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Sunday, August 02, 2009

America's Growing Police State

America's Growing Police State
Image © Austin Cline
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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.


  1. Austin, I agree with most of your points, but I'm puzzled by the ability of right-wingers to worship authoritarianism while railing against "big government" and worrying that jack-booted government thugs will bust down their doors and take their guns away. Isn't what happened to Henry Louis Gates conservatism's biggest fear? What's your take on that?

  2. The Fumigator in Chief:

    Comrade Clinenbelskifarbdorfbergweis doesn't bring that up, because it puts the lie to his little passion play. Look, it's all been explained by G. Gordy's Little. He said that when the cops come to his door (and, by extension, any REAL MerKKKin's door) you gotta aim for their heads, 'cuz they wear body armor.

    It's pretty simple if you're not a simp:

    Sgt. Crowley, and his ilk, rousting eduslamicterrarists like Gates = Good Cop

    Any jackbooted thug wants to take your guns = bad cop.

    What could be easier to figure out?

  3. Fucking little-dick pigs.

  4. Fumigator: the answer to your question is contained in your own words. They worry about jack-booted government thugs when *their* liberties are at risk, not when others' liberties are at risk. It's bad if the government might take their guns away, but not when the government might haul off black men to jail.

    They have been convinced, as I note above, of certain "necessary" police state policies which just happen to affect (mostly) others. They see few if any risks to themselves or to anything they value.

    Remember how little conservatives were concered with Bush's expansion of unreviewable executive power and even cheered it on while complaining about Obama for things he hasn't done or advocated. Bush was going after brown people following the wrong religion or white liberals, not conservatives' guns.

  5. Cops learn what the (usually white) burghers of their communities will tolerate in the way of 'regulating' undesirables along with the locations of the donut shops where they can get freebies.

    Cops ALWAYS serve and protect established power. That is their job. That's why they're always the first ones to attack strikers, for example.

    But their main function is to keep the undesirables moving. They ran into a little Cop-apoeria with Gates because he looks like an undesirable, but behaves like one of the bosses. That's intolerable from the cop-pig-power perspective, and gates had to be shown his place was NOT among those to whom the officer had to reveal his name or badge number.

  6. Nice analysis
    This is the heart of the matter, i.e. the Police State in our country. The divide and conquer strategy is the thin veneer that seperate us from them (B/W, is this example, rich/poor, Gay/Straight, Male/Female, me/other)and allows the status quo to persist and thrive. I think I disagree with the Supreme Court decision in Atwater: that a punitive arrest is anything but a "gratitious humiliation". An arrest has profound real world consequence. Anything from a few hundred dollars for car towing (assuming the tow dosent screw up your car) to lost wages or loss of a job. Most do not possess the means to wage a legal battle with the State and it's, for all intent and purpose, unlimited resource. How long did Atwater take to arrive at SCOTUS Ten years...

  7. Took about three years
    The five majority justices agreed the arresting officers actions were indeed punitive and "gratitious humiliation" and Atwater suffered "indignity and embarrassment" as a result of the arrest and subsequent detention. The majority did not intrude on the field officers to detain and arrest. In short; the cop was an assho, we know he was an assho but we dont want to rewrite the law because he was an assho and Atwater did not provide a compelling argument despite the fact the cop was an assho. Cant wait to read the dissent...

  8. The dissent states: the majority gives officers unfettered discretion to choose that course without articulating a single reason why such action is appropriate. Is this not the defination of a police state? Zero accountability. Gates may have lots of room for legal action and I hope they are exercised. I see lots of books, lectures, and litigation. Tosh

  9. Anonymous2:49 PM

    Check this out....

    Today, in the US, 1 in 31 adults is in prison, in jail or on supervised release.

    The media reports joblessness by the so called "unemployment rate" which is 9.5% and not by the more acurate "underemployment" rate, which this month is 16.5% up from 13.5% from last January.

  10. Do keep in mind that this is happening not in Selma, Alabama, but in the People's Republic of Cambridge, in the People's Republic of Massachusetts.

  11. I think what sank Atwater is that the law in question allows for a custodial arrest. That gave the majority their loophole to allow police the power to impose "gratuitous humiliation" on anyone that bruises their ego.

    I also think they ruled as they did because as members of the ruling elite, they are convinced such a thing would never happen to them.

    If anyone cares about some more thoughts on this, you might try here and here.

  12. The police action is unsurprising to me, but then it would be to any gay person paying attention. We look at the bar raid in Fort Worth on the Stonewall anniversary. No big deal, it's just fags. Right?

    Austin's got it right. It's classic frog-boiling. Bit by bit we're getting used to our rights being removed, and we don't complain because it's happening to the "other".

  13. Fran:

    Brava! Well said.

    It's been over forty years since I was in High School, but I can remember when it was a rite of passage for the young jocks (I was not one) to cruise around downtown looking for winos and fags to beat up. Typing the words makes me wince a little, but when I was 17 I didn't know how awfully wrong it was.

    When I had to go back home for my brother's funeral in June, I spent quite a bit of time at a local bar owned by a classmate. He was a jock (athough he's always been a genuinely decent person who would not harm a soul, except between the hash marks) and his bar attracts a lot of grads from the high school we went to.

    Recently, he's been seeing an increase in business from a group of ladies who come in once or twice a week and pretty much take over his back room, where the pool table is. A few of his regulars told him that they had seen these women being, well, let's say "affectionate". To their surprise he told them that he didn't really care too much what they did as long as they weren't hurting anyone else or putting his license in jeapordy.

    It changes--glacially--but, it changes.

    Dear Ms. No Blood For Hubris:

    Them Boston & Cambridge coppers are just as thuggish as most other places I've been. But I suspect you already knew that.

  14. I've been looking for an opportunity to share, from, "The Daily Tribune - Cartersville, GA"

    "A Bartow County Sheriff's Office deputy arrested Wednesday morning a homeless man found behind a Cartersville restaurant.

    According to a BCSO report, the deputy was told by staff members at Martin's Restaurant, 896 Joe Frank Harris Parkway, that an unknown man had been staying behind the business's Dumpster, adding that they had seen a tarp and beer cans behind the trash receptacle for the last few days.

    The deputy found 57-year-old Jeffery Lynn Graham lying on a tarp. He also noticed a strong odor of alcohol coming from Graham, a 24-ounce beer next to him on the ground, and human waste on the ground and fence near the Dumpster.

    Graham was arrested for disorderly conduct."

    There you are, Disorderly conduct takes care of the homeless. If the guy's shit didn't stick like the rest of us and he'd been drinking Desani rather than a beer he'd probably been OK, don't you think?

  15. Anonymous12:45 PM

    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.

    Now you're diverging into the "mighta" crime. He "mighta" been doing this because he harbors deep-seated biases against black people. Don't even go there. You can't know, no one can ever know, give that part up.

    This dipshit Crowley, and he is a dispshit, arrested a guy who was in his own home, after he was IDed, and was asking for Crowley's badge number, WHICH HE SHOULD HAVE GIVEN TO GATES, BY LAW.

    You're perfectly good up to there, beyond that your courting prejudicial behavior of your own. Just as the apologists for Crowley do, with the veiled and not-so-veiled suggestions of the 'uppity black man' crap. Let's all just skip that, shall we?

    You are perfectly correct that they had no business jailing Gates, no question of that.

  16. Anonymous4:40 PM

    Your question of whether a white person would have beeen arrested seems rhetorical and loaded. I was arrested in Salt Lake City in '92 for arguing with a cop over the quality of my stop at a stop sign.

  17. ozzie490:

    Did you live at that intersection?

  18. General,
    People are people. How are we ever going to get to a society that works if every situation involving two people of a different races *necessarily* has a racial component?
    And as far as the "police-state" jive goes, here's my opinion: if we are going to allow all citizens to treat police officers like vermin, just because they are nothing more than public *servants*, then I move that we double -nay, triple- their pay, forthwith. That is all, sir.

  19. Anonymous5:53 PM

    Here's another little factoid that people need to know: police service overall is not that dangerous. Being a patrolman in a bad neighborhood, yes. But the average death rate for police officers is about what it is for motorists. And the injury rate is substantially less than than for a carpenter or a meatpacker.

    --Charles of MercuryRising

    I respect officers who respect the law. Even if, as a society, we have de facto legalized such behavior, officers who do not respect the law are criminals.

  20. pipe:

    It's a two way street. When ALL cops are professional and law abiding, then I will be all for treating them with unquestioning respect. Until then, I'll take it one bust at a time.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.