than the guys and gals in blue. I’m even more disturbed now when there’s a peaceful protest march, and the swarms of cops are bedecked in armor, heavy weaponry and riot gear. It’s then that the divide between government forces and civilians most closely resembles a military occupation rather than simply keeping the order.

    The Posse Comitatus Act (1878) was supposed to limit the ability of the government to use troops to enforce domestic policies. Well, turning the police into an impromptu army appears to have been the way around this law.

    I think though the country truly completed its transformation after the 11 September 2001 attacks. Arrest without reasonable cause became official policy, as did indefinite detention (aka imprisonment) simply on the government’s say-so. Basically, all of the laws and supposed Constitutional guarantees for civil rights were jettisoned for expediency.

    And, when we found out horrific crimes had been committed, no one was held accountable. Should we then be surprised when federal lawbreaking became state and then local policy as well?

  11. BeccaM says:

    Same here: All over the news (esp. at Fux Noise, but not exclusively — often it’s in mainstream outlets, too), there are senior police leaders and police union leaders angrily denouncing what they claim is a violent war against police officers.

    But the numbers don’t bear that up, not at all. It’s violence against civilians (suspects and not), as well as civilian killings which have steadily been climbing. Meanwhile, I found that chart yesterday showing very clearly that the number of police officer deaths in the line of duty are actually declining. Including this year, 2015, despite the obviously specious claims that the Black Lives Matter movement is resulting in a spike in violence against and murder of cops.

    The numbers just don’t support that position at all. What is happening is there’s a threat of increased accountability. Accountability for crimes committed by the police and what seems clearly to have become a routine practice of filing false reports. The ubiquity of cell phone video seems to be the thread which began unraveling the tapestries of lies.

  12. 2karmanot says:

    There should be civilian police review boards elected by the citizens of the jurisdiction and those boards should have subpoena powers equivalent to a Grand Jury. Further, police employment files should be subject to sunshine laws in cases of death by cop, or death in incarceration and full disclosure in trial juries.

  13. Indigo says:

    I can’t quite decide whether we’re looking at police terrorism or a police war against the public. They seem confused as to who the enemy is, it’s not criminals, it’s the public but only that part of the public they’re ambiguous about. That would be the mostly #notwhitenotcountryclubset.

  14. Bill_Perdue says:

    Federal Democrats condone racist terrorism by cops by refusing to crack down on it. Republicans are just as bad, as I stated.

  15. Don Chandler says:

    I think one way to end this kind of abuse is to have a mandatory conscription, not in the military sense, but in the public sector. In fact, kids in high school should have to spend at least ten hours in a civics setting that includes witnessing prison and jail situations. And after 18, some amount of time should be spent monitoring police with fast review from an oversight organization. There should be no dodging this civic conscription and it doesn’t have to be more than a months time. It would really open some eyes to the abuse we all shamefully ignore. If kids had to see this kind of stuff, things would change fast. We are not a moral land.

  16. KarenJ says:

    Oh…thanks for throwing in that last sentence, like you forgot to suggest “both sides do it”.

    If you bothered to look, most repressive police units from the Federal level and our US Military on down have a heavy KKK or Oathkeepers presence in their ranks. That’s right wing totalitarianism, not “Federal Democrats”.

  17. 2karmanot says:

    State sanctioned terrorism is it in a nutshell. Cops are the enemy avoid them like the plaque and teach your children of color techniques of avoidance and pray that you or them not be shot in the back while resisting arrest.

  18. The_Fixer says:

    This appalling use of torture by the police is maddening. Deliberately aiming a Taser at someone’s genitals is nothing but torture.

    I’ve said this before and I will restate it: I am white and avoid the police like the plague. I won’t even call them if my house is burgled or if I am wronged in some other way. I can only imagine the level of fear that a person of color experiences when forced to interact with the police.

    We’ve seen victims treated as badly as they treat perpetrators, kids killed because they were playing with toy guns, and people beaten simply because they made eye contact with a cop. This has to stop.

    But how? I have no good answers.

  19. Bill_Perdue says:

    American cops enforce systematic racist policies, relying on terrorism and as often as not, murder.

    Federal Democrats have no interest in reining in police terrorism and absolutely refuse to arrest killer cops and brutal cops and prosecute them. Instead, as the death toll rises, they pretend to be concerned with unworkable reforms. Republicans are just as bad.

  20. quax says:

    Rarely have I read such a brutally honest assessment. As a German living in the US during the days of Guantanamo it was easier for me to see the writing on the wall (and hence I moved to Canada), but even most of my Democratic American friends are blinded to this ugly reality. It pains too much to acknowledge it.

  21. Bcre8ve says:

    Well said. And completely true.

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