[I wrote this essay right as the Occupy Movement was taking off. It seems fitting that I publish it now especially given the recent police violence in Washington DC, and Oakland against the protesters]
We must love and support the police. It is a none-to-secret obligation in the America of 2011. They are the heroes of 9/11, the men and women (but mostly men let’s admit it to ourselves) who keep the unclean hordes from knocking in our doors and devastating our families. A police officer is often the only person you tell your child (if you are white or privileged) to trust when out in public other than yourself. They are seen as (by white people and the privileged mostly) protectors of the weak and the enemies of those who would use violence and fear to intimidate and exploit them. They are the first line of defense in the longest running war in American history: the war on non-alcoholic drugs. They are seen by many as protectors of good things and they are thought to represent the best of our oh-so fragile society. Unfortunately they are none of these things for many more people. I can only speak for myself of course, and I have a perspective that is male and mostly white. But in other ways I am part of the vast list of enemies that the police and their supporters see as a threat to a great nation and its safety and morality.
That is because I am also poor, and this counts for a lot great deal in a nation that has elites who are swiftly becoming far less afraid of voicing their disgust for those who have failed in the “Free Market”, or more accurately given their vitriol and disgust, those who have failed the “Free Market”. I am the first to admit that I am far from the bottom of the unspoken and often conveniently ignored American caste system. That being said I am certainly not near the top, and in many sense I have made my situation worse by deviating even more from the accepted norm. I am a non-Christian, a socialist, unemployed, an artist, a liberal, and I am not a bigot. Any one of these things would be enough on their own to condemn me in the minds of many of my fellow countrymen and women, and I know this from painful, but enlightening, personal experience. To be blunt though, I am not a racial or ethnic minority, I am not poverty stricken, I am not living in a large city. I have a lot going in my favor in the eyes of the society that I by no fault of my own call mine. It is that more much more interesting then, given my biases and attributes, that I too see the ever increasing tyranny of the police. Today I will look at that tyranny from a more specific constitutional and rights oriented perspective.
Some well-meaning but stupid liberals want us to see the NYPD crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street protesters occupying Liberty Park as a glimpse into the experience that minorities and the poor have had and continue to have with the police. I see this point of view as insulting and simplistic, and more importantly it misses a different and perhaps more cynical reality. The police are not treating those who dare speak out against the failings of capitalism and governmental leadership as they do so many poor and minority young men and women; they are in fact treating the Occupiers as enemies of that state itself. Your average bigoted and socially unconscious work-a-day local police officer or deputy all too often manipulates local law and statutes, or out rights ignores both, to harass and “control” those who are not part of the accepted social and economic power structure of the community. This can be devastating for the victims and have in the end a corrosive effect on the very law and order that the police and their handlers claim to want to uphold. Usually (or at least until the past 20 years in many communities) though most unsavory activities by police and governmental leadership are undertaken with an eye to the local status quo.
Not so any more, not even for relatively small communities. Today police work is seen as tour of duty in a domestic war with no beginning and more importantly no discernible end. The Civil Rights struggle in the south showed a hint of the potential of the police being used as enforcers of a larger unconstitutional order meant to keep those who see themselves as the most valued of citizens safe from everyone else. In fact it was more than an example: for close to 100 years law enforcement systematically and knowingly acted as the militant wing of a movement that saw many of their fellow citizens as immoral at best and subhuman at worst. From Philadelphia Mississippi to Bull Connor to thousands of instances of police beatings and mental, emotional and sexual harassment, the South and many areas in the North and some in the West were essentially worlds were the constitution was nothing more than a declaration of the rights of those who saw themselves as the greatest examples of humankind. The apartheid and on occasion warfare against African-Americans and to a lesser extent those who supported them and the Constitution would have been nearly if not completely impossible without a Police apparatus that was ready, able and gleefully willing to abuse both their fellow citizens and the Constitution. It can safely be said that where there are police there is a good potential for the suppression of human and constitutional rights.
Part of the problem comes from the fact that many (or at least an influential few who claim to speak for many) Americans confuse or conflate safety and status/property security with freedom and civil rights. Who claims the Constitutional privileges that they are taught to revere? Why the ungrateful poor and seditious Liberals. In the minds of many a Conservative white upper middle class man The Bill of Rights is not something that need concern him: HE knows he can say and do what he pleases, and he uses that privilege (and they do see it as that) responsibly and for the betterment of his family and his peers. Why would anyone want to use the holy documents of the founding to attack a system that had been so good to him and his beautiful bourgeoisie ilk? Seclusion, often purposeful, often leads to delusion, and that is the case for much of what has come to be called by pundits and pontificators as “Red State” America. Only “Blue State” America cares about such things as rights; they of course want something for nothing, be it comfort, food or this case liberty to do and think as they please.
Tanks in the streets of L.A., police in armor that would put a Tudor era knight to shame, stop and frisk policies, free speak zones; these are not products of a power structure that respects and loves rights so much as they are the trappings of a system that does not recognize the validity of rights in the face of any and all threats to the established social and economic order. Anything goes in the struggle to protect the job creators; without a job a man becomes nothing more than a burden on the system, and what is the system of not a way of rewarding those who take care of themselves? If you fail you fail alone, and if you succeed you get to reap the rewards of a nation that possess vast but incredibly stratified and segregated wealth and power. The police are the line between those who have failed at the Capitalist endeavor and those who have succeeded and those who erroneously seem to confirm the lie that is the American Dream. The police therefor are given a sort of pass between the world of the lower classes and the powers that be. They are the unpoor: they do not possess the full privileges and perks of the bourgeoisie, but they are allowed to perpetuate a myth of police supremacy based upon the premise that any person who volunteers to protect the “civilized” communities of America is a morally superior person. And when you are morally superior you are in many ways not subject to the laws that you are tasked to uphold. You are something more than a citizen, and all rights afforded by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and claimed by the working, minority and poor classes of society are instantaneously turned into privileges when a police officer is present and upholding the power structure.
There was a time when even the powers that be allowed for an occasion accusation of “excessive force” to be leveled against the police. No more however; the militarization of police culture and the reimagining of urban areas as warzones in a battle for the safety of the upper middle class has seen to that. There is nothing excessive about force used to quiet unwarranted (in the eyes of the privileged) complaints and grievances of the poor and the underrepresented. In fact and often in practice there is no such thing as “excessive force” when it comes to law enforcement anymore; the only “excessive force” recognized today is when a citizen dares to strike back or react to an assault by the authorities. It is now considered an unreasonable amount of “violence” to yell or issues obscenities in the direction of an officer of the law. The penalty for such disloyalty to the Holy Order is beating followed by arrest. We are all guilty until proven docile. The only innocent man is a man who would never be accused of a crime.
What America witnessed in New York City on November 15, 2011 was nothing new to many people who struggle to get by in this country. But, it was jarring nonetheless to many who never saw themselves as being subject to such force and prejudice. People were beaten, harassed and frightened while officers laughed and reporters were arrested for merely trying to document what the police claimed was legitimate and warranted action. It became clear that the only property that deserved protecting was the property of those who saw the police as the last best hope against the lazy unwashed mass of underachievers and cultural misfits. A small community was violently dismantled; not even a thriving and much beloved library was removed and possibly even destroyed. No respect need be paid to those who do not even have the self-respect necessary to know their place in society. The police acted to protect and serve the interests of the only people who really have something to lose: the rich, the privileged, and the powerful.
As long as some sops are thrown to the underclass, and as long was the privileged are able to convince some segments of the lower and working classes that they too can achieve the status of “real American” then the police can continue to violate rights that are no longer seen as such. The poor cannot afford rights. They must settle for the privileges that the powerful and fortunate allow to trickle down to the people that refused to allow the market to help them help themselves. Even the right to vote is now being seen by the powerful as a potential privilege that comes into play only when a person is deemed competent by the standards of a Capitalist society to exercise it. Why allow those who do not even appreciate how perfect America and its Market System are be allowed a say in how the country is run? It is a slow but methodical march to aristocracy and soft feudalism; only a citizen can vote, and only working privileged men and their families are real citizens.
I watched the events in New York City with both disgust and a touch of hope. For perhaps the first time in a long time a new generation is starting to realize how much they really do have at stake in a democratic and fair social and economic system, and how close they are to never being able to realize the potential they were told resided within each of them. They are starting to realize that the American Dream cannot and should not be a dream of comfortable wealth and power and of finally being able to appeal to the authority and protection of the police. Instead the dream should be to survive and thrive together as a community that respects the rights of all people and the potential of human beings to forge a new economy that is not based upon the notion that many must fail in order for a select (or even elect) few to succeed. New York Mayor Bloomberg said that “No right is absolute” in the wake of the expulsion of the occupy protesters. While a disgusting sentiment we cannot fault the Mayor for being dishonest: his quote is a perfect example of how the 1% and their scared and manipulated quisling allies in Red State America view the 99%. For in his eyes the police are the only thing that separates the underclass from the gates of their American Versailles. It is yet to be seen if the police will eventually realized that they too will soon be tossed aside and oppressed in the same way they have oppressed the underclass. The police do not yet seem to understand that they too are expected to shut up, toe the blue line, and quietly and meekly eat cake.