It’s Sunday (as of this writing). When I was a child, the weekend was usually considered a low-news day. Y’know; if there was any major news it was of the “German Chancellor takes tea with the Queen” sort of puff piece.
Nowadays, you can find a peaceful protest in most cities in the US, and there, like budgetary remoras, are the police, to antagonize them into a riot, and then step in and brutalize and arrest the rioters. I’m sure there are a few riots or violent incidents that start out that way, but, the overwhelming sensation I’m getting is; this is, 90% of the time, a case where the cops are not needed, wanted, or even necessary, and they show up, anyway. If I were to show up, unannounced and uninvited at a neighbor’s barbecue, it would be considered rude. If I come in a squad car, for some reason, that’s fine with society. I’ll admit that this is further polarizing society along already-evident lines, and that’s not really my focus, today (all I will say is, when I was an EMT and I heard the radio say, “Police already on-scene,” or “Police dispatched,” my first impulse wasn’t, “Oh, good,” it was, “What do they expect the cops to do? Send the fire department.” This is true, BTW, and, although I will admit that police and ambulance crews are designated for two very specific, very different tasks that rarely overlap; realistically, 99% of what I did could be done by cops simply speeding someone to the hospital, or managing a crisis scene). So, I’ll admit to a little pre-existing bias based on my personal history of the cops being rarely useful to me (even living in a rough neighborhood in Miami, the cops really didn’t ever spend enough time in any one place long enough to do much, even when I was burgled), but your mileage may vary. And, I’ll also admit to a fair amount of standard, left-wing bias against the police state that seems to invariably, directly precede an openly fascist state (I’m not under any illusions as to where we’re headed, as a country, but I’d like to at least make some sort of effort to avoid that).
However, almost all of the current issues seem — to me — to boil down to a few critical philosophical questions that America has never adequately resolved: First, who gets to use violence upon whom, and when? Secondly, what level of violence is considered acceptable? And, finally, what are the oversight/accountability measures in place?
It’s worth noting that I’m going to be talking about this mostly in theoretical and hypothetical terms, but I will, possibly, discuss when practice and reality deviate significantly from theory. Remember, eugenics, communism, and unfettered capitalism all work fine in theory, but we know from history that all three are really, really horrible in practice (look up why the FDA was invented — under a completely free market with no regulations, it’s perfectly fine to sell heroin in cough syrup and mislabel it). Similarly, even though I’m going to Monday morning quarterback a lot of stuff, it’s important to remember that it’s easy to make broad, sweeping generalizations not in the heat of the moment. You never who would never, ever put his body through chemotherapy, let alone experimental, unproven chemo? Yr correspondent. But when you hear the words, “Stage 4,” a lot of theoretical principles go out the window. The truth on the ground might be dramatically different from what I can see.
In civilized places, the state has a supreme monopoly on lethal force. America immediately has an issue here, because we have a long, storied history of the State getting that monopoly, but also the State frequently giving a wink and a nod to any number of citizens hell-bent on killing non-citizens. The English-speaking world is kind of weird in that way — we’re quite alright with private citizens traveling to distant shores, murdering other people, and then bringing the loot back home. If we’d wanted a consistent philosophy on violence, we really would have been better served by refusing Crusaders reentry, or even just making the Plantagenets stay in France, since they so enjoyed murdering French people (as has been noted, Medieval Normans were a distinct, separate ethnic and linguistic group from other French people)(probably as easy to rule, though). The problem is; that solidified an unfortunate unspoken rule that we’re seeing the end result of, today: Covert violence is fine in our society. As long as we don’t have to see it or talk about it, it effectively never happened. And it set a really horrific legal precedent we’re reaping the benefits of: Violence delivered by citizens to non-citizens is absolutely fine. I have a British friend whose daughter is taking American studies, and, before she arrives at all of the mind-bending horrors white people delivered onto slaves and Native Americans, let me point out that there were numerous laws and legal rulings (see the Dredd Scott decision) establishing that slaves and Native Americans were barely people, and certainly not citizens, so murdering them to clear out the acreage for a dairy farm in Indiana wasn’t a genocide or crime, it was your right, as an American. I suspect this is the root of everyone who wants to label people “Real Americans,” because that codes for “Citizens,” which, inevitably, implies, “It’s within your God-given rights to kill all those Godless non-citizens; have at it.” So, when we white Americans freak out about the sudden sky-rocketing level of on-camera police violence; non-majority American citizens (and victims of American foreign policy)(if it makes any difference to the residents of Asia; our government is only slightly less-abusive to its citizens than you fine folk) tend to shake their head and ask why, a few centuries too late, we’re suddenly invested. We’ve historically been fine with a great deal of genocide and brutal repression. I think that the 21st century will see the end of covert violence, although I might be optimistic in that statement. For now, let’s assume that we’re at that Venn Diagram intersection of “Police Are Rampantly Ramping Up their Brutality in Response to Protests, Similar to Their Response to 1960s Protests” (Citation: The Ken Burns Vietnam Documentary Series, J. Edgar Hoover’s repeated, well-documented attempts to sabotage the Civil Rights Movement using multiple, illegal methods; the Nixon Tapes, etc.) and, “Police Brutality is More Visible than Ever, Thanks to Cell Phones and Citizen Journalism.” Or, translated to the last month in the American Experiment; our country was founded upon the principle that power resists oversight, and we’re looking at several centuries of power without oversight. It ain’t pretty.
Again, I’d argue that the root of America’s problems — all the way from police gassing protesters, to the billionaire class looting the COVID emergency fund, to defunding education — rests in that problematic statement, “The state has an exclusive monopoly on lethal violence. Except when it doesn’t.” Admittedly, I have to redefine and expand the concept of lethal violence to include lethal poverty, but stealing and inevitably devaluing a human life to the point where we allow people to die (yes, we do; despite what able-bodied white people might tell me; I have actually been evicted from hospitals when my insurance got cold feet) seems close enough to actually shooting someone to include it under that “lethal violence” umbrella. Again, I’ve had extensive personal experience in the “completely freaking out, because I’m about to die” zone (one of the more-memorable, less-advertised side-effects of chemo are panic attacks — if you get one when you’re suffering from severe neuralgia; it does feel like your own death is imminent), and, let me stress this; it is when you are in that mental state that you should never, ever make life and death decisions. I’m not going to go into medically-assisted suicide (for it) and/or euthanasia (against it for pragmatic reasons — it’s frequently abused), but, I’d definitely be open to the argument that, because you’re not in your right mind, perhaps people in a life-and-death situation are not of sound enough mind to make end-of-life decisions (again, I have skin in that argument, so I’m not going to comment; I’m just using it to prop up my own argument that the way we practice violence in America is fundamentally flawed). If you physically back someone into a corner and threaten them, it’s going to be an understandably unpredictable scenario. But we like to pretend it won’t be, and legislate people’s behavior. In that scenario above? If it’s a case of rape, there’s a 60% chance you won’t report it at all, because calling the cops is already a bad option in that scenario. If you’re a cop and some poor black kid is reaching for his wallet for ID? Gunning them down is, the vast majority of the time, met with a paid-suspension. We’ve created a system wherein cops are directly incentivized to do the wrong thing. Want a week or two off? Kill a brown woman and say her purse looked like a purse, which might contain a pair of brass knuckles.
Before anyone chimes in that it’s just a few bad apples, no, it is not. It’s not only systemic, it’s the entire system. Recall the scene on YouTube from Buffalo, NY a few days ago, when riot cops in Buffalo literally, on-camera smashed an elderly man’s head. Two officers were suspended, the 57 other members of that group resigned in protest (https://www.wivb.com/news/local-news/buffalo/entire-bpd-emergency-response-team-resigns-in-support-of-suspended-officers/). Admittedly, they kept their day-jobs as non-killer-cops, because there might be an opportunity. That’s not just a few bad apples. That’s almost 20 times as many cops protesting — on-camera — that they didn’t like the fact that their buddies might have to find a non-lethal form of employment. God knows, the job market isn’t looking great, these days. Certainly, the phrase, “Indicted but never convicted,” while looking fantastic if you run for Governor of Florida, is not a great one to have on the CV. I realize that I’m running long and veering away from my original message of, “Hey, maybe it’s just begging for trouble to create multiple tiers of citizenship and give different responsibilities/privileges to each caste.” Which was the thesis I was kind of hoping for, until mission creep set in.
So, bottom line; it’s inherently unfair and immoral for the state to have an exclusive monopoly on violence, and then walk that monopoly back (or hyper-aggressively assert it) depending on who’s making the claim. What’s worse is, it will inevitably be enticing to people who are attracted to the job because of the violence. If you go down to your local police station and ask for promotional materials because you wish to join the local constabulary, the brochure will, inevitably, show a bunch of burly fellows rappelling down skyscrapers, gleefully shooting up the countryside, and, generally, reenacting Da Nang in 1969. I haven’t done a whole lot of research, but I doubt you’ll see photos of cops at desks, filing witness statements, filling out insurance claims, and all of the associated, non-mayhem aspects of the job (which, don’t get me wrong; I might be critical of the police, but those parts must dramatically outweigh the action movie parts, based on the simple fact that reality is not a Sylvester Stallone movie). I could go on with critiquing individual aspects of police procedure, recruitment, training, etc. but that would take a week. It’s almost as if those components are just visible problems of a much deeper-rooted, more systemic problem in American law enforcement.