January 31, 2023

“Nasty, brutish, and short” was Thomas Hobbes’s descriptor for life in a “state of nature,” the “war of all against all.” The answer was the social contract — giving the state a monopoly on violence, enforcing law and order, to protect us from each other. But then, the state itself can be predatory, the Hobbesian bargain become Faustian.

“Look, life is nasty, brutish, and short, but you knew that when you became a caveman.”

The political right has thus seen freedom as threatened by government. Most immediately embodied by the cop on the beat, armed by the state to enforce its dictates. So shouldn’t the right hate the police? Yet instead they fetishize police and “law and order.”

Police brutality is “law and order” gone overboard, violating citizens’ right to live in peace and safety, instead of protecting it. As we’ve seen now in Memphis. Cops beat Tyre Nichols to death with zero excuse. A sickening travesty of law and order, violating his freedom. Shouldn’t it be Republicansmarching in protest?

But their professions of principle are trumped by culture, an us-against-them mindset. The “them” is non-whites, against whom they think police are bulwarks. Forgetting that what happened to Tyre Nichols can be done to anyone.

You might might think they’d especially be scared shitless when those cops are Black. Scary enough if the government is arming guys to go after citizens — but arming Black guys?

The five officers were swiftly fired and charged with murder. Contrasting with many other, more typically white-on-Black police brutality cases. Would the response have been different had those five cops been white?

But procedures in Memphis for such cases differ from the U.S. norm, where systems, especially contracts negotiated by powerful police unions, are usually geared to protecting accused cops. That itself makes cops a threat to the citizenry.

Most are heroic public servants doing a very tough job. But that job also attracts the wrong sort, who get jollies swaggering with weapons and beating on folks. Statistics show it’s those same few bad apples who spoil the barrel with repeated transgressions. Eject those few and things would be far better. But the union contracts and other systemic protections make it hard to thusly clean house. In fact, six in ten cops who do get fired gain reinstatement. And many of the rest find law enforcement jobs elsewhere.

Part of the problem is a station house culture often promoting, again, an us-against-them mentality. And again the “them” are Blacks. Some cops see themselves as not so much representing law and order as engaged in combat with the very communities they’re supposed to be serving and protecting. So it’s not totally surprising that even Black officers did what they did to Nichols. Seeing him too as “them,” not a bro. Identifying more with their white fellow cops.

Yet it’s striking that they knew they were being videotaped from every direction. Bespeaking a sense of impunity. Not even imagining their behavior might be problematic. Like they were entitled to do it.

Not to mention the sheer inhumanity. Not just the cops but even the lackadaisical paramedics. Unconcerned whether Nichols lived or died.

As if he were some criminal, somehow deserving it. Yet his infractions were trivial, if he was even guilty of anything at all. Certainly not meriting capital punishment. But this points to another troubling facet. Black neighborhoods are often beset with serious crime, crying out for law enforcement’s protection. But that’s hampered by mistrust between police and communities. Engendered because police too often indiscriminately mess with people in those communities for minor stuff — as in the Nichols case — at the expense of devoting efforts to real crime.

The drug war is a huge factor here. It accomplishes nothing in terms of improving communities; makes them much much worse in a thousand ways. If we’d stop this futile misguided crusade to keep people from using drugs, vastly more police resources could be deployed against the kinds of real crimes — violence, shootings, murders, robberies, muggings, burglaries — that truly ravage communities. (In fact, a lot of those crimes would disappear if drugs weren’t illegal.)

And not only do police mis-apply resources going after the wrong things, undermining community trust and cooperation, that kind of police hassling of citizens is, in many localities, actually exploited as a revenue source. Fining mostly poor and non-white people for minor offenses — rather than raising taxes on non-poor whites.

It’s a real racket. Fines are often multiplied by adding processing fees and other charges. Financially ruinous for less affluent citizens. Who are often unable to pay up — landing them in jail. And, guess what, they’re billed for the accommodations too.* Being poor in America is expensive.

This is not the social contract Hobbes had in mind.

* Another scandal is the dysfunctional “child protection” system which too often forces kids into callous foster care, whereas in most cases they’re actually safer with their biological parents, however problem-ridden. And those parents are billed for the foster care. Failure to pay can result in permanent loss of their children.