In a time of ongoing protests over police violence, Rich Meagher examines the central cultural myth that enables the police to attain an air of authoritarian impunity on America’s streets.
What we are seeing is the unraveling of the myth of law enforcement.
I use “myth” here deliberately, in the sense of a widespread narrative that may be grounded in truths, past or present, but becomes a part of the broader culture.
The myth is this: POLICE PROTECT US. They are the #ThinBlueLine that divides civilized society and the criminals — shadowy, feral, probably ethnic — that threaten our property and families. The myth is perpetuated by pop culture. Police procedurals, films, the MAVERICK COP WHO DOESN’T PLAY BY THE RULES – bad cop behavior is justified because they are going to shoot the bad guys who threaten us.
But Black Lives Matter and now George Floyd have helped undermine the myth, showing how little truth it holds for communities of color and especially Blacks in this country; whoever the “us” is that are protected, it ain’t them. Miraculously, the protests have opened up (at least some) white eyes also. Multiple accounts on social media and elsewhere have hammered home how the “us” of police myth doesn’t even necessarily apply to most white folks, from victims of rape and sexual assault to petty theft.
In reality, we have allowed an (increasingly militarized) security force to set up shop in the middle of our communities, with the myth used to justify all kinds of authoritarian rules and thuggish behavior. Privilege allows many to ignore the costs, both financial and human, of having what is essentially an occupying army in our communities. “Just be respectful and obey the law” and nothing bad will happen! Of course, tell that to Breonna Taylor and so many others.
One of BLM’s goals, only partially realized, is forcing privileged Americans to confront the falsity of the police myth through #SayTheirNames. But that task has been made easier in recent weeks, as Americans watch geared-up “soldiers” wage war — chemical warfare, beatings, torture — against their own citizens without any consequences for the perpetrators.
Local political officials, especially mayors, are of little help, because they are either so steeped in the myth that they believe it, or afraid of violating it because their (white, wealthy) voters still believe, partially or wholeheartedly, in the myth. To those folks, police still deserve deference, special treatment — their need to get somewhere is more important, because THEY KEEP US SAFE, etc.
Police departments themselves are the most insular of bureaucracies, protected by “law-and-order” politicians who want to appear strong to their (again, white and wealthy) constituents. (If reforming a bureaucracy is like turning an oil tanker, reforming a police department is like turning an oil tanker that is controlled by a heavily armed military force that does NOT want to turn.)
That’s why #DefundThePolice is so important — “reform” is slow, and easily frustrated by supporters of the myth. A few well-placed funding cuts can cripple a department’s ability to enforce policies that actively harm citizens. Why pay for surveillance tools like police planes and helicopters? Why fund military “tanks” and weapons? Why contract with police officers in healthcare and educational settings? The immediate goal should be to minimize the damage police can do.
It won’t be easy, even here in my city, where it’s clear the Mayor has zero control over his own police department. Still, #DefundThePolice is gaining traction because more and more people have recognized that upholding the myth of law enforcement is absolutely not worth the tremendous cost.
Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect editorial policy.