This is a thought exercise. This is neither a “manifesto” nor a “call to arms.” This is not a plot against America, nor a threat of domestic terrorism. Again, this is a thought exercise- an important one that we desperately need to take up at this time. There are ominous signs in our public discourse that demand creative consideration. This is one step on that journey:
What would happen if police officers were genuinely afraid for their lives? That is the well-scripted assertion whenever one of them has murdered a black man under suspicious circumstances. That alleged fear has been the baseline justification and the political through-line for countless legal exonnerations and closed investigations in cases of police violence that leave black people dead and black communities seething with anger.
Meanwhile the “frightened” cop typically returns to his job- after his paid time off of course- and remains on the job without ever facing the consequence the rest of us would face had we killed a dog under questionable circumsrances. Try this one on: “I am sorry I killed that lady’s dog but I was afraid for my life. I told him to sit and he would not sit. It barked at me so I had to choke it to death.”
This thought exercise presupposes that police officers are not truly afraid for their lives when they are on the job. And for the sake of this argument it is critical to make a distinction between real fear and an adrenaline rush. Real fear is what many black citizens feel when they are facing a screaming cop pointing his gun at them. Adrenaline rush is what that screaming, gun pointing cop is feeling. The cop is excited. The citizen is afraid.
Let’s put an even finer point on this: the howling lynch mob gathering outside a black man’s home in 1930’s Georgia was excited; but the black man inside the home facing his imminent torturous death was almost certainly afraid.
For the purposes of this thought excercise though, cops are feeling legitimate fear- the kind the black men in the examples above have experienced. The cops have been made to feel afraid by a rash of killings of their own kind. The killings are geographically random and temporally sporadic which makes them even more intimidating. The killings seem to be unprovoked which makes them even more ominous. And in the cases where there appears to have been some level of provocation, the killing has been far out of proportion to the provocative act. Worst of all, the killers have proven to be entirely unconcerned about accountability for their actions. But in this thought exercise, the killers are not callous because they fully expect to get away with what they have done if they are caught. The killers in this scenario are callous because they fully expect to get caught- but they just do not care anymore about the consequences.
In this scenario, the killers committing these terrible crimes are doing so because they have reached the conclusion that they have so few legitimate options to exercise, so little protection under the law, and so little stake in promoting the civility of the society, that the only thing that is fully under their sole control is how they will die. Will they die begging for mercy and calling for their dearly departed mother? Will they die running away from and then fending off a deranged posse of vigilantes? Or perhaps the only thing that they are absolutely certain of is that if they must die, they do not want to have died without doing some targetted killing of their own.
Perhaps dying while begging or running away is inherently unappealing to them. After all, in the ethos of American manhood, the death of a victim is far less honorable than the death of a warrior-combatant. Elijah Muhammad built his influence in the 1950’s on the theory that the most dangerous creation of any society is the man with nothing to lose. Whatever else he got wrong while inventing a religion that amassed millions of followers across America, he was certainly right about that.
Even in a thought exercise such as this, these ruthless killers could not be laboring under the misimpression that any brand of government over-throw is feasible. That is always a fantasy fever-dream, no matter who is doing the fantasizing. However, if they have been radicalized into anarchists- crazed lunatics along the lines of the insane and incindiary white nationalists who have loudly and proudly promoted and provoked a “race war” for over fifty years now- they would know full well that over-throw is not only impossible, but entirely unnecessary. If you spark enough civil unrest, a powerful government will collapse on its own.
And by “collapse” I do not mean falling under the boot of an invading enemy or hostile inside take-over. I mean “collapse” in the sense that the government no longer functions under its own stated rules and guidelines. “Collapse” in the sense that it cannot even make a colorable claim that it is upholding the values on which it claims to stand. “Collapse” in the sense that the number of citizens that feel legitimately served by the government shrinks in comparison to the number of citizens that genuinely feel oppressed by the government. “Collapse” in the sens that it has created a class of men who feel they have nothing to lose. Just like Elijah Muhammad used to preach about.
But now, because America is a nation committed to being awash in guns and bathing in bullets, those men who have nothing to lose can purchase assault rifles in bulk. Those men who have nothing to lose are covered by the same “open carry” laws as everyone else. So those men with nothing to lose can march through the streets brandishing weapons of war and make a public spectacle of the fact that they are “not fucking around anymore.” Those men can court conflict rather than surrendering to the role of victim or martyr.
Back in reality we have to ask these questions about the exercise: What happens next? How long does it take for the freefall into chaos and cultural bloodletting to begin? Are we closer to that than we even realize? Maybe we can start to move away from the events described in this exercise rather than barrelling toward them. Maybe policing can focus more on peace-keeping than on “law enforcement.” Maybe policing can focus on “protect and serve” and abandon “patrol and control.” Maybe citizens can stop excusing police violence and antagonizing the victims of that violence with their “I back the blue” and “blue lives matter” bullshit.
Maybe America can stop bullshitting itself about the history and evolution of policing and face how we got here in the first place. Then maybe the police will never have to be afraid- because none of us will ever have to be afraid again.