Bad Apples or a Rotten Tree?


A lot people—particularly white people—believe that the problem with policing in Canada and the United States is a few bad apples. Others think it is a lot of bad apples. Both of these beliefs miss the point. It is not just that some police are bad apples; the point it that the tree is rotten. The system is rotten. And from a rotten tree you get poisonous fruit.

Most people believe that most police officers are doing a good job of protecting people. Todd May and George Yancy have argued in a powerful New York Times piece that this is too simple. They put it this way:

It is a mistake not because it underestimates the number of police officers who are racist and violent, but because the problem of racist policing is not one of individual actors. It is a mistake because the role of the police in society must be understood, not individually but structurally.


Like an organ in a human body, a Police Department is part of a structural whole. It functions to perform a certain task in the body politic; it is an organ in that body. Seen this way, each police officer is then like a cell in that organ. Before we can identify any problem in that organ, we must first understand the job that organ performs.


In the case of the police, the answer might seem obvious. Their function is to protect the citizenry from crime. At least that’s what we’re told. But as any good student of biology or politics knows, it won’t help to ask what an organ is said to do. It is better to observe what it actually does.


To merely accept the claim that police forces, since their inception, have protected law-abiding citizens from crime involves the neglect of several crucial factors. It neglects the long history of police abuse and the specific intentional abuse of people of color; it neglects the role that the police have played in breaking strikes, in silencing dissent and in keeping the social order safe from resistance or change. It also neglects the early history of policing in the United States that took the form of slave patrols in the 1700s and the enforcement of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Since police forces were created, they have been the instruments whereby those in power have inflicted their will on the less powerful. And in countries, like Canada and the United States, where race has been, and continues to be, such a powerful force, that power has often been imposed on people who are not white.

Remember everything here applies to Canada too. The early history of the vaunted RCMP was to put down indigenous people in the west. which they did–brutally.

The philosopher and historian Michel Foucault said most of us look at the problem in the wrong way. He said we should not ask why the criminal justice system fails so often, but rather we should ask at what does it succeed? If it succeeded at nothing it would have been defunded a long time ago.

May and Yancy answered that question this way:

Once we ask that question, the answer is entirely clear. They succeed in keeping people in their place. They succeed in keeping middle-class and especially upper-class white people safe, so long as they don’t get out of line. They succeed in keeping people of color in their place so that they don’t challenge the social order that privileges middle- and upper-class white people. And, as we have recently witnessed in many violent police responses at protests, they succeed in suppressing those who would question the social order.

This brings me back to the point I tried to make about racism. The deadliest racism is not the obvious racism; it is the invisible system of racism. It is relatively easy to tackle the overt racists. The invisible racism is much harder to root out. So too with police. We must look at the police system. Or as May and Todd explained,

If we look at individual police officers divorced from the structure in which they operate — if we simply look for the “bad apples”— we fail to see the role of the police as a whole. Whether individual police officers are racist is not the fundamental issue. The fundamental issue is whether the police — the institution of policing as it exists in the United States — is racist. And once we look at this clearly, we understand that the answer must be yes.


So let’s not focus on the  Minneapolis cop who put his knee on the neck of George Floyd. Or the cops in Winnipeg who held down Finn Nolan Dorian near the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall. As long as we concentrate on bad apples we will miss out on the more serious problem—the system. In Canada and the United States that system is fused with white supremacism.

It’s really a lot worse than a some bad apples.

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