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The Poisoned Barrel


A few bad apples, spoil the whole barrel, as the saying goes. An important reminder and rebuttal for those who attempt to minimize the latest high-profile murder, by Memphis police, of Tyre Nichols on January 7th. This is hardly the first time we’ve seen cops murder Americans for traffic violations, but the recently released videos of those supposedly responsible for our safety instead revealing themselves as violent thugs never ceases to sicken and horrify. In an exception that proves the rule, six officers caught on video beating Tyre to death have been suspended from the Memphis police force, with second degree murder charges filed. One wonders if white police officers would have faced such swift if anemic sanctions. Despite the sickening consistency and familiarity of this American tragedy, the video of Tyre’s killing has still resonated with Americans, with peaceful protests in the streets across the country, and renewed calls for police reform from citizens and many Democratic politicians. Specifically, we’ve seen calls to pass the George Floyd justice in policing act through Congress, which passed the Democratically controlled House back in 2021 and was subsequently killed by Senate Republicans. The proposed legislation contains a variety of popular proposals including:

  • Requiring body cameras on officers

  • Increasing accountability around investigating violent police misconduct

  • Restricting transfer of military equipment to police

  • Prohibiting chokeholds

  • Prohibiting no-knock warrants

  • Changing the threshold and training for use of force by officers

These provisions and more aim to bring accountability to law enforcement, setting up mechanisms to remove the “bad apples” from the force, and move policing back towards practices of protecting and serving the people, not occupying, and brutalizing them. ​Fundamentally, however, we must question the analogy of the rotten apples spoiling the rest of the bunch, for it is not individual bad actors coming into and spoiling an otherwise neutral environment that is the problem with our policing. Instead, we have a poisoned barrel which structurally creates and perpetuates a system and ideology that respects the protection of property and of capital over the lives and dignity of humans. SCOTUS has repeatedly affirmed that police officers do not have a legal obligation to “protect and serve” the citizenry. Instead, police forces are, in fact, protectors of capital, not of people. They are the shock troops at the front lines of safeguarding the unjust system we’ve created, which immiserates so many poor (especially black and brown) people in this country for the benefit of a vanishingly small cohort of the wealthy individuals. In order to change this conception of law enforcement, our strategy needs to be multi-pronged. First, we need to dis-aggregate the responsibilities of policing, which currently expects police officers to do everything from solve murders, to issue traffic violations, to intervene in mental health crises. Secondly, we need to have accountability for individual police who break the law, and financial accountability from the entire police force. Passing the George Floyd Justice in Police act is important, but as long as this country continues to be a place where money and power are respected over human rights and dignity, the primary function of the police will always bend towards the service of capital, and they will continue to terrorize and occupy those who have little power and few material resources. It is only when we combine political will with economic consequences and incentives that we will stop seeing this sick display played out again and again throughout American society. For Tyre’s sake (and countless others) we must continue to fight for true justice, and an America where police bring safety, not death. So, join us each Tuesday in growing solidarity, as we work to make it stop paying for police to protect capital, and serve the people instead! #DSOT #UPM

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