News coverage in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri have died down now. But in the aftermath, little else has been said in the national media about the underlying problem of police in America. Ferguson’s city council responded to protests with some mild reforms such as limiting the proportion of city revenue supplied by traffic fines.
It appears that the grand jury may be out for some time. Demands for social justice focus mainly on whether the officer who killed Mr. Brown will be charged and prosecuted for murder or some lesser variant thereof, or not at all. But Ferguson, if it is anything, is a small scale case in point of what is wrong with law enforcement in the U.S.A.
A common theme reflected in all the societal crises is the American penchant for violent “solutions” to almost anything viewed as problematic for “American Exceptionalism.” As the system approaches collapse, elite reactions invariably incorporate some form of force. Sure, law enforcement has a long history of defending property and power against freedom and opportunity, even when police were closer to the citizenry. But today, the militarization of police coincides with the unprecedented concentration of power in the 1% of the 1%.
The role of “law enforcement” is increasingly suspect. In an earlier post, “Incarceration Nation,”  I referred to “The New Jim Crow” system that plagues young men of color today. Michelle Alexander, in her book by that title , powerfully demonstrated how the drug-war supported police operations in poor neighborhoods produces a new stigmatized American caste of color. The central player driving the incarceration of most young men of color is law enforcement. The agencies that profit from arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of vulnerable populations, perpetrate the social crime of institutionalized racist forced social isolation.
But the problem of law enforcement runs much deeper than institutionalized racist practices – as if that were not enough. Since Ferguson, countless incidents of routine police brutality, even against whites, have surfaced in both social media and local newscasts. True to their reputation harking back to Rodney King’s beating 20 years ago, officers of the Foothill Division of the LAPD recently were caught on video exercising their aggression. They slammed a small nurse down on the pavement after stopping her for using her cell phone while driving. Gratuitous violence at best.
Even while under Justice Department investigation for questionable patterns of use-of-force practices, such dysfunctional departments continue to be issued military weapons and battle equipment. Police departments are hiring veterans of combat with “insurgent” enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan who look like the general population. These veterans’ unacknowledged post traumatic stress disorder is often left untreated. But it is exactly the condition that we should not want in a “peace officer” in a domestic city.
None of the leading indicators of the relationship between police and citizens is comforting. None of the administrative “leadership” of the departments whose brutal practices have come to light, gives one a feeling of civic security from police abuse. Many officers are self-selected by their penchant for violence; their employers condone and encourage their aggressiveness and tolerate their violence. Swat teams are often the first response to the most innocuous situations. Crisis intervention officers are underutilized. The Los Angeles Police Department alone has settled countless lawsuits for millions of dollars. The incidents of police violence and deadly shootings in Albuquerque have not subsided since the department came under Justice Department scrutiny. The list is too long – it encompasses the whole nation.
None of this will change significantly without a total ‘makeover’ of the culture of law enforcement in the U.S.A., and of our expectations too. The escalation of violence to assert total control is the norm. Any hint of ‘disrespect’ or ‘failure to obey’ is met with aggression and/or violence. An LAPD cop who was also a member of the Crips gang once told me that the police are really just another gang; if you don’t look at them that way you cannot understand them. Civil society cannot be sustained if “peace” is enforced instead of enacted.
Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything,  analyzes the economic, social, and political crises that have resulted in global warming. The climate crisis both reflects deep societal failures and presents a comprehensive opportunity to solve the societal crisis and climate crisis simultaneously. As the old fossil-fueled industrial order struggles to survive, “law enforcement” has become little more than the enforcer for the oligarchy, which increasingly fears the citizenry. After all, only the people can stop them now. The Peoples Climate March drew 400,000.
Global warming is the direct planetary consequence of the most fundamental failures of industrial capital’s domination of society in the last two centuries. The trajectory of the industrial era has many elements, including state monopoly of force. Paradoxically, it also offers a vital opportunity/necessity to solve the core problem. That is because the transformative actions necessary to mitigate climate disruption are exactly those required to address the destructive trends that have destabilized both society and the biosphere. Increasingly, the expanded political and economic powers of the surging oligarchy are defended by force. This just demonstrates the inherent weakness of the failing system. Only the people’s rising recognition of imminent ecological and societal collapse and willingness to act to transform society and its relation to the environment will enable humanity to ‘reset’ the world.
2 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
3 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.