It may already be too late. If you’re thinking that the delegitimization of the police will herald a glorious age of limited government and stable, safe, prosperous Jeffersonian self-reliance, just remember that someone has to maintain civil order, and if the citizens and the police fail, that someone will be uglier than you’d like to imagine.
As Matt Taibbi perceptively put it, “The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate.” It’s a reputation that would be unremarkable for most security services in the Middle East, but Taibbi isn’t describing some tinpot sectarian kleptocracy in which the government is a sort of family business. He’s writing about what is arguably the most stable and enduring constitutional republic on the face of the earth.
Think of Eric Garner as the American Mohamed Bouazizi. Bouazizi was a street peddler who had trouble with the cops, too, and his countrymen didn’t forget it. We’re closer to Tunisia than many of us can imagine. We’re certainly closer than any true patriot can tolerate.
It’s hubris. American cops think they have the juice to shut people up. Then something like the shooting of Michael Brown puts a city over the edge, and they find that they’ve lost the juice. They didn’t see it coming. Their colleagues had been killing people with impunity for years, occasionally stirring up a citizens’ revolt at city council meetings like Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli did by beating Kelly Thomas to death in front of horrified passengers at the bus station in downtown Fullerton, but not a single concerted street protest movement in decades. Then some kid with a dubious background gets shot dead in an obscure suburb of St. Louis, and suddenly the anger comes to a head and stays there for weeks. Months. A series of other line-of-duty homicides makes the press and is quickly put under the same gloss: a crazy guy with a knife committing suicide by cop on the North Side of St. Louis; a twelve-year-old kid waving a toy gun around in a park in Cleveland; a young man who was in the wrong stairwell in the Brooklyn projects at the wrong time; and, retroactively, a big guy on Staten Island who just wanted the cops to leave him alone. Three of these five incidents are caught on videotape.
A grand jury impaneled to investigate the first of these controversial shootings returns no true bill, just like the police and the prosecutors designed. There are more protests. There are angry accusations that the prosecutor threw his presentment, accusations that the cops know in their hearts are true but that they dare not confirm because they value the veneer of legitimacy that they presume to enjoy and they value their lives. Protesters hundreds, even thousands of miles from St. Louis are swarming freeways. Another grand jury, this one on Staten Island, returns no true bill. No one is criminally liable for choking a man to death while he lay prone on a sidewalk, desperately moaning that he couldn’t breathe. The citizen who videotaped this incident, meanwhile, has been indicted on gun charges, and there is speculation of official retaliation, even a frame job.
More protests. Larger protests. More whites and Asians this time. People are going out into the streets en masse, chanting “I can’t breathe.” They’ve seen the video, and they don’t want Eric Garner’s murder to be in vain. The police have lost control of the narrative. Middle-class citizens are out protesting the police to honor the memory of a guy who peddled loose cigarettes in a rough part of Staten Island. They want justice for this cigarette peddler. It isn’t supposed to work that way.
Few people are gauche enough to openly admit this, but the legitimacy of the police in the United States is contingent in large part on the tacit promise that they’ll spare respectable, middle-class white people the horrors that they regularly visit upon minorities and the poor. Occasionally some cop will get caught serving the white meat with equal prejudice, and Bougie will be up in arms for a bit. John Pike’s point-blank macing of a row of nonviolent, seated student protesters at UC Davis didn’t go over very well, but the furor passed without any significant civil unrest. The police departments and unions put out their ass-covering press releases, maybe the offending cop gets suspended or fired or negotiates an early retirement, and the press and the public forget about the whole thing in due course, allowing law enforcement to resume its regularly scheduled programming of repressing the cosplay hippies of Occupy, but mostly poor people of color.
So the police are caught completely off guard when one of these subversive protest movements truly goes viral. It just isn’t in their contingency plans. Week after week they’re outnumbered at protest sites and made to look like jackbooted thugs on international television. They can’t mow down protesters with machine gun fire because this is America, and if they’re paying any attention to their intelligence reports or to the news they know that a massacre could provoke violent retaliation from the wrong gang or Dorner/Frein-spectrum freelance avenger. The only thing they can do is go back to what they know best: suppressing street protests with nonlethal force and applying the juice to shut people up.
The problem is that they’ve lost the frame, and for that reason they’ve also lost the juice, if they ever really had it in the first place. The Overton Window is out of their hands now, but they won’t or can’t recognize this painfully obvious failure of theirs. They get desperate, and they waste their rapidly diminishing political capital making gigantic asses of themselves.
The sort of cops who get worked into high dudgeon over criticism of law enforcement don’t understand that they are not the sole arbiters of authority in the country. They don’t understand that there are private citizens who are insulated from their intimidation tactics and able to effectively pull rank on them to great public effect. In caste terms, they’re warriors who are used to putting their boots on the faces of petty merchants, tradesmen, and peasants. They’re used to being at the top of the totem pole. They’ve never been forced to truly serve and protect. Maybe if they’d taken private security work for the kinds of high-rollers who don’t dress their guards up like low-rent state troopers they might have learned how to be tactful around people whose cultural influence they can’t match, but they’d rather rule in Ferguson than serve in Beverly Hills.
There’s another caste above them, one that they never imagined being relevant to their own lives: the celebrities. Some people insist that the celebrities exist solely for our entertainment. The problem with this assumption is that celebrities have immense bargaining power precisely because they’re so popular and lucrative to their employers, so entertaining, if you will. Plenty of jingoists demanded that Jane Fonda be blacklisted for consorting with North Vietnamese officials instead of the CIA’s unstable rotation of crooked South Vietnamese satraps. They were spitting into the wind. A smaller but similarly vocal claque demanded punishment for Mel Gibson’s liquor-soaked tirade about the Jews, which he construed as a parasitic, all-encompassing superorganism devouring its decent American host. Again, the critics were spitting into the wind. Most high-power Hollywood lawyers and producers are Jewish. It’s fair enough to say that a lot of them are shysters. So are many of the gentile celebrities that they represent or employ. Hollywood lawyers know that they have to deal from time to time with obnoxious antisemites, but they figure that if Mr. Gibson wishes to air his baroque conspiracy theory with counsel, he’ll be charged the standard $1,500 per hour, divisible by the quarter hour. One has to deal with assholes in the business. It’s only if one has serious, big-time clout as a principal and doesn’t have to placate clients that one publicly discusses one’s butthurt about nonsense like the armchair antisemitism of obnoxious drunks.
The entertainment business is aggressively mercenary and involves an elaborate cast of divas with various chips on their shoulders, often about matters pertaining to race and class. There is a large quasi-caste of retainers orbiting the celebrities, servants make annual incomes in the mid-six to low-seven figures for jobs in which their employers hold them in little more esteem than they hold their under-the-table Mexican housekeepers. These retainers include lawyers, prostitutes, and drug dealers. If you don’t want to keep their company, they probably don’t want to keep yours, either. They probably aren’t crazy about the company that they actually are keeping, either, but at least the work pays well.
It’s a different world. Somebody like Vox Day, the publisher of the racist authoritarian garbage in the preceding link, doesn’t have to employ their tact in his daily life. He isn’t in the ultra high-end service industry.
Police and police union officials seem to think that they’re equally free to speak their minds in cryptooffcial capacities. It ain’t necessarily so. Vox Day needs the consent of his readers. Cops need the consent of the governed. There’s a difference between the two. They also need the ongoing goodwill of various elected officials, who in turn need the consent of the governed, especially the consent of the wealthy, influence-peddling governed. Like, gee, the owners of major league sports teams.
There is hardly a better way for the police to alienate the public, influential business interests, and elected officials in one fell swoop than to announce that a brief, nonverbal political statement by a group of black professional football players at the start of a game was insolent to the police. It gets even more effective if the substance of the insolent statement in question is “please don’t fatally shoot us without cause.” That’s like going on live television during some hot summer in the sixties to say, “Don’t y’all get uppity, now. Bull Connor and George Wallace are my main crackers, and I know how to use a fire hose.”
This isn’t Freedom Summer at the Neshoba County Courthouse. These asshats didn’t demand an apology from some upstart activist like Fannie Lou Hamer with the totalitarian legal, civic, and religious backing of every white organization in the state. They demanded an apology and adverse personnel action from a fucking professional football team, backed up with implicit threats to withdraw police protection for the team and anyone on or around its property and to orchestrate a white boycott of the Rams. They threatened that, as butthurt police officers, they had the power to dictate the consumer decisions of everyone remotely in their socioeconomic class. They presume themselves to be the Citizens’ Council at a time when there is no Citizens’ Council.
They got an apology, but a mealy-mouthed and insincere one. To be very generous, it was a Pyrrhic victory. As the St. Louis County Police put it on their official Twitter account, “Apology: “expression of regret for not being able to do something”
@kdemoff: “I regretted any offense their officers may have taken.” You can’t make this shit up. They got the general manager to pretend to take the fall for his team, then blew it by acting like mob enforcers from Boardwalk Empire as reinterpreted by Richard Dreyfus in Mr. Holland’s Opus. They’re on the verge of crying like Nicolae Ceaucescu at band practice and snapping a baton in anger just because that one male flautist with ADHD and juvenile manners is being annoying kind of annoying again, except that what they’re actually upset about is a demand that they refrain from summarily executing people under color of authority. These are police officers publicly acting like the dipshit, bumptious middle school teacher who is always haplessly trying to manipulate his rowdy students into submission, alternately screaming at them and mewling about “respect,” the kicker being that the teacher is implicated in witness intimidation subsequent to a gangland murder and everyone thinks he’s in the Klan.
These pompous, condescending pieces of shit think that they can silence unionized professional athletes by insinuating that they’re uppity negroes and that they can get team owners to do their bidding. It’s insane. The owners know that if they push back in circumstances like these they’ll provoke a players’ strike. They don’t want that. Most of them aren’t racist assholes like Donald Sterling who would do such a thing if they thought they could get away with it. They have enough trouble as it is with all the horror stories coming out about former players being ruined by traumatic brain injuries and current players committing domestic battery and murder. They’ve probably been on the phone with Francis Slay and Sam Dotson making sure that any cop who follows through on the threats in an official capacity has hell to pay. Slay and Dotson probably both want the police union officials to shut the fuck up and stop digging every department in the area into a bottomless hole.
The fans aren’t going to boycott the Rams because they don’t like the politics of their players. They don’t watch football for the political edification; they watch it for the #FOOTBALL. The white players won’t turn on the black players: the teams are integrated, and athletes on any integrated team form interracial friendships at rates far higher than the American public at large.
What’s most amazing is that the union officials don’t seem to realize that St. Louis County is a highly integrated county with numerous municipalities that can hold their own against Ferguson for gunpoint public corruption. This is a downright stupid time for police to argue the counterpoint that they should have carte blanche authority to shoot unarmed civilians for walking in the street or stealing a pack of cigars. It is a downright stupid time for the police to be telling people to shut up about how they don’t want to be shot dead by rogue cops.
Matt Taibbi is right. The police are screwing the fattened ram.