Why did those Richmond officers spit on that protestor over and over? He was already hand-cuffed, and spitting on him would have had little use even if he wasn’t. Why is that image as infuriating as so many others, in which the police are seen battering and pillaging through American cities?
They spat on that protestor to show us who’s boss, to remind us who’s in charge. They demonstrated that they could have beat him if they had wanted to, and that nobody could do anything about it. It shows that we are only safe from the police if they permit it.
The whimpering excuse for police terror that echoes off the walls of public debate, “but not all cops are bad”, is a curt confession that the public has no control over their police, but that they have total domination over us. When we argue about the personality and personal morals of individual officers, we admit that it is their upbringing and values that determine our security, when it should be civilian power over the police that guarantees it.
I wouldn’t so much mind if all cops were “bad” provided they submit to civilian control, then their personality would make little or no difference. But they are not under civilian control. And Officer Spit wants us to know it.
It would have been easy to select a more visceral example of recent police brutality. I myself witnessed NYPD officers in Brooklyn punch prone protestors, drop elbows on them WWE style, and drag a young woman down to the ground by her hair. They rioted for hours around Flatbush, and called on protestors to fist fight them one-on-one. They broke rank with each other, and stalked individual demonstrators, particularly women, like tigers in tall grass. Every riot, without exception, was instigated and aggravated by the police.
This reckless violence was a sign that they had lost control, of themselves clearly, but also of the civilian population they are accustomed to dominating.
But the Richmond episode is more illustrative, I believe. It just so neatly demonstrates our chronic vulnerability to police violence, precisely because it was not so violent. You are only safe when the police decide you should be safe. Our security is a political choice the police make, and not an obligation that we require of them.
The protestor whose back was spat upon was not physically hurt as far as I can tell, but it is the vulnerability to danger, and the inability for retaliation, that burns my blood and floods my eyes. The vulnerability, it’s the vulnerability. When the police dominate utterly, you have no public safety, or even law and order. You have “good” cops and “bad” cops.
The message here is “what are you going to do about it?” This is a piercing and dramatic threat. It is a lethal threat. The urge to explode violently in reaction to what is seemingly just a small violation of hygiene, is the urge to claw at the granite block of police power represented by it, and reclaim the human security threatened by it.
Police domination of civilians, even when not exercised, means constant insecurity. When you walk past a police officer, you walk past someone who can smash your face into the pavement, say you threatened his life, and get away with it. Derek Chauvin likely would have received no blowback if his assassination of George Floyd had not been recorded. Pushing back against police domination is always self-defense. A reassertion of civilian control over the police, even when at the end of a Molotov cocktail, is always self-defense.
Police demanding we respect them is an outrage in itself. They are a tool for public security. Their privileges come from the public’s patience. They have to respect us.
From police domination we are exposed to the same insecurities by government that one might expect in the absence of government: arbitrary kidnappings, unpredictable but ever-present violence, and the powerful crashing over the weak with impunity. Our humiliation is complete when we reflect that we financed the whip for our own back.
If the point of deploying the Minnesota National Guard was to keep people safe, why did they shoot rubber bullets, unprovoked, at people on their front porch? Do we feel secure yet? Or do we feel hollow, crushed, humiliated, infuriated, powerless, outraged, scandalized, brutalized, and terrorized?
The law does not apply to the police. The demands of some protestors is essentially for more thorough law and order, which requires the police to forfeit their right to dominate, and to acknowledge the authority of the public. The chants for police “to take a knee”, a practice I have not yet witnessed myself, is, I would guess, an effort to make police to respond to public demands of them, and to demonstrate in some small way that they are part of a broader political public, and not the lords of it.
For their part, the protestors displayed spectacular restraint. When we were cornered by the NYPD at Grand Army Plaza, we didn’t throw anything or rush their line, though we would have been justified in doing so. And when they chased the good people of Flatbush off their own sidewalks, we did not follow them to their neighborhoods and do the same, though we would have been justified in doing so.
Though I witnessed a great deal of looting, especially in Soho, I never did hear someone shout “black lives matter” with a shoe box under their arm. Meanwhile, every maniac who clubbed and maced their way through a crowd of flesh and blood had a badge issued by the NYPD.
I never felt in danger with protestors. Even when one suggested, out loud, that I was an undercover officer, I wasn’t afraid. He could have provoked a mob against me, if he had a mind to do harm, but he didn’t. I calmly explained that I was a freelancer from New Jersey, and that my picture taking was for my work, and that was the end of it.
The police were the out of control mob that I feared. I always kept at least a block between my body and theirs when I could, those same bodies that are paid to protect me. But I freely mingled and conversed with protestors I had never met before, and I felt increasing safety as their numbers increased around me, and the further the police were from me. When I felt scared, I sought the protest, and avoided the police. And in little time I was doing this by instinct.
Nationwide, police are protesting their imminent loss of complete domination, and making many of them violent. The police started riots to knuckle the neck of that possibility until it turns blue in the face, flails its arms desperately, and chokes to death.
Police are losing control, and violence is a reaction to a loss of power. In this case, the power to do as they please, the power to intimidate. The police are rioting.
We subtly recognize police dominance in other ways besides the pathetic “not all cops are bad”. There is a counter-argument against the Second Amendment that goes, “You think your 2nd Amendment will protect you from the miltary?” Apart from being ahistorical, this rejoinder has a dark implication. What was the argument for the 1st Amendment again? Did we believe newspapers and petitions will protect us from tanks? Will the 4th Amendment and its protections against unreasonable searches and seizures keep a missile out of my home?
This liberal witticism presents the listener with a choice: you can have a militarized and totalitarian police force, or you can have a guaranteed Bill of Rights, but you cannot have both. It isn’t an argument against one Amendment, or any other, it is reminder that all of our rights are in constant peril from police power, and they have survived on borrowed time, and at the mercy of people not known for their mercy.
Human security and liberty demands that the police submit, unconditionally, to civilian authority. We’ll be halfway there when we can spit on their back, and they have to deal with it.