A Tale of Two Intentions
On May 25th, 2020, an already subdued defenseless man, after nearly nine minutes of pleading for his life, struggling to breathe, and then calling for his mother, was killed by four Minneapolis police officers. Since his death, residents in every state, and citizens of nations all over the world, participated in peaceful demonstrations in support of George Floyd and the human rights he was denied. In response to the protests in the U.S., supposedly in the spirit of law and order, protesters were tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and beaten by police. Indifferent to the torrent of violence unleashed on peaceful protesters, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, using isolated incidents of rioting as justification, called for the deployment of the U.S. military to American streets to restore law and order.
Senator Cotton did his best to forge a picture of widespread insurrection, calling on state governors to “restore order” with “an overwhelming show of force”. Undergirding the ethics of self-advertised pro-law enforcement proponents like Cotton is the notion that law and order can be contrived from the threat of violence and its use. In their eyes, the use of force by the state, regardless of how brutal, is the acceptable form of violence, the variety that can create law and order, the precursors of peace. It begs the question, if violence in a civil society like ours can somehow deliver peace, then why can’t violence from civilians protesting also engender peace?
The glaring asymmetry lays bare the amoral double standard of the pro-law enforcement ethos. No amount of violence can, or would ever, be deemed justifiable on the part of civil protesters; however, in the hands of the state, hands with weapons and imbued with authority to use them, violence becomes readily admissible. The ends justify the means, as long as the means belong to those codified in power by the state. Promoting military intervention for overwhelmingly peaceful protests is more representative of authoritarianism than the democratic values of civil protest in support of human rights. The reasoning for such an extreme promotion is the same used to exonerate police officers for their unwarranted use of lethal force against civilians; the establishment of law and order.
Attempting to assuage reservations concerning military intervention in civilian affairs, Cotton recalled the use of U.S. military forces to integrate schools in the segregated South in the 1950s and 60s, saying the federal government had taken such measures to “protect law-abiding citizens from disorder”. The impetus for sending troops to the South was to force rebellious southern governors, unwilling to relinquish their stranglehold on Black citizenship, to comply with federal law and desegregate their schools. If the protection of Black citizens in the South had ever been a priority for the federal government before the 1960s, then military intervention would have been justifiable from the period of post Civil War Reconstruction straight through to the era of Jim Crow. The subjugation and complete denial of full citizenship for Blacks in the former Confederacy occurred in a time and place when Black lives truly didn’t matter; when violence and oppression, committed by the state and white citizens alike, against southern Blacks were the order of the day. The only disorder was the federal mandate to end the segregated and overtly subjugated way of life for Black Americans in the South.
The plight of southern Blacks to gain and experience full citizenship in the 1960s represents a far different historical context than the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations that occurred due to the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd. The use of the National Guard in the 1950s and 60s wasn’t to subdue angry white southern mobs protesting an end to Jim Crow laws; it was to protect the first Black children integrating into southern schools. Protesters these past few weeks were, in fact, publicly advocating for the civil rights of their fellow Black citizens (and all citizens), in addition to voicing disgust with an inhumane status quo in policing. That Cotton would reach for such a widely accepted, albeit decidedly disparate example for military intervention is suggestive of how much the Senator and other pro-law enforcement champions wanted to quell the mostly peaceful protests in support of George Floyd.
A few years after the military intervention in the South, there was an intervention intended specifically to suppress peaceful protest. On May 4th, 1970, 300 college students gathered at Kent State University in Ohio, to peacefully object to America’s war effort to bring democracy to Vietnam. The young men and women who attended that day’s protest gathered to voice their displeasure for the expansion of the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia. The National Guard was used to disperse students expressing their anti-war stance. For the crime of protesting an unpopular war, national guardsmen, equipped with rifles, opened fire on the protesters. When the shooting stopped, four students, all under the age of 21, were killed, while another nine were left wounded. The events that transpired at Kent State University highlight the potential for tragedy when employing the U.S. military in matters of civil protest. One must wonder if Senator Cotton, and others who advocated for the use of the National Guard, believe the sacrifice of dead and wounded college students at Kent State University truthfully constituted law and order.
Would pro-law enforcement adherents argue that law and order were served in the killing of George Floyd for the petty crime of using a fake $20 bill? Or perhaps the hospitalization of a 75-year-old peace activist in Buffalo, N.Y.? Maybe the fractured skull and subsequent brain damage of a 20-year-old college student in Austin, TX? How about a 22-year-old woman who died two days after being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed? These people were peacefully protesting against the gross abuse of power by police and, as a result, fell victim to it. Unlike the isolated incidents of rioting and looting, the violence against peaceful protesters perpetrated by police officers was so widespread, that activists covering the onslaught started compiling a record of the brutality committed against the many demonstrators. The now several hundred images and videos, from women beaten with batons, to people blithely shot with rubber bullets, to gruesome facial injuries resulting from “less-than-lethal” bean bag rounds are not for the faint of heart.
The level of violence that primarily peaceful protesters across the nation encountered at the hands of the police was, to put it mildly, outrageous. For several days, streets in cities all across America were more reminiscent of a society on the verge of social collapse, but not because of peaceful protesters or fringe elements using the backdrop to riot and loot. For those who would deem the violent tactics necessary given the actions of fringe elements, they’d first have to account for the occurrences of protesters non-violently preventing rioting, looting, and vandalism, without any training or the use of weapons. Much of the disorder came not from those railing against police brutality, but from the authors of that brutality. In so many different communities, actions taken by police officers, from Seattle to Austin, to New York City, were more akin to that of a despotic crackdown than that of a society founded on the principles of democracy. Senator Cotton’s ploy to recall military efforts to integrate the South would have made more sense — and been more genuine — had he recommended military intervention to protect peaceful protesters from the police.
It would appear, that for their stated mission of keeping the peace, a significant number of police officers, during the protests, were much more prone to abolishing it. And yet, police departments in cities all across America manage to consume increasingly more substantial portions of municipal budgets; budgets often used to purchase weapons of war. Many protesters who marched in recent weeks decried the militarization of police departments and their excessive consumption of limited state and city budgets. Every dollar that goes to the purchase of an armored personnel carrier, semi-automatic rifle, or less-than-lethal weapon, is one less dollar for sorely needed social services for an already economically strained populace.
Cotton concluded his essay by saying that “the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety”. I think the Senator might be surprised at the extent to which the protesters agree. The disagreement, however, would arise in the means the government should employ to foster that public order and safety. We should be grateful that the thousands of peaceful protesters who demonstrated against a grave injustice didn’t share Senator Tom Cotton’s vision of how to implement law and order. The Senator, and other pro-law enforcement proponents, appear to merely want to better arm Goliath in the battle against David. As such, they might want to re-examine their predispositions and consider the possibility that their politics might be detrimental to their stated goals of public order and safety.