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Sunday, August 02, 2009
America's Growing Police State
Posted by Austin Cline
Americans don't realize that there is a police state growing in America, and this ignorance is revealed by the debate over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates and President Obama's remarks about it. Too many people seem to have lost sight of what the most essential and important issues really are, even beyond the important question of racism: the abuse of power by America's police officers and the passive acceptance of this by a growing number of citizens.
I don't mean to downplay the racial component of this story, nor do I mean to suggest that racism may not be a serious factor. What I do want people to think about, though, is the degree to which the abuse of police power is likely a much more fundamental issue here and one which connects so many stories that have been peppering our news media — and how many incidents have we not heard about, perhaps because they involved minorities who didn't have a direct line to the president?
Oppression in the Mind
People seem to imagine that a police state must involve obvious oppression, a tyrannical government, and brutal police walking down every street. The truth is that a police state must first have a firm foundation in the minds of the people before it can effectively exist in society because this allows the existence of a police state to be overlooked — or at least excused — by those immersed in it.
Police states exist because people allow them to exist: no government can completely dominate an entire population that is actively determined to resist its authority. Even with all the tools of oppression at its disposal and a ruthless willingness to use them, a police state still needs the cooperation of everyday people, whether active or implicit.
The acceptance of the alleged necessity of various police state measures requires allowing authoritarians to define the terms of debate and means not standing up against those exercising that unjust power. A key component of this, which brings us back to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, is the psychological acceptance of government officials generally and the police in particular wielding their power capriciously, arbitrarily, and in ways that harm us even though we have done nothing wrong.
To Protect and To Serve... Power
Remember the phrase "to protect and to serve"? That's supposed to be the motto of police forces across the United States, and many even have it emblazoned on their vehicles. Whom was Sergeant James Crowley serving by arresting Gates in his house? Whom was he protecting by placing Gates in handcuffs and hauling him off to jail? The answer in this case is not "who" but "what."
First, Crowley was serving the idea that citizens must treat the police as masters rather than as servants — citizens who get uppity and start believing that the police are public servants who must actually serve the public might start thinking that their own interests are somehow important or relevant. Citizens who are trained to treat the police as masters, though, become easier to keep controlled and docile.
Second, he was protecting and serving his own ego. No one likes to be insulted by an obnoxious and belligerent person, but Crowley had a badge, a gun, and a license to pretty much do as he pleased. Crowley's arrest report, written by his own hand, makes it clear that Gates violated no laws and, at the very worst, did nothing more than offend or annoy Crowley.
Finally, James Crowley was protecting and serving the interests of the Cambridge Police by making an example out of Gates: people who saw this were being sent the message that even if you're well-off, you're not immune from being cuffed for failing to show the police sufficient deference. Gates' neighbors may be quicker with the "yes sir" and "no sir" when next faced with police questioning themselves. Instilling fear and submissive obsequiousness in the public may make these police officers think that their job will be easier, but only at the expense of ceasing to be the sorts of people who actually deserve the respect they are compelling citizens to show.
Racism & Bullying
Henry Louis Gates was, if we assume the worst, belligerent and annoying towards James Crowley, behavior which few people like to deal with and which police officers probably have to deal with more than most — but the police can punish you for it, even though it's not a crime. The Supreme Court ruled that the police can arrest you and place you in jail for offenses that carry no jail time, merely because they want to. When the police jail you, even though they know it will be for just a few hours, they are punishing you for daring to talk back to them in a way they don't approve of.
Would Gates have been arrested if he were white? Many (if not most) blacks in America don't believe so and they are more than justified in being skeptical — for too long blacks have suffered egregiously at the hands of white police officers throughout America. Police officers are, after all, humans and citizens just like the rest of us. There is no reason to think that racism and fallibility are any less prevalent among the police than they are among the rest of us, and this includes latent, unconscious racist attitudes which we never notice or think much about.
James Crowley might not be overtly racist, but how likely is it that he is that rare white person in which unconscious racism is completely absent — a rare white person in whom a racist culture has completely failed to indoctrinate any negative attitudes, assumptions, or beliefs about racial minorities? Imagine what would have happened if Gates were simply a working-class black man with no national connections or celebrity. If this story hadn't gone national, he would have stayed in jail and would have had to go to court — the Cambridge police only dropped the charges against Gates because they were embarrassed.
The police union, in a curious fit of honesty, has admitted that they believe the charges should have stayed in place, even though the arrest report reveals that no laws were broken. This shows the extent to which the police union — and by implication, the police officers themselves — are beholden to serving both authoritarian power and police officers' egos rather than law, justice, or the safety of the public. By backing the original charges, the police union has openly backed police bullying.
Apologetics for Authoritarianism
Although the concern about racism here is justified, there are many examples of police abusing their power in similar and worse ways against whites as well. Even the elderly, the physically handicapped, and mentally handicapped are not excluded from abuse by power tripping police officers. President Barack Obama was right to call the arrest stupid — remember, he called the action stupid, not the police officer himself stupid. Protests against this remark are either protests that police can never do anything stupid, or that this particular arrest was justified.
Strangely, I've yet to see a conservative or authoritarian apologist for James Crowley and the Cambridge Police actually try to offer a substantive argument for either. This may be because they implicitly realize that neither position can be defended in a way that the public would accept, so they try to give the impression that Obama's remark went further — they attack despite having nothing to attack with in the hopes that no one will notice that they are full of hot air.
And how exactly have conservatives — people who might normally be expected to defend the principle that people should be free from harassment in their own homes — reacted to this issue? They have generally either been silent on the question of whether police should arrest people for nothing more than obnoxious behavior, or they've implicitly defended it. As noted above, they can't be too explicit in what they are defending, but it's generally clear that they are ultimately defending the authoritarian attitude that citizens have an obligation to kneel down for whomever the state has placed in a position of power over them.
How much of this is due to racism and how much is due to a more general and deeper belief in the value of a police state, where citizens are expected to fear the police and must suffer the consequences if they stand up to abuse of power by government officials? I don't know and I doubt that the two can be entirely disentangled, but it's important to keep both in mind when thinking about this and similar cases. Yes, it may be that Gates was a victim of racism, but he and many other citizens of all races are also equally victims of an increasingly abusive, bullying, and untrustworthy system of policing which threatens our liberty on several levels.
And I, for one, will not trust the police in Cambridge unless and until I learn that significant, deep reforms are implemented.
at 7:30 AM