Since the George Floyd Rebellion last summer it has become common practice to paint all police officers in the United States with a single brush. The average American used to believe that most cops were just doing their job, while the media focused on a few bad apples who do not represent the vast majority of police officers. This view has now fallen out of fashion — and I think we need to bring it back. Surely there are cops who are racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, and corrupt. But these are not all cops. Some cops are intelligent and sophisticated. They study the humanities and attempt to understand the structural causes of social problems police encounter in the field. These cops attempt to build trust with the communities they police, and go to work every day fighting to improve the public perception of US police. They are the bad apples.
A cop’s job is pretty simple. American society concentrates the vast majority of wealth, property, and power in a small set of hands. Most people have very little and are forced to work whatever job they can find – enriching someone else in the process – just to secure food and shelter, which they must pay for – again, enriching someone else – at prices that gobble up all their wages and then some. Many who want work can’t even find it, while others see no dignified place for themselves in a sea of humiliating, dead-end McJobs. This class structure is violent compulsion cloaked in the veneer of free market exchange, as workers are nominally free to quit at any time – and are just as free to be evicted for non-payment of rent or mortgage, to languish without proper nutrition or health care, and ultimately, free to drop dead, with nobody stopping them. If the force of this compulsion isn’t strong enough to produce docile, law-abiding workers, the cop steps in with their club, gun, and jail cell to threaten them into compliance. Cops personify the violence that holds our society together, and even if this violence isn’t always deployed, it is always present in their daily work. The role of the cop is somewhere between janitor and bouncer, with a wardrobe to match.
Most cops understand this. Their job has nothing to do with helping people or keeping them safe, and the disrespect and unconcealed disdain they show toward the people they are supposedly protecting tells this story plainly. Given that the US workforce has always been stratified along the lines of so-called race, gender, and national belonging, it is no surprise to find cops upholding white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia – even when the cops themselves are black, women, immigrants, and so forth. Oceans of ink are spilled on “water is wet” studies demonstrating that certain people – white, male, affluent, gender-conforming, and so forth – have an easier time with the police than others who do not check those boxes. Far from “implicit biases” or any other personal deficiencies remediable by education, the treatment one can expect from the cops is simply an honest expression of who wields social power and who does not. Whatever violence, indignity, or disrespect cops deploy in their dealings with the people they police simply reflects that person’s place in US society, and how much value American capitalism places on their life.
It is all so simple – until the bad apples come in. Armed with theories of “social justice” and feel-good platitudes cribbed from the liberal side of US social movements, the bad apples argue that police can be an agency that promotes egalitarianism and dignity for the people they are tasked with keeping in their wretched place. The bad apples bemoan the erosion of trust in the communities most terrorized by police, and argue that the return of this trust will improve community safety. Accordingly, they promote “dialogue” between police and the policed and cultivate partnerships with historic emissaries of capital like local business owners, landlords, clergy, and non-profits, which they deputize as adjuncts of police work. The bad apples tell communities that things would be better for them if only they cooperated more with the police, forswearing allegiance to their friends and relatives who live outside the law, and aligning themselves instead with the custodians of a social order designed to use them up and throw them away. Police departments, they argue, can be improved with more investment, more resources, and more cops – in addition to every law abiding citizen doing the cops’ work for them, for free.
These same bad apples are also implicated in the “blue wall of silence” behind which US cops hide their treachery. Despite rampant corruption and abuse throughout US policing, one can count the number of effective whistleblower cops in recent years on one hand. Instead, the bad apples suit up alongside the rest of the cops, listen as they hurl slurs and recount abuses committed and planned, and say nothing, year in, year out, besides pleading with policed people to trust that the cops have their best interests at heart. They say nothing as the victims of police violence, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Michael Brown, are slandered in the press as having caused their own murders. During the rebellion last summer, the bad apples even “took a knee” with protesters, mimicking Colin Kaepernick, espousing solidarity with the movement as their colleagues prepared to rain their clubs down on the protestors heads.
Most cops are just doing their job. They represent the brute force of capitalist social relations. They don’t give a shit about anybody’s dignity or rights, especially if you aren’t rich or white. And they don’t feel the need to pretend otherwise. It’s time we stop letting the bad apples give people the wrong idea about the honest profession of American policing.