This conception of police violence is not limited to the media: prosecutors and the justice system see police in a similar way. Today murder charges are finally being brought in August 16th's police massacre of 34 striking South African miners, but the accused are the murdered miners' co-strikers. Here's Frank Lesenyego, head of South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority:
"It's technical but, in legal [terms], when people attack or confront [the police] and a shooting takes place which results in fatalities ... suspects arrested, irrespective of whether they shot police members or the police shot them, are charged with murder."
It's technical. While it may appear, to the layman, that police opened fire on the strikers, shooting many in the back as they tried to flee a barbed-wire enclosure the police had trapped them in, in fact their deaths are the inevitable and objective outcome of challenging police authority.
Lesenyego's logic is perfect if you don't treat the police as subjects/people: if you were driving a bus and smashed into a wall, killing the passengers inside, it would be madness to charge the wall with murder, but there's at least a case to be made that, as the driver, you are at fault.
|Police move to apprehend the horrible monsters that made them open fire
In a sense, this is an extreme and grotesque version of the non-violence ideologue arguing that, by yelling "Fuck the Police", or taking the street, or building barricades, you in fact are responsible for the pepper spray, baton blows and non-lethal rounds. It is identical to the logic of the media scrubbing clean the description of the Empire State Building shooting. In this logic, police violence of any kind is always justifiable, always proportional to the situation, because the police are atmospheric facts, the state made flesh, not an actor but a thing. Fighting the cops is like jumping off the roof: you might survive, but if you don't, it's no one's fault but your own.
While you are certainly more likely to face police violence being in a militant protest than sitting at home watching Breaking Bad, while the miners would've been safer not striking for a living wage, minimally safe working conditions and instead continuing to harvest platinum at great personal danger for lower-than-poverty wages, to accuse the strikers or protesters of causing the police's violence is to perpetuate this logic of the always-already innocent police.
And as much as this logic justifies police violence, it also makes imagining a world without the police that much harder: as long as police violence is as objective, arbitrary and natural as a rain storm, the end of the police as an institution is as impossible a dream as eternal life.
All solidarity to the arrested miners, and to those who continue to strike despite the obscene violence of the state and their bosses. Here's hoping they beat these bullshit charges.
*I am indebted for much of this framing to Evan Calder Williams, whose work on the police-as-hostile-object directly informs my understanding.