By King David
“The public execution has a juridical-political function. Its aim is not so much to reestablish a balance of justice as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength. The public execution did not reestablish justice; it reactivated power.” Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish pg.49
Before the creation of lawful institutions of punishment such as prisons and jails in the United States condemned violent criminals were brutally tortured and executed in public, which suggested an unmediated duel between the violence of the criminal and the violence of the government. The aim of the public execution of criminals was not to reestablish a balance of justice but to create an imbalance and excess of power through the ruthlessness of an all-powerful sovereign government.
In the mid-19th century, lynching was an extralegal or extrajudicial form of punishment that was used throughout the American South as well as in the state of California. In the South, lynching surrendered hundreds of black lives to the violence of coldblooded and racist mobs. Lynching became widely accepted in California when it became a sovereign state in 1848. Thousands of people of Mexican descent already inhabited the region at that time and many of them were met by the sovereign political power of White Americans and the newly formed state legislature.
According to an article published by Wikipedia, between 1848 and 1860, “European Americans lynched 163 Mexicans in California. On July 5, 1851, a mob in Downieville, California, lynched a Mexican woman named Josefa Segovia. She was accused of killing a White man who had attempted to assault her after breaking into her home.”
The extrajudicial repression of people of color was strongly supported by the sovereign government of California in the mid-19th century. In the early1850s, the California state legislature created the first statewide law enforcement agency, the California Rangers, to specifically capture and kill Joaquin Murrieta and his infamous gang, the “5 Joaquins.” Murrieta and his associates were a group of armed and dangerous outlaws wanted for committing robberies and killing lawmen in California. In the span of just three years, the notorious gang is believed to have stolen more than $100,000 in gold and killed 3 law enforcement officers. The “5 Joaquins” were allegedly found and killed in Fresno County in 1853. The public exhibition of the suspected head of Joaquin Murrieta immediately ensued after in order to prove that he had been killed.
The brutal lynching and killings of Mexican outlaws in the mid-19th century by the sovereign state government highlight the role of extrajudicial and dissymmetrical forms of punishment in shaping political power as well as the racial aspects inherent in extrajudicial punishment. However, it must be noted that extrajudicial punishment continues to be exercised today by local law enforcement, having been permanently inscribed in the political functioning of the criminal justice system by taking on different repressive forms such as police brutality.
The circumstances surrounding the killing of Joaquin Murrieta by the state government in 1853 are reasonably comparable to the circumstances surrounding the killing of Joaquin Figueroa by the Fresno Police Department in 2006. Like Murrieta, Joaquin Figueroa was brutally killed by law enforcement personnel because he had a reputation for being armed and dangerous.
According to an article published in September 2006 by the People’s Tribune, “Joaquin Figueroa was shot and killed by police on August 3, 2006… The Fresno Police Department says that… Figueroa was the primary suspect in a shooting incident in which a Fresno Police officer was shot and wounded.” Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said that “subsequent investigation determined that 25-year-old Joaquin Figueroa was a validated gang member and convicted auto thief responsible for a series of violent crimes leading up to the shooting of Officer Brian Nieto.” Chief Dyer also said the shooting of Joaquin Figueroa was justified because “Joaquin ignored commands to show his hands and he had a reputation for being armed and dangerous.” However, while it might be true that Figueroa had a reputation for being armed and dangerous, Figueroa was unarmed when he was killed by the police. Therefore, Joaquin Figueroa was unjustly and unlawfully murdered by the police.
The brutal and unlawful murder of Joaquin Figueroa did not reestablish a balance of justice for the municipal government, the Fresno Police or for Officer Brian Nieto. Rather, it was an extrajudicial act which reactivated the power of the police. It multiplied the violence that had previously been committed by Figueroa and consequently created an excess of power which is not simply that of a legal right, but of the superior strength of the government brutally and unlawfully beating down upon the body of the civilian and mastering it with strict impunity.
Further, the unlawful murder of unarmed White teenager Dylan Noble by the Fresno Police Department in June 2016 can be considered a rather exceptional and straightforward example of the superiority of power brutally beating down upon the body of a civilian. Dylan Noble did not commit any crimes before being murdered by the police. Nevertheless, he was unlawfully murdered over a simple traffic stop. The police officers who brutally murdered Noble violated his lawful constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and used excessive force in the encounter with the unarmed teen. However, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office recently refused to hold the police officers who shot Dylan Noble criminally accountable for their brutal actions. This further highlights the strict impunity of the Fresno Police Department.
With more than 80 officer-involved shooting deaths of civilians since Jerry Dyer became police chief in 2001, the Fresno City Council recently approved at a cost of $325,000 an urgent request from Chief Dyer to equip the Fresno Police Department with 270 semiautomatic assault rifles. Dyer said the increasing numbers of attacks on police officers nationwide has convinced him that every officer on the street needs an assault rifle. This resolution has further militarized the Fresno Police with dangerous weapons and will most likely increase the amount of officer-involved shootings deaths in Fresno, instead of building public safety and trust in marginalized communities.
It would be wise of local government officials as well as mainstream media outlets to shift from persistently criminalizing the actions of people of color, gang members, and social deviants, to honest investigations of the cold-bloodedness of police practices. This would help reinvest taxpayer money into communities which have been affected by the unjust practices of local law enforcement and most importantly, help save valuable human lives which otherwise have become victims of outdated and brutal forms of punishment.
There absolutely exists no moral, political or legal justification for the violent shooting deaths of law abiding civilians by public servants. At a very minimum, unbiased and strictly independent oversight of the Fresno Police Department is necessary in order to properly pursue accountability of their repressive practices and begin to establish public safety and trust in an ever more turbulent and corrupt world.
King David is the alias of a writer from Central California.