In a democracy, the police cannot function as the rulers’ agent for oppression. Many places in the world have serious difficulties fulfilling that requirement – dictatorships, police states and deeply corrupt societies. What is happening in the United States these weeks does not live up to the very basic requirements of democratic societies either.
“Police killings of Blacks have now become the rule to such an extent that only a few become enraged – in the United States, video footage of police killings of Blacks has become such a polite routine that even two killings in two days are close to business as usual. It is an American tragedy.” The headline was from Berlingske. The newspaper, however, has not been inattentive nor ignored the extensive demonstrations and rampant unrest following recent police killings of African Americans George Floyd in Minnesota and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.
The headline, on the other hand, dates from last summer, when newspaper journalist Poul Høi reflected upon police killings in the United States as a routine matter that back then merely added to the endless series of authorities gunning down Black people. The victims were notably young men, and, as in previous cases of filmed police violence and police killings, they did not then provoke reactions to the same extent. Police officers who at point-blank range fired a series of shots at the victims’ chests committed the two killings last summer. Both victims were armed but they had not pulled their weapons. In other words, they were regular executions.
Reportedly, the recent killing in Minnesota of Floyd was provoked by the suspicion that he had used a counterfeit banknote to buy cigarettes. Floyd was unarmed and lying on the ground handcuffed, while the officer – with one hand placed nonchalantly in his pocket – during eight minutes and 46 seconds knelt on his neck, squeezing the life out of him. It was also a regular execution. An execution carried out with the same confidence that slave owners displayed during slavery when they punished or killed the Black slaves who were their personal property.
Unlike last year, the killing of Floyd added fuel to the flames in the United States leading to protests, demonstrations, street fights and store robberies. Moreover, the Black Lives Matter movement became visible in major cities around the world.
Young Black Men Are at Risk
How can a society live with police violence and police killings to such great extent? Because the scope of this is widespread. Incredibly widespread. Yearly, 800,000 police officers in the United States account for about 1,000 killings of U.S. citizens. The distribution of victims among Blacks and whites are roughly even, but since Black Americans only make up about 13% of the population, African Americans are severely over-represented in police killing statistics – a statistic that also shows that police violence is the leading cause of young men’s deaths. According to the brutal facts, one in a thousand Black men can expect to be killed by the American police.
Today, a young Black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than a young white man is. In American society, bullets fly both ways. The work environment of police officers is both harsh and dangerous, especially in a number of major cities. On average, every year 50 police officers are killed, while the number of African Americans killed is 10 times higher.
Undoubtedly, the widespread proliferation of firearms in the United States and the right to bear arms play a role in the both the number of killings by police and the killings of police officers. The potential of both parties in a police action carrying weapons probably makes the government officials more likely to fire their guns.
Similarly, the John Wayne syndrome certainly plays a role, with its image of the American past, where the sheriff rides in on horseback and shoots at everything moving until the undertaker can nail down the lid of the last villain’s coffin. Here the Western motto prevails that in God’s own country, possession of weapons is a human right, and good combats evil with cold lead.
Allegedly, the proliferation of firearms was also supposed to be the reason why American police officers, unlike Danish police officers, do not learn to shoot at the legs. Instead, they aim for the central part of the upper body to prevent the opponent from being able to use any weapon. When the target at which one aims the gun sight is the vital parts of the body, naturally the likelihood of shots being deadly increases dramatically.
At the same time, part of the police force has received relatively brief training. If one has not received adequate training in conflict resolution without the use of force, naturally when in a dangerous work environment the risk increases that the weapons get the final say. Likewise, a dangerous work environment with a significant risk to one’s own life and health in the toughest ghettos risks creating a sneaking, brutalizing effect, which the officer may not feel but the citizen discovers the hard way.
The Police Have a Strong Racist Past – Especially in the South
When African Americans are significantly over-represented in police killing cases, is this because of a police force permeated with racism? The enormous inequality in American society affects African Americans in particular and creates the basis for deep gaps between ghettos and the police force. However, despite the economic inequality, there is no doubt that the police in the South especially and parts of the FBI were previously openly racist.
The South lost the Civil War and the victors in the North forced them to abolish slavery. The right to use slave labor was crucial to the production of cotton, tobacco and rice by the Southern slave states – and therefore to an elite class of slave owners. At the same time, the North focused on industrialization, thanks to immigrant labor from Europe.
The attitude toward the descendants of slavery is still deeply rooted in parts of the population in the South and therefore in parts of the police. Confederate Gen. Robert Lee continues to be praised in the part of the population that also uses the Confederate flag instead of the official flag of the United States. Many parts of the white population in the South experienced significant economic consequences after the Civil War following the abolition of slavery. This has been a good breeding ground for the image of Black people being second-class citizens inferior to the white race. And the police have very much reflected the attitudes of the local white population toward the Black population.
Especially in the 1960s and ‘70s, police in the South were particularly harsh toward the growing civil rights movement. Based on the provisions in the U.S. Constitution about equal rights for all, regardless of racial background, the civil rights movement attacked widespread racial segregation in public life, public transport and in the education system.
White American civilians and police officers retaliated against these demands for equality by killing numerous civil rights advocates. The same was true of the fight of police and the FBI against the militant civil rights movement, in which, for example, the Black Panther Party in its first six years lost 28 members due to police killings. In addition, this also applied to the ability of the police and judicial system to ignore the violence of white racists and Ku Klux Klan members toward Blacks, and the killings.
Slavery is now ancient history, but police harassment and violence against human rights defenders and the fierce struggle in the South to maintain an apartheid-like, racially divided society is frighteningly close.
Only 50 years ago, civil rights defenders really started dismantling the official racial segregation in the South. As late as 1963, highly racist and almost fascist Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered the use of dogs and fire hoses on [the participants in] a civil rights march. The protesters, led by Martin Luther King, demanded the abolition of racial segregation in public spaces. Connor was the originator of the grim statement that a Jew was “nothing but a nigger turned inside out.”
Obviously, the basic racism of the past has not completely faded away in the short period up until today. Not even in the police.
A Real Democracy Cannot Embrace Racist Government Officials
However, one fact exists that the partial explanations cannot erase: namely, the role and function of the police in a democracy. The prerequisite for a true democracy is not only a people-elected government. It is also a law enforcement agency that protects the interests of the community and is not used against the community. Or is permitted to develop into a state within the state.
Naturally, the basic values of democracy must permeate law enforcement in a democracy. For that reason alone, in a true democracy one cannot be a government official having citizen contact and acting in the interest of the community while being racist at the same time.
There are already many spots on the world map where the police are defending the interests of the authorities against the people, where corruption and nepotism rule the police force, or where the police have taken on a sacrosanct role as a state within the state.
The United States is a democracy, but if the country is still to be considered a true democracy, politicians must gain control of that part of the police force with an itchy trigger finger and racism in its inner pocket. The Minneapolis City Council, where a police officer’s knee strangled Floyd, has taken the first necessary step.
According to the city council majority that will not settle for reform, they genuinely need to chart a different course. “Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions,” reads a statement from the City Council, which among other initiatives will redirect resources to prevent crime.
The organization of the Danish police is quite different from the one in the United States, but the role and task requirements in a democracy are the same. We too have had problems in Denmark, although the current problems with the American police are at a completely different and far more dangerous level.
The role of the Danish security policy leading up to World War II and during the occupation working against the interests of the community is a rather unpleasant chapter in history. The cooperation with Nazi Germany on the readmission of German refugees throughout the 1930s, and the cooperation with the Gestapo during the occupation reflect no credit on Danish democracy. Similarly, the plainclothes police officers and agent provocateurs from the special unit Uropatruljen, which originated in the fight against narcotics in the late ‘60s, were a sad presence in Denmark during the 35 years the unit existed.
However, Danish police use firearms on an average of 245 times a year, and fall victim to the firearms of others on an average of four times a year. Danish police face both an unreasonably harsh and violent work environment, as in the clearing of Ungdomshuset,* located on Jagtvej in Copenhagen, and they even commit errors and acts that reveal attitudes that do not belong in the service of the community. However, we are far from a situation where the behavior of the police undermines democracy. One cannot say the same about what is happening these weeks in the United States.
*Translator’s note: Ungdomshuset (literally “the Youth House”) was the popular name of the building located on Jagtvej 69 in Copenhagen, which functioned as an underground scene venue for music and a rendezvous point for various leftist groups. Ungdomshuset existed from 1982 until 2007, when after prolonged conflict the police cleared it and it was torn down.