To say we Americans have an uneasy relationship to the police is to state the obvious. And as recent events have shown, that relationship continues to fray.
Initially, I considered titling this: Send in The Goons. No doubt, some would have objected to that, but giving the events of the last few days and the fact that instead of tamping down protests, the introduction of federal agents has in fact ramped up the outrage, it’s not too far off the mark.
I thought about using that as a title too.
Here’s a question: If we have all these agents of the CBP-Customs and Border Protection-available for excursions into places like Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and the like, does that mean the border is secure and no more drugs and illegals are moving across the border? If not, then who’s keeping out all the terrorists and rapists the good folks at Fox have warned us about if they’re up here busting heads? Just asking.
As is the case in much of American policy-and politics-we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. On the one hand, we want law and order; on the other, we have a distinct dislike for our whole public safety apparatus and system.
A few examples.
The police no longer dress like the police of old. Look at the pictures of the 1968 riots in Chicago and the police don’t look like they were sent in to take out Bin Laden. They weren’t dressed, head to toe, in body armor, their badges were distinguishable; as were their faces. Juxtapose that with today, when a street protest against police violence is faced with a phalanx of police dressed as if they were conducting a mission in Ramadi, Iraq, nevermind an American city, where they are indistinguishable as individuals. Which, ironically, is why it becomes easier to throw out terms like “defund” because they cease being people and become nothing more than symbols of state oppression and violence.
Recently, the head of the police guild was upset, almost to the point of tears, complaining that protester were throwing bottles, firecrackers, and the like at his body-armored members, while at the same time we’re shown these same officers spraying tear gas into a child’s eyes.
Now, if you think I’m all anti-police, let’s flip the coin. When the Seattle police left the east precinct and Capitol Hill to the protesters and their own devices, it came as no surprise that they were incapable of maintaining the order within, with a number of shootings and deaths. Turns out it takes more than desire to keep the world, or a few city blocks, safe, just as it take more than angry words to change the world.
We have, as they say, found ourselves at a moment of truth. We want law and order, but we don’t want to live in a police state where there seems to be no limit on what the police can do and get away with. It was sickening to watch Gorge Floyd slowly being killed by a officer when there was no need or reason for it. At the same time, you can’t help but feel for the ordinary officer, who at any given time might come across someone intent on killing them just because they’re a police officer and we’re awash in guns and the fear, real or imagined, of losing our rights, however defined. We are pushed and pulled by these two dynamics, which ought to point out, glaringly, that the system isn’t working.
We don’t want a police state, but we don’t want anarchy either.
Is your head spinning?
At some point we have to look at the whole picture of how we organize ourselves and what we ask of our civil servants. Homelessness, mental illness, petty crime, inequality all are part of the picture and all have to be addressed. The police can’t do everything and shouldn’t be ask to. Nor should they be given carte blanche in how they behave towards the public-all of the public. And they should be demilitarized. We already have a military and it’s a bad look. It has authoritarianism written all over it. What we need is a public safety system that is equitable, accessible, fair, and one we don’t fear or loathe.
©2020 David William Pearce