The police killing of a subdued and helpless George Floyd and the worldwide demonstrations against systematic police brutality against Black Americans it provoked have rightly put a spotlight on policing in the US. Floyd’s senseless killing and the populist pushback have also raised the question of the extent to which the institution of policing in this country originated and evolved as an instrument of group domination by self-identified whites.
Policing has never been my academic research specialty but I did once have a close-up encounter with reams of data that appertained to the question of how policing has worked in this country. Many decades ago, over several weeks of a hot Boston summer, I was employed by a sociology PhD student to code data from arrest records contained in old ledgers piled in a dusty basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse. I remember going through dozens of ledgers from years that spanned the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century and recording surnames of individuals who had been arrested by Boston police officers, as well as the crimes they were charged with.
While the specialized legal abbreviations and idiosyncrasies of penmanship of those long dead clerks took a while to decipher, it wasn’t long before I was making quick progress through years of arrest records. And, almost immediately, a pattern was evident. The overwhelming majority of the defendant names were Irish, while the infractions charged were relatively few: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, with, perhaps, some counts of resisting arrest thrown in. As it turned out, the PhD student was writing a dissertation about the relationship of Boston’s Irish population to the local police. And from the data I was coding, it looked to my unscholarly eyes that that relationship had been a contentious one, with Irish-surnamed folk filling Boston’s jails for decades at least. Needless to say, the court records did not indicate how many of those charges of public drunkenness or disorderly conduct were trumped up.
Growing up in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1970s, I experienced people with Irish-sounding surnames as figures of authority and accomplishment: grade schoolteachers, parish priests, local and state politicians, and, of course, the Kennedy clan. It was a far cry from that earlier time when Irish-Americans were a despised and impoverished immigrant group (“Irish Need Not Apply”) and were the targets of popular discrimination and systematic harassment and repression by many Protestant establishment political elites who controlled public institutions in the Bay State.
Purely by coincidence during that same summer of research in the basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse, I was reading J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the contentious history of school busing, Common Ground, and came across a passage describing the Massachusetts State legislature’s confiscation of control of the Boston police force from city hall in 1895. Just ten years earlier, the city elected its first Irish-born mayor, which “launch[ed] an era of Irish-American dominance of Boston City Hall.”
It seems that even when the Boston Irish had made progress through the ballot box, their newfound control over the city’s main instrument of coercion could be stripped away by their long-time political nemesis acting at the state level. In the end, it may have been only after Irish-Americans, who had long been considered a race apart from Protestant America, could move across what W.E.B. Dubois called America’s “Color Line” and become “White” that they could escape the worst effects of policing. The same path, needless to say, has not been available to Black Americans.
M. Davout is the pen name for a political science professor who teaches in the Deep South.
I keep seeing headlines like this one from Alternet today: Trump ‘patriots’ ready to die for freedom shout down county commissioners because they don’t want to wear face masks.
How do you convince such “patriots” that wearing a face mask is not an assault on their freedom?
Perhaps by telling them that the Covid virus is much like those bad people invading us from the south. You know: those “rapists” and “killers” and other viral elements poring through our border, as Trump warned us about in his first speech as a candidate in 2015. A “threat” we can stop with a chant: “Build the wall! Build the wall!”
Think of all those Covid viral droplets as unwanted and dangerous invaders — but we can stop them before they ruin America. How? Wear the mask! Wear the mask!
Just think of the mask as a wall between you and the bad people out to ruin America. There — don’t you feel like a patriot now, wearing your “wall” mask? You can even get masks with American flags on them. Wear with pride!
Back in January 2010, I wrote the following article for Truthout in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision. Despite recent mass protests driven by murders of blacks such as George Floyd, not much has changed. Police reforms are stalled at the federal level, and a racist president continues to inflame even as he seeks greater power. Americans are told change will come via the ballot box, but when politicians are essentially owned by citizen-corporations, changing a few faces in Congress or even the Oval Office will change little. As George Carlin explained to a skeptical audience: “You have owners. They own you.” And so we are reduced to certain roles in society, mainly as consumers but also as warriors and prisoners – or so I argued in 2010:
Corporations Are Citizens — What Are We?
This week’s Supreme Court ruling [Citizens United] that corporations are protected by “free speech” rights and can contribute enormous sums of money to influence elections is a de jure endorsement of the de facto dominance of corporations over our lives. Indeed, corporations are the new citizens of this country, and ordinary Americans, who used to be known as “citizens,” now fall into three categories: consumers, warriors and prisoners.
Think about it. Perhaps you’ve noticed, as a friend of mine has, that the term “citizen” has largely disappeared from our public and political discourse. And what term has taken its place? Consumer. That’s our new role: not to exercise our rights as citizens (perish the thought, that’s for corporations to do!), but to exercise our credit cards as consumers. Here one might recall President George W. Bush’s inspiring words to Americans after 9-11 to “go shopping” and to visit Disney.
Think again of our regulatory agencies like the FDA or SEC. They no longer take action to protect us as “citizens.” Rather, they act to safeguard the confidence of “consumers.” And apparently the only news that’s worthy of note is that which affects us as consumers.
As one-dimensional “consumers,” we’ve been reduced to obedient eunuchs in thrall to the economy. Our sole purpose is to keep buying and spending. Corporations, meanwhile, are the citizen-activists in our politics, with the voting and speech rights to match their status.
At the same time we’ve reduced citizens to consumers, we’ve reduced citizen-soldiers to “warriors” or “warfighters.” The citizen-soldier of World War II did his duty in the military, but his main goal was to come home, regain his civilian job, and enjoy the freedoms and rights of American citizenship. Today, our military encourages a “warrior” mentality: a narrow-minded professionalism that emphasizes warfighting skills over citizenship and civic duty.
And if that’s not disturbing enough, think of our military’s ever-increasing reliance on private military contractors or mercenaries.
The final category of American is all-too-obvious: prisoner. No country in the modern industrialized world incarcerates more of its citizens than the United States. More than 7.3 million Americans currently languish somewhere in our prison system [awaiting trial, on parole, or in jail]. Our only hope, apparently, for a decline in prison population is the sheer expense to states of caring and feeding all these “offenders.”
There you have it. Corporations are our new citizens. And you? If you’re lucky, you get to make a choice: consumer, warrior or prisoner. Which will it be?
In The Matrix, Neo (played memorably by Keanu Reeves) saves Morpheus by breaking into a heavily fortified facility guarded by special agents. When asked what he’ll need to pull off this longshot rescue, Neo says, simply: “Guns — lots of guns.” It could serve as America’s new national motto. In God we trust? No — guns. And lots of them. Somewhere north of 300 million guns are currently in private hands, enough to arm each and every American, the tall and the small, with at least one firearm.
So it’s not surprising when Donald Trump references Second Amendment rights. (It seems the only amendment he knows.) He likes to assert these “rights” are in danger of being curtailed, but gun sales are still booming and there are no serious efforts at gun control.
As one of my friends whose barbed humor I enjoy put it: “There is only one amendment — the second amendment.” Mull that conundrum for a moment.
Back in World War II, America was known as the arsenal of democracy for all the weapons we supplied to allies like Britain and the Soviet Union. Now it’s just an arsenal.
The brutal truth is we’re stuck with all these guns. There is no political will to buy them back, even military-style assault weapons, and indeed what will there is centers on selling more of them. Back in 2017, several articles appeared noting how black women were buying guns in increasing numbers. Last week, NBC Washington ran a report on women of color becoming licensed gun owners in increasing numbers, partly as a response to police violence. “Peace of mind” is bought with a gun. Talk about racial and gender progress!
Speaking of the police, small wonder that America’s cops are edgy. When we talk about police violence, which is all-too-real and all-too-deadly, a factor we should consider is the reality that America is awash in guns, making every police call a potentially deadly one.
So, as much as Trump tweets about “LAW&ORDER,” what really rules America is money — the money to be made by selling lots of guns and ammo, as well as the cultural ammo you can always count on when hippy-dippy liberals like me start rattling rhetorical sabers about gun control.
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but an AR-15 trumps both in this man’s America.
I’ve owned guns myself and have shot everything from a pellet pistol to a .44 magnum, but I’ve defunded my modest gun collection, so to speak. I decided happiness is not a warm gun and that there are amendments other than the 2nd one.
For once you start shooting bullets, there’s no way to recall them. And, as far as I know, the only guy able to dodge bullets is Keanu Reeves as Neo.
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Walrus Man, is back with “revelations” about Donald Trump. Yet, unless you’ve been a MAGA man or under a rock for the last four years, these are hardly as revelatory as media mouthpieces are making them out to be. Some examples:
Trump cares most of all about getting reelected in 2020. To this end, he’ll make deals with China to shore up his domestic support.
Trump sympathizes with authoritarian dictators and promises to intercede on their behalf in various investigations.
Trump is ignorant of the most basic facts, e.g. he didn’t know the UK has nuclear weapons; he didn’t know Finland was not part of Russia; etc.
Trump is mocked behind his back by some of his most ardent supporters, e.g. Mike Pompeo.
Trump said Venezuela is “really part of the United States.”
And so on. That last one is especially funny. Trump must mean their oil, for he hasn’t exactly been clamoring for more people south of the border to be put on a path to U.S. citizenship.
Earlier today, Bolton gave an interview in which he said Trump is unfit to be president. Surprise! I was saying that in March of 2016, and I was hardly the only one.
Look: I’m no Trump fan, but none of this is news. As a narcissist and egotist, of course Trump places his reelection above all else. As an authoritarian ruler (at least in a wannabe sense), of course Trump relishes striking deals with other dictator-types. Clearly, Trump doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body. He’s incurious and apparently doesn’t read (not even the Bible, it seems), so he doesn’t know some of the most basic facts about geography and foreign policy. Indeed, in this sense he’s the prototypical American. We only learn geography after we invade a country.
It’s not hard to predict the reaction of Trump’s base to these “revelations”: they couldn’t care less. But, hey, if it helps Bolton to sell books, then he’s taken a page from Trump’s own playbook. Lots of hype, “alternative facts,” and controversy are good ways to move copy; don’t some people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity?
Meanwhile, Trump’s true feelings for his base are revealed in his decision to press ahead with a mass rally in an indoor arena this weekend. Never mind the deadly danger of Covid-19: Trump says its fading away.
Now there’s a true “alternative fact” that may prove a killer for far too many, true believers and otherwise.
As a concept, “white privilege” is disturbing, contentious, insulting, take your pick, assuming you’re a white guy like me enjoying “advanced middle age,” as one of my old friends recently put it. Me, privileged? I come from a working-class background, grew up in a triple-decker in a decaying city, started working at age 15, went to college on a ROTC scholarship, served in the military for twenty years, and so on. I didn’t “succeed” because I’m a cis white male, right? Where was “my” privilege?
Of course, privilege is often invisible or barely visible; it’s stealthy. It may mean you’re not being watched because you’re white. You’re not being stopped and frisked because you’re white. People don’t cross the street because you’re white. Maybe you’re not shot at or choked out because you’re white.
The clearest illustration of white privilege I can think of is Donald Trump, and it’s not because I’m a Trump hater. (I’m opposed to Trump and Biden.)
Think about Trump. He’s been married three times. Has had five kids with three different wives. Brags about pussy-grabbing. Has had documented affairs with a Playboy playmate and a porn star while paying them hush money. And none of this behavior has ruined his political chances, even among the “family values” evangelical crowd. Indeed, evangelicals generally love “bad boy” Trump.
Now, imagine a black candidate for the presidency with Trump’s record. The multiple marriages, the adulterous affairs, the pussy-grabbing talk. Would this black guy have a ghost of a chance at being nominated in the USA? Recall that Barack Obama needed to have the “perfect” family image, monogamous, faithful, wife, two kids, by all accounts a loving relationship, the prototypical nuclear family. They even had a dog, unlike Trump, who seems to despise pets. (Trump’s a germaphobe.)
Now, let’s imagine a woman of any race or creed. What would America say about a female candidate who’s had five kids with three different husbands? Who’s had adulterous affairs with porn stars and Playgirl centerfolds? Who’s bragged of grabbing males by the you-know-what? Would she have a chance to be our president? To be embraced by evangelicals as their candidate of choice? Of course not.
With Trump, all this doesn’t matter. As a rich spoiled white guy, he’s been given a blank check by society to do whatever he wants. Sure, he’s been criticized for his more outrageous comments and actions, but he still won the presidency — and may yet win again. You simply can’t say the same of any woman or any person of color with the same baggage as Trump.
It’s amazing what Trump gets away with. But this is not about partisan politics. It’s about societal norms and expectations. Consider John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Both were philanderers; LBJ was especially vulgar. But all was accepted or at least tolerated because they were white males acting in “manly” ways.
This is just one obvious but nevertheless compelling illustration of white (male) privilege in America. As my better half reminds me, for white men it’s easier walking down the sidewalk, buying a car, renting an apartment; basically, living. And that is privilege indeed.
Here are ten thoughts that have occurred to me lately.
- Police are a nation within a nation (“the thin blue line”), with their own flag, their own uniforms, their own code of conduct, maybe even their own laws. How do we get them to rejoin America? How do we get them to recall they’re citizens and public servants first?
- Our systems of authority, including the presidency under Trump, serve themselves first. They all want the same thing: MORE. More money, more authority, more power. And they all tend toward more violence. And because racism is systemic, much of that violence is aimed at blacks, but it’s aimed at anyone considered to be fringe or in the way.
- We need an entirely new mindset or ethos in this country, but the police, the military, the Congress, the president are all jealous of their power, and will resist as best they can. Their main tactic will be to slow roll changes while scaring us with talk of all the “enemies” we face. Thus we already see Trump hyping China as a threat while claiming that Biden wants to “defund” the military — a shameless and ridiculous lie. Meanwhile, Biden is against defunding the police and proudly took ownership of the crime bill that created much of the problem.
- We used to have a Department of War to which citizen-soldiers were drafted. Now we have a Department of Defense to which warriors and warfighters volunteer. There’s a lot of meaning in this terminology.
- Even as the police and military are government agencies, publicly funded, they are instruments of capitalism. They protect and expand property for the elites. They are enforcers of prevailing paradigms.
- It amazes me how cheaply one can buy a Washington politician. You can buy access for a few thousand, or tens of thousands, and get them to dance to your tune for a few million. This is capitalism, where everything and everyone can be bought or sold, often on the cheap.
- Doesn’t it seem like Washington foreign policy is dropping bombs, selling bombs, killing people, or making a killing, i.e. profiteering?
- America always need a “peer enemy,” and, when necessary, we’ll invent one. America is #1 at making enemies — maybe that should be our national motto.
- Too often nowadays, “diversity” is all about surface or “optics.” Thus the call for Joe Biden to select a black woman as his running mate, irrespective of her views. Thus we hear the names of Susan Rice and Kamala Harris being mentioned, both mainstream Democrats, both servants of the national security state, pliable and predictable. But you never hear the name of Nina Turner, who was national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s campaign. She’s an outspoken black progressive, and that’s not the “diversity” Joe Biden and the DNC seek. Or what about Tulsi Gabbard, who has endorsed Biden? Woman of color, extensive military experience, lots of appeal to independent-minded voters. But she’s an opponent of forever wars and the military-industrial-congressional complex, and that’s “diversity” that cannot be tolerated. So we’re most likely to see a “diverse” ticket of Biden-Harris or Biden-Rice, just like Hillary-Tim Kaine, i.e. no progressive views can or will be heard.
- One secret of Trump’s appeal: He makes even dumb people feel smart. After all, even his most stalwart supporters didn’t drink or inject bleach after Trump suggested it could be used for internal “cleansing” to avoid Covid-19.
Bonus comment: Can you believe that those who worked to suppress protests in Washington, D.C. compared their “stand” to the Alamo and the Super Bowl? Talk about Trump-level hyperbole! Here’s the relevant passage from the New York Times:
On Tuesday, during a conference call with commanders on the situation in Washington, General Ryan, the task force commander, likened the defense of Lafayette Square to the “Alamo” and his troops’ response to the huge protests on Saturday to the “Super Bowl.”
Mission accomplished! What’s on your mind, readers?
Today, Burt Cohen and I discussed police militarization and how to reverse it. The interview was based on my article for TomDispatch.com, posted here at Bracing Views as well. Here is what Burt posted at his site, Keeping Democracy Alive (link follows):
Trump’s “superpower” is his utter shamelessness.
He’ll tweet lies and conspiracy theories about Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old activist who was shoved to the ground and sent to the emergency room by Buffalo cops. He’ll shamelessly use both the Bible and the flag as props. He infamously teargassed peaceful protesters so he could pose with a Bible in Washington, D.C. Trump, of course, knows nothing about said Bible; when asked, he couldn’t name a single passage from it, nor did he seem to know the difference between the Old and New Testaments. No matter — Trump knows a useful prop when he sees one.
When the Bible fails to impress, it’s back to the flag again. Trump is reviving the whole kneeling dispute in the NFL, when Colin Kaepernick and other black players took a knee in protest against police brutality. Allegedly finding this “disrespectful,” Trump hugs Old Glory to his body while grinning like the cat who swallowed the canary.
For a refreshing dose of reality, I was watching George Carlin and he reminded me politicians have three favorite theatrical props: the Bible, the flag, and children. Trump is two for three; when will he start arguing that he should be reelected to save the children?
There’s a breathtaking shamelessness to Trump. It comes with his all-consuming ego and astonishing narcissism, but it’s more than that — Trump enjoys tapping into his shamelessness so as to inflame his base and further divide America.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party empowers him because they find him both intimidating and tractable. Trump intimidates because he can fire-up his cult-like base against any Republican with a single tweet; Trump is tractable because he largely does the bidding of corporate elites and financial powerbrokers. They may not like Trump’s egotism and vulgarity, but they sure do like all the money flowing upward to them.
This dynamic reminded me of a line from the Bob Seger song, “Night Moves“: I used her, she used me, but neither one cared/we were gettin’ our share. But even those who are getting their share should be wary of Trump: his utter shamelessness means he has very little to lose.