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“Rule of Law,” “Bad Apples,” and other myths

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There are a lot of tropes in our political culture for obscuring the real nature of what happens in cases like Baton Rouge, and before it in a long string of cases going back to Ferguson, the Rodney King beating, and on into the mists of the past. What they all obscure is the structural character of police brutality. Two of the most important are treating police misconduct as some sort of deviation from normality, and treating it as a problem of a few “bad apples.”

“Law” means nothing. Just look what happened to Chris Le Day, the man who recorded and distributed the video of the the Alton Sterling assassination in Baton Rouge. He was initially taken in because he (supposedly) “resembled the suspect” in an assault and battery case. When that pretext didn’t work out, they instead dug up some unpaid traffic fines as an excuse to hold him. Sounds almost like the law he broke didn’t really matter, and the real purpose was petty revenge for capturing a cop on video committing murder, doesn’t it?

Cops will bend and contort “the law” however they have to to get the results they want. They will invent any pretext they need — broken tail-light, unpaid fines, “trying to escape” — to harass, arrest or extrajudicially execute anyone they don’t like. It’s often said that prisons are colleges of crime. So is law enforcement culture. Manufacturing phony “probable cause,” planting evidence, obtaining search warrants by perjury, blackmailing testimony out of jailhouse snitches… cops are geniuses when it comes to finding ways around all those supposed due process rights and restrictions on search and seizure.

If police lawlessness were some aberration that the system could fix and return to “normal,” why has there been no self-correction in the two years since Ferguson and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement? Instead we have seen repeated police murders of unarmed black people, followed by mass demonstrations — and followed in turn by rioting cops with tear gas and fire hoses. Far from correcting itself, the system is only capable of doubling down on its existing model of behavior.

And if cases like Ferguson or Baton Rouge were about “bad apples,” we would expect to see the offending officers investigated, punished and removed by the system. Instead, we have seen the system come together in defense of them. Protestors against police brutality have been met, in the towns where the original police misconduct occurred, by the full repressive force of the state.

It may well be that a majority, or at least plurality, of cops are “good apples” in the sense that they have moral scruples about engaging in abuse and quietly avoid engaging in it any more than their job absolutely demands. But they couldn’t survive in the system unless they also honored the blue code of honor and learned to look the other way when the “bad apples” do engage in abusive behavior. The few cops who actually come forward and testify against corruption suffer the same fate as all other whistleblowers:  harassed by their superiors until they finally quit, their careers and lives ruined for going against the code.

The problem is not that the system needs to return — “return,” ha ha! — to some kind of normalcy based on the “rule of law,” or that the “bad apples” need to be dealt with more harshly. The problem is the nature of the system itself: the structural role that policing plays, as a component of the capitalist state, in enforcing a system of class rule and white supremacy. Until we strike the root of that system of power, to borrow a metaphor from Thoreau, hacking at the branches will be of no avail.


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