Saturday, December 06, 2014

civil rights 2.0: the war on 99% liberties by 1% authoritarianism


theconversation |  Undeniably, African Americans are disproportionately affected by police violence – but it also affects people of all races. Within months of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of the Ferguson police, there were two less publicised cases of excessive police violence against white suspects in the surrounding area: Joseph Jennings, who was shot 16 times outside a Kansas hardware store, and 17-year-old Bryce Masters, who ended up in a coma after a police officer tasered him when he refused to roll down his window after being stopped.

Obama echoed this need to both recognise the racial dynamic driving much of this violence while also the importance of treating it as a national not just “black” or “minority” crisis. He maintained: “The problem is not just a Ferguson problem. It’s an American problem.”

In order to address the problem, we have to confront its deeper causes, ones that certainly involve but are by no means limited to the country’s ongoing structural racism. Rising inequality and poverty, especially in the wake of the financial crisis, have done much to contribute to police brutality. These economic factors have been exacerbated by the growing domination of US politics by elites.

Framing police violence as principally a “black problem” reinforces the underlying notion that African-Americans are somehow separate from other Americans and that authoritarian crackdowns on them are reactive, not active. This plays into an established tactic of strategically highlighting racial divisions within the country to distract attention from other issues such as class polarisation and oligarchy.

Ultimately, this is a way to freeze out solidarity across race, geography and even class, leaving Americans with an identity politics of distrust and conflict.

This strategy is part of the culture of fear that has driven much of the US government’s policy for decades. From the War on Drugs to the War on Terror, chronic and growing issues of unemployment, economic insecurity and declining social welfare are channelled into anger and action against existential “enemies” – most of whom are non-white, or in some way portrayed as less than “American”.

These policy “wars” have been mounted in the service of a growing authoritarianism in contemporary America. The militarisation of the police force, for instance, reflects the government’s need to neutralise urban areas marked by often extreme poverty and violence. Instead of an attack on the economic and social causes of ghettoisation and urban blight, we’ve seen a move away from “community policing” toward what has been called: “The United Police States of America”.

To overcome this strategy, then, it must be tackled as more than just a programme of racism. What must be emphasised is the authoritarianism and deeper shared disenfranchisement that motivates the state violence we see today – a tendency that certainly includes structural racism, but which is by no means limited to it.

In the words Obama used when responding to the Eric Garner case, it must be framed as an “American problem”.