Black Lives Matter and the definition of terrorism

Terrorism — which by its very definition is violence in the pursuit of political goals — is at the core of American policy both foreign and domestic.

U.S. covert operations in Guatemala, Cuba, Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, Syria and dozens of other sovereign nations have earned America the label of “world’s leading terrorist state” from Noam Chomsky. The United States itself would not exist without the eradication of the native population through both organized military violence and spontaneous attacks by European settlers. It is only through an arbitrary distinction between warfare and terrorism that the government is able to justify its own crimes as historical necessity in the eyes of its population.

Central to this artificial construction is a massive propaganda campaign venerating the armed enforcers of the state. “Support our troops” becomes a slogan for illegal aggression, allowing for the condemnation of anti-war activists as ungrateful and unpatriotic. “Serve and protect” is used to shame those questioning the absolute power of the police over life and death, despite a 2005 Supreme Court ruling absolving law enforcement of the obligation to protect civilians. This jingoistic demand for absolute respect disguises the true nature of these occupations: Soldiers kill for elite profit and cops maintain the domestic order, a domestic order which necessitates the repression of marginalized classes.

Just as the slave patrols of the antebellum South made America a global economic leader, so too does Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s racial profiling enable poverty wages for undocumented Latinos picking crops and cleaning houses. Just as the first professional police departments in America were formed as a racist reaction to the German and Irish working poor, so too do today’s law enforcement agencies disproportionately target impoverished black neighborhoods to fill beds in private prisons.

Cops kill more Americans each year than terrorists or mass shooters. Cops seize more civilian property than burglars. Cops routinely perjure themselves rather than accurately portraying their investigations. Cops inundate new recruits with propaganda, declaring themselves the “thin blue line” separating order from chaos, society from anarchy. The “blue wall of silence” keeps any would-be Serpicos from exposing the crimes of their colleagues, with morally motivated cops denounced as rats and subjected to harassment by their colleagues.

Both the Christopher Commission investigating the LAPD and the Mollen Commission investigating the NYPD made note of the role this silence plays in abetting human rights violations. The process of “parallel construction” encourages cops to gather evidence through illegal surveillance and then manufacture a story granting them probable cause. To condone these misdeeds, to paint them as painful exceptions to a necessary rule, is to ignore the failures of a supposedly democratic society that has bred a class of citizen utterly immune from the consequences of its own actions.

The mere fact that some cops do take “serve and protect” to heart does not absolve them of the oppression inherent to their social role. Even a model cop — one who treats civilians with respect, who reports his criminal colleagues, who selflessly puts his life on the line — is given a badge and a gun to enforce the laws of a terrorist state. Every tool available to law enforcement, from detention to arrest to murder, demands an abrogation of the liberties upon which the American government justifies its power. For this power to even exist, let alone remain unaccountable, is antithetical to all but the most hollow notions of democracy. To be a cop in America is to submit to the logic of racial and economic hierarchy which defines this nation, and enforcing this ideology through violent means is fundamentally a terrorist act.

I will not compare killer cops with cop killers. I will not equate the violence of oppression with the violence of resistance. Violence against the police will not solve police violence; in all likelihood, it will grant cops the public cover they need to commit crimes with impunity. But to unequivocally reject violence perpetrated by the oppressed against their oppressors is to restrain the struggle for justice within bounds set and subsequently ignored by the very system responsible for maintaining this oppression.

Nonetheless, I maintain we must operate with a morality unadulterated by the terror we combat. Indiscriminate violence leads only to chaos and thus cannot serve as the ground upon which a new society is built. Violence should be regarded like any other tactic available to liberation movements, to be deployed only in specific circumstances with specific goals. We must affirm the right of communities to defend themselves through locally-organized neighborhood patrols that provide the protection cops are supposed to, without elevating the guardians above the people they serve. So long as society preserves the privileged role of police as the sole arbiters of justified violence, racist brutality will remain a fact of American life.

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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