The egregious killing of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, after a traffic stop in Memphis led to a display of mind-boggling police brutality, attests to the phenomenon of lawlessness in uniform. That occurs when those mandated to uphold the law instead uphold violence, emboldened ironically by the authority which the law vests in them — by way of their uniforms, batons and guns — to prevent violence.

In this case, what is interesting is that the five police officers charged in the killing are blacks themselves, in contrast to the racial difference between victims and perpetrators apparent in many other such killings. However, even in the Memphis case, the fact that black officers killed a black man does not absolve the policing ecosystem of racism. Instead, it only reaffirms systemic racism of an insidious kind, one that is best expressed in the words of an activist: “What we have to understand is it is not the colour of the officer. It is the colour of who’s being policed. ” Minority officers can be socialised into an essentially white culture of racial bias that conditions them to see their fellow-black and -brown people as being naturally suspect. Professional credibility overrides ethnic solidarity. 

The racial dimension of lawlessness in uniform is revealed by statistics. According to an ongoing analysis by The Washington Post newspaper, the police in the United States shoot and kill more than 1,000 people every year on average. Now, half of the people thus disposed of are white. However, black Americans, who account for only about 14 per cent of the US population, are shot disproportionately — at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Hispanic Americans, too, are killed by the police at a disproportionate rate. 

Endemic violence in American society, displayed by not only criminals without uniforms but also in them, is structural. That is, it inherits, perpetrates and legitimates a vicious frontier culture derived from the founding iconography of the American state: the Wild West that was tamed for settler-colonialism through the genocidal eradication of Native Americans, the import of black slaves for economic exploitation, and the mythical creation of a republican dream that seeks to attract the world’s unwanted to its shores but is unable or unwilling to protect its own within its borders.

Am I anti-American? Yes, why not? I should be, with a Masters from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Seriously, those like me who admire and value the American people hate lawlessness in uniform. It is worse than lawlessness in civics. 

I hope that this, worst, form of lawlessness never arrives in Singapore.

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