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They Should Be Cops, Not Occupation Troops

The outrageously brutal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis, Tennessee policemen appears inexplicable to normal, decent, people watching the videos in horror. How, I have been asked repeatedly, can human beings display such inhuman savagery, especially given that they knew they were on camera? Compounding the incredulity, the cops talked on camera about how to give themselves a cover story – “he grabbed for my gun” – while one of them kicked Mr. Nichols in the head as he lay handcuffed. I had difficulty at first understanding what motivated such brutality until I realized that I had seen the same absence of conscience among a similar demographic: occupation forces.

Vicious inhumanity should not surprise anyone with even a perfunctory knowledge of history. After all, 1933 Germany arguably was the most civilized nation in Europe; with the best educated, cultured, and socially responsible population on the continent. Within the next twelve years those same Germans perpetrated the Holocaust, in a cold, organized and measured manner that had no precedent in history. (I hope none of my right-wing friends jump in excitedly claiming that I have equated the Memphis police force with the Gestapo; I only describe how normal human beings can, and too often do, descend into savagery.)

The conscienceless brutal beating inflicted by five Memphis cops on Mr. Nichols has a counterpart in the behavior of occupation soldiers.

Nine years ago, I wrote that, without minimizing the injustice so often inflicted on African-Americans by police and by a justice system that fails to hold bad cops accountable, I argued that police violence could not be blamed on systemic racism alone. I believed that policies to save money by taking policemen off foot patrol and putting them in cars had destroyed community interaction with law enforcement. The modern policeman, patrolled from “a cruiser buried in communications gear and dashboard computers, … (he) sits alone behind the wheel talking to no one, unaware of who belongs and who doesn’t … limiting his social interaction to sharing gripes with other equally isolated cops at the end of his shift in the station house.”

Five years later, I reexamined my thesis that systemic racism was not the cause of excessive police violence, and that the problem could be corrected by better training and organization. It now appears clear that the problem goes beyond both training and racism; we have instead transformed the policeman from neighborhood cop to a soldier occupying enemy territory, most frequently poor black neighborhoods. To quote our (then) President and Secretary of Defense, police had to “dominate the battlespace” referring to our own cities!

The Memphis cops behaved like occupying troops in a hostile land. The impunity with which they discussed a cover story for what they were doing to Mr. Nichols knowing that they were being recorded by a police-controlled surveillance camera (not to mention their own body cameras) indicates that they expected their superiors to cover for them. The occupation troop mentality can explain why they administered a brutal beating to a helpless young man following an innocuous traffic stop. Occupation troops in many places have done the same as a warning to the people under occupation not to “f… with them.”

History is replete with examples of how occupation duties transform ordinary men into killers. The Boston Massacre of 1775, a precursor to the American Revolution, began when a bunch of locals gave a British sentry some lip. A crowd gathered, more soldiers came up, and the locals threw snowballs at them. The British troops opened fire, killing five. In an effort to maintain calm, the British commanders conducted a court martial, found two soldiers guilty of murder but then administered the most minor of punishments. The head of gendarmerie in one major European ally of the United States – one that concentrated its migrants in urban ghettos – once told me with glee, “we periodically sweep immigrant neighborhoods, round up young men at random and beat the crap out of them so that they know their place.”

Numerous Israeli studies have shown that occupation duty in the Palestinian territories has had insidious effects on Israeli soldiers. These studies document numerous cases of indiscriminate murder of Palestinians, often to “teach the Arabs a lesson.” The Israeli army rarely investigates and, when it does, usually concludes that the soldiers “responded to threats.” Israeli Army spokesmen often blame Palestinians, as for example, in the recent murder of a Palestinian-American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh.

Recent American history is also replete with examples of how occupation brings out the worst in the kids we assign to occupation duties. Have we forgotten the atrocities at Abu Ghraib?

Memphis police established a special unit to deal with high crime neighborhoods. The unit was patterned on a similar unit established in Atlanta which was notorious for ambushing young men, yanking down their pants in public, and performing full-body cavity searches in an attempt to spread fear. Even the name of the Memphis unit, SCORPION (Street Crime Operations to restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), appeared designed to intimidate. The five cops who brutalized Mr. Nichols had been previously ‘disciplined’ for wrongful violence against citizens but stayed on their jobs and even earned commendations. The cops saw themselves as occupation troops assigned to suppress the local population and expected impunity for their brutality. Had Mr. Nichols not died, they probably would have been ‘disciplined’ once again and promptly returned to the streets. Should we be surprised that the Memphis police chief who created SCORPION had previously trained with the Israeli military? That the cops and the victim were all black men had nothing to do with what happened; the police saw themselves as elite troops sent, as they say, to keep neighborhood youth “in their place.”

So long as we task police with occupation duties, I fear that we will see the same atrocities over and over again.

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