I’m wondering if you have some follow up to Michi’s amazing post from 2015 about revolution, guerrilla warfare and terrorism? It’s impossible to analyse the current protests in real time but it seems police are escalating the violence and trying to bait civilians into fights they can’t win. Also, civil disobedience and direct action are more confrontational than what we are taught about non-violent resistance.
The problem is, you’re looking at the behavior before the event, rather than once it’s up and going. As of June 2020, the US is not currently facing an armed insurrection.
The behavior of police, right now, is publicly displaying what some have known for decades: Law Enforcement in the United States is an inherently racist and oppressive system, designed to create self-fulfilling prophecies.
There’s a number of factors here that have exposed this.
First is the increased communication technology. Police haven’t really kept up with the times on this front. They still seem to think that, if they catch someone recording them when they’re over the line, it’s easy enough to destroy the evidence, before anyone can see it. This would have been true 15 years ago, but today, someone with a cell phone camera can stream directly to the internet, with that broadcast being recorded, and watched by thousands of people.
Second is decades of of legal protection. One form of this is the police unions, which have gained an unhealthy amount of political influence. Their protection of criminal cops is such that it is nearly impossible to fire an officer no matter how egregious their behavior. Should they manage to be fired, they can easily find work with another law enforcement organization. Prosecution almost never occurs because it would result in the police unions coming down hard on the DA, and pouring money into a friendlier candidate’s campaign during the next election cycle.
For two specific examples of how extreme this is: the Minneapolis PD only punished officers in ~1.5% of cases where complaints were brought against them. The national average is ~2.5%. Many of these high profile slayings in recent years have been from officers with a history of complaints filed against them, which kind of undercuts the idea that all these claims are baseless, or retribution.
It’s being reported that Derek Chauvin will probably be able to collect his police pension as Minnesota state law does not prohibit convicted felons from claiming state pensions. Any civil suit against Chauvin will be paid by the city of Minneapolis. Meaning, ultimately, tax payers pay for the murder of George Floyd while Chauvin pays nothing, and collects a paycheck for the rest of his life, potentially as soon as 2026, (assuming state law doesn’t change before then.)
When you consider this environment, it’s not hard to see where you’d get cops that don’t feel accountable.
The third major element is popular culture. This may sound a little tenious, and I’ll probably revisit this in depth if anyone’s curious, however, yes, popular media does affect how people view the world.
We have nearly a century of video media presenting police as, “the good guys.” Some of this goes back to The Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s, which had a very simplistic, and absolute, set of rules regarding the presentation of crime and law enforcement. However, even after the Production Code’s demise, we still have a lot of media which presents police as unambiguous heroes.
At this point, as a nation, we have two separate police forces. The one that exists in the real world, and a fictionalized version that doesn’t. If you rarely, or never, interact with the real thing, it’s easy to fill in the blanks from the fiction. The danger is, if you are part of the real thing, it’s easy to self-justify using that same fiction.
(If you’re not from the States, it’s probably worth noting that the real US law enforcement is broken up between City, County, State, and Federal agencies. There’s a lot of moving pieces. When, I’m saying, “there’s one,” I’m referring to the idea that there is the real gestalt of “American Law Enforcement.”)
With exception of shows like The Shield, the norm in American media is hero cops. Doesn’t matter if it’s Dragnet, Law & Order, CSI or hundreds of other shows and films. This creates real problems. In particular, CSI is a headache for prosecutors and defense attorneys as it has created an unrealistic expectation for, and faith in forensic evidence among juries.
The problem is that, “every good story needs a bad guy.” I’d quibble over this point, and have, but in the genre of the cop shows it is expected. Cops chase criminals, and before the hour is up, “they’ll have their man.”
The consequence of this is that police are trusted far more by the court and juries. In most cases, those juries are going to be made up of people who don’t interact with police on a regular basis. The inverse is also true, if the police said you did something, you have a much harder time convincing convincing a jury that it’s not true.
The knock on effects are legion. Judges are more often to sign off on warrants, or excuse officer’s misconduct.
For a horrifying example of this, look at the execution of Breonna Taylor by the Louisville Metro PD. The officers wouldn’t have charged Kennith Walker with attempted murder of a police officer if they didn’t believe they could act with complete impunity. I’ll remind you, the LMPD broke into a home without announcing themselves, and then opened fire indiscriminately. They also chose not to use body cameras to maintain a record of events. Again, because they had reason to believe they would not be punished.
When we look back to pop culture, we also see the other side, officers who have been primed to justify their own actions, because they see themselves as “the good guys,” without really thinking about their behavior, or the consequences of what they’re doing. They need to stop, “the bad guys.”
Now, I’m making this sound very simple; it’s not. I am putting it in the simplest terms possible, because when you step back from that fantasy and look at the actual behavior, this is really messed up.
So let’s talk about Daryl Gates. Gates served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Like a lot of World War II vets, he eventually mustered out and rejoined civilian life. In 1949, Gate joined the LAPD. By 1978 he’d risen to Chief of Police. Gates had a very militaristic outlook. This tracks with someone who’d served, and then tried to bring the military home after the war. This is someone who, in 1990 advocated for the summary execution of casual drug users while testifying before congress, comparing it to treason. While I’m painting him with a broad brush, he believed “the war on drugs,” was a war. Intentionally or not, Gates was one of the architects police militarization in the United States.
The biggest, and most successful thing Gates spearheaded was the introduction of the SWAT Teams. He was also responsible for CRASH. This was ostensibly an anti-gang unit, though extensive corruption was later discovered during the Rampart scandal. If you’ve never read up on it, this was a mess. Stolen drugs, an undercover officer killing a CRASH officer in self defense, more stolen drugs. Worth reading. This was the basis for The Shield, if you’ve ever wondered.
The idea behind SWAT was to create tactical teams who could operate like a paramilitary unit for the police. There’s a narrow range of situations where teams like that would be valuable. However, SWAT has expanded massively in the last 50 years.
So, it’s 2020, Gates has been dead for 10 years. Why am I talking about him? Because soldiers make shitty cops.
A soldier can muster out, and then go into law enforcement and execute their job admirably. There’s nothing wrong with this. They stopped being a soldier, and became a cop. Hell, I have a good friend who followed this path. He left the army, and went into the police.
Someone who is a soldier is tasked with fighting the enemy. A peace officer is tasked with protecting their community. It may sound like these are compatible, but they’re not. If you are a soldier, the foes you face are other. You cannot be a good cop and view your community as other.
So, we loop back to the pop culture thing. We have police officers who are cosplaying as soldiers. They pick up the philosophical outlook of finding and eliminating “the enemy,” whoever that may be.
You’ll notice I said, “the enemy.” For police the job should be to find, “criminals.” But, for these “cops” with surplus military hardware it’s about taking down anyone who threatens them. When that fails, it’s about making a show of dealing with, “the enemy.”
Now, we are talking about adults, not children. At least some of them understand that if they simply open fire on protesters with the cameras rolling, it will not end well for them. So, they’re looking for a pretext. They want a riot. They view the protesters as other. Their community is each other. It’s not about guerrilla warfare, it’s about the junior members of a militant organization getting bored. wanting to crack some skulls, and leadership that is either complicit, or not about to rein them in.
Let’s loop back to the ugly side of popular culture for a second. Policing in the United States is racist. That doesn’t mean that every police officer is, however while the structures in place are designed to appear racially agnostic, but they are not.
Let’s start with a simple one, if police designate more patrols to a, “high crime,” area, they will ensure that more, “crime,” is found. On the surface, this may sound reasonable, if there’s more crime, there’s more policing to do. However, this means that minor crimes in a low crime area are more likely to be ignored. Petty theft may be reported, but it’s less likely you’ll have multiple patrols able to respond quickly. Simple traffic violations are more likely to go unpunished. In short, crime exists, but it’s more likely to be ignored. Let’s focus on traffic violations for a moment.
In a lightly patrolled area, you can get away with behavior behind the wheel that would have a cop on your ass in a “high crime neighborhood.” I’m talking about things like pushing red lights, blowing through stop signs, speeding. While it’s not a moving violation, vehicle B&Es in low crime areas are also less likely to be detected by police.
Traffic stops are an opportunity for an officer to go fishing, and they do. “Unidentified white powder on the floorboard?” You bet they’re going to be pulling a field kit and testing that, even knowing those field kits have absolutely terrible reliability. (Both for false negatives and false positives.) This can (and has) resulted in people being arrested, losing their job, their home, and their car, because they lived in a high crime neighborhood, and had a crushed aspirin in their vehicle’s upholstery.
Now, in case you missed this, the logic is circular, “this is a high crime neighborhood, so needs to be patrolled more heavily,” will inflate the crime rate, reinforcing the idea that it’s a “high crime area.” The racism comes in when you look at the areas that are designated as high crime.
And, all of this happens because a racist picked that neighborhood 70 or 80 years ago.
Generational over-policing also results in impeded economic growth. If you’re living in an area where police are scrutinizing everything you do, there’s a much higher risk you’ll get picked up for trivial crimes when you’re younger, in turn missing out on educational and job opportunities later in life. This can easily lead to situations where the only legitimate employment open to you is entry level. If police view any acquisition of wealth as evidence of criminal enterprise, it also means you may come under increased scrutiny if you find legitimate success. Individually it is possible to escape this, but, “the deck is stacked against you.”
Another factor that comes into this is, court is expensive. Yes, you have the right to a public defender if you cannot afford an attorney. I have a lot of sympathy for public defenders, but you kinda get what you pay for. Public defenders are incredibly overworked, and you’re not going to get the best representation. I’ve seen way too many cases over the years where the public defender completely dropped the ball.
So, two completely different scenarios.
You’re from a middle class family, you get pulled over and your friend has an unlicensed firearm on their person. You might not get arrested at all. However, if you are, chances are you, or your family can post bail. For the time being, your car is in police impound, but you’re free. You can continue working at your job for the next couple months while the case is pending. You can hire an attorney who is probably aware enough to point out that you didn’t know about the gun, and had no criminal intent. Your bail money is refunded to you assuming you make your court appearances, and depending on the circumstances, you’ve got a reasonable chance of getting out of this intact, without a criminal record, and $20-30k poorer.
You’re from a rough part of town. You get pulled over and your friend has an unlicensed firearm on their person. You will probably get arrested unless you make a very good showing for yourself. Your car will be impounded. You probably won’t have the money to make bail. Because you’re from, “a bad part of town,” your bail will probably be higher than in the other scenario. If you can’t make bail, you may be able to get a bail bondsman to cover your bail, however in that case, the portion of the bail you pay is straight up gone, no matter how the case works out. Given you probably can’t make bail at all, you lose your home, and your job. You have no income. You have a public defender who is also working a double digit case load, and you’re lucky if they can remember your name, much less that you were charged with a crime you didn’t even know about. If you manage to get an acquittal, you come out with any economic progress you were making zeroed out. Your car is gone, and as a result, you’re in an even worse situation than you were. If you were still paying off your car, congrats, you’re going to be expected to continue paying your loan on a car that you do not have, and can’t collect insurance on. If you’re convicted, then you spend time in prison. It’s several years later, you now have a criminal record that will bar you from employment (if you got convicted of a felony, a lot of places will turn you away), and even when you do get out on probation, you’re going to be handing a large cut of your diminished income over to the court until you complete probation.
The system is not overtly racist, however, it creates structural racism. The second case is far more likely to occur, because of over-policing, and ensures that you will not advance economically. All of this because 70 or 80 years ago, a racist pointed to a map and said, “that’s a high crime neighborhood.”
Today, we have militarized police who are looking for, “the bad guys.” They have a map drawn up during segregation that says, “this is a bad neighborhood, because this has always been a bad neighborhood.” And we have a white cop murder a black man over $20.
We have the LMPD treating the west end like it’s the set of a goddamn action movie.
Everyone is fucking tired of this.
We’ve been told, “it’s a few bad apples,” as if that excuses the rest of the aphorism. “A few bad apples spoil the bunch.” And I’d be more forgiving of the, “not all cops,” line if Police Unions didn’t have an amazing capacity for propelling the most vile and rotting, cores to the top. Today, the Chicago Police Union President holds the distinction of having more complaints filed against him than any other member of the CPD. This is the same police force that got dinged for running their own “black site,” in Homan Square (A term from the intelligence community for a covert prison used to outright disappear people.)
And, today, I’m hopeful.
Iowa just passed legislation that further restricts the use of choke holds in arrests, and barred law enforcement agencies in the state from hiring officers who’ve been fired in disciplinary actions.
It’s not much. It’s not enough.
Minneapolis has committed to completely reworking the entire concept of policing in the city. We don’t know what it will look like next year, but it’s not going to be a simple reform that changes nothing.
If this stopped at Minneapolis, it wouldn’t be enough. But it isn’t stopping there. If you’d told me four weeks ago that we’d be discussing defunding the police on a national scale today, I probably would have laughed. However, the world we’re in today has a far greater potential for positive change.
There are a lot of deeply rooted problems in American law enforcement. The death of George Floyd was the step too far. What we’re seeing from police right now are the death rattles of a horrific creature. We’re witness to bullies and their accomplices, who have been dragged into public view. For the first time in far too long, people were actually watching. And now, the only road out they can find is by provoking further violence. Problem is, everyone’s watching.
I’m hopeful because I can believe that tomorrow will not be the same as today. These are painful and frightening times, but, it has started a conversation that was long overdue.