The events in Ferguson are as sad as anything I’ve seen inside the United States. I have powerful feelings about what’s going on, but I’m going to refrain from sharing most of them for the time being. Not all of the facts are in, or, if they are, I’m not sure I have them in my possession. I won’t pretend that I haven’t made accusations that were later proven to be ridiculous, but in theory I’ve learned from my mistakes. Time will tell, eh?
However, I would like to share a few general thoughts I have on the nature of policing. Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m a member of almost every group which has few or no reasons to fear the police in the United States. If my views come across as naive, understand that my experiences with American police have, by and large, been free of tension, fear, handcuffs, and gunfire. My relatively benign experiences my inform my views in ways of which I’m not aware. Ok, with that out of the way, let’s move on.
1. It’s belief that, in exchange for the extraordinary powers granted to them, the police ought to be held to a higher standard with respect to upholding the law and be punished more severely when they transgress against it. People entrusted with enforcing the law ought to be above reproach when it comes to obeying it. If people do not trust that the police in their city follow the same rules they do and are subject to the same punishment, the system starts to crack.
2. In practice, I don’t think that there’s any reason to believe that the law is applied to the police any more strictly than to other citizens. Ian Walsh, among others, suggests that effective immunity from most laws is one of the most important ways that the police are compensated. If this is true (and I suspect it is), then the state of affairs is exactly the opposite of what I believe is ideal. This makes me…angry. If the police are granted this immunity, then they are beholden to the people who gave them the immunity, not to the population at large. This is extremely damaging to public trust, even if it’s only a handful of officer who are involved in this sort of transaction.
3. There is a limit to how much privilege of this sort the public will tolerate. People will put up with it so long as there is some semblance of equal justice. It doesn’t have to actually be equal justice (sadly, I don’t think anyone expects equal justice anymore), but as long as there’s some punishment for wrongdoing, even a little, most folks will go along with it. People will continue to play a rigged game so long as at pays out sometimes. But, as soon as it becomes obvious that there is no justice, that group A can act with impunity against group B and there are zero repercussions, the system collapses. There’s no reason to obey the rules because you’ll be punished anyway and nothing happens to the punishers.
4. Since the enforcers are beholden to the people who granted them immunity to the law, not the public at law, you’ll see them pick a side when the shit hits the fan. Their job is to protect their patrons from everyone else, not to keep the peace. I don’t think this is true of all police and certainly not of all police officers. There does, however, seem to be a pattern of this kind of behavior. Compare the strong police response to the anti-establish Occupy Wall Street movement to their utter indifference to the pro-establishment Tea Party.
5. WARNING: PARANOID CONSPIRACY THEORY HERE! Remember how the federal government outsource activity like, say, torture, in an attempt to get around all of those pesky laws and stuff? Rather than have government employees do, they paid private firms and even other countries to do it for them, which I’m sure is totally legal for reasons at which I cannot begin to guess. Welllll….I was trying to get my head around exactly why it is that so much military hardware is being purchased by police departments. It doesn’t make any sense for anti-terrorist or anti-drug work. But…what if one wanted to utterly violate the posse comitatus act in a plausibly legal fashion? I think this is VERY unlikely to be true, but I’ve yet to hear a plausible explanation of why police departments need military hardware.
So..I’m still working my way through all of this stuff. Ferguson is such a disaster that it’s hard to get everything I’m thinking/feeling/angry-ing at once, so consider this something of a rough draft, or really, just notes I’m taking while I’m trying to work out what is going on, why it broke down, and what this means, if anything, for the future.