“Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains”
Or so Rousseau wrote in 1762 with the opening of ‘The Social Contract’. In an interpretation of the powers of statism, it seems, now, a worry that these words should represent such a profound nuance today, still enmeshed into the moral universe of human behaviour and systematic authority.
Our democracy is reducible to shards; fragmented segments of a lost collective and mobile force. For within the contours of our democratic crisis lies the pre-eminence of ‘private law’, a model of re-founded liberalism which has since come to overarch the significance of democratic statism and popular will. With Trump’s presidency coming to a draw, perhaps it is time to reflect upon the narrow escape America- as indeed the rest of the world- had from the re-inauguration of a “post-fascist oligarchy” and a growing ‘police state’. Whilst one can contest about how American democracy got here in the first place, it is critical to understand that democracy and racial justice have been largely curtailed by the logic of many deregulated and systemically racist police organisations in the United States, fed from the arm of the State.
This is not a light discussion, however, much of what will be discussed in this article is something that every conscious person can feel familiar with. After all, authority composes part of a reality that we’ve all experienced throughout our lives- be it through our parents, guardians or teachers. When we apply this layer of our own lived experience to the greater inegalitarian hierarchies of power, simple but critical questions emerge:
Ponder for a second; what is authority and from whom should it be exercised?
‘The police exist to keep us safe, or so we are told by mainstream media and popular culture. TV shows exaggerate the amount of serious crime and the nature of what most police officers actually do all day. Crime control is a small part of policing, and it always has been’. In his book, ‘The End of Policing’, Alex Vitale outlines a diminishing actuality of the role of the police in a radical cynic which alludes to their liberal disguise and public violations.
Central to his polemic is the recognition of modernism and its emphasis on conformity. ‘Liberals think of the police as the legitimate mechanism for using force in the interests of the whole society. For them, the state, through elections and other democratic processes, represents the general will of society as well as any system could’. These systematic elements are indeed heralded as the shrine of a rich and liberal democracy, but what liberal modernism fails to account for are the threads of discriminative and intersectional imbalances within the system. ‘Rather than admit the central role of slavery and Jim Crow in both producing wealth for whites and denying basic life opportunities for blacks’, Vitale continues, ‘they prefer to focus on using a few remedial programs—backed up by a robust criminal justice system to transform black people’s attitudes so that they will be better able to perform competitively in the labour market. The result, however, is that black Americans start from a diminished position that makes them more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system and to be treated more harshly by it’. What the liberal consensus fails to understand, in its repudiation of egalitarianism, is the ineffectiveness of the police and the social dilemmas posed to systematically disadvantaged citizens.
“The police represent the point of contact between the coercive apparatus of the state and the lives of its citizens. [The] police exist to fabricate social order but that order rests on systems of exploitation—and when elites feel that this system is at risk, whether from slave revolts, general strikes, or crime and rioting in the streets, they rely on the police to control those activities’. Put like this, police authority is an extension of the hyper-capitalist State by protecting the interests of the few and wealthy. This places two major vulnerabilities upon society at large; the unaccountability of the police and the ebb and flow of social disfunction.
Let us examine the first. As Vitale claims, ‘more police than ever before are engaged in more enforcement of more laws, resulting in astronomical levels of incarceration, economic exploitation, and abuse. This expansion mirrors the rise of mass incarceration. It began with the War on Crime rhetoric of the 1960s and continued to develop and intensify until today, with support from both political parties’ in the US. Against the search for justice, the police have become concerned with the management of black and minority peoples- and the Trump administration shows no relapse of the past. The problem with the American police force is that behind their overarching ‘warrior mentality’ is ‘a mindset that [assumes] people of colour commit more crime and therefore must be subjected to harsher police tactics’. The law is unfairly targeted to discipline and disadvantage coloured individuals, upholding the systematically racist and unjust order.
‘Take the case of John Crawford, an African American man shot to death by an officer in a Walmart in Ohio. Crawford had picked up an air gun off a shelf and was carrying it around the store while shopping. Another shopper called 911 to report a man with a gun in the store. The store’s video camera shows that one of the responding officers shot without warning while Crawford was talking on the phone. In Ohio it is legal to carry a gun openly, but the officer had been trained to use deadly force upon seeing a gun.’ But do we assess this tragic incident as the police’s mismanagement of the situation, or as another racially provocative attack? Perhaps both.
Today, black students are the most vulnerable and, in Chicago, over 20 times more likely to be arrested than white students, with rearrests at extortionate levels. With the police force ill-equipped to handle cautions situations and with both implicit and explicit bias intact- despite ineffective attempts made under Obama to induce diversity and multicultural training- the police’s ability to manage disorder is largely divorced from a fair, accountable and controlled justice system, and rather operates at the expense of human and civil rights.
Systematic dysfunction is harder to locate. This is because, the police- as an extended arm of the state- possess a legitimised and normative ability to use unregulated gun violence and force; a manner of systematic coercion which is largely unquestioned and accepted. The police argue that their purpose is to respond to crime, or what they believe to be the product of pre-existing social dysfunction. They hold the claim that crime is the cause of social recklessness, danger and disobedience which must be controlled and deterred with harsh punishments. However, the belief that all crime amounts from no-where but malicious intent is a crucial feature of the Trump administration. For where he demands on social media ‘LAW AND ORDER’, he fails to acknowledge that poverty and insecurity provide the breeding ground for crime.
Rather than call outs to violent incidents, as they would have you believe, most police calls are merely about property violations or road incidents. Nonetheless, the autonomy surrendered to the police force is at an all-time high with their capacities used to defend a top-down apparatus which, under Trump, has become a mechanism for criminalising poverty. Arrests and the dislocation of homeless people have sharply risen since 2016. Furthermore, according to Vitale, ‘the policing of poor and non-white communities became much more intense. As unemployment, poverty, and homelessness increased, government, police, and prosecutors worked together to criminalize huge swaths of the population’. But it is certainly no accident that crime is higher in poor areas, given their scarce resources and culture of deprivation. As US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders argue, if the US had a homeless service, free and accessible healthcare and a housing market which provided security over liquidity, then crime acted on out of necessity would largely not exist- a tired argument which has been considered since More’s Utopia in 1515!
According to a report in the New York Times last year, Dr. Megan Sandel, a director of a homeless medical centre in Boston, spoke of a ‘ripple-effect’ which emerges from an underfunded social security system and spreads out its effects, destructing the lives of children and young adults. Specifically, ‘the report showed a 137% increase, to more than 102,000, in the number of students who while homeless reported staying in “unsheltered” places, such as abandoned buildings and cars’. But with greater police enforcement to remove or arrest such squalors, the war waged on the most vulnerable once again works in tandem with the strengthening and centralising of the capitalist body politic, by disrupting structured violence against the order that keeps populations poor and immobile.
But above all, the selected targeting of the criminal justice system widens intersectional contradiction. The saying ‘do as I say, not as I do’ comes inevitably to mind as crimes made by the rich and powerful are often overlooked- but heaven forbid if a poor, non-white individual steps out of line. As Vitale and Jeremey Reiman point out, ‘when the crimes of the rich are dealt with, it’s generally through administrative controls and civil enforcement rather than aggressive policing, criminal prosecution, and incarceration. […] No bankers have been jailed for the 2008 financial crisis despite widespread fraud and the looting of the American economy, which resulted in mass unemployment, homelessness, and economic dislocation’.
Of course, natural seeds of authority are necessary to the structure and functioning of society. Congealing the organic character of paternal authority with the cognitive level of children and protecting society from malicious threats are crucial to social life and evolution. But, given the rise in police force, most of which has been largely unaccountable, we are living in an institutional crisis.
From an anarchistic point of view, such institutional hierarchy and inequality is of central concern. Anarchism advocates the abolition of state-centred and oppressive models of authority; the falsely standardised ebb and flow of the rule of law, the sovereignty of institutions and the power of ‘them’ over ‘us’. It withdraws from standardized presuppositions of authentic hierarchies and warrants against the tide of anything between radicalism and the simple affinity between equality and freedom.
Perhaps both an understanding of fair authority and anarchy from oppression are needed in equal measure.
Indeed, the protests of Black Lives Matter effectively raised awareness of how police brutality is entangled with methods of social control which, blended with the criminalisation of poverty, legitimizes violence to secure an unjust order. In so much as the central function of society remains committed to the accumulation of wealth, we must continue to ask ourselves: whose interests are being served in this system, and just how far does the criminal justice system provide equal treatment under the law?
(‘The End of Policing’ by Alex Vitale has been a critical source for this feature, as have been the wonderful words and stories shared by the BLM movement since June 2020).