When dealing with a police officer, there’s a standard wisecrack a lot of people like to pull out: “Hey, I pay your salary; you work for me.” And while it’s true that tax dollars fund America’s police-industrial complex, what’s not true is that police are accountable to the public as an employee is to an employer. Authority figures tell Americans what to do – not the other way around.
Nowhere is this better evidenced than in the police/protestor standoffs that have erupted in U.S. cities following a spate of recent high-profile killings by law enforcement, particularly of minorities like Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The more police get away with using lethal force on unarmed suspects, and the more violent their reactions to those who demonstrate against them, the more the U.S. comes to resemble a militarized police state.
It’s not a new trend. In addition to their long history of structural racism, up to and including the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, police departments have been opposed to popular movements for at least 100 years. They were deployed to beat down and suppress the labor movements of the 1920s. Antiwar and civil rights demonstrations in the 60s led to many famous encounters with the police. And when Occupy Wall Street swept the nation in 2011, police were there to make arrests and do their best to derail it, leading to one of the most famous images of the whole year when an officer at UC-Davis casually shot pepper spray into the eyes of a line of peaceful, sitting activists.
Despite all this, police brutality, militarization, and antagonism of the population only recently emerged in the national consciousness. This is at least partly because those who the police most violently oppose – activists and minorities – are never treated with much sympathy in the white, elite-dominated media, whereas the police have long enjoyed freedom from close scrutiny. But now, thanks largely to social media, images of storm troopers squaring off against unarmed rabble in American streets are commonplace. If you know where to look, you can find dozens of images and videos every day of police pushing around, teargasing, screaming at, and tasering peaceful protestors.
Police want to goad protestors into a violent response. And while plenty of riots have broken out amid the demonstrations, leading to injury and destruction of businesses, such incidents are in a minority and are widely condemned by the peaceful elements. When there is violence, it is just as likely – if not more likely – to be instigated by the police, as protestors at UC-Berkeley learned last week when police surrounded, gassed and assaulted them. At one point, protestors chanted perhaps the most germane question we can ask the police: “Who do you protect?”
To answer that question, perhaps it’s best to draw an analogy. It’s been clear at least since Vietnam that the U.S. military does not work, at least not full-time, for the security and well-being of the domestic population. Real problems that threaten human survival and well-being, like global climate change, nuclear proliferation and poverty, are never taken seriously by governing elites and certainly aren’t priorities of the Pentagon – if anything, the military exacerbates these kinds of problems. Instead, their job is to secure foreign markets for multinational corporations. Spreading freedom, democracy and the American way means opening up the rest of the world for business. The military functions, essentially, as the violent arm of U.S. economic interests.
Likewise, the priorities of the police are aligned with those of the ruling class. They exist to put out fires for the .01 percent. It’s why departments across the nation won’t bat an eye at killing an unarmed suspect, but they’ll don full riot gear to combat free assembly and arrest striking workers. The difference between police and the military is that the enemy of one is foreign insurgents; the enemy of the other is American citizens.
There’s nothing in American society to justify that police presence. Crime in the U.S., especially violent crime, has been on the decline for decades. Even as the instances of violent crime decrease, state violence against the population remains – roughly 3 percent of American homicides are committed by police officers in the line of duty, according to FBI data. Truth is, police departments are simply not held accountable for their violent acts; they aren’t even required to keep careful records of this kind of violence, so the FBI’s data is almost certainly conservatively skewed.
Of course, no one can say that the police don’t do any good. Even the most strident anti-police activist would probably call 911 if their home was being invaded (provided it isn’t the police themselves doing the invading). They can be nice to have around during mass shootings. But arguing that there are good cops who do good things doesn’t exonerate the systemic wrongdoing of the profession – every once in a while, you can call a cable company and get helpful customer service, too, but that doesn’t stop people from demonizing Time Warner. What’s needed is a serious conversation about the role we want police to play in our society. It’s a conversation the protestors are trying to provoke, but police are fighting desperately to prevent that conversation because it will likely mean a diminishing of their authority.
Reforms like body cameras are nice, but as the killing of Eric Garner demonstrates, evidence alone isn’t enough to convict a bad cop. The system must be overhauled. Beyond the abstract calls for justice, protestors would do well to articulate specific demands. A few things for starters include taking away a great deal of militarized police gear, ending arrest quotas, restructuring the judicial process to remove the cozy relationship between police and prosecutors, introducing some oversight, ending the war on drugs, and mandating careful reporting and statistics-keeping on police aggression.
One thing is for sure: police have to earn back the American people’s trust or, in the case of minorities and activists, earn it for the first time. Increasing the dosage of violence and passing more laws, like the one in Illinois that outlaws filming police, isn’t going to do it. The nation is going to become increasingly hostile toward the authorities, and with plenty of good reason. No civilized society would ever tolerate the gratuitous violation of human rights that is rampant police brutality. Americans have a lot of work to do, and it’s beginning to be done in the streets of Ferguson, Berkeley, New York City and elsewhere. These are the people who are working for you – not the authorities.