The class character of police violence

Police violence and the murder of black people in the United States have provoked outrage and protest around the world, including on the continent. But, why is there so little outrage over police violence in African countries?

Oakland, USA. Image credit Thomas Hawk via Flickr CC.

Last week, the world watched the grotesque murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, a city in the American Midwest. Floyd, who, despite being compliant in his arrest, helplessly succumbed to his death after a white police-officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes despite his cries of being unable to breathe, and protests from frightened onlookers. This happens on the heels of another incident in New York, where a petty dispute between a black man and white woman over her unleashed dog in a park escalated to her calling the cops and falsely claiming that “an African-American man” was threatening her. (White people calling police on black people in the US is deemed ominous as it could result in their death.) After all this, the nature and origins of police brutality against black Americans is once again in the spotlight.

These events have rightly evoked uproar across the world, and South Africans and other Africans on the continent have joined the online chorus expressing solidarity with protesters in Minneapolis, who are leading what feels both like the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as perhaps the beginnings of a bigger uprising against the general inequalities that have characterized the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, 100,000 Americans have been killed by COVID-19, and 40 million Americans have become unemployed.

It is easy, amidst all this, to forget that South Africa is experiencing its own instances of horrific violence from law enforcement agents. The most publicized of these, is the murder of Collins Khosa in the Alexandra township by members of the South African military and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department. Even after Khosa’s family successfully took them to court, the soldiers implicated have been exonerated by an internal investigation conducted by the South African National Defence Force, who were also ordered by the court to publish a set of guidelines on how to engage the public during the pandemic. Since South Africa went under a national lockdown in March to curb the virus’ spread, there has been little public anger expressed at the incidences of misconduct committed by South Africa’s security forces, who have killed more than ten people so far. In fact, a lot of people initially cheered their harsh and punitive approach as a kind of necessary evil required to contain the virus’ transmission (the indictment of 230,000 people for breaking lockdown regulations was either celebrated or ignored). Why was there little outrage over police violence at home?

It might first have something to do with the role of social media. Generally, under consumer capitalism, there exists a tendency in our media-saturated society to render all political events as media commodities, constructing a landscape where, as the social theorist Jean Baudrillard once explained, the nature of the real is preceded and determined by its mediatized representation. Society becomes predisposed to a fascination with spectacular and immediate images of violence due to their overproduction—in Baudrillard’s time it was wars in the Middle East, terrorism and football riots– in ours, it is images of police brutality. Their circulation exists first and foremost for their consumption, and rather than induce sustained action, they often trigger outbursts of anger which quickly dissipate into apathy. This moment will hopefully prove the exception.

So, that Khosa’s homicide lacks footage, effectively excludes it from the market of this attention economy, worsened as the majority of life is migrated online in the era of physical distancing. This was also the case before the pandemic with the countless other incidents of police murder in this country, which per capita, are actually three times higher than in America, a country five times our size. But America’s lasting cultural hegemony means that South Africans routinely import a distinctively American sensibility when it comes to understanding police violence at home, one with anti-black racism at its center. Yet this framework quickly reveals itself to be ill-suited to understanding the dynamics of our situation, given the fact that unlike America, we are a majority black country. And so it is almost always the case that both the perpetrators of this violence, as well as its victims, are black. It cannot simply be, as it is often decried in the United States, that our law enforcement agents are uniformed white supremacists. What else is at play here?

Consider that throughout the lockdown, the majority of the military and police’s presence are in townships and informal settlements. People were right to express surprise that the police, after years of neglect of these communities where dire social conditions increases the rate of crime and disorder, could now suddenly arrive in full force. This contradiction uncovers what many historians have previously pointed out– that the invention and subsequent function of the police as a professional body of law enforcers, is not as a response to crime, but as a response to the threat that collective action poses to elite rule and the unequal social arrangements which undergirds it. Through rebellions, strikes and other forms of resistance, masses have throughout history contested their domination and exploitation by the ruling class. It is the threat from the masses that means they need to be permanently contained, and this remains the enduring imperative of policing practices.

South Africans in informal settlements and the rural countryside are that part of the population deemed most threatening. Capitalism has made them superfluous to its present profit-making purposes, excluding them from the formal economy and condemning them to a life of mass unemployment, underemployment and indigence. The South African state was mindful of how the lockdown suspended the activity of the tenuous informal economy of which most are dependent. It does not care that the range of protections it introduced to offset worsening poverty are meager, and that it lacks the competent administration to implement them effectively (the government has only managed to successfully pay 9 people a $20 monthly COVID-19 distress grant for the unemployed, of which up to 15 million people qualify). These were never introduced in a sincere effort to sustain livelihoods, but rather to keep people subdued, with the military and police on standby just in case the masses decide that they have had enough of not having enough—as protesting miners in Marikana did in 2012. Back then, after 34 miners were massacred by the police, there were no mass, society-wide protests. That President Cyril Ramaphosa, who played a significant role in those killings, is now mostly warmly embraced by the South African public, shamefully summarizes what the legacy of Marikana has been.

The best example of this South African middle class hypocrisy, comes through one of its most cherished exports, the comedian Trevor Noah. As the host of the Daily Show, he is now being praised for his commentary about American police brutality. However, it wasn’t long ago when he described the murderous action taken by the police at Marikana as being appropriate. “Which strike has ever ended with teargas,” he joked.

A more ready identification with the victimization of black Americans then, reveals an unwillingness to confront the class character of police repression. It betrays, in other words, a veiled attachment to the prevailing social order and its continued reproduction, or at least a lack of interest in meaningfully challenging it, since the overriding concern for victims of police brutality is simply that they are black, not that they are black and poor. Black middle class South Africans feel culturally closer to African Americans (much like white South Africans imagining themselves as extensions of Europe, especially Britain, rather than “African”), and aspire to the cultural leadership and metropolitan chic that they have come to globally represent–despite the fact that this ingratiation is unrequited, and is instead usually met with indifference or cultural fetishism (see the film Black Panther), all expressive of a typically American contempt for Africans.

On the flip side, poor and working-class black South Africans, have more in common with their American counterparts– black, white or latino—than they do with the middle or upper stratas in either country. Indeed, through their shared experiences of economic oppression and state repression, they have more in common with their counterparts in Kenya or India, where police crackdowns during lockdown have not been dissimilar to those here but are underreported still, in Palestine, where Israeli Apartheid continues to harden, or even France, where it wasn’t long ago that the police violently suppressed the gilet jaunes. Nevertheless, spurred by the media visible protests emblazoning America, a cohort of Twitter personalities, NGO professionals and media commentators, are now trying to reconstruct the resistance to police brutality at home as a kind of domestic Black Lives Matter moment.

The American political scientist Adolph Reed has been foremost in critiquing the ways in which Black Lives Matter, emerging fist as a set of protests against police brutality in Ferguson in 2014, has since failed to cohere into a concrete social movement. Approaching the problem of police violence in a mostly race-reductionist way, the problem becomes that it at best can only achieve a set symbolic goals—the chanting of the slogan at gatherings, the memorialization of those killed by the police– but struggles to develop a coherent vision for social transformation. The most forceful of BLM’s proposals, came through another slogan, that to “abolish the police.” What this means in practical terms, is a range of different things, such as reimagining policing as a public good, or gradually disinvesting from it so as to dismantle it altogether. What all of these miss, however, is that so long as there is a capitalist state entrenching private property relations, there will always be some kind of security apparatus to defend it with racism coded into its logic of operation– it will prevail no matter how hard you try to reform it in order to give it a more human face, or it will simply become privatized, as is very much the case in South Africa already.

The profound explosion of rage in America—for now, knee jerk, and inchoate, will no doubt be mimicked elsewhere as restive populations reach their breaking point. It must be embraced, and channeled towards the objective of sustained organizing for a better world beyond capitalism. When the dust settles and the wreckage is before us, then the real work starts. It was Fred Hampton, the radical Black Panther who himself was first harassed by local police and then brutally assassinated by the FBI, who said, “We don’t think you fight fire with fire best, we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.” We have to keep fighting, and know not only what it is we are fighting against, but also what we are fighting for.

Further Reading

Keep the phones on

COVID-19 presents an unprecedented threat, but a campaign by South Africa’s security forces attempting to grind defenseless people into dust does not guarantee success.