Thoughts on terrorism and campaigns against police violence

Unsurprisingly the most persistent question following the series of terrorist attacks in France that killed 234 people over an 18-month period up until the Bastille Day assault in Nice last year, has been, ‘Why France?’ All kinds of answers have been put forward, most often with the answer given reflecting the political perspective of the person responding.

Social oppression, racism; the country’s policy of secularism (that banned the veil and all forms of religious identification in public schools), the country’s colonial past that continues to inform, or infect, policy in former colonies in West Africa, where France is fighting Islamist forces; its involvement in bombing campaigns in Syria.

Problem with this, though, is that the above suggests that there is a logically coherent argument motivating the mostly European-born jihadists committing these crimes. Knowledge of the men’s chaotic personal lives, shifting allegiances, and often sudden conversion to the cause undermines this premise. Family ties, for example having a close family member already involved in the jihad, alongside a criminal background seem to matter more. European-based jihadist groups closely resemble gangs, where men often with a history of crime or violence are recruited to the cause that is put forward as a path to salvation and renewal.  

Still, the question remains: why France? Those organising the attacks appear to believe that France (out of all the European countries) is vulnerable to the chaos it wants to unleash through its campaign of terror; the idea being that the country’s three million Muslims might be potential recruits, if/when the French State enacts repressive policies against them, and that the country is weak because of its sentimental self-image as the bastion of human rights.

Of interest, here, is the way the jihadists chose their target based on its perceived weaknesses. This is basic psychology writ large: the conman targets the vulnerable person based on how they think that person will react, while twisting the victim’s sense of a positive self-identity (the opportunist says that he loves a woman’s ‘sweet nature’ to get her to give him more, complimenting her and flattering her ego to exploit her).

Yesterday, a white police officer – Betty Shelby – was acquitted of a manslaughter charge of an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher who was shot when standing with his hands above his head in Oklahoma last September. The reactions as you would expect were furious, often focussing on the fact that the officer was a ‘white woman’. But despite all the political actions, the street marches and opinion pieces written, this is just another case where a police officer has avoided jail time (or avoided being charged, or having a case brought against them).

From an outsider’s perspective, despite all the activity – and media coverage – little seems to be changing in the US regarding police violence. There are strong community-based campaigns, calling for police to wear body cameras, for the institution of accountable civilian reviews and independent police liability insurance (see this national campaign that started in Minneapolis, Insure the Police), but people are still getting shot and police officers allowed to go free, or not even be charged.

Without sounding too extreme, I wonder, though if it might be time to think like the organisers of the European-based terrorist campaigns, not in terms of using violence, of course, but focussing more on the weaknesses/motivators of white racism that allows the cycle of police violence in the United States to continue unchecked.

For starters, to think of campaigns that could upset the dominant desire of the majority population to have a positive self-image (see the way various forms of historic forms of race-based oppression, most obvious in colonial/post-colonial contexts sought the veneer of respectability and benevolence, as they would say in Australia, the policies of protection and assimilation were ‘for their own good’). And secondly, to start thinking about money.

Could boycotts, for example, be enacted that targeted cities with high-levels of police violence – allowing for some protections, or financial support for citizens living there who might be affected? Might international campaigns be set up to ‘shame’ cities in the United States - including a ban on tourism, just like the divestment campaigns against South Africa - until they guarantee basic levels of safety to the people living there?

Everything in politics comes back to financial interests; that’s all that matters. Groups are heard because they have financial interests that intersect with those who govern. For this reason, the current activism against police violence, with its emphasis on educating the wider community and peaceful marches, seems to be too reactive – and just a little too nice.

It is true that the police officers could be motivated by racism or commit these crimes because of poor training, but it’s more than likely that they are killing people because they know that there will be no significant consequences, personal/professional … or financial. As any journalist knows, you have got to follow the money: I wonder how things might change, if a similar kind of logic was applied to the activism trying to stop police violence; to cut off the income - so to speak - that allows the current status quo to continue as is, unimpeded.