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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