Police and Extra-Judicial Killing

July 7, 2016 John Drabinski

Police and Extra-Judicial Killing

I really have no idea what to say as another pair of high-profile killing make their way around our awareness. But I noticed something and here’s a note on that.

Every few rounds of social media response to awful violence seem to generate a twist on vocabulary. In my corner of the world, I keep seeing the phrase “extra-judicial killing” over the last couple of days. Like, I’m seeing it a lot a lot. Everywhere.

I find this to be a really interesting and important phrase. Technically or by strict definition, that’s exactly what these police murders of Black people are: killings by the state without the adjudication of guilt or innocence, killing outside the law without consequences for that killing. But rhetorically, for me anyway, the phrase “extra-judicial killing” is the way we used to characterize military and militaristic dictatorships in 1980s and 1990s Latin America, and in particular the paramilitary death squads that did the real work of terror and domination. Think of Pinochet’s goons throwing people out of helicopters or Fujimori’s paramilitary forces slaughtering people by the hundreds in the Andes, etc. It is awful and terrifying and shameful to be defined, as a country, by extra-judicial killing. Or so I would hope (history doesn’t really give reason for that hope. I get that).

This all goes to the heart of what and who this country is or has become. The state has been killing Black people since 1776. That’s not new. And we’ve always been a militaristic country, whether waging war on borders or borderlands or in conquest, or in other countries in wars big and small. But I think we have to start associating extra-judicial killing and its broader (lack of) meaning with the notion of a military dictatorship. Think about it: what support is there, nationally, for continued presence in Iraq or Afghanistan? Or support for intervention in Syria? Do any of us, except those who read targeted stuff about that part of the world, really even know the extent of our presence, expenditure, death toll, and so on? No, of course we don’t. Because that’s the point: the military works (and has been for a very long time, maybe since the beginning) completely autonomously, bearing little if any relationship to the democratic arm of the state.


And who would ever question that autonomy? No one does.

The police operate with that autonomy, absolutely. Not unlike the paramilitary forces I associate with the phrase “extra-judicial killing.”

This autonomy operates with so little questioning (if any) from white people. It reminds me of the interviews in Patricio Guzmán’s ‘Chile, la memoria obstinada’ in which Chileans cheerfully remember and defend Pinochet’s reign of violence. I find my fellow white people defending this shit just as terrifying and terrifying in exactly the same way. What is wrong with you guys, my god?!

No significant elected official says anything about these police murders, except to send a prayer here and there, which is some deep fucking cynicism that we just accept as a society.

If the military operates without concern for public support to the tune of trillions of dollars, and the police kill with absolute impunity, then why would we say anything other than that the United States is a military dictatorship? The enigma is this, of course: we are a military dictatorship without a strongman figurehead, unless you think presidents are that (I don’t).

Anyway, if you know me, I’ve said this about military dictatorship stuff for a long time, so this is repeating myself. But seeing this phrase “extra-judicial killing” appear in my social media has been striking and its rhetorical sounding is really something worth thinking about. This is a question we have to take very seriously, whether or not we need to start thinking about the United States as a form of military dictatorship, with the police as an arm of that military and the one place where the citizenry feels the violence, intensity, and impunity of the power occupying the state of exception. This sort of characterization of our (or my, if you’re reading from outside the U.S.) country needs its own accounting, because it is outwardly imperial in new ways and inwardly murderous in ways consonant with origins in conquest and enslavement.


I’m reminded of Nathan Huggins’ book Black Odyssey, which after many many pages of documentation of anti-Black violence at every level since the founding of the U.S., from law to everyday life, concludes with what we have to conclude: that the United States has always been a tyrannical state for African-Americans. This is a moment to maybe extend that characterization (while also a moment to sit with all these particularities, to know their names and to remember them, R.I.P everywhere), and to also ask questions about casual complicity by white Americans in the development of military authoritarianism inside and outside their own country. It’s wrong to see military dictatorships or authoritarian governments as formed at the expense of the people. Watch Guzmán’s film, or even just recall Nazi Germany, or watch this election season: “the people” have great passion for authoritarianism, especially when it comes to bear on old, enduring racial hatred. To kill brown people. It’s the plain. The excuses begin. The refusal to imagine the military wing of the state accountable begins. Or maybe better to say that “it all continues.” Choose your despairing characterization.

As much as anything, the publicity of these murders by the police and how they remain (rightly) in our view for so long, has me in a spiral that keeps saying “I just have no words.” So, these are words about police murders – not “about” in the sense of getting to the heart of it all (I have no words for that heart of the matter, just profound despair), but “about” in the sense of dancing around edges and borders of really singular, terrifying loss.

[featured image is from a tweet by @Nnedi, retweeted by @amplify285]

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