I don’t have the stomach to watch anymore videos of beatings by police. New ones seem to be coming out by the day. As ghastly as they are, as horrifying as is the truth we are seeing, I’m glad these videos exist. I’m happy we have the technology to finally catch criminal acts taking place, even or especially when they take place under the cover of law.
In many ways, these viral videos are forging what might be the most significant and lasting political movement of my lifetime, a full-scale revolt against what everyone used to believe was the most essential function of the state: the police. Not only has this function turned murderous; the machinery of the state is unwilling to hold police accountable.
The resulting anger is palpable, each protest more tense than the last. The police arrive to supervise the marches and sit ins. But they arrive as the enemy. Their authority is gone. The protesters suddenly have in their sights the very embodiment of the thing they are protesting. And so every gathering has the feeling of being on the verge of exploding, which only makes the cops more paranoid and quick to release the gas and pull the trigger.
The protests are hugely important but they are very likely to further entrench the fears, paranoias, and resentments of the people who hold a monopoly on the legal use of violent force. It is likely to get worse before it gets better. That means that this trend and the protest movements might extend much longer than the usual news cycle.
Rather than watch more, I offer a broader theory of the meaning.
We are experiencing the third great wave of American political street protests that generally began in 2009. The first wave was the Tea Party. The second was Occupy Wall Street. And today, around the country, in cities and towns large and small, people are protesting the abuse and killings of citizens by the local police.
In each case, there is something to inspire the rebel within all of us. The Tea Party has valid complaints, but so does the OWS movement. And anyone who can watch the youtubes of killings by police and the responsive protests without some emotional sympathy does not have a well-formed conscience.
What if these are all variations of the same general revolt? They are.
American political culture treats these protests as distinct and even divergent in their goals. The Tea Party was called “right wing” because the bones of contention at its inception were high taxes, wealth transfers, and health care nationalization. Occupy was considered “left wing” because it emphasized the evil of the rich and the need for government to redistribute more. And the new anti-police protests are supposedly about racial disparities and justice, mainly concerning the interests of racial minorities and blacks in particular.
There is a sense in which all of this is true in cultural look and feel. The protests attract different demographic groups: race, class, age, region. And these differences cause political minds to think that they cancel each other out. This is just a street version of the left and the right, populist realizations of politics as usual.
A better way to understand them is to look for the unifying factor. They are all protesting against the massive and growing use of power against the people and our aspirations for a peaceful and prosperous life. In this sense, each is a different expression of the same protest, each valid and correct in its own way.
The Tea Party sprang into being as a revolt against Washington’s voracious appetite for taxes and its corrupt penchant for spreading wealth around to special interests. It was a movement of the bourgeoisie. It favored getting government out of people’s lives. That was its general tenor and demand, at the outset.
It’s true that later, once the movement became organized (that’s always the beginning of the end), the Tea Party became annoying and even noxious. Speakers at “Tea Party” events would complain about immigration, cuts in Medicare, flag burnings, abortion rights, and you name it: anything that sounded angry elicited a cheer. That trend made it difficult to support the movement at some point.
But it is the same with the Occupy movement. They began as spontaneous protests against the egregious bailouts of Wall Street’s largest investment banking houses by the Federal Reserve, and the Fed’s immunization of Wall Street in general from the consequences of the real estate bust. It was all good and right. But then, as the movement matured, it too became tedious, with calls for the looting of the rich, and the usual vast panoply of left wing prattle about the need for regulation and more taxation, yada yada.
Of the three, the anti-police movement is the most unambiguously deserving of support, at least for me. The police are the frontlines of the whole of the state. There was a time, when I was a kid, that it was possible to think of them as part of the structure of civil society, the aspect of the state that we actually need to keep order.
But all of that changed after 9-11, when the federal government essentially implemented an undeclared martial law, and armed local cops to the teeth with military weaponry. A crazed paranoia also overtook all law-enforcement institutions. Citizens were suddenly all potential terrorists. We were treated as such by the regime. Anyone around in those days remembers the feeling of being under foreign occupation, not by Al Qaeda but by our own government.
The decisive moment came after the 2008 financial crisis, when local government turned to the cops to be revenue-collecting agents. That’s when the full force of the law was turned against our property and rights at every turn. In communities across the whole of the United States, the citizens were being hunted by their own protectors. The guardians themselves became the source of the problem.
This third great wave of protest is the culmination of many years of growing abuse of power by police, and, most importantly, growing knowledge and awareness that something is fundamentally wrong. The intensity of the pain is felt most intensely by black Americans, who have been subjected to abusive treatment for many decades — and this is a followup to racist policies with deep roots that include exclusionist and even exterminationist policies that began as slavery officially ended.
Blacks and other minority populations are the main victims but not the only ones. What these videos reveal is the most fundamental conflict in the history of humanity: the conflict between society and state. It takes many forms. It is sometimes the taxation and regulation that the bourgeoisie loathe. It is sometimes the policies the favor the wealthy and privileged elite over everyone else — the policies most hated by the working class, the unemployed, and the poor. And it is sometimes the outright police violence experienced by the most conspicuous victims: expendable and powerless racial minorities.
But in the end, we all face the same struggle. It’s the struggle between the voluntary associations that constitute the beautiful part of our lives, on the one hand, and, on the other, the legal monopoly of violence and compulsion by the institutions of the state that lives at the expense of society.
Remember that the protests we see are only the visible ones. Underneath them, there is a seething in the very firmament of society among all classes, races, and political outlooks. For every protester in front of the camera, there are hundreds of thousands of sympathizers, which is what happens in a country where government impositions have stopped household incomes from rising in real terms for 20 years. And this reality has struck us during a time of explosive technological improvements that would have otherwise conferred massive material benefits on society.
The rise of power has robbed us all. We experience different forms of victimization. We express our frustration in different ways. We have a different set of triggers. But when it comes to knowing the enemy, we should all be clear and united: it is the state.