Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Thugs We're All Paying

It’s the middle of the night. A family is sleeping peacefully, all in one room together—including several children. A two-year-old sleeps nearby in a crib. Their rest doesn’t last long, though. Seemingly out of nowhere, a group of armed thugs breaks down the door. They toss a flashbang grenade—a weapon made for soldiers in combat—into the room. It lands in the toddler’s crib, seriously injuring the child, and the family can only watch in dismay as the same thugs who injured their son—maybe fatally, for all they know—carry him off. The family has done nothing to deserve any of this. They’re not even the ones the thugs came for—just an honest mistake. We blew a hole in your two-year-old, but hey, no hard feelings, right?

I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. For those who haven’t heard the story already, it’s entirely too real. The two-year-old is still in the hospital, seriously injured. The armed thugs were a SWAT team, funded by taxpayer dollars. They were searching for a relative of the family in question who they believed had made a fifty-dollar drug deal (God only knows why this requires combat weapons to deal with). The relative was not at that house. The police department’s response has simply been that they had no way of knowing there was a child there (a dubious claim, since the family says there were toys on the front yard). Even if one believes this claim, you might expect them to be fairly sure there wasn’t a child there before acquiring a no-knock warrant for the house (again, God knows why this would be necessary for some minor drug offender).

But at least it’s an isolated incident. Generally speaking, the police are obviously much more competent than this. After all, there’s no other story in the news exhibiting grotesque police brutality—except for the one about how Albuquerque police shot a homeless man. In the back. They then proceeded to shoot him with beanbags (once again, God knows why they didn’t use those non-lethal rounds before mortally injuring the man). But these are certainly just “a few bad apples,” right?

Maybe not. At the risk of sounding repetitive (as I’ve mentioned it in past blog posts), there was the widespread police brutality against the Occupy movement. More recently, the ACLU released a report condemning the increasing militarization of police forces across the nation. So occurrences like the ones earlier mentioned may be anything but isolated, then (even if those are extreme examples).

To state the glaringly obvious, this is troubling. Obviously, the fact that unarmed people are being hurt or killed by the police completely unnecessarily is horrific enough in and of itself, but the implications for the future are even more ominous. Typically, the establishment in America—which is to say the government and corporations (which are very often allied)—have stayed in power not so much through force, but through propaganda, “manufacturing consent,” to use Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s term. But we may be seeing a real departure from that. The government (or governments, more precisely) has already decided what you are and aren’t allowed to put in your body. It’s now reinforcing that message with brute force. Tactics like these make people afraid of the police. The police enforce the status quo viciously. Their enforcement makes the people afraid. Because they’re afraid, the people don’t change the status quo. The police enforce the status quo viciously. A vicious circle if there ever was one.

In 1968, outside of the Democratic National Convention, there were widespread protests, which were met with equally widespread police brutality. Hunter S. Thompson wept. Walter Cronkite, the reserved, professional news anchor the nation trusted, was so appalled that he called the Chicago police “thugs” in a live broadcast. The nation was horrified. Would that sort of reaction exist at all today? Or would we just sort of agree that it was no real surprise at this point? I know I wouldn’t be surprised.

Militarized, corrupt, unnecessarily violent police forces are not a norm that should be, or can be, accepted in a free society, or anything resembling it. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we have let the wrong people become police officers—people who abuse their power relentlessly with utter disregard for those they’re supposed to be serving. Now they’re getting the sort of weapons soldiers use in battle. This needs to be an issue at the forefront of our national dialogue. If we let it go further, we may very well surrender our chance to roll it back.

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