A short dictionary of liberal language on policing

Terms like ‘the system is flawed’ dismiss Black pain in order to legitimise the institutions that cause it.

Law enforcement block protesters marching against the Grand Jury decision to only indict one of the three police officers who fired into Breonna Taylor's home in Louisville, Kentucky in 2020 [File: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]

For the police, liberal language is as indispensable as a service pistol. Far from being merely a weak shield against the onslaught of police violence, it is its cloaking device and its gun turret. It drapes the peculiar institution over with flags and reform-talk, and mounts a defence against the calls for its abolition. Policing, in liberal language, is presented to be indispensable and well-intentioned if frustratingly flawed. This, despite its recency and historical role in racist violence. Policing is always to be fixed and the people who are forced to endure its supposed malfunction are always required to suffer longer, while being watched by the never-harassed in their cafés shaking their heads and mouthing “it’s so sad”. The bodies pile up, generation after generation, and the colony accumulates profit for the families who have always accumulated. Violent repression continues for the people who have always been violently repressed. And the liberal can be found sitting at some pundit, educator or editor’s desk with their chins in their palms wondering, always loudly so as to displace all other possible questions, what “we” are doing wrong.

Liberal language is the armour one puts on if one is to remain good while complicit in the preservation of the anti-Black institution, or worse, supports it and seeks its reform. It launders support for racism as optimism. It positions those who imagine life apart from the men and women who send dogs and bullets into children’s windows as pessimistic and irresponsibly idealist. It drowns out Black radical voices with its loudspeakers, gentrifying radical critique, until the epitaph we have struggled to pin onto the side of a defunct racist state, hits, if it hits at all, like a pebble from a slingshot. But the global Black insurrection has pierced the metal. Abolition is found in the schoolbags of schoolchildren and anti-colonialism is spoken in full volume in project hallways. It is no longer certain the idea of a world without the uniformed and undercover marauders can be held at the gates. Still, they talk over us.

“Begin to”. One of the more diabolical terms, “begin to” promises a solution to anti-Black violence in new approaches and ideas previously unthought. As if lynchings and beatings occur because no one came up with a plan on how not to place a rope around a neck or how not to find black skin as thrillingly breakable. Liberals suggest that we must “begin to have conversations” as if freedom, anywhere, has been brought about by a well-intentioned chat. “Begin”, “begin to build trust”, “begin to understand” sell hope in some revolutionary idea or breakthrough moment. If only we could have the right conversations, change the nature and temper of our interactions, a solution to settler-colonial racism might be stumbled upon. But the persistence of white boots upon Black necks is not due to a paucity of ideas – Black people have thought, have written and spoken enough, providing in over four centuries sufficient demands, programmes and a variety of philosophical outlooks that, if any were adopted, would go far to alleviate and even eliminate the most egregious forms of anti-Black cultures of violence. The problem is one of power; the power to ignore; the power to assault and kill with impunity and with it the power to frame centuries-long Negrophobic violence as due to a lack of fresh ideas. It is not. It is a consequence of the desire for and pleasure at the sight of Black bodily destruction and the deliberate disabling of Black capacity to effectively upend it. There is nothing original about racist oppression nor the proven forms of its dissolution. Nothing needs to begin. Colonialism must end.

“Both sides” announces collusion with power and erasing its victims’ record. It plans to distort representations of scale. It intends injustice. It uses the fallacy of false equivalency to present a historical record of oppression as a battle between equally guilty, irrational and uncompromising children. Here, the liberal occupies the space of the rational arbitrator, a Solomon figure, and says something like, “Black protesters must not believe ACAB and police must not believe all Black people are criminals, not saying that all police do.” Or “we must build trust on both sides” discounting the possibility that, as Justin Hansford has argued, distrust may not be unreasonable for a population historically mistreated and violated by the police institution – but a rational response. The problems between the batoner and the batoned are not always fixed by more trust.

Even if a change of attitude were all that was required to end racist colonial violence the burden to change is rarely imagined to be shouldered equally. Rudy Guiliani speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation in 2016 proposed his solution. “So maybe whites have to look at it differently and Blacks have to look at it differently. Whites have to realise that African American men have a fear – and boys – have a fear of being confronted by the police because of some of these incidents. Some people may consider it rational, some people may consider it irrational, but it’s a reality, it exists. And there’s a second reality in the Black community. The second reality in the Black community is there’s too much violence in the Black community. So a Black will die 1 percent or less at the hands of the police and 99 percent at the hands of a civilian, most often another Black. So if you want to protect Black lives then you gotta protect Black lives not just against police which happens rarely although with tremendous attention, and which happens every 14 hours in Chicago. Every 14 hours and we never hear from Black Lives Matter. So if you want to deal with this on the Black side you’ve got to teach your children to be respectful to the police and you’ve got to teach your children that the real danger to them is not the police, the real danger to them 99 out of a hundred times, 9,900 out of a thousand times are other Black kids who are going to kill them, that’s the way they’re going to die. Now on the white side, we have to understand that whether we get it or not there is this extraordinary fear of the police and the police have to institute a policy of zero tolerance … no disrespect …” For both sides to come together, white communities must realise that Black people have a perhaps irrational fear of the police and Black people have to stop violence, re-educate their miseducated children and report to the white community when Black people are killed by “another black”.

“Broken” imagines the past of an institution as being whole. “The justice system is broken” suggests there was a time other than the time of discriminatory juries, disparate racial sentencing, courts overruled by mobs, prison plantation labour, mass imprisonment or rushed executions. It asks to make the justice system great again, referring to a time when the justice system was great but also a time that cannot be named as to name any hour when it was whole would be an admission of one’s callous indifference to anti-Black violence in the hour selected. Broken implies a possible fix. But no bandaging will make the inventions of white supremacist control rehabilitating in a society that remains, and who is founding logic and raison d’etat, is white supremacist. Black people have “broken” their systems of enslavement with uprisings and survival. Its repair, its wholeness, would be the perfection of racist repression. Repeating the phrase “the system is broken” or “the system ‘fails’ Black people” has proven to be the best way to block against the criticism that the system is precisely that device which makes grand-scale repression and injustice possible — not the malfunctioning of a better one.

“Change”. The means to ask for nothing and yet refer to an imaginary seismic difference in order to ensure that the audience believes something is being demanded when nothing is. With “change”, imprecision is the point. Similar to advertisers’ “now with more!”, it is deliberately ambiguous, using the power of suggestion to manipulate its audience. The demand for unspecified change will always be preferred by those who would like to dress up as activists or caring people but bristle at the demand to defund the police by an initial specified amount. Who think it always too early to begin to uproot prisons and other forms of torture, disease-ridden and insect-infested dungeons, and institutions of confinement that have, since their birth, targeted Black people for a special kind of mistreatment.

Demanding “change” virtue-signals. It gives a platform to those who are otherwise committed to the systems that maintain anti-Black violence. And because change is constant, any difference can be noted and used to defend the assertion that incremental and gradual progress is occurring. New police training manuals or convictions of officers are offered as proof that “steps in the right direction” are being made. Change, when it is not asking for nothing, asks for incremental adjustments when racism’s institutions require abolition. It is a regulation in flogging policy rather than the end of masters. It puts a sock in the mouths of even those asking for a pros and cons audit of the system and says, “I see you, I hear you, here is something inconsequential.”

“Deterrence”, which liberals claim is necessary to scare would-be criminals away from harming others, offers the spectre of torture and intimidation as a tool for social regulation. Imprisonment, in the United States especially, is always also the threat of sexual violence. To avoid it, Black deference to police and the historically anti-Black social order they are sworn to protect is demanded. One must “show respect” and not misbehave to not be violated – a centuries-old method of enforcing anti-Black control in settler-colonies. Deterrence makes itself known as explicitly racialised intimidation each time liberals like Joe Biden float forgiveness for figures like Donald Trump and asks for an end to the “divisive” investigations. White supremacists do not need to be deterred. In the colony, Nazi politicians and armed white supremacists are never as threatened with punishment as an unarmed Black person walking past an officer.

“Feared for his life” is a licence. A flashed badge. Society does not need to believe the statement, they only need it to be said. To check that the documents which prove they have a right to killing are in order. In military fiction, those who act responsibly despite the danger and take great risks to their lives and body are lauded, while those who fail to do so are accused of a dereliction of duty. But in the occupation and patrol of Black life that is policing whatever atrocity that is committed works to endear the actor to the public as a troubled hero and always at the same time reduce the “civilian” to a dehumanised fighter with no equal and rational right to fear for their life – to say nothing of an equal right to act on that fear.

“Flawed” or “imperfect” are concepts which betray the liberals’ commitment to the state of violence against Black people. The country they love, that they know lurches under the weight of the unbroken oppression of Black and Indigenous people, must remain held up as a diamond – if blemished. And these atrocities the radicals have been able to unearth from the clear light of day, from the droning normalcy of lives lived during the time of colonial violence, these proofs of the routine, constant and unbroken hum of anti-Blackness undergirding the state that we put in their face and demand they confront must be smothered. They must be robbed of their evidentiary power, must mean not what we say that they mean and instead appear as an imperfection, a rare lapse in an otherwise good-willed institution. “The system is flawed” minimises the costs of anti-Black attacks, dismisses Black pain in order to legitimise and apologise for the institutions that cause it. It is the humanising of slave-masters for our time. A time when the slave plantations have become state prisons. The system’s horrors are transformed through the power of forgiving language and the vampiric becomes an angel that has lost its way. But it is no angel. Flinging people against cockroach-infested walls, having those walls close in through the torture of solitary confinement, chemically-induced asphyxiation until death for a captive who has not failed to declare their innocence and where witnesses speak of police bribes and judges refuse to hear new and compelling evidence before fatal injections are not flaws. An imperfect system is one where there are delays caused by faulty tracks on a subway system – not slavery.

“Healing” imagines a state of peace and unity after a high-profile killing. “How do we move forward” is always how do we move towards the next predictable killing, which although perfectly predictable nevertheless is claimed to shock. It is always at the same time a will to prevent the circumstances of the present killing from receiving adequate inspection. To move forward just quickly enough that the racist state, chief accessory to racist murder, has enough time to make a clean getaway and avoid thorough examination. One that may lead to the diagnosis that only a radical solution will stem the bleeding. “How do we heal?” is asked and over Black corpses, only. High-profile killings of white people inspire new law, white live hostages abroad draw war calculations, but the incessant tumble of the Black dead killed by racists and their henchmen is an occasion to “come together”. Of course, if the country managed to hold back the arms of its police long enough so that the killings in public were no longer occurring weekly, what would have been accomplished would be the chasing of the most egregious and public forms of anti-Black atrocity under the rug where prison and healthcare violence live. Healing does not evoke the images of ripping up the carpet of the colony to trace every culprit of anti-Black violence and ridding the country of it (as if that were possible). It is not imagined as the killing of the virus, but is a move past its latest, high-profile, isolated symptom. Healing, in the colony, always seems to be on the way. And it never seems to outrun our daily beatings. But if there has not been an hour when we were not injured by the state and if there are no plans to disable the state’s capacity to systematically injure us, there may be no reason to believe that we are invited to this healing. It is premature to speak of healing when the master has not put down his whip.

“Held accountable” is a gesture to an undefined consequence (see “change”).  A drive to push the violent state, that has committed what it is pressured to accept is excessive violence, into a remedy dreamed up by the violent state. Police are allowed to police themselves, to suffer consequences imposed by fellow lawmen. “Held accountable” either means nothing or expands policing via the touting of policing as a remedy. It is police propaganda, testifying to the policed state’s good governance. Of course bad apple police, the argument goes, will be dealt with because police, law and justice systems are fundamentally justice-seeking and will reprimand police fairly. Police misconduct “investigations” conducted by the police officers of Internal Affairs, the blue wall of silence, popular culture’s referencing police looking out for one another, and the paid leave for the killers of Black people notwithstanding.

“Know his heart”, a phrase reserved only for racist colleagues. Judges with an apparent pattern of racially discriminatory sentencing and police who have racked up numerous complaints accusing them of racism and brutality have inscrutable hearts. This is not so for a man like Qassem Soleimani who a chorus of pundits describes as a bad person who intended to do Americans harm. The exonerating phrase is reserved only for those who prove through practice an intent to do Black people harm. For these people, politicians appear on television to argue that it is not possible to declare a person whose actions excite racists a racist because no one can claim to know their heart. Only accused racists are granted this privilege of inscrutability. It is never clear if the conservative policymaker who shuts down the one polling place in a majority Black neighbourhood has racist intentions. Nor can we know the heart of the legislator who writes laws restricting voting who uses language lifted verbatim from Jim Crow law, nor conservative politicians who speak on stages with designs that call back Nazi symbols, nor the police officer who consumes far-right media and consistently draws his weapon at traffic stops. But incalcitrant Global South leaders resisting imperialism, Black “repeat offenders”, and imprisoned political activists are all open books.

“Legacy” as in “the legacy of racism in this country” refers to the past and its atrocities to separate it from and thus sanitise the present. Racism is yesterday’s atrocities, the racism of today is an anachronism. There is to be no mention of systems, of a continuum, or the curious similarities in anti-Black settler-colonial culture in all times and everywhere. The past is a foreign country. One that continually but unsuccessfully invades our present. History is imagined as strands and filaments blowing into the purity of the current day instead of the house that surrounds us, and from which none can escape. The talk of the legacy of racism is a muzzling of James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” It is the claim that “we’ve made progress” shouted before a backdrop of second-wind world fascism, everyday Rodney King videos, everyday Selma protests put down, the expansion of imprisonment, racist algorithms, animatronic Negro hounds and the survival of the slave patrol into the age of the climate apocalypse.

When history is not environment but mere traces of the past brushing against the present, every survival of anti-Black violence is bewildering, a surprising and unwelcome remnant from a past that is now disavowed. No connections are made. Trump supporters decrying Antifa is not connected to the Klan decrying communists. Proud Boys attacking Black protesters are not new ex-Confederate generals attacking Black would-be voters after Reconstruction. Mass imprisonment and Stop and Frisk is not convict leasing and a new and unwritten “Black codes”.

With “the legacy of racism”, racism is a dark history an enlightened America, to its credit, is always learning from, instead of America being the birth child of white supremacist racism on Indigenous lands and the greatest purveyor of anti-Black racism in the world. Racism is always a yesterday one is emerging from – despite captive Black people breaking the windows of urban prisons protesting against murder by neglect today. The police killings of tomorrow is already in the past. The founding era with its framers, revolutionaries and new ideas are said to define who America is. The founding documents, it is said, set American freedom up and defines who she is and who she will become. But the “negro heathens” the framer’s beat, the slavery the constitution preserved, the opinion issued by the Supreme Court that defined the colony’s position on race, rights and the vision the Founders had for the American state ie a member of the African race “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” are but mere, unfortunate historical traces. America is always America. It is always what it always was but never what it used to be.

“Peace/peaceful” is always the property of the oppressor, never the oppressed. It is the racists’ peace. Peace is the submission to a disciplinary order that ensures that one’s oppression remains responded to in ways that do not threaten or upset the social order: Our not being killed is not, for them, peace. Our journey towards the goal of not being killed is not peaceful. The peaceful protest, for them, is when out of their generosity we are allowed to express frustration at a flare-up of the centuries-long attack, quickly get it out of our system and return dutifully to anti-Black normalcy – perhaps with a new law clenched between our mandibles.

“Reform” presents the “broken” colony, the country that has made some unfortunate, often tragic errors, as one that can be redeemed with changes to law and policy. It offers body cams as a deterrent in a world where lynchings were photographed and put onto postcards, and a world where body cams are turned off. It denies the possibility and feasibility of a radically fair and new order, a revolutionary time, despite the fact that World History is periodised by nothing other than revolutionary changes. Calls for reform are made while blocking the ears to the centuries-long protest that the colony has never adjusted itself enough to be significantly different to its principal victims nor undid the racial hierarchy so the last would become first – or so that there would be no more lasts.

“Supposed to”. It is enough that a historically racist institution now advertises itself as an apolitical, non-racist and colour-blind service of protection for it to be believed. It says it is here to protect us and liberals parrot this and agree that this is its mission. No questioning whether that is actually the case ever arises no matter how many instances of deaths in custody, falsifying evidence or harassment and assault are discovered. No matter how clear the revolving door is between police membership and membership in other Negrophobic institutions and political parties. No dots are connected no matter how many officers are found to have KKK applications at home, how many union leaders have white power badges on their motorcycle jackets, no matter how many police unions declare their support for a president beloved by the Klan. No patterns are detected no matter how few are caught red-handed as members of hardline, radical Black feminist groups. Over every unarmed Black body some well-intentioned surprised person climbs to the nearest rooftop to lament “but they were supposed to protect us!” “Supposed to” is never interrogated. Neither are interrogations. Colonialism, for liberals, should not be judged by what it does but by what it says it does – what it is supposed to do. The liberal is dedicated to claiming the institutions of historical anti-Black violence are innocent until proven constantly guilty. They are also dedicated to preventing the trial.

“Tragic” as with “sad” transfers police violence into the realm of fate and the forces of nature. Tragedy makes police violence seem unforeseeable and the racism of which it is a part as a condition out of everyone’s hands. We are transported from a world where a person was just shot or strangled to one where “the country” is pinned down by the intractable problem of racism. It elevates routine murder to Greek legend. The violence of the individual incident is deflected, the crisis it should provoke is defused, and the presence of roving, murderous bands merge into a philosophical question: “What are we to do?” But our deaths are not a probing moral question upon which the personified state must do “some deep soul-searching”. Our killers are not some supernatural, historical force but people who must be disarmed.

Some attacks are called attacks, some attacks are called tragedies, the terms telling less of the nature of the incidents than betraying the intended response.

At the same moment tragedy transforms atrocities into “what can we do?”, it begins to cry. It offers tears to a pawn shop in full confidence that they will be accepted, that they are fungible, that the only Black people who ever were in existence wait up on them at night to collect their sympathy in pales stuck out of shed windows. And if not tears, sighs. And if not offered to Black people offered to a public scratching each other’s backs and telling each other that they are fundamentally good, and if history one day proves that they were on its wrong side, they could go back to these days for receipts proving that they said it was “sad”. As if, in the future of our freedom there will still be shops humouring them and examining their trinkets.

Every critique of liberal’s language runs the risk of being read by liberals, who then immediately go to work to invent new phrases that accomplish the same task of creating decoys that protect the heart of the Black massacre-addicted colonial order. Their job is to create periodically renewed language that denies that the abattoir was set up to kill – to label it imperfect farming and claim shock every time an animal is bled out. But it must be resisted all the same. Just as every court case must be fought and every attempt to hold a human against their will – by word or chain – escaped.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.