Monday, June 15, 2020

The Real Problem with Police Violence in America

My last post was a fairly pessimistic epistle entitled "The End of the World as We Know It" in which I lamented the fact that the four greatest decades in human history were over and we were at risk of throwing away everything we had gained. But even I could not have predicted what has transpired over the last month. I imagined the Covid-19 lockdown would see a newfound respect for individual freedom and the wonders of free enterprise as the most important factor in improving human wellbeing over the last two centuries. I was wrong - the pandemic has only served to give strength to the arms of those who believe that the only way to improve human existence is for them to impose their authoritarian will on the rest of us.

The death in the United States of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer, was the match that lit a tinder-dry kindling of carefully-nurtured resentments and manufactured grievances. Under the banner of "Black Lives Matter", thousands of protestors took to the streets not only in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, but in cities across America and the world. Even Auckland had a mass gathering. Political leaders, reading the mood of the crowd, turned a blind eye to the massive flouting of the Covid-19 lockdowns that they had hitherto enforced with pedantic officiousness. In some places the protests turned violent, with vandalism and looting of shops (the targets invariably being the stores with the most desirable consumer products), and assaults on innocent bystanders and property-owners. 

I think a degree of outrage is justified by the death of Floyd and others at the hands of American police, but the problem is not, as claimed, primarily one of institutional racism. When you examine the statistics, as Heather MacDonald does in this Wall Street Journal article [sub. required], white Americans are as likely to be killed in a encounter with police as blacks, and in this article, Coleman Hughes lists many cases of white victims who died in equivalent circumstances to George Floyd in recent years. In this part of the world, we were appalled to hear of the case of Justine Damond, the Australian women who was also shot by a Minneapolis police officer after she had summoned the police to investigate screams she had heard near her house. The case demonstrated that anyone, even a law-abiding Antipodean, could be the innocent victim of police violence in America.

The real problem is the unrestrained nature of the US Government. Other countries may have far more authoritarian regimes, but America's position as the most powerful state on Earth means it can bring to heel not only its own citizens but any person, anywhere in the world. It can force other governments or global institutions to comply with its wishes and has come to regard the entire world as being subject to its jurisdiction. The result of this virtual omnipotence is that American officials have an arrogance that is rare even in totalitarian regimes. Like the great imperial powers of history, the American state regards itself as towering above the people it rules, and its satraps and panjandrums are so estranged from those they are meant to serve that they act like a separate tribe - and as is customary in tribal engagements, violence is the norm.

I have been to the United States many times, and every time I go there I am more incredulous at the attitude of officialdom to the public. There is none of the courtesy or humour that is characteristic of public officials in New Zealand. The normal demeanour of American officials is haughty high-handedness and surly suspicion. The last time I went to the US was on the way to Mexico, and in spite of the latter country's immense problems with violent crime, I felt safer talking to a Mexican police officer than any of the American officials with whom I had to deal.

Notwithstanding the merits of the original cause, it is apparent that the outrage over George Floyd's death is being exploited by some pretty cynical and dishonourable groups for their own political ends. The more extreme protest actions on the streets of American cities have been organised and coordinated by the loose affiliation of extreme-left-wing groups known as Antifa. Today's Antifa is the philosophical successor to the original Antifaschistische Aktion, which was an offshoot of the Communist Party of Germany in the early 1930s. According to the Anti-Defamation League, Antifa "proactively seek[s] physical confrontations with [its] perceived fascist adversaries" and should not be confused with other, non-violent, anti-fascist groups.

I have always been able to imagine the sort of society the likes of Antifa want to create, but you don't need to imagine it - this week they have created a small example of it in Seattle. The so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or "CHAZ" was formed after police and city officials abandoned the East Precinct area of Seattle to the protestors. It didn't take long for a leader to emerge - a former rapper named Raz Simone, armed with an AK-47 and accompanied by equally well-tooled paramilitaries, announced that he was the police now and was filmed allegedly assaulting multiple protestors who disobeyed his orders. The citizens of CHAZ began to experience economic life as it would inevitably be in their imagined utopia - they were soon begging for donations of food (vegan fare, no less) from supporters outside the zone. Communism always looks like this - violence and starvation - although not even I expected that that they would get to the end state so quickly.

Protestors are now calling for the abolition of the police, and in Minneapolis the city council has acceded to their demands, but if the alternative is the sort of anarchy that now exists in Seattle, I think most people would vote to stick with the devil they know. And besides, the city council is responsible for the police and must accept blame for its dysfunction - I would be more impressed if they were to vote to abolish their own council.

Robert Peel, the British prime minister who established the Metropolitan Police Service, which is considered the template for the modern civilian law enforcement authority, said, "The police are the public and the public are the police." He meant that they should be an integral part of the community to which they belong, and he would have been horrified at the division that has arisen between his progeny in America and the people they are meant to serve. We shouldn't stand for an out-of-control police, but we should realise that it is merely the symptom of an out-of-control government.

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