In our polarized, black and white zero-sum culture there are, we are constantly told, only two choices. In the case of routine police violence against unarmed civilians the choice is presented this way: Law and Order OR anarchy and a tidal wave of violent crime. Police with a monopoly on legally sanctioned violence or turning the streets over to vicious criminals?
We know, as my father realized poignantly close to the moment of his death, that the world is almost never black and white (almost every non-Nazi would choose Mussolini over Hitler, given the choice, though few actually admire Benito). Presenting things as a simple either/or choice saves a lot of wear and tear on weary, anxious, angry souls, I suppose, but it comes at a price.
The phrase “Police State” popped into my head just now, as I listened to another interview about Attorney General Bagpiper Bill Barr mobilizing an array of armed forces never seen on the street– tactical forces like the Bureau of Prisons riot squad (used for putting down prisoner uprisings in prisons), for example — to violently put down a peaceful demonstration near the White House, clearing the way for his deeply religious boss’s somber photo op. Barr, of course, denies that his dispersal of the “riot” had anything to do with Trump’s desire to walk to a nearby church and silently hold a Bible in his inexplicably gloved hand.
We have come to expect lies from the unprincipled Mr. Barr, a pugnacious right-wing provocateur who relishes expanding and openly abusing the already vast powers of his powerful office, and those of the Unitary Executive, in this case Trump, the living embodiment of Barr’s fervently autocratic worldview, but the phrase Police State puts it into perspective.
Wonder why the term Police State is so ominous? It is a state where the police, with a monopoly on the use of deadly force, have the absolute power of life and death over citizens, where disobedience to police orders can mean instant, summary execution. If the authorities can unleash the full force of state violence on people exercising rights guaranteed by the Constitution (in our case the First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances) then we are reduced to arguing about whether pepper spray is the same as “tear gas” — and we live in a state where the unaccountable abuse of power is just the way it is.
Just the way it is, my friends. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.