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The Many Forms of Police Violence


Monica Bell (@monicacbell) is Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

This post is part of a symposium on Black Lives Matters.

Over the past week, there has been unprecedented acknowledgment of the physical violence that Black people in America have faced, for generations, at the hands of police. While this is an important development, the work to eradicate police violence will not be complete if the public remains concerned only with the most visually and viscerally jarring forms of police violence, and those for which police seem most responsible. The public must realize that violence—not only of the physical sort, but also the structural and symbolic variety—is endemic to much of the routine work police do in communities across America.

These forms of violence emanate from multiple institutions and how they interact, and not only individual institutions operating on their own. Reforming one institution–or even, as some have proposed, eliminating one institution—will not, on its own, bring an end to the racial violence that took the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many named and unnamed others. It will certainly not end the anti-black violence that is a daily part of the black experience. It is the daily indignity of Blackness and racial violence—the combination of the physical, the symbolic, and the structural sort—that explains the uprisings happening across the country right now.

In a forthcoming article in NYU Law Review, I examine how these forms of violence operate, mobilizing police resources to validate white fear of property loss, creating major barriers to to neighborhood mobility, and perpetuating racial residential segregation. To illustrate, let me offer another story of police violence.

“Richard Jones” (pseudonym), a fresh-from-high-school young man who participated in the “Hearing Their Voices” study in Baltimore shortly after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, was taking a long stroll home from visiting a friend in a town farther out in Baltimore County. Richard was with his younger cousin and a few close friends that he refers to as his brothers, and they did not have access to a car or public transportation in this area. The boys were out of school for the summer, so they took the time to walk slowly, exploring new places along the way, laughing despite the pulsating humid heat. “It was just me and my brothers. We was just walking from our homeboy’s house, ‘cause we was just having fun.” As they sauntered, they came across an area unlike any they had previously seen up close, a subdivision surrounding a golf course. “We was just looking at houses, ‘cause they had pools and stuff. We didn’t know pools out there! We didn’t know how nice it was. So, we was just looking around, just looking, just roaming the streets, just looking at everything.”

At some point Richard and his brothers decided that it was time to take a break, so they sat for a bit and took out a phone to listen to some music and relax in the beautiful place they had discovered. Shortly after their music break, after they had started back walking, officers stopped them. “I guess one of the neighborhood watchers just said, ‘There some kids goofing and I think they was invading private property.’ But we was just sitting down. We wasn’t doing nothing but listening to music, then we started walking. We didn’t even know that somebody called the cops.”

The boys thought the officer who questioned them seemed kind and pleasant, even as she treated them in a suspicious manner. They told her, “We ain’t do nothing but walk.” According to Richard, the officer told them, “One of the people that lived there, they thought we was invading their turf.” The officer asked them whether it was their first time in the area. What they were up to? Although she seemed to believe that they were just passing through, she also demanded that they give her their names. Richard was unbothered by this step in the process: She just needed to “check the system. Check out everything,” he explained. After telling them to be careful, the officer let Richard and the boys go, and they slowly made their way back to Baltimore city.

This story probably feels anticlimactic. “Where is the police violence here?” you may be wondering.

Consider the message to Richard. Simply by being who they were in that wealthy, predominantly white area, they were suspicious. They suspected that “neighborhood watchers” called the police when he and his friends had not committed any crimes, and indeed were “just having fun walking down the blocks and stuff and seeing the area, ‘cause we never saw that area ever.”

Scholars, especially anthropologists, sometimes refer to these acts of exclusion as forms of structural violence, or as Paul Farmer has described it, “violence exerted systematically—that is, indirectly—by everyone who belongs to a certain social order.” Critical to an understanding of structural violence is that it is easy for its perpetrators to escape blame. Because the causes are systemic and indirect, everyone is to blame and thus no one is held accountable or bears responsibility to address its harms. There is no Derek Chauvin to castigate. Instead, the blames lies with racial segregation, the dispossession of black people and black communities, the criminalization of blackness, the fear of white property loss, and a police force and that relies upon and reproduces all of those social ills and more. This type of violence is routine, and accountability for it is even rarer than accountability for direct acts of physical police violence.

A similar dynamic led to the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Satilla Shores, a predominantly white suburb of Brunswick, Georgia. For months before Gregory and Travis McMichael killed Mr. Arbery, the neighborhood Facebook group was alight with complaints about “prowlers,” with occasional mention of their presumed race or class:

  • December 18, 2019: “Suspicious old silver Pontiac casing the house across the street 220 satilla Dr. From the looks of the car I don’t think there [sic] house shopping if you know what I mean.”
  • January 2, 2020: “Royal Oaks subdivision was hit last night their [sic] was a black male going house to house going through vehicles and a dark green Ford Expedition going along with him so keep a [sic] eye out and if you see this expedition creeping through your neighborhood contact the police.”
  • February 11, 2020: “Lock your cars and your houses. Prowlers in the neighborhood again. Police are patrolling.”

On February 23, 2020, the McMichaels allegedly had enough of the “f***ing n***er” coming to their neighborhood. Based on a “gut feeling” that Arbery was responsible for the “prowling,” the McMichaels killed Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through the predominantly white neighborhood. Although it was private citizens who technically killed Arbery, the lack of police response to the incident is an example of police indifference to the loss of Black life—another violence that characterizes longstanding dynamics between Black communities and law enforcement.

It is frighteningly easy to imagine Richard’s experience turning out like Arbery’s. In the same way that Satilla Shores residents relied on their concerns about private property preservation and crime to demonize Black visitors like Arbery, the residents of the neighborhood Richard and his friends visited—the “neighborhood watchers”—likely believed that they had good, objective, “colorblind” property-based reasons to draw an exclusionary race-class boundary.

There is an even more complex layer of police violence at work in Richard’s story. Although Richard viscerally understood the injustice of his exclusion from this wealthy neighborhood, he was not critical of the officer’s “need” to “check the system.” Even as he noticed and resented the inequality that resulted from this system, at that moment he set aside questions about the legitimacy or rightness of the system.

That marginalized people can recognize that they are subject to injustice, fight against their subjugation, and nonetheless accept it in some form, is what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called symbolic violence. Symbolic violence, according to Bourdieu, is “is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity.” It is a form of social domination that “requires of the person who undergoes it an attitude which defies the ordinary alternative between freedom and constraint.”

In my forthcoming article, I describe “pro-segregation policing” in six manifestations—mass criminalization, patrolling borders, coordinating with other bureaucracies, constructing jurisdiction, constructing neighborhood reputations, and distributing racialized economic value. In Richard’s story, we see at least four of those mechanisms at work. But the larger goal of the project is to expand the lens of police violence. Now, when consciousness of direct, physical police violence seems at its zenith, visionary leaders must imagine the next stage of consciousness-raising—from the individual to the structural, from the visible to the symbolic. If we do not recognize that the approach to resolving these issues requires fundamental redistributions of power within policing, alongside reforms that reach beyond policing, the events of the last two weeks will no doubt repeat themselves.