If we’re going to speak of rioting protesters, then we need to speak of rioting police as well. No, they aren’t destroying property. But it is clear from news coverage, as well as countless videos taken by protesters and bystanders, that many police are using often indiscriminate violence against people — against anyone, including the peaceful majority of demonstrators, who happens to be in the streets.
Rioting police have driven vehicles into crowds, reproducing the assault that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. They have surrounded a car, smashed the windows, tazed the occupants and dragged them out onto the ground. Clad in paramilitary gear, they have attacked elderly bystanders, pepper-sprayed cooperative protesters and shot “nonlethal” rounds directly at reporters, causing serious injuries. In Austin, Texas, a 20-year-old man is in critical condition after being shot in the head with a “less-lethal” round. Across the country, rioting police are using tear gas in quantities that threaten the health and safety of demonstrators, especially in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic.
None of this quells disorder. Everything, from the militaristic posture to the attacks themselves, does more to inflame and agitate protesters than it does to calm the situation and bring order to the streets. In effect, rioting police have done as much to stoke unrest and destabilize the situation as those responsible for damaged buildings and burning cars. But where rioting protesters can be held to account for destruction and violence, rioting police have the imprimatur of the state.
What we’ve seen from rioting police, in other words, is an assertion of power and impunity. In the face of mass anger over police brutality, they’ve effectively said So what? In the face of demands for change and reform — in short, in the face of accountability to the public they’re supposed to serve — they’ve bucked their more conciliatory colleagues with a firm No. In which case, if we want to understand the behavior of the past two weeks, we can’t just treat it as an explosion of wanton violence; we have to treat it as an attack on civil society and democratic accountability, one rooted in a dispute over who has the right to hold the police to account.
African American observers have never had any illusions about who the police are meant to serve. The police, James Baldwin wrote in his 1960 essay on discontent and unrest in Harlem, “represent the face of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are simply for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up in his place.” This wasn’t because each individual officer was a bad person but because he was fundamentally separate from the black community as a matter of history and culture. “None of the police commissioner’s men, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in twos and threes controlling.”
Go back to the beginning of the 20th century, during America’s first age of progressive reform, as the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad does in “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America,” and you’ll find activists describing how “policemen had abdicated their responsibility to dispense colorblind service and protection, resulting in an object lesson for youth: the indiscriminate mass arrests of blacks being attacked by white mobs.”
The police were ubiquitous in the African American neighborhoods of the urban North, but they weren’t there to protect black residents as much as they were to enforce the racial order, even if it led to actual disorder in the streets. For example, in the aftermath of the Philadelphia “race riot” of 1918, one black leader complained, “In nearly every part of this city peaceable and law-abiding Negroes of the home-owning type have been set upon by irresponsible hoodlums, their property damaged and destroyed, while the police seem powerless to protect.”
If you are trying to understand the function of policing in American society, then even a cursory glance at the history of the institution would point you in the direction of social control. And blackness in particular, historian Nikhil Pal Singh argues, was a state of being that required “permanent supervision and if necessary direct domination.”
The simplest answer to the question “Why don’t the American police forces act as if they are accountable to black Americans?” is that they were never intended to be. And to the extent that the police appear to be rejecting accountability outright, I think it reflects the extent to which the polity demanding it is now inclusive of those groups the police have historically been tasked to control. That polity and its leaders are simply rejected as legitimate wielders of authority over law enforcement, especially when they ask for restraint.
A New York City Police Department that worked enthusiastically with Republican mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg — mayors who found their core support among the white residents of the city — then rejected the authority of Bill de Blasio, a Democrat backed by blacks and Hispanics who had emphasized police reform when he was a candidate. Or compare the contempt for President Barack Obama from representatives of law enforcement to their near-worshipful posture toward President Donald Trump.
Yes, some of this reflects partisan politics — it’s in the nature of policing that many of its practitioners tend to be more conservative than most — but I think it’s also influenced by a sense that neither Obama nor his appointees, like Eric Holder or Loretta Lynch, had the right to criticize them or hold them to account.
If that is the dynamic at work, then we should not be surprised when the police respond, in the main, to demands for change from the policed with anger and contempt. Nor should we be surprised by their willingness to follow the lead of a figure like Trump, who has incited America’s police forces to be even more violent with protesters (to say nothing of his past praise for police abuse).
Trump explicitly rejects the legitimacy of nonwhites as political actors, having launched his political career on the need for more and greater racial control of Muslims and Hispanic immigrants. Even without his tough-guy posturing, Trump is someone who embodies the political and social order the police have so often been called to defend.
Which is all to say that the nightly clashes between protesters and the police are, to an extent, a microcosm of larger disputes roiling this nation: the pressures and conflicts of a diversifying country; the struggle to escape an exclusive past for a more inclusive future; and our constant battle over who truly counts — who can act as a full and equal member of this society — and who does not.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.