Police Killings Won’t Stop Until U.S. Comes to Grips with its Racist Foundations

Gerald Horne and Paul Jay discuss the roots of police killing people of color in the American history of slavery, the elite policy that produces poverty and racism, and the laws that police officers are expected to enforce in order to maintain superexploitation and economic inequality

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Last night, five police officers were killed during an anti-police brutality rally in Dallas, Texas, shot by snipers. Soon after, the local police force used a bomb-disposing robot to kill a suspect in the shooting. This followed two fatal police encounters in the previous two days. On Wednesday evening, police shot and killed Philando Castile at a routine traffic stop. He was in the car with his four-year-old daughter and his girlfriend, who livestreamed the aftermath on Facebook. The previous day after midnight on Tuesday, Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Officers pinned him to the ground, and another fired multiple shots. His death was captured on cell phone video.

Now joining us to discuss these events from Houston, Texas–except I believe he’s now here in Detroit–Dr. Gerald Horne. Gerald holds the John J. and Rebecca Moore Chair of History in African-American Studies at the University of Houston. Thanks for joining us, Gerald.

GERALD HORNE: Thank you. And actually, I’m in Berkeley, California.

JAY: You’re in Berkeley, I’m sorry. Gerald, the killing of the cops is a tragedy. These police were just standing around. And one can understand why their families and other law enforcement officers and families are concerned, and so on. They were executed, assassinated. But so were a lot of other people. In fact, something like 566 people have been shot by police just so far this year. And of course, we know the rates of people of color being shot is something like three times those of white people.

Although even there, it should be said, in terms of pure numbers there’s more white people being killed than people of color, and it doesn’t take a stretch–and I don’t have the research–but it doesn’t take a stretch to think most of those are poor white people, not wealthy white people. And it’s important–that’s not just a numerical issue, because there are as many wealthy white people, if you take wealth by $125,000 and up, there’s actually as many of them as there are poor people in the country.

But clearly racism, structural racism, a culture within the police department that makes a cop think that it’s rationable, not justifiable, and without much consequence to shoot a black person with very little reason or threat. This culture within police forces that–President Obama says we should get the bias out of police forces. This is, every time something like this happens, a police killing, this is said year after year, decade after decade. This culture within police departments that allows for this type of, these executions of people on the streets, and in cars for having tail lights out, this persists. Why does this culture persist in the way it does?

HORNE: Well, it’s not just the culture of the police departments. It’s the culture of the society itself. The police department as an institution only exists to serve and protect, in the first place, the ruling elements of the society. And they therefore reflect the ruling elements of society.

There’s now a cliché in the United States that says we need an honest conversation about “race.” We actually need an honest conversation about racism. More than that, we need an honest conversation about the founding of the United States of America, that strips away the mythology that suggested that this was a flawless revolt against British rule, when we all know that slaves did not necessarily benefit from this revolt against British rule. Certainly, the Native American population did not benefit.

And what came to be as a result of the founding of the United States was a culture that always feared the possibility of slave revolts, that led to the construction of so-called slave patrols, which then led to the formation of modern-day police departments. And modern-day police departments have yet to shed their role as an enforcer of law, in the first place, against poor black people. And that’s what you saw in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That’s what you saw in Minnesota just the other day. Until we come to grips with that basic phenomenon, that is to say, this idea that there was this great leap forward for humanity in 1776, despite the fact that it was a great leap backwards for people of African descent in particular, until we come to grips with that anomaly, we’re always going to be witnessing these kinds of tragedies that we’ve seen in the past 72 hours.

JAY: Yeah, I think it’s important that this point you’re making, the way it continues today, the reason for slavery wasn’t simply some white people didn’t like some black people. The reason is to get free labor. And then the laws enforce that. Even as laws against–it’s illegal for a slave to learn or to be taught to read, for example. The underlying thing is the free labor. And now the underlying thing is cheap labor, and poor, desperate people willing to work for minimum and even below minimum wages, and the money being made out of mass incarceration industry. There’s a reason why there’s a whole set of laws to repress people that are being super-exploited.

But President Obama says that–we have a clip of him here, I don’t know if it’s ready, where he talks about this being an American problem. Have we got that ready?

BARACK OBAMA: This is not just a black issue. It’s not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue, that we should all care about. All fair-minded people should be concerned. To be concerned about these issues is not to be against law enforcement.

JAY: I think that’s the point. How can you be concerned about these issues and not be, it’s not so much about being against law enforcement, it’s the laws that are getting enforced. Isn’t that–is that what you’re saying?

HORNE: Well, it seems to me that President Obama has a case to answer. I think that looking back, historians will judge that he committed many blunders, to put it mildly, when dealing with the African-American community. First of all, there’s this talking down to the black community, when the black community comes to him with specific demands. And keep in mind, these are the demands of a community that are the descendants of enslaved laborers. Rather than deal with the particularities of the black condition, he tells us that he’s the president of all the people. He just can’t deal with black issues.

He doesn’t tell that to any other communities. When the LBGT community comes to him with specific demands he doesn’t tell them that he’s the president of all the people. Obviously that’s a dodge. Perhaps Mr. Obama is surrendering to the mass white racism in this society. What I mean is that if you look back at his presidency, a turning point was the summer of 2009 when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested in his own home by a Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer. This was obviously a stupid error by the officer, and Mr. Obama took the side of the professor. But in the white racist community, which is more than a minority of that particular community, there was outrage. It was felt that he should have sided with the police officer. And therein you begin to see the decline of what was already a rather low popularity rating of Mr. Obama in that particular community.

So historians are going to have to grapple with this particular fact: Have we reached this nadir in terms of what used to be called race relations because of white racism on a mass basis? Or does the particular fecklessness of Mr. Obama have something to do with it?

JAY: Right. I just want to get some examples of what I mean when I say law enforcement, it’s the laws that are the issue, and laws that enforce poverty. For example, in Baltimore, if you don’t pay your water bill on time you could lose your house. You could be foreclosed. If you don’t leave your house it’s the police or the sheriffs that show up and enforce that foreclosure, because you couldn’t afford your water bill. If you go to jail in Baltimore, you’re not allowed a visitor. If you’re awaiting trial and you’ve not yet been convicted of anything, you’re not allowed a visitor for 90 days, outside of a lawyer. If you try to get bail in Baltimore, it’s only very recently that you’re actually allowed by right to have an attorney at your bail hearing. Up until about a year and a half ago that wasn’t even true. And even now, public defenders find it impossible to keep up with representing bail cases. And bails are set by commissioners.

The nitty gritty of what it means to enforce a regime of control over people, many of whom are living in something close to a ghetto. And the essence of the policing is, make sure the violence stays within the ghetto. Make sure it’s poor black on poor black violence. You know, in Baltimore last year we had 348 murders–almost the same as New York, which is 13 times the size of Baltimore. But as long as that’s contained within the ghetto, that’s within the realm of acceptability. If you, as what happened after Freddie Gray, if you actually charge police with abuse, charge with arrest without probable cause, and you actually charge for murder, the police say, well then, we’ll sit back and do nothing. And the threat there is, we’ll sit back and eat donuts all day. And sure, maybe the violence in poor black areas will go up. But what happens if we sit around even longer, and that violence gets to you in your gated community or your Roland Park, your wealthy areas that so far are very little touched by any of this?

I talked to a cop once, and he said to me, you know, me meaning you as society, you have to decide what you want from us police. Do you want us to hand out flowers, or you want us to be the hammer? And if you want to maintain society as it is, then you’re asking us to be the hammer.

HORNE: Well, that last thing that you just related reminds me of a scene from the award-winning film Missing, about the CIA-sponsored coup in Chile in 1973, where a U.S. national is caught up in this, and is executed by the Chilean fascists. His father comes to Santiago in Chile and inquires about his son, and is told by the U.S. embassy that we are backing this coup for you. If you want to live a good life in the United States of America, then you have to accept this coup, and presumably accept the collateral damage of your child, your son, being killed. I think that’s very cynical, I think it’s very unfortunate, and ultimately it’s unsustainable.

Speaking of which, it’s very easy to look at these police killings–look at Eric Garner, a man trying to support his family in Staten Island a few years ago selling cigarettes, apparently, and then is wrestled to the ground and suffocated. The case in Baton Rouge just a day or so ago. A young black man trying to support his family by selling CDs. And he is wrestled to the ground and then shot, apparently. What society is telling these men is that you cannot even support your family by being an entrepreneur, even though entrepreneurial activity routinely is celebrated in this society.

JAY: Well, I had this discussion once with a family–a cop and his family, discussing these issues of police killings, and such. And they were talking about, well, what would you do? It’s such a dangerous job, it’s such a dangerous situation. And certainly it can be dangerous, and it’s more dangerous than me sitting in this chair doing interviews, there’s no doubt.

But let’s put it in some perspective. There’s about 1 million police in the United States. There’s an average of around 50 cops a year actually get killed by gunfire. 50 out of 1 million cops. And compare that, for example, to construction workers. 4,821 construction workers are killed in 2014. That’s 92 a week, 13 a day. 4,821 construction workers. And where is the crazed media frenzy about that?

Yes, it’s dangerous to be a cop. But there are many occupations that are far more dangerous. And to say because someone’s lying on the ground, and maybe they have a gun, you can’t even see one–the bottom line here for me is if you can’t figure out when it’s appropriate to shoot or not, there’s no gun in sight, there’s no direct threat in sight, then don’t–you shouldn’t be a cop. But the reason people, cops, think they can get away with this is that they can.

HORNE: Well, the National Rifle Association gun lobby is going to be in the spotlight as a result of the Minnesota slaying, because recall that the young man who was slain supposedly had a permit to carry a pistol. And apparently he was reaching for ID to show to the officer when the officer killed him. Now, you would think that the NRA would be up in arms, literally if not figuratively, about this, since the right to bear arms is their calling card. But they’ve been conspicuously silent in the aftermath of this killing.

And I think that this says something about the society, and it says something, quite frankly, about where we’re heading, which does not seem to be in a promising direction.

JAY: Well, there was a tweet from a congressman–I’m sorry, a former congressman–I don’t have the name in front of me–but there’s been other things like this all over the internet, essentially saying, Black Lives Matter and you people that are defending cop killings, look out, we’re coming for you. And this whole idea that the recent period of resistance against cop killing is what created the situation in Dallas, and outright calls for–sorry, I’m being told the name. What’s the name? Joe Walsh. Where was he a congressman from? Illinois. Former congressman from Illinois.

Put this in some perspective. Because with the rise of Trump–not that it’s just Trump himself. But historically, at times when economies are in meltdown, and when there’s unemployment and there’s a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric, certainly in Europe we saw and are seeing the rise of very overt fascist movements. And the killing of these cops seems to create a kind of a door, a window, for some of this more overt racism to express itself.

To what extent is the continuation of the killing of black men, and women sometimes, and the response of the media to these killings of cops, which simply isn’t proportional in the scale of things, partly a reflection of this rise of fascisization in America?

HORNE: Well, it’s deeper than your perceptive comment suggested. That is to say, in the transatlantic community, including the United States, there has been a concerted effort in recent decades to oppress and suppress class-based organizations, particularly trade unions. And in that context I found the press conference by the Dallas police chief just a few hours ago quite telling. According to his account–and you have to take it with a grain of salt, because the suspect who he quoted is now dead as a result of a robot killing, which is a subject we also need to explore at some point–but according to the police chief the dead suspect said that he wanted to kill white people, and he wanted to kill white police officers in particular.

Now, this is telling, because it’s a direct reflection of the fact that a poor black man, a poor, working-class black man, presumably, is not able to speak in the language of class, a vocabulary that has been systematically suppressed. And so, therefore, he reverts to the language of race. And in fact–.

JAY: Assuming that this is even true, but go on. And we don’t know that he really said any of this.

HORNE: It has to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, because the police chief also tried to throw dust in the eyes of the public by referencing Black Lives Matter, as if they had something to do with this slaying in Dallas.

But in any case, my wider point is that if you look at, say, the New York Times coverage of Brexit, for example, they’re lamenting the fact that Labour Party strongholds voted for Brexit, and apparently Labour Party strongholds have been infected with the virus of anti-immigrant bias. But what the New York Times doesn’t tell its readers is that that’s a direct outgrowth of the Thatcherites’ oppression of the miners union, of unions in general, which has its counterpart on this side of the Atlantic.

In other words, the Trump phenomenon, and this neofascist phenomenon in Europe, does not come out of the blue. It’s a direct outgrowth of policies that have been systematically pursued by elites on both sides of the Atlantic, including in Baton Rouge, and Minnesota, and in Dallas.

JAY: And in the United States, with this overt xenophobia and racism against Mexicans in the Trump campaign, there seems to be a real–there is some conscious effort here to–and some spontaneous motion, as well–to consolidate overt fascist kind of forces that speak more or less openly in racist terminology. And the killing of these Dallas cops has, as I said, opened the door to have a sort of quasi-justification, because killing cops is sacrilegious, while of course other people getting killed by cops is not.

HORNE: Well, not only that, but also the elites in the United States have systematically tried to repress organizations that have tried to combat racism, political repression. I’m thinking of Paul Robeson’s Civil Rights Congress, which was ruled illegal, fundamentally, by the government some half-century ago. And since that time we’ve hardly had an organization of that stature and means to fight these kinds of outrages.

So what that means is that poor, young black people in cities like Dallas and in Staten Island and in Minnesota and in Louisiana oftentimes cannot express their rage and frustration and anger through organizational channels. It’s oftentimes expressed, I’m afraid, in [inaud.] manner that can lead to tragedies. For example, what presumably happened in Dallas just 24 hours ago.

JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Gerald.

HORNE: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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