In one of his comedy routines, Dave Chappelle explained why he was afraid to call the cops, even if his own house had been robbed. He acts out this scenario to his audience. Upon seeing Dave, a black man living in an upscale house, they cops surmise that the burglar is “still here”, and proceed to knock him unconscious. Then they remark that “the bastard snuck in here and put up pictures of himself and his family everywhere!”
Before the 16th July, 2009, that was just a deliberate exaggeration (albeit in regards to a very real problem) for humorous effect. On that date however, it became prophesy fulfilled, as Harvard professor and documentary-maker Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in his own house for disorderly conduct, after being suspected of burglarizing it. When we speak of racial profiling or police abuse of minorities, usually African Americans or Latinos, Gates’ arrest for disorderly conduct pales in comparison to dozens of cases which had lethal results for unarmed young males. Suddenly, the peaceful existence of Obama’s “Post-Racial America” was shattered.
Fuel was dumped on the flames when Obama was asked at a July 22nd press conference to comment on the event. Obama’s response, as the reader is probably already familiar with, was that the “Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in his own home.” Far be it for me to defend Barack Obama, but the fact is that he was right, and absolutely right. The Cambridge police did act stupidly, but after Obama’s comment they were prepared to break their record. Obama was attacked by police organizations as having commented without having all the facts straight. Technically, that might have been true; Obama at that point might have only known the gist of what had occurred, but now that the police report is a matter of public record for everyone to see, it is clear that the police did act stupidly. Of course, anyone with a basic familiarity of American politics, particularly cherished national myths, knows that facts count for nothing.
Lest there be any doubt, the police acted stupidly. Even the report of Sergeant James Crowley, the arresting officer, does little to detract from this observation even if we assume every word of it to be true. Again, if we assume every word of that report is the unvarnished truth, we see that Gates may have been angry, and may have been rude to the officer, but he did indeed provide the necessary identification to the officer. Given the behavior of the officer from his own report, Gates had plenty of reason to be angry. Gates’ “belligerence” was hardly anything beyond a customer shouting at Burger King employees who forgot to hold the pickles. And yet again, this all assumes that the police report is the final word. Since we have no reason to cast doubt on Gates’ story, it is reasonable to believe that at least some of what he said about that day was true. And if just a portion of Gates’ story is true, it only makes the police’s behavior even more deplorable.
Of course the significance of this story isn’t the event itself, it’s the response to it from the nation, the supposedly “Post-Racial” United States. The Gates case is unique in the sense that first, it was nationally publicized, and second, it seemed so obvious that the police were wrong.
Gates did not fit the typical middle-class white stereotype of someone to be suspected of criminal activity. He was elderly, not young; dressed in casual but smart attire instead of being “thugged out.” Yet even after providing ID, instead of apologizing and leaving him alone, the police still gave the impression of suspecting him, making him justifiably angry at them and then arresting him for a totally understandable reaction. Surely this would wake up white America, particularly the “progressives. “ Alas, that scenario didn’t occur, and instead of outrage at the police finally crossing racial lines, the outrage was directed at president Obama for stating a fact. Understanding that he had just walked into a political minefield, Obama did precisely what we expect from principled modern American “progressives”: he backpedaled and groveled at the feet of his policeman critics.
Why did he do that, exactly? Obama’s comment essentially gave presidential endorsement to the intolerable idea that, yes, racism still exists in America—this has already been commented on by others. Another aspect is that it revealed this kind of institutionalized racism can and does occur in areas that are supposed to be more “enlightened,” you know, enlightened because they voted for Obama.
Aside from the racial implications which were obviou s, the first reaction I felt when I saw news of Obama’s rapid retreat was that race wasn’t the only taboo the president had touched on. The president had criticized the police. You just can’t do that.
In mainstream American politics, there are certain issues you just don’t touch. You can criticiz e the war in Iraq for example, but only for acceptable reasons. Acceptable reasons may be, for example, that the “real war” is in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or maybe Iran. Or you can talk about what horrible things the war has done to our heroes in uniform, as though they are the real victims in all of this. You cannot condemn the war as imperialism, you cannot insist on stating the fact that this was a war of aggression, waged on false pretenses, and as such constitutes a crime against the Iraqi people.
You cannot suggest that American government officials be held accountable for the destruction they caused; that’s something that happens to Serbs or Croats, not Americans. You can talk about health care all you want, but you can’t demand that universal health care be implemented, especially if you have the audacity to point out that there is more than enough money in the Pentagon’s budget which could be appropriated for health care among any number of other, far more useful programs. You can speak out against overt racism, but you cannot insist that America still has serious problems with institutionalized discrimination no matter how many statistics or studies you can show. Doing any of these things upsets the American narrative, the narrative of a great country, nay, the greatest country, which made some mistakes in the past, but nevertheless is the shining beacon of democracy, liberty, and equality before the rest of the world. In regards to the Gates’ case, Obama’s comment showed an unacceptable lack of confidence in the police coming from the highest office in the nation. You don’t do that. It just isn’t acceptable.
Americans have a strange love affair with the police. All right, to be sure, middle and upper-class white Americans tend to love the police a hell of a lot more than African Americans or Latinos, but in American popular culture, police are generally viewed favorably.
Hollywood has spent billions of dollars over the years reinforcing that view. Some of the most popular TV shows were and still are police dramas such as CSI, NYPD Blue or Law & Order. Cops was one of the first popular reality television shows, and its success spawned a number of copy cat reality shows that involved police work. On the big screen we had John McClane of the Die Hard series, we had cops with dogs like in Turner & Hooch, we had Robocop and Timecop.
We don’t just have local cops either, we have the feds too, like agent Clarice Starling of the FBI. Everywhere you look in our media culture, you will see positive portrayals of cops, lots and lots of cops. Now to be fair, some of those police dramas and cop flicks are good, and there have been films like L.A. Confidential or Training Day which remind people about the existence of corrupt cops, but generally in the media the portrayal is far more often positive than negative. Much like American culture’s treatment of the military, the whole enterprise of the police is treated as overly positive, whereas anything negative is the action of a few bad apples.
Unfortunately, this cultural cop worship resonates well with middle-class white America, which so rarely encounters the bad side of policing. That is why when some people are confronted with the reality of Gates’ arrest, in the face of all facts they figure that Gates must have done something wrong, that he must have brought it on himself. Gates committed the sin of being angry and rude to the cops, even though he had good reason to be. He should have been humble and submissive because, as we are told repeatedly from a young age, the police have a tough job, a dangerous job, and they keep us safe. That is the core of the mystical fascination with police in America, and it is largely a myth.
First of all, cops don’t have the most dangerous job in America. It’s not even in the top ten. Go ahead and check with the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s right, go look, I’ll wait. See what I mean? Turns out fishermen and loggers have the most dangerous jobs in the US; in 2005, farmers were twice as likely to die on the job than police officers, and at that time they were just under “refuse and recyclable materials collectors.” Yep, “garbage men” as they’re better known. Sure cops face life-threatening situations, and they have an extremely difficult job, but the fact is that they are not spending nearly as much time dodging bullets as Hollywood would like you to think. If hero-worship in the US were based on who faces the most danger, perhaps half of our films and prime time dramas would be about fishermen, dockworkers, miners, or construction laborers.
Secondly, the police in America, for most of this country’s existence, have not been so squeaky clean. Far from it actually. Until perhaps the last three decades, even white folks had plenty of reason not to trust the police in some cities. And that’s just in the United States. In many countries around the world, perhaps a majority, the police are almost a mafia in their own right, and justifiably despised by the civilian population. So what is the purpose of the cop myth?
As Marx and Engels studied the history of mankind and society, they found that the dawn of exploitation and the division of society into classes with mutually opposing interests led to the need for a state. Turns out that when you exploit people, especially brazenly as the first slave-master societies did, they tend not to like it. No matter how honed your skills of persuasion may be, few people are slick enough to convince a person to labor and toil for free, as the property of someone else.
To make another person into property, and to keep him in bondage, you need the threat of violence, and because each master owns multiple slaves, who in total outnumber the masters, there needs to be an organization of armed men, whose violence is sanctioned by established law, to keep order in society. This organization eventually led to the creation of institutions we know of as the military, and the police along with the courts and other essential organs of government. The primary purpose of these organizations, whatever form they had at various periods, was, and still is to keep the exploited in their place.
Yes, police do enforce public safety to a degree, but this is one of those social “necessary evils” that the ruling class must tolerate. They too benefit from security and public order, and it is much better for them to have a publicly funded police force rather than to rely on privately funded police. Just as the military does technically exist to defend the United States and thereby its people, its primary function as the military of an empire is to advance and secure the interests of the American ruling class.
Like the military, the police are not inherently bad. The state is, regardless of its outward form, a type of class dictatorship. The type of law and order that Hollywood, Obama, and the rest of the American ruling class would like us to worship and submit to is their law, their order. Laws have been, and are drafted in such a way as to favor those with capital, and police enforce those laws. After a socialist revolution, the working class lays down new laws that favor the majority over the minority. Authority is no longer directed at the majority, but at the overthrown minority. This state of affairs will last so long as a society has identifiable class divisions within itself. Just as the capitalist police enforce the capitalist’s right to the product of other peoples labor, so to will the police of a socialist nation enforce the nation’s right to the mean s of production.
There are some, such as the Anarchists and other ultra-leftists, who believe that the key to a classless society lies in abolishing the state in one swift stroke, along with all forms of hierarchal authority, of which the police are a large part. Unfortunately this view is simply idealism. Anarchists and ultra-leftists will often attack the failures and excesses committed by the law enforcement organs of socialist states and or states which claimed to be socialist, but this still says nothing in favor of the idea that the police and law enforcement organs can simply be abolished outright. All this argument really says is that Marxist-Leninists should analyze the failures of those historic law enforcement organizations and law enforcement itself so as to do things right the next time around. While tearing down the American mythology surrounding the police is as necessary as attacking other taboos such as militarism and exceptionalism, we must understand that the fundamental problem with police isn’t so much that they exist, but whose law they are enforcing.
Obama’s backpedaling regarding his comments on the Gates arrest, his apologetics and invitation to help settle the matter between Gates and the new victim Sergeant Crowley, are all examples of Obama desperately struggling to cover up a major mistake. Given the circumstances surrounding his comment, it seems like the president just gave his gut reaction when he heard the claim, the reaction that millions of Americans might have had. His subsequent actions represent a kind of penitent supplication to an American sacred cow, similar to the almost ritualized fashion in which Democrats and progressives insist that they “support the troops” when it comes to military matters. None of this detracts from the racial implication of this event however.
Overall, this episode is just another crack in the façade of “Post-racial” America. Still, this episode should also make clear that America’s love affair with the cops is just based on yet another national myth that must be exposed. When they say protect and serve, they are for the most part protecting and serving the ruling class, not you.