I love this story about the New York Police Department's attempt, via Twitter, to come up with “feel-good” photos of New York's Finest posing with ordinary, non-felonious citizens. What they got instead was a rash of police brutality pics. Well, at least it wasn't Chicago, or the LAPD. But still... what were they thinking? Not a whole lot, is my guess. It's been many a moon since the police enjoyed that nice, friendly, apple-chomping image you see in old Norman Rockwell illustrations. And I suppose, like everything else, it began in the 60s with the hippies, drugs, antiwar protests, and so on.
The police were always charged with enforcing the law, but here's the difference. Law enforcement in the “old days” was highly correlated with social class, as follows: The police, who were working-class, had the job of enforcing laws based on middle-class values (and fears), and the objects of that enforcement were typically other working (or non-working) -class individuals. The ruling class was – then as now – above the law, by and large, but they had a healthy fear of the great masses of the unwashed, so put the better-behaved among them to work overseeing the rest... the way slave owners in the Old South would put the more reliable (and meaner) slaves in charge of the others.
What changed in the 60s, you ask? Well, simply that the police turned their attention to the “problem children” of the middle class -- the hippies, the white middle-class drug users, antiwar (and anti-draft) protesters, etc. It was, in effect, a war of the middle class on itself – age vs. youth – and the police were playing their usual role, except that they were cracking white middle-class skulls at least as often as black lower-class ones. And I suppose this was a new and novel experience for them, but they seemed to take to it with enthusiasm. I suspect some of this was based on simple class envy – if you can't get back at those uppity, hypocritical middle-class types, you can at least get back at their kids. Plus, they saw (correctly, by and large) the white middle-class youth as lazy, pretentious parasites – compared to which, working your way up to a uniform and a badge, the way they had done, was far more meritorious. (And serving in the military gave you respect for life – then as now.)
And then of course you had the patriotism piece – police wearing the American flag (when did that start, exactly?) -- and, needless to say, the hippies and their fellow travelers were universally considered to be a threat to all that America stood for, etc. And then when the hippies joined ranks with the blacks in the civil rights movement, and when that converged with the anti-war movement.... well, the battle lines were bright, and clear.
Well, so... that was then and this is now, right? So these days the police are going after the Occupy crowd, and are using the same spy technology and weaponry as the CIA and NSA. Every crossroads hamlet has a SWAT team and an armored vehicle of some sort... stun grenades... sound cannons... the whole armamentarium of totalitarianism.
The point is that the police are, by definition, tools of the Regime – and totalitarian oppression has trickled down to the local level in a dramatic way. SWAT teams invading organic farms and religious communes... police organizations protesting the legalization of marijuana because it might put some people out of work... 24/7 surveillance of the citizenry, particularly of certain political and religious groups... “sting” operations that actually create crime rather than preventing it... let us count the ways.
And there's a paradox of sorts in all of this. We are – or so the politicians like to claim – “a nation of laws” (more so than of morals or principles, I might add). And sure enough, the totality of laws from the federal level down to the local level would fill many boxcars at one copy each. But on an ordinary, day-to-day, “on the ground” basis, the police are the law. They decide which laws to enforce and which ones not to – and on occasion they enforce laws that don't even exist. (They are particularly sensitive to being photographed or recorded in any way while on duty, for some reason.) This has its good and bad points. It's been pointed out that we have become, in effect, a nation of felons – that if every law were enforced to its fullest extent at all times, we would all have been long since tried, convicted, and incarcerated. True enough. Which means, we are all “getting away” with stuff every hour and every minute of every day. And that's kind of cool, if being naughty is your thing. On the other hand, we're being watched and monitored even when we're doing nothing obviously wrong at that particular moment – just in case. And it's not members of Congress, or the president, who are keeping track of all those suspicious activities, phone calls, e-mail messages, etc. -- it's the police, and low-level civilian operatives. It's like social policy – it's cooked up in the halls of academe and in Congress, but is enforced by “underpaid” public school teachers, librarians, and social workers. So the number of, let's say, collaborators, facilitators, and enforcers is far greater than the number of people who dream this stuff up. An “agent of change” can be anybody who does anything to aid and abet the implementation of a bad idea. They don't have to have come up with the idea, and in fact don't even have to be consciously aware of what the idea is; they just have to promote and enforce it.
Now... if I'm going to be riding the New York subway at 3 AM, I'd rather have a cop in the car than not, make no mistake. This country is full of badasses – we can speculate all day and into the night as to why, but it just is. (This, by the way, is why we can never be like Sweden, or Iceland, or any of those other Nordic Utopias that liberals are so fond of envying.) Our highways are playgrounds for maniacs, but I suppose it would be worse if it weren't for law enforcement. Entire neighborhoods – entire cities, in fact – teeter on the edge of anarchy, and yet there is a police presence in those places, even if (as I suspect) some areas seem to have been written off as just not worth the bother (and risk).
The police are paid to enforce the law, which means – on any given day – the law as they perceive it. They are not paid to think, any more than the military is. If you want nuance and subtlety, hire a lawyer. If the police “over-react” now and then, they are simply in line with the spirit of the times, which is that the collective has precedence over the individual – the state over the citizen. The police are “authoritarian” in the classic sense, as is, once again, the military -- “ours not to reason why”. And I suppose that, in some sense, every society needs people who simply follow orders. The problems arise when the law enforcers also turn into judge, jury, and executioner – that's when you get a police state. But again, if the burden of laws were not so oppressive, and if the individual were trusted rather than automatically regarded with suspicion, there would be occasional errors rather than bad habits turned into standard operating procedures. It's all of one piece – if we get the leaders we deserve, we also get the police we deserve.