“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
~Sally Kempton, from Ben Price’s None Dare Call It Propaganda
“Power is the ability to rule the imagination.”
~Jacques Necker, from Guillaume de Sardes’ Against the hegemony of American art
Divide and conquer begins in the psyche, the soul. Before authoritarianism is a system of power, it is a memetic virus that slips into the public mind where it grows and spreads. That is how we have come to find ourselves in this moment of a conflict we don’t understand because the first divide is within awareness. Such is our schizoid identity. As with any protest movement, there are criticisms and complaints, often unfair and dismissive. Those people are destroying their own communities, burning down their own neighborhoods. These are nothing but violent and destructive riots. They are bringing police violence down on themselves; they’re asking for trouble and get what they deserve. The protests are infiltrated or taken over by ‘antifa’ who are a terrorist group. On and on goes the idiocy, quite demoralizing but also quite effective.
First off, most of the protesters and protests are nonviolent. Few Americans, protesters and police alike, want to commit violence against their fellow Americans, against their own neighbors. Amidst the violence and destruction, there are many involved, including some police attacking those peaceful crowds often times for no apparent reason. There is sad irony when some authoritarian-minded police use brutality to punish supposedly free citizens in a democracy who dare to protest police brutality. But it’s the nature of the narratives we get caught up in that tell us conflict and confrontation can only end in violence. And for anyone drawn to that narrative, it’s easy to find someone on the other side who will join you in playing it out to its inevitable conclusion. This narrative pull of conflict and division overpowers any natural empathy that might otherwise inspire the better angels of our nature.
That isn’t to say there aren’t people committing crimes that the police are well within the the purview of their official mandate and public duty to pursue in enforcing the law. But the police can arrest those few people without wantonly attacking large crowds of innocent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets and batons, sometimes with real bullets as well, including innocent bystanders such as a businessman who was shot to death by police while standing in front of his business (Aída Chávez, Louisville Police Left the Body of David McAtee on the Street for 12 Hours) and the medical staff beat up by roving gangs of police (Olivia Messer, Medical Workers Fighting COVID Say Cops Are Attacking Them). The police showing up to peaceful protests in riot gear ready to rumble, now that is asking for trouble. The police, in being drawn into a narrative of fighting mob violence, end up acting like a violent mob and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are other ways of dealing with crowd control in maintaining peace and by directing police force only against serious lawbreakers, not the general public who are practicing their democratic rights. Some of the government officials have stated that most of the lawbreakers arrested were from outside the cities and states in which they were protesting. No doubt there are plenty of outsiders of one kind or another. Protests attract a diversity of individuals and groups and no one knows who they all are. Of course, there are the opportunistic looters, arsonists, criminals, gangsters, and troublemakers who join in and cause havoc without any greater purpose. Also, throw in some people who simply have serious psychiatric disorders, including some of the police as far as that goes.
Then there are the agitators and provocateurs of various sorts, specifically those who oppose the ideals and message of the protest movement, from white nationalists to undercover cops and maybe some FBI agents. This latter set of people, in some cases, would even be seeking to incite violence and destruction, looting and rioting, while hoping for police backlash and authoritarian measures. This is a much more difficult problem to deal with in our society. In some of the cities, the police have welcomed and cooperated with white thugs walking around with bats and other weapons to take care of the protesters which has led to violent altercations. This same kind of police-thug alliance has happened in past protest movements as well.
Some of these dangerous individuals and groups have clear agendas, often an attempt to alter the media narrative and public perception in order to undermine support for the protest movement and to isolate protesters. Think of COINTELPRO agent provocateurs of the past and the more recent entrapment practices during the War On Terror. Protesters have noticed older white guys dressed all in black with faces covered who were working alone or in teams to cause damage, such as the now infamous umbrella man. Most of these covert actors and malcontented troublemakers remain unidentified.
There are many games going on. Even outside of the protests themselves, social media has been a hotbed of influences. One Twitter account was portrayed as ‘antifa’ and was promoting violence, until those behind it were outed as white nationalists and the account was shut down. Imagine all of the state and non-state actors, including foreign actors, who might want to not only influence the protest movement but meddle in American society and politics, maybe simply to promote strife and conflict before the election. I could imagine fake accounts and trolls even infiltrating and targeting police in online groups to further rile them up.
There are many competing narratives out there. And those pushing those narratives in many cases aren’t doing so for ideological reasons. One doesn’t have to believe a narrative to want to use it to promote whatever one does believe in, from authoritarianism to chaos. The sad truth is that the average person never gives much thought to the narratives that are fed to them and that infect their minds. Many of these narratives are carefully crafted to get past our defenses, to tell us what we want to hear, confirm our biases and prejudices, fit into our stereotyped interpretations of others.
One of these narratives has fallen into the category of white identity politics. Many otherwise libertarian-minded whites who would criticize abusive authority find themselves pulled into a racialized narrative promoting the rationalization of authoritarian oppression toward those ‘others’. They are allowing themselves to be cynically manipulated because these narratives make them feel good about themselves while so many others suffer. But the reality is poor whites also suffer police abuse and so, even if only for selfish reasons of believing all lives matter, they should be joining these protesters demanding police reform and justice.
Even though blacks are disproportionately harmed, the fact of the matter is most police brutality as with most imprisonment falls upon whites, mostly poor whites, for the simple reason that whites remain the majority on both sides of the authoritarian equation. The racialized narrative of oppressive authoritarianism gives these poor whites a sense of pride in that, no matter how bad their lives are, at least they can think of themselves as being better than those poor blacks. Why do whites so mindlessly accept this false narrative that harms themselves personally, harms their families and neighbors, harms their entire communities? Why can’t they see they are being used as tools of authoritarian power? Why can’t they muster basic human empathy for others who are oppressed in this same system of injustice?
How would conservative and right-wing whites respond if during Barack Obama’s administration black police officers were wantonly killing poor whites, typically without legal repercussion or sometimes even losing their jobs, and then when Tea Party activists formed a mostly peaceful protest movement, they met with further police violence intended to silence them? Now imagine that this followed centuries of continued personal, systemic, and institutionalized racism against whites that kept them trapped in impoverished neighborhoods where there children were literally being poisoned from urban pollution and heavy metal toxins and targeted by a school-to-prison pipeline.
The response by most on the political right to this radical thought experiment would be typical. The narrative of white identity politics says this would never happen to whites because somehow whites, even the poorest whites, aren’t of lowly character like blacks. But this is total bullshit, if we are to define character by the conditions of oppression. Some of the most desperately impoverished and criminal-ridden places in the United State are these poor white communities such as in Appalachia where such racist rhetoric most strongly takes hold (Are White Appalachians A Special Case?). This racialized story comforts the traumatized, rather than resolving the trauma that continues generation after generation.
None of this is necessary. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in the middle of organizing a poor people’s movement. He was hoping to join poor whites and poor blacks in a fight against the oppression of a caste system of a permanent underclass. It was understood even long before MLK that class war was used to oppress not only blacks but also poor whites. This argument was made by Peter H. Clark (1829-1925), the first black socialist in the United States. There was also the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, that in the early 1900s organized across racial and ethnic lines in reaching out to minorities and immigrants; and, as always, they too were persecuted. Even many racist whites prior to the Civil War understood that the emerging industrial capitalism was being built on class war that kept lower class whites in a state of desperation and disenfranchisement. One doesn’t even have to be an anti-racist supporting black freedom and civil rights to understand this basic truth of capitalist class oppression and disenfranchisement.
Following MLK’s assassination, others tried to carry forward a multiracial (and multicultural) fight against class oppression, including the popular Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton who united with diverse other groups in a Rainbow Coalition, including the Young Patriots consisting of Southern whites living in poor Chicago neighborhoods (Poverty In Black And White; Michael McCanne, The Panthers and the Patriots). Guess what happened to Fred Hampton? He also was assassinated. And who was behind the assassination? The FBI and police. This was the era of COINTELPRO where the government sought to infiltrate, co-opt, and manipulate groups considered to be a threat to statist power and interests. For example, earlier on, the FBI sent MLK a letter threatening to expose his extramarital affairs in order to blackmail him to commit suicide. Please understand, these were some truly evil people in our government and evil people like them are still in positions of power and influence.
The point is that this was never only about blacks and other minorities. Poor and working class whites were also harmed and disempowered when those black civil rights leaders, MLK and Hampton, were assassinated. I’d go so far as to argue that even middle class whites were worse off for having lost these voices that, if they had lived longer, might have alerted them to the forces that were also attacking the middle class. Now there is a narrative for you. It’s not only a story for it is actual history, much of it based on government documents that were released or leaked along with some great investigative news reporting from the past. But how many Americans, particularly poor whites and conservatives, know their own American history? Very few. The propaganda of corporate media, corporatist education, and corporatocratic politics has suppressed and silenced these facts that are inconvenient to the capitalist class and ruling elite. More importantly, it isn’t only a class war being hidden behind racist agendas of social control. As the likes of MLK and Hampton understood, all of this is inseparable from violent and oppressive imperialism, a class war against the entire world’s population of the poor.
Some relatively comfortable and privileged Americans get upset because a few people died in the recent protests, along with some property damage. They take this as indicating the protest movement has gone too far. Yet many of these same people supported the Iraq War based on a lie, a war of aggression and invasion that ended up destroying an entire country while dislocating, injuring, killing, and orphaning millions upon millions of innocent people. For what purpose? So that the United States could set an example for what happens to anyone who doesn’t bow down to American hegemony. And so that American corporations could maintain control of Middle Eastern trade routes and access to Middle Eastern oil and other natural resources. Talk about looting and on mass scale, not to mention the vast wealth and resources that corporations steal from the American public every year (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars).
It’s far from limited to Iraq. American imperialism has led to aggressive wars, overthrowing of democracies, support of terrorist/paramilitary groups, and much else all over the world. Of course, those are mostly poor black and brown people suffering and being killed and they are far away in other places. American policing around the world is far more brutal than the policing at home, but the two are simply expressions of the same fundamental brutality. This is made more apparent with the overt militarization of the American police, not to mention the deployment of military in U.S. cities. The counterinsurgency tactics used to suppress populist movements in other countries are brought home to be used on the American people, of all races and ethnicities.
This protest movement is not only about blacks and other minorities, is not only about police brutality. Most importantly, it is a fight over narrative, a fight to speak truth to power. If whites don’t stand up with blacks now, then later on upper working class whites won’t stand with poor whites, middle class whites won’t stand with any of them, and eventually the ruling class will turn on us all. We are divided up into groups and each group is isolated and attacked and neutralized, until there is not enough people left to stand up against the authoritarianism that began creeping into power over many generations. Authoritarian oppression against any of us, in the end, is authoritarian oppression against all of us. Violence is violence.
All of this was made possible through narratized propaganda that too many of us blindly or cynically accepted because it was easier to do so. Maybe it’s time to change that, time to wake up to reality, time to unite in solidarity. There are more of us than of them. As was understood when America was founded, supposedly in the words of Benjamin Franklin to the Continental Congress in signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” But at the same time, we have to take responsibility for being complicit in a society where we’ve projected our authoritarian impulses onto an ‘other’, the police and military, instead of healing this disease within. If we hang separately, it may very well be on a scaffolding we helped build with the thought that we were building it to deal with another set of ‘others’, the poor and minorities.
We need new narratives and so do those authority figures who stand in as representatives of our social order. The police are in an impossible position. They are being commanded to serve too many masters, serve too many purposes. With increasing militarized power and aggressive methods, they are supposed to, implicitly or overtly, represent the enforcement of authoritarian statism, capitalist interests, systemic racism, and class war while somehow also “basically being tasked with addressing every social problem that we have”, far beyond mere enforcement of basic laws (NPR CODE SW!TCH interview with Alex S. Vitale, How Much Do We Need The Police?). While being the ultimate symbol and representative of hierarchical power and privilege, they are supposed to monitor traffic infractions, protect communities, uphold individual rights, deal with troubled teens, handle disorderly conduct, help the mentally ill, provide services to the homeless, mediate spousal conflicts, stop child abuse, intervene in alcoholism and addiction, monitor sex workers, act as guards in schools, enforce order in classrooms, and on and on.
The main tool we give the police to deal with this overwhelming and ever growing set of tasks is violence and threat of violence with a gun always at hand — stop the bad guys by any means necessary, in a narrative where all social problems are turned into black-and-white morality judgments. The police are often both the first to be called and the last resort to enact punishment when all else fails. The police are put into an impossible situation. They are asked to carry the entire load of our schizoid society, simultaneously serving authoritarianism and (hyper-)individualism, two sides of the same dysfunctional society of ideological extremism and dogmatic absolutism. It makes no sense. It defies all possibility of sense. So, we end up scapegoating the police when they fail to do the impossible, no different than we also scapegoat the poor and minorities in being victims of the same moral rot that grows like a cancer within our collective humanity.
Such vast areas of modern life have been criminalized. This has placed a large part of the population under the control of militarized policing that must enforce law and order. As communities have disintegrated and culture of trust has weakened, the police are suppose to replace what has been hollowed out, what once made society functional. It’s fucking insane! This is how we end up with more police than social workers, more police than teachers, more police than librarians and coaches and ministers. The police have become the sole pillar that must hold up the entire social order or it will collapse into total chaos and that will be the end of civilization as we know it; or so the story is told in a tone of the fear-mongering. Well, that is asking a lot of police. No wonder they feel stressed out and so often break under the pressure in turning to brutal violence and abuse, not only of citizens but also as seen in the high rates of spousal abuse among police officers.
The police are incapable of even policing themselves, much less reforming themselves. That is because they are forced to try to do what is beyond their capacity. They are violence workers with the mandated power to stop and arrest criminals with the protected right to kill whenever they deem it necessary. “And while we’re not using police to manage slavery or colonialism today,” Alex S. Vitale spoke, “we are using police to manage the problems that our very unequal system has produced. We’re invested in this kind of austerity politics that says the government can’t afford to really do anything to lift people up. We have to put all our resources into subsidizing the already most successful parts of the economy. But those parts of the economy are producing this huge group of people who are homeless, unemployed, have untreated mental health and substance abuse problems. And then we ask the police to put a lid on those problems — to manage them so they don’t interfere with the “order” that we’re supposedly all benefiting from.”
It’s not surprising that the police act dysfunctionally and oppressively in acting on behalf of a dysfunctional and oppressive system. It could not be otherwise. And so we should not be surprised that, when turning police against protesters who are protesting police abuse, it will not turn out well — as Vitale explained: “What we’re seeing is really an immediate escalation to very high levels of force, a high degree of confrontation. And I think part of it is driven by deep frustration within policing, which is that police feel under assault, and they have no answer. They trotted out all the possible solutions: police-community dialogue sessions, implicit bias training, community policing, body cameras. And it just didn’t work. It didn’t make any difference. And so they ran out of excuses. So the protests today are a much more kind of existential threat to the police. And the police are overreacting as a result.”
Policing has not only become our answer to everything but, worse still, our explanatory narrative of everything. And to try to resolve this conflict, we’ve made our problems worse by militarizing the police which ends up conflating military and police, as our society further takes on the characteristics of a fascist police state and hence a banana republic. With each new wave of policing failure, we throw even more policing measures to deal with it. But this is not a problem for the police to take care of. Turning to the police in the first place is the problem. The police are an extreme measure and should only be called upon when all other measures have been tried and failed. Only in immediate situations of violence should the police be the initial course of action. Militarizing the police in treating them as the solution to everything is not only anti-democratic and anti-libertarian but also simply unfair to the police officers themselves who shouldn’t be forced into that position of authoritarian oppressors. All of us as citizens and community members need to take responsibility for having apathetically succumbed to authoritarian realism, of having failed to radically imagine another way.
It shouldn’t be hard for us to imagine non-violent methods and services to replace present violent policing. Even within the limits of the present legal system, if given a choice, most Americans would rather have rehabilitation than harsh punishments and mass imprisonment (Reckoning With Violence; & The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2). We Americans aren’t a punitive people. Rather our imaginations have been intentionally constrained by a punitive ideology enmeshed in social Darwinism and capitalist realism, a system maintained through the narratives pushed on us by polticians funded and MSM owned by big money interests, largely transnational corporations seeking to uphold the fascist police state and military empire.
It could be added that neither are we a divided people, not fundamentally, certainly not in terms of what we support according to diverse public polling over decades (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism; American People Keep Going Further Left; Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism; Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public; Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric); Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life; Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich; Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data); Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals; Environmentalist Majority; Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party; Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies; Who Supported the Vietnam War?; & Most Americans Know What is True), although the ruling elite have gone to great efforts to divide us but in reality it’s the ruling elite who are disconnected from the silenced majority (Political Elites Disconnected From General Public; Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism; Sacrifice of Liberal Pawns; Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization; Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward; Racial Polarization of Partisans; Poll Answers, Stated Beliefs, Ideological Labels; & Get on board or get out of the way!).
In imagining another way, consider some possibilities from Ktown for All. These aren’t necessarily perfect suggestions, but they give us the basic sense of how other solutions could operate, specifically at the community level. This is how we need to start thinking. After we get past the idea phase, it will take years and decades of local experimentation, if centralized government will get out of our way. In some ways, this is simply a return to local community systems that used to operate in the United States — consider the non-criminal courts in the mid-20th century that offered community solutions for juvenile problems which is a far better system than our present school-to-prison pipeline. When naysayers tell us that change is impossible, there are precedents we can look to. Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, to take one inspiring example, was a nonviolent removal of a police state that allowed democratic reform, specifically to how policing was done. The Portuguese demilitarized the police, eliminated mass incarceration, ended their war on drugs that was a war on the people, decriminalized drug use, turned funding to programs for intervention and rehabilitation, and as a result saw a decline of drug addiction.
Maybe reforms are unlikely to be successful anytime soon, as the forces resisting them are powerful. Maybe or maybe not. Either way, it’s always nice to dream. We have to start somewhere and there is nowhere better to start than with radical imagination. If an era of ever worsening crises is heading our way, that is all the more reason to get our minds in the right space. We need to have new ideas and narratives in place ready for when we finally get to the point where change is inevitable. Let us prepare for a better tomorrow so that the next generations will have a fighting chance to build a free society, the dream that has inspired Americans for centuries.
“We continue to make this about the police — the how of it. How can they police? Is it about sensitivity and de-escalation training and community policing? All that can make for a less-egregious relationship between the police and people of color. But the how isn’t as important as the why, which we never address. The police are a reflection of a society. They’re not a rogue alien organization that came down to torment the black community. They’re enforcing segregation. Segregation is legally over, but it never ended. The police are, in some respects, a border patrol, and they patrol the border between the two Americas. We have that so that the rest of us don’t have to deal with it. Then that situation erupts, and we express our shock and indignation. But if we don’t address the anguish of a people, the pain of being a people who built this country through forced labor — people say, ‘‘I’m tired of everything being about race.’’ Well, imagine how [expletive] exhausting it is to live that.
“Police brutality is an organic offshoot of the dehumanization of those power structures. There are always going to be consequences of authority. When you give someone a badge and a gun, that’s going to create its own issues, and there’s no question that those issues can be addressed with greater accountability. It can be true that you can value and admire the contribution and sacrifice that it takes to be a law-enforcement officer or an emergency medical worker in this country and yet still feel that there should be standards and accountability. Both can be true. But I still believe that the root of this problem is the society that we’ve created that contains this schism, and we don’t deal with it, because we’ve outsourced our accountability to the police.”
~ Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)
“Our democracy hangs in the balance. This is not an overstatement.
“As protests, riots, and police violence roiled the nation last week, the president vowed to send the military to quell persistent rebellions and looting, whether governors wanted a military occupation or not. John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote that we may be witnessing the “beginning of the end of the American experiment” because of President Trump’s catastrophic failures.
“Trump’s leadership has been disastrous. But it would be a mistake to place the blame on him alone. In part, we find ourselves here for the same reasons a civil war tore our nation apart more than 100 years ago: Too many citizens prefer to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system. If we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.
“The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Today, the same can be said of our criminal injustice system, which is a mirror reflecting back to us who we really are, as opposed to what we tell ourselves.”
~ Michelle Alexander, America, This Is Your Chance
“If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it. But, more importantly, the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone. It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.
“We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.”
~ Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, How Do We Change America?