Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah
Last month, when the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, took to their own streets to protest the police killing of one of their own, would-be college student Michael Brown, they converted otherwise ordinary roads into public political spaces. One incarnation—necessarily imperfect—of the people themselves decided they must assemble, voice their outrage and indignation, and demand immediate redress from public officials. The people deployed on the streets in support of Michael Brown and his family, but more than Michaels Brown was at issue on the streets, as Ferguson, like many other small American towns around major cities, suffers from all manner of social, political, economic, and racial inequities and injustices.
The shooting of Michael Brown thus functioned as both cause and occasion for politics. This is one example of American democracy at its best, the horrible circumstances notwithstanding. Democracy presupposes that citizens respond to questionable exercises of state power, especially the use of deadly violence. To remain silent in the face of state violence is to become mere subject, a Hobbesian creature who knows his place in the order of things and stays there. The police, accordingly, should have left Ferguson’s democratic citizens alone and remained in their barracks.
American police, of course, do not appreciate politics exercised on the streets, perhaps especially when it’s conducted by minorities—whether racial, economic, or otherwise.
Since the late 1960s in Los Angeles, local police have created military-style assault forces to deal not only with all manner of crime, but also and more importantly with whatever political opposition, dissent, resistance, or tumult may be developing in the community. Los Angeles invented SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams in response to the urban uprisings in Watts in the mid-1960s. They were first deployed as part of an ongoing war against the Black Panther Party, one reason Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates originally wanted to name his creation the Special Weapons Attack Team, a fitting moniker.
Given Los Angeles’s success it became the model for the country. America’s police forces have been thoroughly militarized in the decades since LAPD’s Frankensteinian creation, thanks first to the War on Drugs and later the War on Terror. American police resemble military units and act as occupation forces, treating citizens, as countless commentators have remarked, like enemies in need of surveillance, control, and subordination. There are critics of the militarization of America’s police forces who argue that SWAT originally served a legitimate purpose, to respond to extraordinary situations that standard police elements could not handle. The problem, they say, is mission creep. SWAT-style teams now handle routine police matters in which their equipment, training, tactics, and mindset are not only inappropriate but deadly inappropriate.
Examples abound of SWAT teams entering the wrong home or the right home at the wrong time and wreaking great damage. Yet, as LAPD’s history reveals, the problem is not—or not just—mission creep. SWAT was a political instrument and expression from the get-go. It was a military response to a political condition. Rather than address and correct what engendered America’s urban uprisings in the 1960s, the American state at all levels assumed effective suppression was the appropriate response.
Given this problematic history, it comes as no surprise that American police would be unleashed against democratic citizens enacting their civic responsibilities at national political conventions in New York (2004) and St. Paul (2008) or against democratic citizens calling attention to the cancerous, anti-democratic maldistribution of wealth in public spaces across the country as part of Occupy Wall Street (2011-2012). Darryl Gates’s vision of America has been largely realized.
The democratic resisters in Ferguson teach us not only that it is time to disarm and rehabilitate American police forces across the country, stripping them of their armored vehicles, riot gear, Kevlar vests, automatic weapons, sniper rifles, night vision goggles, assortment of gases, and military sensibility, but it is time to recover and revalue the art of democratic politics as forceful, militant resistance. When police fire tear gas at democratic citizens exercising their political rights and responsibilities, it is legitimate for those citizens to fire back those very same canisters. When the state imposes a curfew against democratic citizens mobilized on the streets to hold public officials accountable, they should refuse orders to disperse and hold their ground.
If the police move against them with violence, their response is now a matter of legitimate self-defense—and the practices of nonviolence might be best. But they might not be. It is only because democratic citizens in Ferguson fought back that there is any prospect for further democratic—and democratizing—action in its aftermath. Barack Obama intoned, “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting.” He then added: “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.” It’s not just that Obama is apparently blind to his own double standard, namely, that while citizens commit “violence against police,” police only exercise “excessive force” against citizens (of which throwing protestors into jail does not even seem to be an instance). It’s that Obama’s political reflex was to express concern for the police, not democratic citizens, reversing the order of priority in a democracy, where the people rule and police are their servants.
Obama, much like Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, was unduly concerned with the protection of private property. Looting and vandalism are also political phenomena, uncomfortable truths American politicians are largely unwilling to confront. Besides, denial allows for easy moralizing and excuses a resort to arms. Democracies should remember that tumults like the one in Ferguson are part and parcel of American history. Response should center on correcting the conditions that made them necessary in the first place, not slandering, discrediting, and suppressing them. If democracies, always feeling vulnerable from threats foreign and domestic, are willing to pay whatever sums of money national security requires (because you can’t put a price on safety), they should be willing to pay whatever sums of money the often unruly exercise of democratic politics requires—because you can’t put a price on freedom, equality, and justice. Some may suggest that this threatens to render democracy a suicide pact. Well, in many respects democracy is a suicide pact. Democracy’s enactment, as in Ferguson, does leave us vulnerable—which is precisely why we don’t need the police on the streets to exacerbate it. We’re fine on our own, even if it doesn’t always appear that way to some, to those allergic to and frightened by democratic politics.