Police Brutality: The Metaphysics of Violence, Kifon Emile, M.A.

“. . . the face presents itself, and demands justice.”

Emmanuel Levinas: Totality and Infinity, 294.

Human existence oscillates between rights and privilege brought to equilibrium through the auspices of the law. It is a right because it is natural; derived from the basic principle that animates life. It is a privilege because it is transcendental; resulting from that which man cannot completely [be]hold, apprehend nor grasp.

The right to exist emanates from its privilege which is transcendental. Because all humans benefit from the latter, it becomes a right by virtue of our indebtedness to the same transcendence which bestowed it upon us. In this light, the encounter with the other is usually either an encounter with one’s own other self or another transcendental manifestation of self [humanity] which commands reverence. Respect, therefore, is not a choice that humans offer another, it is a due that is paid to that transcendence seen in each person which reminds us of our own human[ity]ess. Or as the ethical philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas puts it: “The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is an obligation.” (Totality and Infinity 201) Another expression for this obligation is the obligation to respect others because the face [other]  is a natural epiphany of relation “ . . . the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation . . .” (ibid. 198).

The equality of all humans is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1945, in these terms: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” A better formulation appeared 126 years prior in the form of the declaration of independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These edits underpin the supreme value of life which must not be transgressed in any way. In fact, the values of life, liberty, and happiness must be promoted, defended by all means possible. And for this reason, the institution of government [republic] is created to promote the well-being of everyone, as the aforementioned declaration specifies: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

A government, therefore, is instituted primarily for one reason: protect and promote the rights of the individual. In order to accomplish such task, it creates the police, a civil force unit, the protect citizens who are either in harm’s way or in danger from people of the underworld. As a living expression of the law, it reconciles natural rights and transcendental privileges.

Nonetheless, those entrusted with the duty to serve and protect have been the cause of pain for a fair number of persons: about 632 civilian deaths in 2014, 845 deaths in 2015, 183 in 2016. These deaths have often been an issue of concern for most citizens who question the use of force in the defense or elimination of life. While courts have often adjudicated in favor of police officers almost all the time, the public had remained skeptical in most cases and the gap of mistrust has progressively widened between the two.

At the heart of police, violence is the negation of existence, the refusal to acknowledge this basic principle of equality, transcendence, and respect. It is violence borne out of the desire to deny the other’s right to live, to be free, to be happy; the basic right to have a face and consequently be doomed to perpetual silence. It is denial because it confiscates rights [sef-defense?] to oneself while the others’ rights become a privilege resulting from the tolerance of the former. Here, humanity has been betrayed: “we belong to humanity, but humanity doesn’t belong to us.” This is not a structural violence per se, it is a metaphysical violence, arrogance, and brutality where absolute rights become discretionary for those who have stripped them from having a face, a say, a life. Such victims are humans only to the extent to which their human/state counterparts permit, or they’d have to purchase their way up to humanity through a perpetual surrender of will and free-will, which in most cases does not guarantee safety and the obligation of respect.  The conjugation of this brutality is always packaged in a subtle form historically known to mask its outright spitefulness.

The Criminalization of Tolerance

The criminalization of the concept of tolerance seems to originate from the definition both from dictionaries as well as from popular usage. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as a “:…willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own even if you disagree or disapprove of them.” Even though this statement surmises reasonably the idea of tolerance, it insinuates some incoherence which should be outlined.

Firstly, it is based on the assumption that people have jurisdiction to agree or disagree with the behavior and beliefs of others even when the latter is not their children, spouse, student or a relation of necessary dependence. The idea of agreeing and disagreeing with others is part of social etiquette and not a duty that some people have to exercise on others.

Secondly, even when the possibility of evaluating or agreeing with the behaviors and beliefs of others, it is always based on the individual’s perspective instead of what is objective or what the law prescribes. In this sense, tolerance becomes another form of abuse of common sense and disregard of the law. For example, if the law requires citizens of every race and ethnic group to sit in a bus, then your acceptance of the way another person sits is not a sign of tolerance since the law already permitted it. A further permission [agreeing] from another person only shows respite for the law which commands everyone. Lastly, society is so diverse and complex that our desire to agree or disagree with their beliefs and behavior is only vain and vile.

Therefore, “tolerance is not the permission that we give to others to exercise their rightful freedom. It is the acceptance that the exercise of the rightful freedom of others is not a privilege of our permission.” (UWC 197). By refusing to claim any jurisdiction of judgment and by admitting the complexity of society which is beyond our sway of wishes, we begin to reach an understanding of tolerance.

The use of violence, often without the exhaustion of all means of communication demonstrate no sign of tolerance: victims are deprived of speaking, having a voice, being different, acting and thinking different. And when thinking/acting differently goes on safely, it becomes not a victory for the rule of law but for the cop for glorifies himself for being nothing more than what he ought to be. Or are we missing the point?

The Suspension of Protocol

Respect is not an option of life, it is the nature of life, in its social sense. Evolutionarily, it is the survival of the fittest. In the social setting, norms, taboos, and laws necessarily guide human actions, so too is the police force. These norms become incorporated into the daily lives of humans thereby becoming a form of etiquette or protocol.

The interaction of police and civilians is a normal interaction as are all others with the exception that one party is a representative of the State, at least formally. But for some reason, they assume the right to suspend protocol during interactions when they find it convenient. In numerous circumstances when the use of force is questionable, any individual would agree that there had always been possibilities of dialogue. But regrettably, within seconds of interactions, some officers judge it fit to pull the trigger knowing that a citizen’s life would be endangered. Argument: self-defense. The use of force for self-defense is mainly justified against necessary, proportional aggression. Running from a cop, pulling an ID or talking disrespectfully to a cop does not necessarily threaten his life.

In numerous circumstances when the use of force is questionable, any individual would agree that there had always been possibilities of dialogue. But regrettably, within seconds of interactions, some officers judge it fit to pull the trigger knowing that a citizen’s life would be endangered. Argument: self-defense. The use of force for self-defense is mainly justified against necessary, proportional aggression. Running from a cop, pulling an ID or talking disrespectfully to a cop does not necessarily threaten his life.

Suspension of protocol or the refusal to communicate indirectly means putting another’s life on suspension till the cop decide his fate. That transitory life, always in suspension through such interactions reflects neglect of the other’s existence. For, no person’s existence should be suspended or threatened by a wall of protocol for the simple reason that every person has a right to exist, differently, weirdly, strangely, angrily. But let it exist. The role of the police of to follow protocol and help others follow, but in no circumstance, risk their lives for not doing exactly so.

The Instrumentalization of Legality

From the old legal model: guilty until found innocent, society went onto innocent until proven guilty in modern societies. The process of law requires that only those found guilty shall be sanctioned through restitutive and punitive measures. As for the latter, the death penalty is reserved mainly for offenses which have caused evident and permanent harm to individuals on a great scale.

Nonetheless, people still die and suffer casualties of various sorts without being charged with any offense simply because of a [subjective] perception construed not necessarily through the instant interaction but through years and decades of criminal construction of prototypes of danger.

But the greatest danger is when the law is instrumentalized to serve only itself and its board members. The use of violence becomes legal at all times while the possibility to defend – declare your innocence becomes a privilege, which some will never have. This abuse of the law, under the pretext of strengthening the – rule of – law, kills the law as well as its citizens who are the very first beneficiary. From a liberal perspective, the laws are made to protect the people while from a Republican perspective, it is made to protect the State. Semantic jargon once more. Res publica, currently transcribed as the republic mainly refers to the stronghold of the public, the people.

And when social uproar questions such use of force, through the force indictment of a given cop, almost all the time the cop is found not guilty. Throughout the United States, these courts have remained consistent in its defense of cops who kills its citizens. This is a real danger to the citizenry.

Brutalization of Civility

Civility has not always been civil. Or, civility is not always civilized. Brutality evidently emerges to strip it from every significant progress, making it digress into primitive brutality cosmetically termed the legitimate use of force or what we may rightfully call the brutalization of civility.

Civilizations are often built on what is not civilized: war, enslavement, and exploitation. These uncivilized models have been incorporated into modern State as legitimate violence. But the line between legitimate and illegitimate is always difficult to establish. For most people, once the State is involved, it becomes acceptable. Gordon was a runaway slave in 1983 from Mississippi made famous by the scares on his back which he received as punishment from his masters.

The heinous nature of slavery could be seen in one picture and this was legitimate violence to the slave owners. Even though the image of his scares was used to make a propaganda against the slavery, it is easily forgotten that current police brutality inscribes into this same logic of violence where lives are lost. Yet, no propaganda is made to end such violence. On the contrary, those who advocate for respect and limited use of deadly force are being attacked and despised.

Gordon was publicly beaten to send a message to all the slaves on how they should be obedient. So too, police brutality, using some as scapegoats, is a form of sending a signal to the public to be law abiding.

But the enforcement of civility through utter brutality and use of ultimate force only destroys the very foundation of peace and a civilized society. And the main reason why such destruction delays peace is because of the victims are for the most part the subordinate ones and are already despised by the society they helped to build over the centuries.

If human life/existence is worth it, then it is worth it even when it is weird, silent, angry, non-compliant, different. Let it be life unless there are evident and convincing facts that life is in imminent danger. However, this seems to be far from reach, as of now, because the business of insecurity is really profitable.

Commercialization of Insecurity

The story of all societies is always that of ‘us’ against ‘them’, a ‘fabricated right’ against an ‘unconfirmed wrong’, the ‘abiding and understanding us’ against the ‘lawless and ignorant’ they etc. In this pattern, natural fault lines occur which, even the unity of the State find it hard to bridge: ethnic fault lines, color, income, accent, language, and religion etc. Safety is sought by staying within one’s natural boundaries or succumb to other’s arbitrary schemes of elimination.

Between each group lies suspicion which creates insecurity, often exploited by public actors as a marketing tool to buy power, influence, sell more arms and make more laws in favor of a given interest group.

State officials function with the same mindsets and work hard sometimes to enforce these boundaries. The encounter with others is always based on suspicion, thereby breaking the principle of people being innocent before being found guilty. Such suspicions increase when the other is different: color, accent, weird actions. These alone are enough for an officer to pull the trigger, claim self-defense and be backed by his judges. In fact, the only threat that he faced was the fact that he was out of his comfort zone, meeting someone who is not like him, doesn’t talk and act like him, or his kind. For that reason, he is suspicious and a threat to life.

This state of affairs is profitable for society as well as its board members who enjoy status quo privileges, dread dialogue, and unity. The demagogy on unity is usually a façade to make a good name while putting in no effort to make change happen.

It is understandable to teach humans how to love and respect animals, plants, and other gadgets. But if humans have to be taught over thousands of years on how to respect fellow humans or for hundreds of years in a civilized society, then it appears someone is being played.

The Rule of Violence: or The Economy of Violence

Police brutality in America has always been addressed in many ways. To some, citizens must learn how to obey cops literally while to others, cops must limit the use of force and there must be some changes in laws. All these options are reasonable but they do not address the main issue of the crises: a despise for human life, of the other’s existence.

The glorification of the use of violence in the American society goes as far back as the origin of the nation. Our historical origin is known to sanctify violence used against other races. It would be naïve to believe that such a history is over. Police brutality is only part of the relics of a shameful past which refuse to completely shed and shred its old skin – racism.

And until this history of shame is addressed, seeing the other as a necessary life and not a transitory lingering figure whose existence depends on his ability to be perfect by the law, then we would have to argue for many more decades, if not centuries.