Police, Violence and the Nation-State
Police, Violence and the Nation-State. - 1700 words, 7 mins read
In the discussions about the George Floyd case, and the 10 days (so far) of public protests there have been a lot of people who seem unable to understand why police violence against George Floyd and those who protest his death is fundamentally different to the violence of the small number of violent, destructive ‘looters and thugs’. I will attempt to explain it as simply as I can.
The first duty of the nation state is the defence of its borders. Without the (armed) defence of its territory a nation-state will cease to exist. This is why armies exist, it is their raison d'être. To defend the external borders of their nation, with violence as necessary. Armies exist only to do violence to foreigners, and, if there is to be peace and a civil society the army must NOT engage in violence against its own citizens. To do so is tyranny, fascism, despotism. Military rule is by definition the end of a civil society. Never its replacement, nor its saviour. The army can have no authority within those borders.
The second duty of the nation state is the monopoly of violence within its borders. To continue to exist the nation-state must have peace within its borders. Without this there will be only chaos and anarchy. The mechanism for this is the police and legal system. Laws that demand peace and order, and civilian (non-military) organisations to police those laws. The police exist to maintain order (prevent violence) and ensure those who break the law are detained, tried and punished if guilty.
The state must have a monopoly on violence (preventing crime and civil violence) to ensure the safety of its citizens and the freedoms those citizens enjoy. Civilian police can have no authority beyond the nation’s borders, but must prevent violence within them. The use of force by police is only justified where the use of force prevents greater violence occurring. That is the raison d'être of civilian policing, the prevention of violence, by minimal force if necessary.
This where things break down in the situation in the USA today.
When George Floyd was killed by police, using deadly force against a man not threatening or doing violence but wholly within their power, a crime was committed. A homicide. A murder. The footage is clear, the act was unnecessary, cruel and callous, and ultimately murderous. But this is no ordinary murder, where one citizen kills another. In this case a representative of the state has killed a citizen. In effect the state itself has killed a citizen. This is tyranny, despotism, fascism in its most naked and fundamental form. This is a crime where the state itself has gone against its own raison d'être; has committed a crime against itself as well as the citizen victim.
The subsequent attempt by police and the civil prosecutors to treat this as not being a crime (usually as a ‘tragic’ accident) further compounds the issue. It advances beyond murder by the state, to conspiracy by the state to cover up its own crime. This fundamentally undermines the credibility of the law and the police in the eyes of its citizens.
This is disastrous.
The message, both to its own officers, and to the citizenry, is that the state will not protect you from violence. It will in fact commit violence against you and deny it has done so. This is fundamentally far worse than a murder by one citizen of another. It is the gateway to absolute tyranny. This why the Nazis first move in government was to merge the police with the party’s violent enforcers, first the SA, then the SS and the Gestapo. When the civil police commit crimes against citizens and go unpunished the state has become an oppressive institution.
This is true no matter who the victim is. That is, unless the victim is part of a specific minority group who are afforded less than justice by the state, for whatever reason. In the Nazi’s case it was the Jews. In America it is quite clearly Black and Brown people. But the dynamics of power are the same in both contexts. The State has become a law unto itself, its citizens are valued by the state according to the colour of their skin. And every unpunished death of a black or brown citizen, by anyone, further reinforces two things. First, that the State will kill or not kill whomever it wishes, and second, that to oppose this puts any citizen in harm’s way and in opposition to the state and its armed police.
Which brings us to the police and the protestors. When one police officer commits a murder of a citizen it makes all police look bad, and like most people, when this happens they become defensive. They begin to see any criticism of them as an attack, and an unmerited one. So when crowds of citizens protest against the ‘death by cop’ of George Floyd, the police see it as a deliberate attack on their good name. This leads to anger and a sense of betrayal, and very quickly an entitlement to use whatever means to ‘protect’ themselves, no matter the fact that none of the protestors is armed.
When they are then ordered to ‘control’ the crowds, and given rubber bullets, tear gas and the tacit support of their hierarchy to behave aggressively and to ‘protect’ themselves they are primed to commit violent acts on the spur of the moment, if not violent acts deliberately planned. The enemy then becomes those who protest, those who are black or brown, and anyone ‘on their side’ such as the media.
As a result, while the media and politicians argue, the police target journalists; shoot, beat and brutalise whoever crosses their path; attack crowds with teargas; use pepper spray as a close quarters weapon even against children; and raise the level of conflict far beyond what is necessary. When a tiny minority of the crowds engage in property damage, and loot and wreck businesses, the police now assume ‘carte blanche’ to attack anyone and everyone, even those not involved, such as a family on its own front porch, for example. That’s been the pattern of the last 10 days. The incidents reported all reflect an unnecessary level of violence by police, while it is denied by right-wing commentators, and praised as ‘necessary’ by authoritarian voices on social media.
What began as a crime against one man by an official of the state now becomes brutal organised violence against largely peaceful crowds. Not one single protestor has been armed, but hundreds have been harmed. The law will punish those who dissent to violence by the state and have been arrested on charges which reflect the whims of those with the weapons and shields. The ubiquitous ‘resisting arrest’ being a blanket covering any manner of pretexts.
And all of this is being done not by ‘rogue’ individuals, but by the official representatives of the state.
The state kills, then the state punishes those who call it out. And black and brown citizens will know that punishing behaviour by police will last long after these events are over. When the police involved in the original killing are not punished, as is likely given the record of such incidents in the last 30 years at least, the battle lines will harden. Trust between the state, its armed sentinels, and those they ‘protect’, is shattered; tarnished beyond recall in many peoples’ minds. The state is not the protector of its citizens, it is their jailer, it is their oppressor.
A crime by an officer of the state is worse than an identical crime by an ordinary citizen because it puts the state into an oppressive position over its citizens. While they may not be able to articulate this, those who speak out and demonstrate know it intuitively. There are no mass demonstrations against murders by ordinary citizens. Because crimes committed by individuals do not represent the public at large. But when the state fails to take swift and decisive action against one of its armed police who kills an ordinary citizen without cause, or by an act of unnecessary brutality, and is seen to drag its feet, dispute the evidence, and close ranks around the offender as the days go by, serious consequences follow.
In a free country the police police by consent. They rely on the consent and co-operation of the citizenry to keep the peace and maintain order. When those police engage in murderous criminality this consent is seen as a hollow sham. At that point the police rule by fear, not consent. When that single violation, the murder of one black man, is followed up by the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and police cars ramming into crowds; when journalists are targeted for violent assault to protect police from scrutiny; when children are pepper-sprayed; when across the whole of a continent dozens of individual police forces engage in brutal suppression of public dissent; trust and consent are gone, smashed, annihilated.
Those who have an authoritarian view will dispute all of this, every picayune detail, every swing of a nightstick. They will talk about looters, thugs and criminals. Yet the damage done by the two sides will never be even remotely close to a balance. The police will hurt far more people than any ‘thugs’. They will cause far more damage than looters. And those who can only see one side will crow about the punishment of those who protest, while disclaiming every single incident and evidence of police violence, anger, and law breaking.
The state, at this point, no longer resembles the will of the people. It has become the instrument of the people’s political oppression without even breaking stride in its authoritarian zeal for order by violence, for peace in the streets by beating and cowing those who dare to walk them.
The American experiment, its own self-deluding fantasy of being the only true democracy ever to have existed, will be by any standard a failure. A complete failure to see fascism, the might and power of the state supported by spin and lies, as its everyday behaviour, its defining feature, its sin and its pride.