Viral videos of beatings and killings by police are forging what might be a significant and lasting political movement — a full-scale revolt against what everyone used to believe was the most essential function of the state. Not only has this function turned murderous; the machinery of the state is unwilling to hold police accountable.
The resulting anger is palpable, each protest more tense than the last. The police arrive to supervise the marches and sit-ins. But they arrive as the enemy. Their authority is gone. The protesters suddenly have in their sights the very embodiment of the thing they are protesting. Every gathering has the feeling of being on the verge of exploding, which only makes the cops more paranoid and quick to release the tear gas or pull the trigger.
The protests are likely to further intensify the fears and resentments on all sides. That means that the protest movements might extend much longer than the usual news cycle. Consider that these protests are only the latest in a series.
The Third Wave
In fact, we are experiencing the third great wave of US political street protests since 2009, a real turning point in the history of American liberty. The first wave was the Tea Party. The second was Occupy Wall Street. And today, around the country, in cities and towns large and small, people are protesting the abuse and killings of citizens by the local police.
In each case, there is something to inspire the rebel within all of us. The Tea Party has valid complaints, but so does the Occupy movement. And anyone who can watch the viral videos of killings by police without some emotional sympathy does not have a well-formed conscience.
What if these are all variations of the same general revolt?
American political culture treats these protests as distinct and even divergent in their goals. The Tea Party was called “right wing” because the bones of contention at its inception were high taxes, wealth transfers, and health care nationalization.
Occupy was considered “left wing” because it emphasized the evil of the rich and the need for government to redistribute more.
The new anti-police protests are supposedly about racial disparities and injustice, mainly concerning the interests of racial minorities — blacks in particular.
There is a sense in which these categorizations are true. The protests attract different demographic groups. And these differences cause narrow political minds to think that they cancel each other out, as if these movements are just a street version of left and right, populist realizations of politics as usual.
A better way to understand them, however, is to look for the unifying factor: they are all protesting against the massive and growing use of power against the people.
They are about our aspirations for a peaceful and prosperous life. They all target the way legal privilege is being used to perpetuate injustice. In this sense, each is a different expression of the same protest, each valid in its own way.
The Tea Party sprang into being as a revolt against Washington’s voracious appetite for taxes and its corrupt penchant for spreading wealth around to special interests. It was a movement of the bourgeoisie. It favored getting government out of people’s lives. That was its general tenor and demand at the outset.
It’s true that later, once the movement became organized (that’s always the beginning of the end), the Tea Party became annoying and at times noxious. Speakers at Tea Party events would complain about immigration, cuts in Medicare, flag burnings, abortion rights, and you name it: anything that sounded angry elicited a cheer. That trend made it difficult for the movement to maintain momentum after a certain point.
But it is the same with the Occupy movement. It began as spontaneous protests against the egregious bailouts of Wall Street’s largest investment banking houses by the Federal Reserve, and the Fed’s immunization of Wall Street in general from the consequences of the real estate bust. It was all good and right. But then, as the movement matured, it too became tedious, with calls for the looting of the rich, and the usual vast panoply of left-wing prattle about the need for regulation and more taxation. There were even explicit calls for socialism.
Black Lives Matter
Of the three, the anti-police movement (sans the looting by the few) is the most unambiguously deserving of support, at least for me. The police are the frontlines of the state. There was a time, when I was a kid, when it was possible to think of them as part of the structure of civil society, the aspect of the state that we actually need to keep order.
But all of that changed after 9/11, when the federal government essentially implemented an undeclared martial law and armed local cops to the teeth with military weaponry. A crazed paranoia also overtook all law-enforcement institutions. All citizens were suddenly potential terrorists. We were treated as such by the regime. Anyone around in those days remembers the feeling of being under foreign occupation, not by Al Qaeda but by our own government.
The decisive moment came after the 2008 financial crisis, when local government turned to the cops to be revenue-collecting agents. That’s when the full force of the law came after our property and rights at every turn. Quiet and implicit antagonisms became loud and explicit.
In communities across the United States, citizens were being hunted by their own protectors. The guardians became predatory.
This third great wave of protest is the culmination of many years of growing abuse of police power, and, most importantly, growing knowledge and awareness that something is fundamentally wrong.
The pain is felt most intensely by black Americans, who have been subjected to abusive treatment for many decades — and this treatment is a follow-up to racist policies with deep roots. They include exclusionist and even exterminationist policies that began just after slavery officially ended.
But blacks and other minority populations are not the only victims. What these videos reveal is the most fundamental conflict in the history of humanity: the conflict between society and state. It takes many forms. It is sometimes the taxation and regulation that the bourgeoisie loathe. It is sometimes the policies that favor the wealthy and privileged elite over everyone else — the policies most hated by the working class, the unemployed, and the poor. And it is sometimes the outright police violence experienced by the most conspicuous victims: expendable and powerless racial minorities.
But in the end, we all face the same struggle. It’s the struggle between the voluntary associations that constitute the beautiful part of our lives, on the one hand, and, on the other, the legal monopoly of violence and compulsion by the institutions of the state, which lives at the expense of society.
Remember that the protests we see are only the visible ones. Underneath them, there is a seething in the very foundations of society among all classes, races, and political outlooks. For every protester in front of the camera, there are hundreds of thousands of sympathizers, which is what happens in a country where government impositions have stopped household incomes from rising in real terms for 20 years. (And this reality has struck us during a time of explosive technological improvements that would have otherwise conferred massive material benefits on society!)
You could reflect more on the profound implications, or you could have the whole thing explained to you by Frédéric Bastiat in The Law:
The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.
The rise of power has robbed us all. We experience different forms of victimization. We express our frustration in different ways. We have a different set of triggers. But when it comes to knowing the enemy, we should all be clear and united: it is the state. We must never lose sight of the solution, which is human liberty.