“The issue is not local. The police of every big city… proceed upon a theory that is the exact opposite of the law. They believe every man guilty until he is proven innocent. They punish him without trial. They act as judge, jury, and executioner…Police methods make criminals worse than they would naturally be. We read of city roughs who ‘hate the law’ and we think of it as natural cussedness. We are wrong. Those men do not hate the law. They hate the police who abuse and maltreat them every time they are arrested.”
— A 1909 article in the St. Louis Mirror newspaper, edited by William Marion Reedy
I was anti-government as a teenager.
Not merely in the Republican-smaller-government way, but in the fuck-the-police way. Online and off, I hung out with anarchists and militants and hackers, most of them white. If I saw a cop, I was on edge. I didn’t trust them. And I was just a privileged middle-class white kid with an attitude.
Fortunately, I grew out of that attitude. I came to recognize the need for good governance, and I know there are many good cops. In both cases, I remain against excess, overreach, and corruption — traits which I don’t see in the cops I know personally.
And yet, decades later, I instinctively tense up at the sight of officers in uniform.
Police are the first-line muscle of the law and the government. If you don’t trust the government, then you will distrust the police as well. If you witness enough injustice—for example, when the so-called “bad apples” among them are protected—then you may reach a fuck-the-police level of anger.
That anger can be constructive or destructive. Unfortunately, some people have taken the destructive route. I wept when I heard the news about the recent cop ambushes. These were innocent people doing their jobs, who are just trying to get through their days and get home to their families, like all reasonable people. Each case was cold-blooded murder.
But I shook my head at the news media, especially on the right end of the spectrum, as it suggested anti-cop sentiments were somehow new, and were somehow being stirred up by Black Lives Matter and others.
This is willful blindness.
Distrust of police has existed throughout history whenever cops are perceived as a law unto themselves, a force to protect the elite, a profit source for the government, or some other form of oppression against the disadvantaged and minority.
“Can you wonder at it, sir, that I hate the police?” a working-class London street vendor complained in 1851 to a writer, who later surmised that every vendor would readily attack a cop if there were a political riot.
By comparison, BLM leaders regularly beg protestors to be peaceful. They protest for constructive solutions against broken systems and bad apples, not against all cops.
Why would police have a poor reputation?
Some years ago, the New York State Legislature commissioned a special committee to study the police department of New York City. They generated over ten thousand pages of proceedings, as they reviewed hundreds of cops who had been formally accused of violence, theft, rape, and other crimes.
Their final comments on police brutality were damning:
“It was proven by a stream of witnesses who poured continuously into the sessions of the committee, that many of the members of the force, and even superior officers, have abused the resources of physical power which have been provided for them, and their use only in cases of necessity in the making of arrests and the restraint of disorder, to gratify personal spite and brutal instincts, and to reduce their victims to a condition of servility.
“This condition has grown to such an extent that even in the eyes of our foreign-born residents our institutions have been degraded, and those who have fled from oppression abroad have come here to be doubly oppressed in a professedly free and liberal country. The harm thus done by engendering bitterness and hatred in the minds of multitudes of those people who look upon the police as the highest expression of government power, and their consequent inducement to phases of radicalism, thus forced upon them, cannot be estimated.
“An impressive spectacle was presented to us one day in the presence of about 100 patrolmen in uniform, who during the period of three preceding years, had been convicted by the police commissioners of unprovoked and unwarranted assaults on citizens, amounting to crimes of assault in the second and third degree. Some of them had been convicted of such assaults as many as two or three times, and yet had never been suspended from duty.
“It appears, therefore, that the police formed a separate and highly privileged class, armed with the authority and the machinery for oppression and punishment, but practically free themselves from the operation of the criminal law.
“We emphasize this finding of brutality because it affects every citizen, whatever his condition, because it shows an invasion of constitutional liberty by one of the departments of government, whose supreme duty it is to enforce the law, and because it establishes a condition of affairs gravely imperilling the safety and the welfare of the people in their daily avocations and the pursuit of happiness.”
Who would think well of police after such a bleak report? And this wasn’t written by modern journalists investigating Black Lives Matter grievances about police brutality. It was published in 1895—more than 120 years ago—by a committee of white men.
In short: Law enforcement has a history, and in it, cops are not always innocent, humble public servants.
Power corrupts, and as corruption becomes a pattern, the pattern forms a reputation. Let us not delude ourselves that anti-cop hate is a new thing, or a black thing, or a protest thing. It is an old anger, grown along the lines of society’s power structures.
There are deep problems in America, including the recurring issues of police brutality, opaqueness, and immunity.
Until these are admitted and addressed, people will continue pointing fingers instead of shaking hands, and more innocents will be killed by those who are willing to go too far.
Photo: Evgeniy Isaev/Flickr
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