University of California, Davis police officer pepper spraying protesting students, November 18, 2011
I. Beyond “police brutality”
We should be clear: the UC Davis police used caustic “nonlethal” spray on those student protestors because they could. The institutional entitlement to use such police force, however ill-advised it may seem in hindsight, is neither incidental nor ad hoc—it is systemic, legally supported, and absolutely normal. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the acquittal of five Los Angeles Police Department officers in the street torture of Rodney King, it is urgent to once again examine how police violence shapes our everyday realities in different and contradictory ways.
(A note on the prevailing language: “police brutality” has become a vastly misused term. While the phrase intends to communicate a sharp criticism of state power that has presumably violated its own self-defined laws and regulations, it is often used to refer to violent police practices that are utterly, ritually sanctioned by law.)
The public response to the display of police violence at UC Davis has been predictably characterized by a combination of righteous outrage and institutional shaming, accompanied by somewhat more muted and unconvincing—though equally predictable—defenses of the UC Davis police department and chancellor. Two facts are not in question: first, the campus deployed an armed police force to squash a conventional act of civil disobedience that was, in the recent historical scheme of things, quite institutionally polite and undisruptive; second, that same armed police force was authorized to use nonlethal weapons on nonviolent student protestors. (We must also remember that the spraying of such chemicals has been widely known to cause death in many instances.)
What does remain in question, however, is how and why these facts are being translated into a liberal-progressive political reaction that seems to naturalize—that takes for granted and/or completely obscures—the fundamentally racial and racist structure of US policing, which finds its modern roots in slave patrols, US colonial military outfits (in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere), Texas Rangers (killers of Apaches, Cherokees, and Comanches), and white citizens’ militias throughout the post-Civil War era North and South. In other words, is it possible that much of the critical response to the scene at UC Davis is actually condoning racist police violence rather than challenging it, and if so, what is enabling such critically-minded people to do so?
II. The liberal racial sensibility
The video evidence of police repression widely circulated from the UC Davis campus via YouTube (etc.) has quickly taken hold of a liberal racial sensibility that absolutely abhors “police brutality” when it is waged on peaceful and/or nonviolent student protestors. (Progressives, radicals, anarchists, and other leftists often share in this liberal racial sensibility despite their left-of-liberal self-identifications.) We must be willing to acknowledge that the political and moral indignation over such excessive displays of nonlethal state violence (that is, pepper spray rather than bullets) is quite openly amplified when such tactics are used on white students, in the space of historically white institutions (as of Fall 2010, Davis had more white students enrolled than any UC campus besides UCLA).
There is something structurally white supremacist about this very indignation: the political expressions of outrage and institutional shaming over the spectacle at UC Davis are fueled by an over-identification with (historically white) university campuses as places of presumed innocence, wherein enrolled and employed (white) bodies are also presumed to presume innocence. If we are to be honest in this moment, we must also recognize that many have only now been provoked into talking and thinking critically about the violence of the police because they are moved to defend the presumption of white bodily and spatial innocence, and are not necessarily concerned about police violence against those whose bodies (and the spaces they inhabit) are presumed guilty, or something close to it.
III. De-provincializing UC Davis
As the dust begins to settle from the spectacle and outrage surrounding the campus police’s use of chemical weapons on those students at UC Davis, it becomes ever more necessary to de-provincialize this form of state violence. By this, I mean something beyond the self-evident assertion that the acts of the UC Davis police and chancellor are “not isolated incidents”: the question is whether we adequately understand how they are not isolated incidents. The installation of militarized police forces on US college and university campuses—a practice several decades old—must be understood within the general social and historical context of domestic policing, and the specific policing imperative to engage in undisguised modalities of domestic racialized warfare, by way of wars on gangs, drugs, migrants, terror(ists), and so forth.
To de-provincialize the police violence at UC Davis is to take seriously the notion that the nonlethal (though no less repugnant) violence of those particular university-based police officers would have been impossible without the absolutely lethal and regular exercises of police violence in places (and on bodies) nowhere near that grassy campus quad. My more fundamental concern thus lies with the policed, human raw material that precedes and exceeds those pepper sprayed students at Davis.
Apolitically policed Black and Brown bodies—young and old, urban and rural, transgender, queer, and straight—are incapable of extracting anything remotely like the consensus of liberal outrage surrounding (and ultimately protecting) the openly political policing of white, able-bodied college youth. While all policing is fundamentally “political,” only a select few of its forms are addressed as such.
This political abyss, the one that allows for acute indignation to be reserved for the policing of those presumed racially innocent (white), reflects a political and spatial provincialism that some of us simply cannot afford to stomach, and which gets to the heart of a racial antagonism that structures major strains of many progressive, social-justice oriented struggles, including the domestic Occupy movement.
Despite the outpouring of righteous and anxious statements from university administrators and other public officials disavowing this allegedly isolated instance of excessive state violence, there was a reason why those riot-geared UC Davis officers—who had to know they were performing for the cameras—did not hesitate to (nonlethally) fire. It is not difficult to see that in the post-1960’s period, militarized police repression of actual and potential political disorder is as American as the atom bomb. However, what is too quickly taken for granted is that the primary places in which such police power is exercised are the very same that are least likely to send their young people to places like UC Davis, and which are the primary sites for which the state has trained its police to engage in domestic, low-intensity warfare by way of drug sweeps, no-knock warrants, street harassment, traffic stops, and justified use of (deadly) force. What is to be made of the UC Davis police action of November 18, 2011, once we understand that the foundation of those officers’ presumed right to violence is not in some failure of bureaucratic protocol, nor in the obvious evidence of poor administrative leadership, but instead derives from the generalized legal, political, and cultural mandate of the US policing apparatus to dispense force as it sees fit?
Whether or not the officers and administrators implicated in these latest exercises of campus police violence are kept on the job, we can be certain that they will not face legal or criminal sanction, a fact that is so broadly and preemptively assumed that any possibility to the contrary is almost never mentioned in public discourse. The insulation of policing from the very criminal legal apparatus that it supposedly serves (and many would contend that the relation of service is the other way around) is what constitutes the operational premise for such exercises of state violence. It is this relation—and not the alleged excessiveness, illegality, or “brutality” of the police violence itself—that must be confronted if the goal is to be something more than just another piecemeal expression of localized shock and awe.
The diverse and complex practices of police violence are not only inseparable from the institutional evolution of policing in the last half-century, they are essential to the very institutional integrity and identity of the US police regime writ large. All of which begs a fundamental question: if the policing apparatus cannot be corrected, punished, or reformed against its own institutional entitlement to exercise violence more or less at will, in accordance with the law, and “within policy”—that is, if the solution is not simply to get the cops to “do their jobs better,” since in most everyday exercises of police violence (including fatal ones) they are generally affirmed as having done their jobs pretty damn well—then what political responses are available, and toward what ends?
IV. Yudof and Bratton: the case for (low-intensity) war
Now that University of California President Mark Yudof has called in domestic war expert and former LAPD Chief of Police William Bratton and his high-tech Kroll Security Group to conduct a “truthful and objective” (Bratton’s words) investigation of the mess at UC Davis, the lesson should be clear: the site of the (public) university is as much a focus of strategic state (and police) militarization and repressive mobilization as it is of budgetary “crisis” and de-funding.
Let us not forget that this is the same Bratton who pioneered “zero tolerance” (or “broken windows”) policing as a method to surveil, terrorize, and criminalize Black, Brown, and poor people in New York City throughout the 1990s. Bratton’s policing strategy during this period facilitated a dense climate of police harassment and violence against Black and Latino/a youth, based on often flimsy suspicion of such offenses as loitering, public noise, avoiding subway fees, and truancy. His name remains a Satan-like reference for the many who experienced (survived) the grip of his regime in NYC.
It was also Bratton who, as the Los Angeles police chief, endorsed a rather incredible 2007 study by the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Group that concluded that despite more than 300 official complaints filed by LA residents, LAPD officers had not once stopped, detained, questioned, or otherwise engaged a civilian as a result of their perceived racial identity (about 80% of these racial profiling complaints were dismissed out of hand by Internal Affairs as “unfounded”). This was the sixth consecutive year in which Bratton would proudly assert that there was not a single example of racially-based misconduct among his officers. Further, despite the explosive and recent revelations of the Ramparts Division scandal in the late-1990s, the videotaped police beating of disabled Black teenager Donovan Jackson near the beginning of Bratton’s first LAPD term in 2002, the now infamous 2007 police riot at the MacArthur Park immigrant rights rally, the rampant use of “gang injunctions” to detain, humiliate, and physically violate Black and Brown children and youth, and myriad other instances of police violence, it was the same Bratton who stated in 2008 that the LAPD “is not a racist department. It is not a homophobic department. It is not a brutal department.” (LA Times, April 30, 2008) In addition to all of this, it is also Bratton who has advocated hiring police officers from communities of color in order to magically make “policing more attractive to a changing population.” (The Guardian, August 13, 2011)
Without belaboring the point, the fact that Bratton has been hired by Yudof, will be paid with public funds to conduct the UC Davis investigation, and retains even a shred of credibility as an impartial or “objective” investigator of police violence/brutality is somewhere beyond absurd. It is no less than a pronouncement that the University of California is a place of toxic hostility for those who rationally (and self-defensively) view Bratton—and, for that matter, the police—as the diametric opposite of peace and security. Some would venture to say that Bratton’s entry is merely the crystallization of an institutionalized racial hostility that has aggressively inclined since the passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, which exterminated affirmative action initiatives, dramatically shifted the racial and socioeconomic demographics of the UC student body, and brought even more suspicion on those Black and Brown bodies walking across campus.
There is something else about the UC President’s hiring of Bratton and the Kroll Group that is worth considering. State and campus administrators seem to clearly understand that in the history of progressive, leftist, radical, and revolutionary social movements, university and college campuses worldwide have consistently played central roles as on-the-ground think tanks, centers of massive political mobilization, and major catalysts for the initiation, sustenance, and fulfillment of world-altering visions of political insurgency and social change. American apartheid was dismantled in significant part due to the political organizing undertaken by and with students, on and adjacent to college and university campuses. The recent emergence of the anti-prison industrial complex and prison abolitionist movement has been fueled by major public gatherings and consistent political actions at places like Columbia Law School, Laney College (Oakland, CA), and UC Berkeley. Recently, Occupy sites have sprouted up at colleges and universities all over the US, though perhaps most conspicuously on UC campuses (thanks to the UCD police). This history is further reason why the recent UC Davis police violence must be deprovincialized: because campus police and their administrators already view themselves within a global and historical context of managing, containing, co-opting, and repressing the potentially explosive and disordering political mobilizations that can happen just outside their office windows.
Allow me to briefly mention a recent development at my own place of work to illustrate the point in detail: on November 22, 2011, a mere four days after the pepper spray had cleared at Davis, the UC Riverside Office of Student Affairs, led by the Dean of Students, issued a declaration of “Protest Guidelines.” The document is framed by the affirmation, at once paternalistic and Orwellian, that “FREE SPEECH IS WELCOME HERE.” (All caps in the original.) It proceeds by providing a detailed protocol for “How to have a successful protest at UCR.”
What follows reads more like amateur political satire than serious university policy. First, the “CHECKLIST TO PLAN YOUR PROTEST” dictates that a registered UCR student organization or campus department must “sponsor your protest” at least a month before the event. Then, at least 2 weeks prior to the event, protest organizers must contact the Assistant Dean of Students and meet with an “Event Review Committee” that will “preview your preliminary plans.” In the meantime, potential protest organizers are put on notice that “protests with multiple risk factors, and/or an expected audience of over 100 will take more time to approve.” During the actual event, protestors are directed to appoint a “contact person” who will “consult with the Assistant Dean of Students or UCR designee throughout the event.” To top it off, this protest contact person and the Assistant Dean/UCR designee are instructed to “Exchange cell phone numbers.” (The entire document is available here: http://deanofstudents.ucr.edu/SiteCollectionDocuments/Policies_Procedures/protestguidelines.pdf)
Such are not simply small-minded rules conceived in the friendliest spirit of political intimidation (the consequences for not following the protocol are never mentioned in the document). We must recognize that they comprise a particular tactic within the framework of low-intensity domestic war. Implicit threats of student suspension and expulsion, faculty subjection to conduct and disciplinary procedures (via the Committee on Charges, to which a case against the author was brought and dismissed in 2002-2003), and police intervention hover over the UCR Protest Guidelines and similar campus protocols elsewhere. While none of this is to be confused with the worst of Bratton’s NYPD or LAPD, the UCR document’s criminalization of potential political disorder (“free speech” run amuck, without permission or approval) is not far from the police chief’s “zero tolerance” philosophy of social control.
V. If they’ll do that to them…
The galling ease with which the UC Davis cops sprayed those students—as if they were exterminators treating an ant infestation—is not best understood as primary evidence of mentally unstable, corrupt, or evil individual police officers who must be individually punished and held accountable for their actions. Rather, it is the very casualness of their violence that provides insight as to the historical depth and institutional reach of the late-20th and early 21st century US racist state. The bare fact that armed police officers at an elite public university can douse (white) students with clouds of pepper spray provokes some of us to translate that scene into a language of deeper alienation and terror: If the cops are willing to do that to white college kids, what are they willing—and probably eager—to do to us? Of course, the “us” cannot be homogenized here, because anyone remotely familiar with the history of racist US state violence recognizes that the police consistently deploy different strategies and intensities of force on different bodies, based on geographic location, racial profile, perceived gender and sexual identity, presumed non-citizen status, and so forth.
Nonetheless, the point should be clear: if we are to treat the UC Davis scenario as something more than an isolated incident of officers gone wild—and many students, activists, teachers, journalists, and other thinkers clearly wish to do so—we cannot help but come face-to-face with the enduring and complicated machinery of the racist state. If they’ll do this to upwardly mobile white people on a liberal Northern California college campus, what will they do to the rest of us, especially those whose guilt is more or less presumed in the eyes of the police as well as their recent critics?