State Power and Police Violence in Ferguson

Photo: Christian Harris
Photo: Christian Harris

In my last post, I recalled an incident that occurred decades ago in Hawai’i. In that incident, I was assaulted by police officers on my 18th birthday. I assume I was targeted because I lived in a small town where I had developed a reputation as a trouble-maker. I opened the door to violence by resisting arrest by asserting my rights.

The cops involved in this incident were white, and they were acting on a description of a perpetrator that was so loose as to invite the kind of harassment I faced: “young, black hair, brown eyes, some kind of local…” Resistance, in my case, was responded to by a show of force meant to send a message.

My point in sharing this story was that this is how the law is too often enforced. Any excuse, however weak, may open the door to violent acts that are, ultimately, meant to serve as shocking displays of awe-inspiring power.

In response, a reader made this comment:

Every cop I know of in Hawaii is either Filipino or Native Hawaiian so take Scott’s story with a grain of salt

I think this reader is making an important point. The reality is that most police officers in Hawai’i aren’t white. In fact, a great many fit the ethnic profile of those who are most grossly over-represented in Hawai’i prisons and jails: Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. The racial make-up of the police force in Hawai’i seems ideally suited to achieve greater equity, but incarceration rates tell a different story because cops are the enforcers of a system that is racially unjust. Yes, we need to deal with the cops, but we should not neglect to deal with the system.

But, that was just what I meant to say. My actual response included this statement:

…But, that said, I actually don’t want to make the point that police officers are racists. In fact, I think if that’s the conclusion we walk away from Ferguson with, we will have failed to drill down to the roots of the problem. Cops are just public employees with a job to do. The concerns we should be addressing where police officers are concerned are, why are their jobs defined as they are, why are they trained and equipped as they are to do those jobs, and why is legal repression our only solution to the problems cops are supposed to manage?

In response to that statement, another reader said this:

This is alarming.

This should be *among* the bouquet of points you make because one MUST argue that the culture of policing in Ferguson most certainly attracted certain kinds of people, people who wanted to harass, harness and, quite literally, police black people. How could it not have been telegraphed that way to job applicants, new recruits, recruits brought in by other officers? How could this not have become part and parcel of their job description? How could they survive in this culture without adhering to its belief systems and tangible, measurable expectations (terrorizing black people)?

Police, perhaps more than politicians, have protections and are trusted with enormous powers. While I understand the Obama-like urge to use terms and strategies that appear–to white people–to safely and responsibly address these issues, be aware that this language fails on the ground. It only appeases white people who are unenlightened to the terrorism of policing in this country enacted everyday on mostly non-white poor people… Enforced, veiled, unchallenged, systematic, institutionalized, ubiquitous racism is insufficiently called out.

To which I respond, amen! I overstated my case that just dealing with racism among police is not enough.

In order to effect and reproduce injustice, the state must maintain a monopoly on power. By monopoly, I mean the exclusive ability to commit acts of violence with legal impunity.

Where the state’s monopoly on power is concerned, cops are the enforcers; the tip of the spear. Unless we blunt that tip by pushing back against it and making demands that police be differently trained, monitored, and held accountable, and we stop over-relying on law enforcement to deal with social problems, we are all vulnerable.

And, what makes all of the above so difficult to achieve, in spite of decades of struggle for police reform, is racism, particularly anti-black racism. Where policing is concerned, anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy. Anti-black racism determines the pattern according to which repression and violence are meted out, and undercuts broad based protest against this unjust pattern of enforcement and violence.

To side-step the importance of dealing with racist policing is to set ourselves up for failure in the struggle for justice.

Addressing the state’s monopoly on violence matters to all of us. Groups that suffer state repression including Muslims (who are racialized in this country to include anyone of any religion who happens to be South Asian, Arab, or Middle Eastern), immigrants of color, and women, among others, all benefit when violence is confronted through mechanisms of democracy. Democracy, at least in theory, should mitigate white supremacy (which is, by definition, a racialized form of economic exploitation and political domination enforced with violence).

Winning greater democracy is what I mean by “blunting the tip of the spear.” However, I think it’s helpful to also remember that while blunting the tip of the spear is necessary, we also need to deal with who is throwing the spear, toward whom, and why.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.