05/27/2015 05:55 pm ET Updated May 27, 2016

Depraved Hearts?

Pem Davidson Buck teaches anthropology and sociology at the Elizabethtown Community and Technical College in Kentucky.

Once upon a time police, they said, were a child's best friend; the friendly cop on the corner with the big belly and the funny hat patted lost kids on the head and returned them to their mammas. Of course that was true -- a gazillion picture books said so. People of color, knew better. Some of the rest of us learned better in the 1960s. The rest, if they paid attention at all, figured there were just some bad apples who needed to be removed and that most of the killings and beatings and racial profilings were justified. Even when unarmed, even when running away, even when handcuffed and flat on the ground, black men and women are dangerous. And besides, we can ignore the statistics, they do kill white guys too, and black cops kill black guys, so it's all okay. It's not race. It's just....well... what is it?

That is the question we need to ask, as much of Baltimore -- and the rest of the country -- rightly rejoices in the courage of a young Black woman who dared to speak of a "depraved heart" in filing criminal charges in the death of Freddie Gray. But is it one officer's depraved heart? Is there a wider framework we need to use to develop an understanding? Because these are killings performed by agents of the state, we need to look at the role of the state through the lens of anthropology, and to do that we need to look also at history: the past is not past; the past is present, the foundation of the present in the same way that the foundation of a house is present in the house.

Historian Sam Mitrani in his recent book, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict 1850-1894, addresses the development of policing; of an armed force created to serve elite interests in protecting their property and their ability to accumulate wealth at the expense of an emerging waged working class in the throes and misery of the industrial revolution. He documents the role of the newly created police in squashing the labor unrest spawned by exploitation and desperation, their attacks, often with military help, on labor union protests, and their role in enforcing the regulation of personal conduct, all under state-sanctioned bureaucracies outside of democratic control. The police were invented to produce the "order" needed for the orderly multiplication of wealth in the hands of the few, and to incarcerate those who couldn't be controlled otherwise. The state, in other words, was acting as an agent of the elite, providing the force needed to produce a docile and cheap labor force.

This is where the storybook pictures of my elementary school days in the 1950s come in. The cop on the corner was white; the kid was white; the mamma was white. And the cop did sometimes act to serve and protect some, mostly white and middle class (think Mayberry). That serving and protecting acted, and still acts, to legitimate and disguise -- both for the white public and for many well-intentioned police -- their role in protecting elite interests.

The state, as the institution that controls the use of force in a society, as the only institution that can authorize agents to kill, still employs the police in that role. The state, in wrestling lynching away from local elites who organized lynch mobs, took control of punishing, at least for the most part. Police instead turned the people they arrested over to the judicial system where, for Blacks, legal execution and chain gangs awaited.

These days it is mass incarceration, prisoners for profit, detention or often illegally low wages for many immigrants. It is the state that, in a strong state, controls who kills whom, and punishes those who kill outside that framework. Is the U.S. state so weak that it truly cannot control its agents, letting them kill contrary to the interests of the elite they have historically served? Or is the fact that, at least up to this point, they have killed largely with impunity indicative of their continuing service to elite interests, which include the terrorizing of a population that is no longer needed as a cheap workforce, that subsists by the skin of its teeth, that might lay bare the inequities and iniquities of our society?

Where, I have to ask, does that depraved heart beat? In the chest of one officer, or in the belly of the beast?