Violence is a privilege of the social elite.
One likes to think of modern, civilized society as a non-violent place, or at least a place that becomes less and less violent as it becomes better and better. One likes to believe that we have moved beyond the need for such “brutality.” But violence remains an integral part of our peaceful, civilized society, particularly in the state.
When a person commits a crime, they may be indicted, which is to say one individual alerts state agents of behavior that conforms to one or more of the state’s set of prohibited behaviors. A jury of perfect strangers (so-called “peers”) decides whether or not the defendant is to be considered “guilty” of these charges and punished to the full extent of the law. In the case that the defendant is convicted of the crimes, agents of the state begin to use force against him or her, in order to manipulate the criminal into a state of submission and isolation from the rest of society. If the criminal attempts to use force against these agents of the state, he or she is automatically culpable, and the state may continue to use force against the individual with impunity, even unto the death of the individual. This violence (the dragging, full-nelson holds, tasers, and use of firearms) is normal and generally accepted as “right.” After all, 12 perfect strangers thought it was “right.”
Meanwhile, two civilians engaging in similar behavior on the street would not be entitled to such violence, and they may be indicted for whatever misdemeanors and crimes apply to their situation. If deemed guilty by 12 perfect strangers, they too would face apprehension by a social elite granted the privilege of violence to detain, subdue and otherwise control them. For one group, the police, violence is praised and considered a means to justice; for the other group, violence is condemned and may be punished with more violence. One group owns violence, and the other steals it.
What would happen if violence were removed altogether from our society? It is hard to imagine exactly what that society would look like. If the violence of the state were removed and police no longer had the privilege of using force against certain civilians, then the violence of aggressive civilians could go unchecked. This would put the weaker or more pacifistic members of society at great risk of physical harm, which most people (excluding, of course, people who wish to commit violent crimes) consider unacceptable. Two outcomes are clear at this point: either one group retains the exclusive privilege of using violence to control society, or no group retains that privilege exclusively. Since the second option is unbearable and frightening, the first is our reality. This exclusive privilege to use violence is a social institution that preserves our current social order; it does this by using violence to decide who can and who cannot use it.
(But how did this group acquire their exclusive authority?)
All this to say: modern society is not a peaceful place. All around us looms the threat of violence — if we do not pay our taxes, if we ourselves use violence in “the wrong way,” or if we commit another of countless prohibited behaviors. The constant threat of state violence keeps our democratic society largely in stasis and allows non-violent individuals to forget that the violence, strength and force of the social elite is (PERHAPS) the only thing keeping them safe from harm.
In light of this, a question arises with regard to the many black people who have been killed by the police (recently and throughout American history): are the police held less accountable for their actions simply because of their membership in an elite social group? Does their association with the state grant them greater freedom to use violence, and greater leniency in the event that their use of violence faces public condemnation?