Notes on the Goodson Verdict

Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the police officer accused of killing Freddie Gray by slamming him against the walls of a speeding van, was acquitted of all charges earlier this morning. Goodson faced the most serious charges of any of the six officers arrested in relation to Gray’s murder by the Baltimore Police. His acquittal seems to suggest that, in light of all the evidence, the jury and the court believe that Freddie Gray killed himself by severing his own spine while in police custody. The failure to convict Goodson of any crime whatsoever – including the relatively minor charge of reckless endangerment – means it is quite likely that none of the officers involved in Freddie Gray’s killing will be convicted of even a misdemeanor.

And so we begin the latest cycle of reactions to the latest legally-sanctioned murder of a human being by an American police officer. Some are already expressing their rage, frustration, sadness, and shock, while others remind us that this was of course to be expected, that this is the “justice system” working as intended. There is little that I could possibly add to this chorus. Police officers in the United States kill around 1,000 people every year, totaling far more than all of those killed in terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 2000. In 2015, zero officers were convicted of murder or even manslaughter charges for on-duty killings. Zero. Since 2005, only 13 officers have received an elusive conviction.

Whenever the latest police killing is met with total silence from the legal system and the political class, my comrades and I always seem to return to the same question: Why does the American elite show such complete disregard for the opinions of the oppressed? It would seemingly be easier to convict a token police officer every once in awhile, at least to avoid the endless stream of protests, riots, and blockades that follow a highly-publicized murder. Daniel Pantaleo strangled Eric Garner to death, on camera, and yet he received no punishment whatsoever. Surely at least one politician, judge, or prosecutor knows that such a blatant affront to human dignity – an effective statement that Eric Garner’s life was forfeit because of his blackness – should be tempered by a small concession. But the stream of killings continues, and they slap us in the face with the same heinous headlines: No indictment. Acquitted on all counts.

In “Class Struggle and Violence,” Georges Sorel described the opposite tendency at work among the forces of law and order in his day. Sorel suggested that the defining characteristic of the French elite was not its brutality, but its cowardice in the face of the violence of the oppressed:

One of the things which appears to me to have most astonished the workers during the last few years has been the timidity of the forces of law and order in the presence of a riot: the magistrates who have the right to demand the services of soldiers dare not use their power to the utmost, whilst officers allow themselves to be abused and struck with a patience hitherto unknown in them. It has become more and more evident every day that working-class violence in strikes possess an extraordinary efficacy: prefects, fearing that they may be obliged to use legal force against insurrectionary violence, bring pressure to bear on employers in order to compel them to give way; the safety of factories is now looked upon as a favor which the prefect can dispense as he pleases; consequently, he arranges the use of his police so as to intimidate the two parties to bring them skillfully to an agreement.

 

It did not take much time for the leaders of the syndicats to grasp this situation, and it must be admitted that they have used the weapon that has been put into their hands with great skill. They endeavour to intimidate the prefects by popular demonstrations, which have the potential for serious conflict with the police, and they commend riotous behaviour as the most effective way of obtaining concessions. It is rare that, after a certain time, the administration, itself worried and frightened, does not seek to influence the leaders of industry and to impose an agreement upon them, which becomes an encouragement for the propagandists of violence.

How different from our own police and politicians! But, as Sorel noted, the conciliatory attitude of the French state seemed not to be a strength, but a weakness. The militant syndicalist movement was able to exploit the fear of violence to win small victories. If Sorel’s argument is correct, the perceived weakness and cowardice of the French establishment encouraged more political violence and upheaval, not less.

It is hard to find a parallel between the behavior of yesteryear’s French state and today’s United States. What major concessions have followed American uprisings in recent historical memory? To be sure, six police officers were charged in connection with Freddie Gray’s murder after Baltimore’s riots in 2015. But, as we have seen today, none of these charges will lead to a conviction. What concessions followed the Ferguson riots? And what about Oakland? Or Los Angeles?

It is hard to picture a function for the brutality, insensitivity, and seeming irrationality of the use of state violence in America. But perhaps this total disregard does more work than we realize. Who can promise that the latest rounds of protests and riots will secure some small gain? Who still hopes that a burning squad car, or even a city block, will prompt some reform? The French system promised a perpetual renegotiation of the social peace – riots prompted a reform of present conditions, the threat of violence might prevent the authorities from crushing a strike. For us, there is no such promise of negotiation. Tomorrow, the police will kill someone new. The next day, we’ll riot. We receive the state’s terror, we react, and the cycle continues, but we move nowhere.

This kind of social system breeds two essential reactions among us: apathy and rage. Our enemies hope that their cruelty will provoke the former, that we will simply lose all hope of winning against such impossible odds. But despite their brutality, there are still many among us who continue to struggle for a new dawn. At times this struggle is illuminated in flames and smoke, at others it is a quiet, day-to-day affair, but we soldier on. We understand what they have told us. There will be no indictments, no convictions, and no negotiations. It will be all or nothing. Very well. There is only one possible reply to this rotten, barbarous system: Revolution or death.

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