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Corporate Capitalism Is the Foundation of Police Brutality and the Prison State

Posted on Jul 5, 2015

By Chris Hedges

  New Yorkers protest the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in a show of solidarity at Union Square in April. (RTNJennings / MediaPunch / IPX)

Our national conversation on race and crime is based on a fiction. It is the fiction that the organs of internal security, especially the judiciary and the police, can be adjusted, modernized or professionalized to make possible a post-racial America. We discuss issues of race while ignoring the economic, bureaucratic and political systems of exploitation—all of it legal and built into the ruling apparatus—that are the true engines of racism and white supremacy. No discussion of race is possible without a discussion of capitalism and class. And until that discussion takes place, despite all the proposed reforms to the criminal justice system, the state will continue to murder and imprison poor people of color with impunity.

More training, body cameras, community policing, the hiring of more minorities as police officers, a better probation service and more equitable fines will not blunt the indiscriminate use of lethal force or reduce the mass incarceration that destroys the lives of the poor. Our capitalist system callously discards surplus labor, especially poor people of color, employing lethal force and the largest prison system in the world to keep them under control. This is by design. And until this predatory system of capitalism is destroyed, the poor, especially people of color, will continue to be gunned down by police in the streets, as they have for decades, and disproportionately locked in prison cages.

“The strength of ‘The New Jim Crow’ by Michelle Alexander is that, by equating mass incarceration with Jim Crow, it makes it rhetorically impossible to defend it,” said Naomi Murakawa, author of “The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America,” when we met recently in Princeton, N.J. “But, on the other hand, there is no ‘new’ Jim Crow, there is just capitalist white supremacy in a state of constant self-preservation.”

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“We should talk about what we are empowering police to do, not how they are doing it, not whether they are being nice when they carry out arrests,” she said. “Reforms are oriented to making violence appear respectable and courteous. But being arrested once can devastate someone’s life. This is the violence we are not talking about. It does not matter if you are arrested politely. Combating racism is not about combating bad ideas in the head or hateful feelings. This idea is the perfect formula to preserve material distributions in their exact configuration.”

Murakawa, who teaches at Princeton University, laid out in her book that liberals, in the name of pity, and conservatives, in the name of law and order—or as Richard Nixon expressed it, the right to be safe and free of fear—equally shared in the building of our carceral state. “Liberal racial pity mirrored conservative racial contempt,” she writes. These “competing constructions of black criminality, one callous, another with a tenor of sympathy and cowering paternalism,” ensured that by the time these forces were done, there was from 1968 to 2010 a septupling of people locked in the prison system. “Counting probation and parole with jails and prisons is even more astonishing still,” she writes. “This population grew from 780,000 in 1965 to seven million in 2010.”

Racism in America will not be solved, she writes, by “teaching tolerance and creating colorblind institutions.” The refusal to confront structural racism, which in the 1930s and ’40s among intellectuals “situated domestic racism and colonialism abroad in an integrated critique of global capitalism,” led to a vapid racial liberalism that, as Penny Von Eschen writes, conceived of racism as “an anachronistic prejudice and a personal and psychological problem, rather than as a systemic problem rooted in specific social practices and prevailing relations of political economy and culture.”

Police brutality will not be solved, Murakawa points out, by reforms that mandate an “acceptable use of force.” The state may have outlawed lynching and mob violence—largely because of international outcry and damage to the image of the United States abroad—but insisted that capital punishment “could be fair with adequate legal defense for the poor, proper jury instructions, and clear lists of mitigating and aggravating circumstances.” Racial violence was seen as an “administrative deficiency.”


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