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“Power”: Yance Ford on His New Documentary & Why “Violence Is Part and Parcel” of U.S. Policing

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The new Netflix documentary Power examines the role of police in the United States. We speak to its Oscar-nominated director, Yance Ford, about how policing is used to suppress dissent and protect property in the U.S., its relationship to imperialism and occupation, and the significance of the film’s release ahead of the fourth anniversary of the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was killed when police officers placed him in a deadly chokehold and who became a rallying point for protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality. “The thing that police want to do more than anything else is contain and control threats to order,” says Ford. What we still see in the U.S. and around the world today, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the campus Gaza solidarity movement, is “the use of police as small militaries whose job is to suppress dissent.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Ahead of Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, many are remembering how it was four years ago this Saturday that the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked global protests for police accountability and abolition. This comes amidst new attention on police brutality at protests calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Now a new Netflix documentary called Power examines the role of police in the United States. This is the trailer.

REDDITT HUDSON: Police power is immediate power. It is right now. “Do what I told you to do right now or else. I decide what happens next.”

GEORGE YANCY: Policing is inextricably linked to the racial history of this country.

JULIAN GO: Police associated with colonizers, wealth and whiteness.

AARON BEKEMEYER: So police targeted people marked as nonwhite.

NIKHIL PAL SINGH: Slaves, Indigenous and working-class people.

WESLEY LOWERY: Police have been able to double down on their power time and time again.

BARRY FRIEDMAN: There are a lot of people that feel that policing is out of control, but it’s also the case that there’s horrific crime, and it also is out of control.

CHARLIE ADAMS: Policing is hard now. It’s real hard. We deal with a lot of murders.

YANCE FORD: In the United States, police power is essentially unregulated.

REDDITT HUDSON: Anybody who moves to hold police accountable faces a challenge.

CHRISTY LOPEZ: The biggest problem with policing today is that most of the harm that policing causes —


CHRISTY LOPEZ: — is perfectly legal.

POLICE OFFICER: Up, hon! Get up!


YANCE FORD: How did we get here? The question breaks down as soon as you ask it. We may share this country, but is your America and my America the same place? Has it ever been?

WESLEY LOWERY: Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” And the power that is American policing hasn’t conceded anything.

YANCE FORD: In this kind of democracy, who is more powerful: the people or the police?

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Power, now streaming on Netflix, made by Yance Ford, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary Strong Island, about the murder of his brother. This is a clip from Power when we hear from Yance Ford himself.

YANCE FORD: Police power is enormous, omnipotent and hard to pin down. It is the might of 1 million police wielded everywhere, all at once. Yet police power is extraordinarily intimate. The same massive institution can search your pockets, trace your cellphone, demand your identification, watch you with surveillance cameras or collect your DNA. In the United States, police power is essentially unregulated. In this kind of democracy, who is more powerful: the people or the police?

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Yance Ford, director of this new documentary, Power.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, and congratulations.

YANCE FORD: Thank you, Amy. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about when you started this film.

YANCE FORD: Yeah. So, you know, I started developing the film in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and in response, directly in response, to the policing of the protests that broke out around the country in response to his murder. There was something about the tenor of the police protests, the unrestrained violence that — excuse me, the response of the police to the protests — the unrestrained violence of the police response to these protests. I was watching people getting chased onto highways. I was watching people being run over by cars, being kettled indiscriminately on the streets. And it led me to ask this question: Is this what policing is really for? And that began this process, this three-year process, that eventually turned into this film.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me turn to another clip. And I hate to interrupt you, but it is your documentary. And the power of this documentary is just astounding —

YANCE FORD: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — and the scope and historical breadth. This is New York University professor Nikhil Pal Singh, author of Race and America’s Long War, making a central point in Power.

NIKHIL PAL SINGH: So, we go back to what we’ve been talking about all along. We have these three dimensions of the American political project: the one that flows out of slavery and the capture and coercion of Black labor, one that grows out of the frontier and the expansion and land hunger and conquest of Indigenous people, and one that grows out of the development of American capitalism and its demand for labor. It always begins from these sets of relationships to property. It always begins from the idea that people without property, or people who are property in the case of enslaved people, are a threat to the social order built on property.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s NYU professor Nikhil Pal Singh. Yance Ford, talk about these three dimensions.

YANCE FORD: Yeah, you know, these three points of origin of policing. And the argument that the film makes is that if we take a step back and realize that policing was never organized around fighting crime and keeping people safe, right? Police was always organized about the control, regulation or seizing of property, whether it’s people, Indigenous land in the West, or breaking unions and regulating the behavior of not-yet-white immigrants in Northeastern cities. It helps you understand, when you reframe policing in that way, what we see when, you know, people like Eric Adams in New York City says, “We’re not going to let people destroy our city.” And the destruction that he’s talking about isn’t necessarily actual property destruction, right? The destruction that he’s talking about is this semblance of order, and order as defined by the police, order as defined by politicians who are not interested in dissent being expressed freely by people on the streets of any city in the United States. You see that in the response to Cop City in Atlanta. You see that in response to the Freddie Gray protests. You see that in response to the protests after the murder of Michael Brown. The thing that the police want to do more than anything else is contain and control threats to order. And these threats to order are almost always about keeping property safe from the expression of anger and frustration on the part of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can talk about a key figure in U.S. police history, August Vollmer, who you go into in Power.

YANCE FORD: Yeah. August Vollmer is deployed to the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and the United States occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. And he’s part of this specialized unit that’s charged with going into the interior of the country to root out the resistance to the American occupation, to crush that resistance and to take over that land. And what August Vollmer learns while he’s away are the strategies of war and the strategies of occupation, the strategies of, you know, counterinsurgency, as you will. And when he returns to the United States from the Philippines, he brings that counterinsurgency mindset with him. And he becomes the police chief in Berkeley, California. And quickly, you know, the mindset of counterinsurgency — right? — seeing people who might be criminals as threats to the national order, seeing people who might be expressing dissent as existential threats to the country, that’s directly from his experience in the Philippines.

And so, when we come to understand, by watching this film, how much of our domestic policing was actually influenced by this feedback loop of American occupation overseas, then it’s not a surprise, then, when you see equipment — sorry, when you see personnel carriers that look like they are straight from the battlefield. It’s because they are straight from the battlefield. They are, you know, military equipment that’s given to, granted to or sold to police departments around the country to specifically enact the use of police as, frankly, small militaries whose job it is to suppress dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Power, your documentary, about the role of police and property, where we hear from Charlie Adams, a Minneapolis police inspector in a precinct near where George Floyd was killed by police in 2020.

CHARLIE ADAMS: Our police department, law enforcement, is a paramilitary organization, right?

POLICE OFFICER 1: Police department! Search warrant! Ah, hit it! Hit it!

POLICE OFFICER 2: Mind your head!

POLICE OFFICER 3: Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!

POLICE OFFICER 4: Police department! Search warrant! Get down! Get down on the ground! Get down here!

POLICE OFFICER 1: With you! With you! With you!

CHARLIE ADAMS: And people don’t realize why it became a paramilitary organization. It’s because police came from the slave patrol.

POLICE OFFICER 1: Up! Up! Up! Up! Up, hon! Get up!

CHARLIE ADAMS: All these enslaved folks are walking in town. If they don’t have a note from master, they end up getting beat, severely. And the masters are just fed up with these slave patrols, really. So they ask the citadel, “Can you train these people, give them some type of structure?” Well, guess what the structure is: paramilitary.

POLICE OFFICER 5: Where do you live?


POLICE OFFICER 5: Put your hands down. Where?

SOUTH CENTRAL L.A. RESIDENT: 80th and Figueroa.


CHARLIE ADAMS: I think if our officers understood that and had that conversation and was taught that, I think they will know why, when somebody, an African American, says, “Yeah, you’re a product of slave patrols,” but he would understand what they meant by that, right? You know, because some words, like “patrolling,” you know, we haven’t change that, right? We talked about getting a letter going into town from master, right? What do cops do when they see a group of Black males standing? “Hey, let me see your ID.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what Minneapolis police inspector Charlie Adams is saying. He was in the precinct right next to the precinct where George Floyd was murdered. And then I want to talk about that murder and what you did in the film with the blind spot, who you chose to focus on in the murder of George Floyd.

YANCE FORD: So, you know, Inspector Adams is really, I think, unique among the active-duty police officers that we considered talking to. Charlie Adams is aware of the history of policing and how it originates, in part, from slave patrols. And he understands that that history informs the way in which police officers see communities of color, particularly in the 4th Precinct in Minneapolis, where he is, you know, sort of charged with trying to keep the neighborhood he is from safe. But he also recognizes that the training police have received is from a military model. When he calls it paramilitary, you might as well just drop the “para” part. There’s nothing paramilitary about it. It is military. And I think that what he tries to impress upon his officers by taking them to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, for example, is the complicity of police in some of our greatest atrocities in this nation. Right? He talks about how police were complicit in the rash of lynchings that swept the country during Jim Crow and post-Reconstruction.

And I think that, you know, what he’s trying to do where he is is also confined by the agenda of the institution in which he works, right? Like, he’s only able to do so much. Yes, he can teach his officers about the origins of policing, but at the end of the day, you know, the Minneapolis Police Department wants to put kids in a pipeline that will lead to incarceration. And we see a scene in the film where he talks to community activists about keeping those kids out of that pipeline, but he doesn’t actually have any other option for them.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what you did with the footage of the murder of George Floyd by the police, the blind spot.

YANCE FORD: Yeah. So, what we did, you know, we took that footage, we showed a very small — you know, a very small amount of it at the beginning, so that we know where we are in time. And then we blot out everything except officer Thao and the two people who are confronting him during George Floyd’s murder, so that all you see are these three people. It’s like a little triangle. And what’s happening in that dynamic is you have two people who are insisting that officer Thao simply check George Floyd’s pulse. And what does he do? He tells them not to do drugs. What does he do? He tells them to get back on the sidewalk. What does he say? “I’m not going to have this conversation now.”

By blotting out the rest of the scene and highlighting that interaction, what we do is raise the issue of complicity and the fact that officer Thao is as complicit in the murder of George Floyd as Derek Chauvin, because he allowed it to happen within feet of him, when he’s being told by people to simply check the pulse of a man who had yet to move and who didn’t appear to be breathing. He refused to do that. He refused to intervene. And as result of his complicity, as well as the complicity of other officers who were there, George Floyd lost his life. That scene could have ended so much — it could have ended differently, but none of them were able to gin up the courage to say “stop” to Derek Chauvin.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we just have a minute, but this is the fourth anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by police.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s also this season of violent police crackdowns on the Gaza encampments.

YANCE FORD: Mm-hmm. So, what we see in the crackdown on these encampments, what we see in the crackdown of unrest on the streets, here and in other places, is simply the logical outcome of the origins of our police. They were always formed with the idea that violence to contain and control a disorderly public is at the heart of policing’s function in this country. And so, when we see, you know, the most professional police department in the world, the NYPD, swinging clubs and swinging fists and throwing people to the ground as a way of breaking up or policing a demonstration, that violence is part and parcel of what they are taught.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for?

YANCE FORD: I’m calling for people to watch this film, to understand our history, and to decide for themselves what demand they are going to make of police. We all have a responsibility to decide what we are going to demand of the politicians whose job it is to regulate police, but also what we are going to demand of policing itself. And in my opinion, that demand is that police take a step back out of the leadership position that they insist on putting themselves in —

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

YANCE FORD: — and listen to the communities that they are supposedly supposed to serve, and arrive at a different definition of public safety, driven by communities, not by police.

AMY GOODMAN: Yance Ford, Oscar-nominated director of the new documentary, Power, which is on Netflix. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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Police Killings of Black & Brown People May Be Double Previous Estimates: La Raza Database Project

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