U.S. Politics and the Economy

Trained to Oppress

Police “training” is the problem: they are trained to oppress Blacks

By Glen Ford

There is no military gear on display in the video of a New York City cop’s take-down of James Blake as the Black former tennis pro leaned against a pole in front of a Manhattan Grand Hyatt hotel—just a white guy in a t-shirt suddenly body-slamming a totally inoffensive person into the sidewalk. But, in fact, the assault on Blake by officer James Frascatore, part of a squad of six plainclothes cops prowling the hotel lobby on East 42nd Street, is a prime example of the militarization of policing in the United States. Police behavior—the routine tactics they employ “in the line of duty”—is the best indicator of the actual police mission in the community—better, even, than the inanimate equipment they drive around in or carry.

Although Blake was not seriously injured, his case shares an essential commonality with that of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot dead by a white Cleveland cop while playing with a toy gun in a neighborhood park, last November. No tanks or machine guns were involved in that case, either—just a cop with a pistol who shot a Black child from only a few feet away within two seconds of pulling up in an ordinary squad car.

The behavior of the victims is incidental to the actual mission of the police. Blake was on the ground with the cop’s knee in his back before he seemed to realize he was under attack. Afterwards, the one-time Harvard student shuddered at the thought of what would have happened if he had put his hands up in a “normal defend myself.” The Cleveland cop gave Tamir Rice no time at all to put away childish toys, before neutralizing the target.

For decades, the essential U.S. police mission has been military in nature—certainly in the Black community, but applicable in calibrated form generally in the country. Routine police behavior closely tracks the U.S. armed forces field manual tactical operations guidance on “strike campaigns” to “find, fix, destroy, and capture” the enemy. Speed and decisiveness of action are emphasized, for rapid engagement.

The routine police practice of suddenly slamming people to the ground on the slightest pretext—or for no reason at all except to establish immediate control of the person or area—and then pinning them in place with knees or feet to the neck and back, or with the full weight of multiple cops (often yelling “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” whether there is resistance or not) is a relatively recent development. U.S. cops have always been brutal, but in their own ways. Today’s police bum-rush—which can be observed on “Cops,” the TV show, any day of the week—is clearly a national phenomenon, a standardized tactic.

Cops all over the country engage in similar tactics in street encounters, rapidly closing in on “subjects” (like young, innocent Tamir) and shooting them, afterwards claiming the officer’s life was in danger because of physical proximity to the unarmed victim. The tactic—moving rapidly to close with the targeted individual—justifies the fatal outcome, whether the victim was engaged in criminal activity or not. If Blake had reacted like a “normal” person in the instant that the cop attacked, the 34 year-old athlete would likely be dead. These fatal scenarios recur with numbing regularity because the cops are trained in standardized tactics of armed occupation. Black people are killed under roughly the same circumstances in all parts of the nation because cops everywhere are getting the same training.

It is not lack of training that breeds killer cops, but the training, itself.

Under the militarized policing regime, the exercise of individual police “command” authority over civilians has been weaponized to an unprecedented degree. To be sure, cops have always extrajudicially executed Black people—although the national failure to gather such data from local police departments makes assessment of the relative frequency of past and present killings nearly impossible to determine. However, with the advent of federal funding and direction of local police, dating from the beginnings of the national Black mass incarceration regime in the late Sixties, the procedures and legal theory behind invocation of police authority have been generalized and nationalized, as well. A cop’s verbal exclamation, when characterized as a “lawful order” or “command,” becomes a license to kill. Once the order has been issued—no matter how outlandish, or even impossible to comply with—failure to obey is a crime and the basis for rapid escalation of the conflict. Individuals or groups can easily be maneuvered into non-compliance with police orders, followed quickly by death. Every cop knows this, thanks to decades of standardized police training as armed occupiers.

U.S. police are well trained, in the same way that U.S. Special Forces are well trained. The problem with both, is their mission. Green Berets are professional assassins and terrorists. U.S. police specialize in containing, controlling, terrorizing and incarcerating Black people, killing many hundreds every year in the process. Since 1968, with the creation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the federal government has spent billions training and equipping local police. Homeland Security and the Pentagon have left their indelible mark on U.S. policing. Last summer, two months before a Ferguson cop killed Michael Brown, 32 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted against a measure that would have halted the transfer of Pentagon weapons (and the accompanying training) to local police departments. Israel has also played a major role in training U.S. cops. It is nonsense to ask for more “training” for police, unless their mission of armed occupation of Black communities is cancelled, first.

The next step would be to ask these Black communities if they want the police there at all, or would prefer to organize their own security, consistent with the principle of self-determination. There is no U.S. police department or federal agency that is qualified to assist in training cops to serve the Black community, because that has never been done in the United States.

Black Agenda Report, September 16, 2015