During the last ten years, a critique of mass imprisonment has become significantly more mainstream in the United States. 2015 witnessed a U.S. President visiting a federal prison, new legislation to reduce drug sentences and more widespread media coverage of the racial disparities of the criminal justice system. For many commentators, these developments signal a profound shift in our longstanding punitive orientation toward crime. However, the shifting discourses surrounding crime and punishment contemporarily signal a moment of danger as well as opportunity. It is vital that we move beyond band-aid approaches to mass imprisonment and that we unpack the constitutive imaginings that rendered mass imprisonment a legible project from the outset. Seemingly progressive trends such as prop 47 or prisoner reentry initiatives will simply bolster racialized state violence in the absence of a critique of the logics at the heart of this system.
On November 19th, I was interviewed on KHUM radio for their 20th annual ‘Stop the Violence-Start the Healing’ program. Cliff Berkowitz and I chatted about racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a recent incident where black HSU students were harassed in the local area. Check out the interview (11/19/15 Interview w/ Dr. Byrd).
A great deal of analytic slippage is happening in conversations about the police. After a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Minnesota State Fair, police officials argued that use of the term pigs was promoting violence against the police, that it was “threatening.” The shooting of a Sheriff’s deputy in Texas has the media blaming “a dangerous national rhetoric”.
Any critique of policing is being framed as a call to kill cops. This is a displacement of violence onto the critique of state violence itself and such a reductive framing impoverishes our analysis and imperils attempts to combat police violence.
I finished teaching a class the other day on systems of oppression and their relationship to crime, violence and the criminal punishment system. Afterwards, I rushed out of the classroom to attend an event on campus. I was excited for the event because it was likely to attract those of us who are faculty and staff of color on campus. And any opportunity to see a relatively large group of POC makes me feel more intelligible and at home here.
At the event a police official approached me. He had recently emailed about meeting to discuss something, which he did not explain in the email. I hadn’t responded yet. After he walked away, I mentioned to the people I was with how uncomfortable I felt being asked to collaborate with the police. I assumed people would be able to hear that even if they didn’t have the same feelings. A woman turned to me and said “Who are you?… Ice-T?” She then simply stated, “Cop Killer,” moving away from our conversation.
I guess I should have been less stunned. Reflecting on this interaction, I’ve realized that something I take to be an everyday part of my reality, a trepidation or apprehension about the police, is seen as threatening, dangerous and treacherous to other people.
This analytic failure has characterized much recent pro-police coverage in the media. Naomi Murakawa and Katherine Beckett call this “the penology of racial innocence,” a framework that presumes that “criminal justice is innocent of racial power until proven otherwise.” Much like anti-discrimination law, this framework views racism as a pathology that individuals intentionally inflict on one another. This individualized framing of racism contributes to the “erasure of racial power.” Racial innocence is the lens so often used to view the police, as if systemic state violence were a question of whether or not a police officer is a nice person.
People are unable to see that the role of the police is to maintain order and the order that we have is a violent, white supremacist and capitalist order where some lives are deemed disposable. This is not a matter of a few bad apples, a few police officers with racist views. This is not a question about whether the people in police uniforms are “good people” or not. This is a question of the violence, the force, used to administer a legal order founded on notions of white freedom and personhood at the expense of black freedom and personhood.
Black death is seen as necessary for maintaining the safety, comfort and naïve self-conceptions of those deemed worthy of protection. Maybe a few people of color are allowed into those deemed worthy in order to shore up the legitimacy of this machine. But make no mistake, we live in a world that is built on the naturalization of black death.
Being silent will not make us safer. Being silent will not guarantee us the food we need to nourish our bodies and our children’s bodies. Silence will not put a roof over our heads or stop our children from being gunned down in the street. Our inability to separate a critique of the meanings attached to a police uniform from an assault on the humanity of people conscripted into police service impoverishes our analysis here.
In the moment when someone spits “cop killer” at me, I once again hear former President George W. Bush, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This dichotomous thinking is at the foundation of western thought and the very order that produces the “state-sanctioned production of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” to use Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s eloquent definition of racism. This order’s legitimacy is built on the binary logic that the heteronormative, white family must be protected from the monstrous Others, distant, threatening, always hovering in the shadows.
We must think differently. As the French intellectual, Michel Foucault said, “There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks and perceive differently that one sees is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.”