Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Piece of Donald Trump That Passeth Understanding

We already accept that, when Donald Trump says “policy speech,” what comes dribbling from his mouth won’t have much intellectual heft. This Tuesday’s “Law and Order” speech, delivered in West Bend, Wisconsin, within spitting distance of the Milwaukee riots, was no different. It sounded like anything written by a randomly selected white sixteen-year-old angling for a B in American Civics. But one phrase particularly grabbed my attention.

Very early on, Trump attempted to situate himself by identifying this week’s Milwaukee riots as a “war on police.” Speaking to what local media called “a mostly white crowd,” Trump claimed that mainly black rioters protesting police brutality, often in physical confrontations with police, made black communities demonstrably less safe. And he repeated the war metaphor several times, emphasizing riots as a battle between lawfully constituted police and… well, what?

That’s an important question. Trump directly opposed “the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society,” insisting that the police actively keep black populations safe. If so, we mustn’t acknowledge the rioting crowd’s strict racial composition; that would pit police against Milwaukee’s large black population. But the rioters weren’t driven by a splinter sect, like Daesh or the Mafia, a strict organization that law enforcement could legally disperse.

This leaves the uncomfortable possibility of the police attempting to suppress the people. If we deny the rioters either a group identity or an organizational leadership, they become merely a spontaneous outpouring of emotion by massed citizenry. And whether we support this citizenry’s actions, this definition has the police attacking, and attempting to silence, the people. This conclusion should make even the most avid justice seeker question their loyalties.

In The Utopia of Rules, American anthropologist David Graeber notes, almost passim, that almost every police drama begins with our hero cop in hot water. Watch any randomly selected big- or small-screen cop drama, and you’ll notice this pattern. Dirty Harry is always on reprimand for excessive force. Elliott Stabler gets dragged before Internal Affairs so often, it becomes a running gag in his show. Monk is on indefinite suspension.

To Graeber, this means we audiences, primed to see our hero as embodiment of justice, tacitly acknowledge that justice is the opposite of order. The bureaucracy that controls police activity isn’t fundamentally interested in rebalancing the scales or rectifying inequity; it’s interested in keeping circumstances quiet. If this means countenancing injustice, or finding the level and kind of crime the population is willing to live with, so be it.

Anyone who’s ever interacted with police already know this. Police are squeamish about getting into domestic violence allegations, gang troubles, and other abuses, unless somebody actually, physically dies. Anti-stalking laws are among America’s most chronically unenforced. Nobody has been jailed, or even tried, for the casino behavior that tanked the economy in 2007. But try driving an untagged vehicle, and see how quickly you attract police attention.

Even we white people, who have little reason to consider ourselves chronically targeted by law enforcement, experience this. We know we’re more likely to get prompt police responses for a sloppy lawn violation than reporting sounds of violence next door. If we’ve ever called the cops and timed their responses, we already know the law isn’t impartial. The mechanisms of bureaucracy care more about tidiness than justice.

Trump attempted to position attempts to maintain a lawful environment in American cities as a decidedly pro-African American issue. Indeed Trump, hardly known for deft or sensitive phrasing, used the term “African American” over a dozen times, possibly a personal best for calling people what they want to be called. Yet he showed no awareness of unjust economic, bureaucratic, and demographic trends that leave African Americans feeling marginalized.

To clarify, it doesn’t matter whether black Americans really are marginalized. We can have that discussion elsewhere. The modern bureaucratic structure leaves African Americans feeling marginalized, and especially for poor blacks in crowded cities, police are the most common friction point between daily life and bureaucracy. The police are catching flack for today’s bureaucratized lifestyle, which is itself fundamentally more orderly than just.

Frankly, I could’ve written Trump’s speech in my more conservative youth. I could’ve said blacks hurt themselves when targeting the police. But like Trump, I would’ve missed the core point, that African Americans aren’t targeting individual cops. They’re targeting a PD, a justice system, a bureaucratic structure they consider structurally unjust. If there’s a “war on police,” the next front should include anyone who thinks justice matters more than quiet.

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