When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
People came to this country for many different reasons. Many were brought over as slaves or indentured servants. The more powerful of the European settlers killed off, displaced, enslaved, and ghettoized the original inhabitants. The prosperity of these European settlers (among whose numbers are our Founding Fathers) rests squarely on the three pillars: enslavement of Africans; indentured servitude (official and otherwise) of poor Europeans, ‘non-white’ immigrants (which at various times included Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, Mexicans, and others) and women; and the displacement and murder of Native People.
America is not unique. The making of nation states has always been marked by exploitation, exclusion, and enslavement. The very concept of a nation state evolved out of a need for the king to be able to organize an entire body politic to help him prosecute his wars, defend his land and finance his lifestyle.
This is not some strange conspiracy-theory account of history, but a view endorsed (to varying degrees) by folks like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, John Hope Franklin, and Martin Van Creveld, among others. Go read the constitution — the first version — and see how few people the vote was given to (basically, white male citizens with property).
Given this history (which continues to this day in various forms), it’s not a surprise that people who would be the victims of incarceration/enslavement/murder/displacement/indenture might be distrustful of the armed people hired to ‘protect and serve.’ Law enforcers have always been deployed against the poor, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, women, LGBT people, and other ‘others.’ They are the first line of an offense.
But we don’t have a king anymore. And the only credible threat to our borders and/or our existence as a nation comes from truly global problems — anthropogenic climate change, militant religious fundamentalism (of all kinds), income inequality, degradation/privatization of food and water systems. These are problems that are beyond the police’s capacity to handle.
So why do we keep empowering the police to go after people? Why do we keep reaching for the same tool in the toolbox? Is it a failure of imagination? The short answer is yes — on some ways. In others, it’s a systemic tactic, designed to keep us in fear.
Let’s look at a few of the social issues that we have asked (or that our elected and unelected leaders have decided are for) the police to handle, and how well that’s turned out.
THE DRUG ‘PROBLEM’
Every year, about 480,000 Americans die from taking a specific drug. That’s about 1,300 deaths per day. If I told you the drug was cocaine or heroin or crystal meth, you would applaud the efforts of the DEA and the NYPD and Sheriff’s office and all the SWAT teams. They’re saving lives, so it’s worth a little collateral damage along the way, you could say.
But I’m talking about cigarettes. Another legal drug, alcohol, causes about 88,000 deaths per year (add in another 10,000 for DUI-related deaths). These are both legal drugs. Together they kill more than a HALF-MILLION people per year. Another rather large number of people suffer from diseases (emphysema, lung cancer, liver disease, gall bladder failure, etc.) due to the use and abuse of these legal drugs.
When we tried prohibiting alcohol as a country, we unwittingly (or not) funded organized crime, ghettoized and incarcerated specific groups based on ethnicity and race, and absolutely failed to keep people from drinking.
We’ve done the same thing with “illegal” drugs. We’ve used drug laws as an excuse to harass, ghettoize, jail, and kill African Americans and other people of color. We’ve used it as an excuse to deport huge numbers of undocumented immigrants.
Other countries are beginning to think that the police are the wrong tool for the job. If there’s a problem here, perhaps it’s that many people feel that reality sucks enough that drug use seems more attractive by comparison. Perhaps it’s that prohibition has done nothing but enrich another group of organized criminals. Perhaps it’s that we’ve used the “law” to consistently destroy people of color.
We have decided to deal with cigarettes and alcohol through regulation, taxation, education programs designed to keep kids from smoking, research and clinical programs designed to try and get people to kick their habits, and even licensing other approaches (non-alcoholic beer, the patch, the e-cigarette). In other words, we’ve approached cigarette and alcohol use as a social issue, rather than a criminal/police problem.
Legalizing and taxing drugs, and opening state-run treatment, education, and social services centers, could actually cost less and be more effective at curbing excessive drug use and avoiding the kinds of problems associated with making these drugs illegal in the first place (violent battles over turf, robbery, prostitution to get drugs, etc.) A survey done in 2004 by the Justice Policy Institute (focusing on Maryland) came to the same conclusion. Other countries have adopted similar policies. http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/04-01_rep_mdtreatmentorincarceration_ac-dp.pdf
Prostitution, like drug use, has been going on for a very long time. People on the far right and far left think it should be eradicated. It does present some serious problems —infidelity, spreading of STDs, sex slavery, abuse by prostitutes at the hands of bosses, untaxed revenue. But many of these issues can be solved through legalization.
Licensing, unionizing sex workers, offering low/no cost STD exams, taxing of prostitution as a business, and criminal pursuit of sex slavers while granting immunity to their victims, is a better way to go. The alternative, which tends to focus on rounding up prostitutes and occasionally their street-level bosses, is counterproductive and only serves to punish the most economically and socially disadvantaged people in the situation. It also keeps prostitutes from seeking counseling and police protection in situations that are genuinely dangerous and abusive.
All of my great-grandparents and some of my grandparents were immigrants. At least a few of them came here without papers, in steerage, from Ireland, Hungary and England. And while one or two turned to bootlegging, by and large our extended family as a whole has been a boon to American society. This is the immigrant story, repeated over and over. They left the crummy conditions in their original homelands and started over. They took jobs that no one else would, made America their home, fought in their wars (my grandfathers and all of their brothers, and my grandmothers’ brothers, served in WWII), and became part of the middle class.
Except… somehow we want to deport people now. Or at the very least, make it unpleasant and difficult to work here. What is the end result of criminalizing immigrants, of making them “illegal?” Has it stopped anything?
No. But it has resulted in a system of exploitation. Undocumented Mexican and Indian workers are currently slaves in large tomato, orange and other agribusiness farms. They have no one to protect and serve them. Others work for sub-level wages in crappy construction and service jobs. Others work legit jobs and are paying taxes into a system that they can’t take advantage of. The Social Security Administration’s own records indicate that about $100B in funds has come in from undocumented workers — people who will never be able to collect Social Security (https://news.vice.com/article/unauthorized-immigrants-paid-100-billion-into-social-security-over-last-decade). They live in fear of being deported, so they don’t call the police when bad things happen to them.
Patrolling the border and deporting people is expensive and frankly ineffective. An open immigration policy (subject to background checks) would be a major step in the right direction. A “red card” program (like a green card) and amnesty would be another.
Using just about any metric you can think of — social, economic, spiritual, political, educational, psychological — poverty inflicts terrible damage upon its victims and on the society as a whole. It keeps people from reaching their potential. It creates an atmosphere of fear that grips even people who are not yet poor. It forces people into making choices I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Who should have to choose between feeding themselves and their children? Who should have to decide whether to hope their car lasts one more day and risk an accident and subsequent job loss? Poverty is knowing you’re never, ever safe, that you’re one decision away from sliding into jail, or the street.
And how has our society responded to it? We have used the bluntest tool possible. We have made homelessness illegal in many cities — through anti-panhandling laws, vagrancy laws, excessive fines for drinking and sleeping in public, charging people for their own incarceration, allowing a thousand payday loan companies to flourish, and harassing poor people in the name of the “broken windows” policies.
Cities, counties and towns have found that the poor represent an untapped piggy bank (see this Salon article: http://www.salon.com/2012/05/17/the_poor_americas_piggy_bank/ for details) that can help them shore up their post-crash tax revenue losses. So they’ve systematically preyed upon them, collecting fines, throwing them in jail, putting them on an endless treadmill . The result is people getting harassed and killed — like Eric Garner — for selling loose cigarettes. Or stopped and ultimately killed for shoplifting, like Michael Brown.
There is a better answer. Many better answers, actually. Subsidized housing, social worker outreach, job training centers, offering no-cost basic checking accounts through the post office, microloan programs, reinvesting in public education and public sector union jobs, raising the poverty line and Medicaid cutoffs… these are a few options. And, by the way, it might cost society less: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/05/27/3441772/florida-homeless-financial-study/
There’s no nice way to say this. The police response across the U.S. to the Occupy and subsequent protests has been horrible. It has not, perhaps, been as horrible as what it was with the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights demonstrations, but it only differs in degree, not intention. They’ve treated protestors as criminals, as hooligans just waiting to burn things and overturn cars. They react badly to any kind of provocation. They show up in riot gear. At the May Day parade in NYC (from where this photo was taken, in 2013), there was such a massive police presence that was hard not to feel intimidated. Police in mopeds, police with nets and metal barricades, police in squad cars and vans, SWAT teams, multiple helicopters, mounted cops, command trailers, correction center buses… At the end of the May day rally, there were more police surrounding the demonstration than there were demonstrators. Apart from scaring the crap out of unarmed people, what was accomplished? Who is paying for all this police “protection?” You did, that’s who.
Another method of dealing with this situation could have been to assign some traffic cops to keep everyone moving along. A smaller police presence would have actually calmed everyone down. Or perhaps some of the government officials and corporate heads who were the targets of our anger could have met with us? Were they really so worried that a group of unarmed people were going to suddenly kill them all?
Whoa? Really? At this point, you must be wondering what the fuck is wrong with me? But hear me out on this. The police are the wrong tool for combating terrorism.
I was in New York City on 9/11. For the next several years, I saw police walking around with M4 rifles and assorted military gear. I saw the police plead for more and more cameras, arguing that it could “save lives.” I saw them ramp up the random subway searches and the stop and frisk routines and spy on Muslims and start sucking in Federal anti-terrorism funds to buy even more hardware.
None of this makes any sense, folks. If you have an M4 rifle and you see a potential suicide bomber — are you really going to pull the trigger? If he’s holding a dead man’s switch, guess what? You’ve just made things worse. And if you’re wrong, you’ve just shot a civilian with a backpack. Policing and spying on the Muslim community is probably going to just alienate them even more from you. Putting cameras everywhere will not save anyone’s life beforehand. It doesn’t appear to have stopped anyone from doing anything, but it has eroded people’s right to privacy. Stop and frisk? Don’t get me started. Great way to push black and brown people around.
WHO BENEFITS FROM ALL THIS POLICING?
The question you need to ask yourself is — who benefits from all this? Do the people who live in the communities being overpoliced benefit? Clearly not. What about the people who aren’t being policed?
There is a place for the police in our society. There are real problems that the police could be solving —murder, rape, assault, robbery, domestic violence, slavery, sex trafficking, directing traffic, helping out when accidents happen. But that would require a refocus on the part of the police away from shooting and towards thinking, investigating, negotiating, communicating. It’s the harder road.
We could also use some help finding criminal charges to levy against the bankers who stole so much wealth from everyone else. But then, those same people have the most to gain by having the police chase after the rest of us, don’t they? They have the most to gain by promoting the racism that both exacerbates and feeds into the police state. They have the most to gain by keeping people poor, by taxing them to death, by siccing the police on them, and by keeping the rest of us in fear.
Do you want to live in fear? Do you want to make someone else live in fear? Don’t we deserve better, as citizens of this supposedly greatest nation on earth, this beacon of hope for people across the globe? It’s time to rethink the role of the police in our society.