6:00 am PDT • May 31, 2020
Ten years ago, the joke was: “It’s weird how, once everyone started carrying phones with cameras all the time, UFOs stopped visiting, and the cops started beating everyone up.” It was darkly funny, then. Now it feels something more like despairing.
Imagine pitching today as a setting for science fiction, back then:
“The year is 2020. A pandemic that will kill millions ravages the planet. America is masked: some because of the new virus, others as a ward against police surveillance. A global wave of implicit & explicit xenophobia and white supremacy has carried the UK out of Europe, and a narcissistic reality TV star to the presidency, where he fans the flames of America’s rampant police violence, and spars incoherently with the billionaires who control the tech megacorps that dominate the Internet and the economy. Meanwhile, America’s techno-militarized law enforcement agencies use drones, networked cameras, AI-powered facial recognition, and other police-state innovations to aid them in their running battles against an insurgent population which increasingly no longer sees them as legitimate.”
If you had pitched today only ten years ago, you would have been asked with genuine confusion whether it was intended as satire–and then, very possibly, more gently, if everything was OK at home. Yet here we are.
Six years ago I wrote a piece, “The techno-militarization of America” which concluded that “in juicing [the police] with the steroids of military technologies, rules, and attitudes, we have transformed them into a cure almost worse than the disease.” Looking back now, that ‘almost’ seems embarrassingly naïve.
I’ve seen multiple independent sources refer to the events of this week as a ‘legitimacy crisis,’ triggered by a common-knowledge collapse: a moment when everyone realizes that a belief they did not speak about, thinking it fringe and wild, is in fact also held by an enormous number of their peers. Nine years ago, when it was still possible to be optimistic about the effect Facebook would have on society, that sort of collapse is believed to have triggered the Arab Spring.
So combine these two things: (1) social institutions rely on legitimacy to function; (2) legitimacy can be lost catastrophically, by the explosive spread of common knowledge.
— Simon DeDeo (@SimonDeDeo) May 30, 2020
Here, the cultural collapse appears to be precipitating around the concept “all cops are bastards.” Once that catchphrase was something I only heard from my furthest of far-left punk and anticapitalist acquaintances. Let’s just say that the line of demarcation has moved in towards the mainstream a lot. As in the Arab Spring, this apparent common-knowledge collapse was catalyzed by a single awful death, then spread with remarkable speed, fueled in large part by social media.
Of course America is a huge and diverse place which includes many communities who have long–understandably–viewed the police as an illegitimate occupying army. (Often literally: “In about two-thirds of the U.S. cities with the largest police forces, the majority of police officers commute to work from another town.”)
What’s different is that this attitude seems to be accelerating nationwide. A few random examples from my own social media of late include — all white, since it matters — a battery researcher, a rocket technologist, and a middle-aged Minnesotan mother of teenagers describing the Minneapolis police as “a suburban occupying force.”
It doesn’t matter what you think about who’s right or wrong, if your community doesn’t trust its police, it can’t function as a cohesive society.
How do we rebuild trust?
It’s the only question that matters.
— Staying Home Michael J. Casey (@mikejcasey) May 31, 2020
Those are anecdotes, so here’s some data: in 2007, Pew Research reported that 37% of black Americans, and a whopping 74% of white Americans, had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in police to “treat races equally.” If you add those who indicated “just some” confidence, those numbers go up to 51% and 82%.
Twelve years later, the numbers who said that Americans of all races are generally treated fairly equally by police had fallen by more than half, to 16% and 37% respectively. In 2017, a sizable majority of all Americans agreed that “the deaths of blacks during encounters with police during recent years are signs of a broader problem”–while 72% of white police officers disagreed.
What do you think those numbers would be today? Given the scale of the disagreement, and the rapid loss of faith, is the prospect of a sudden legitimacy collapse really so surprising?
There have been many protests against police violence before. What’s new here is when you listen to the protesters its clear they have lost all respect for the state. It goes beyond Trump. It’s a legitimacy crisis. For a chunk of the population, the mandate of heaven is gone.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) May 30, 2020
You’ll note that the Arab Spring didn’t last long, and was ultimately followed by bitter winter (except arguably in Tunisia where it began.) I’m not especially optimistic that this will be a profound national turning point in America. But I am hopeful it may shake the attitude among county and city governments that police and police unions should be treated as a local Praetorian Guard, to whom is owed unquestioning gratitude, a blind eye when a body camera happens to wink off before a suspect suffers an injury or death, and zero or toothless civilian oversight.
I’ve been to a lot of countries whose police are not perceived as legitimate; where it’s widely understood, across disparate communities, that whatever the situation, you think twice before involving the cops, because they’ll very likely just make things worse. America feels increasingly like such a country. Let’s hope the de-techno-militarization, and de-white-supremacization, of law enforcement happens before the nation spins into that kind of vicious cycle … because once there, it’s terrifyingly hard to break free. After the events of last night, you have to at least wonder whether it’s already too late.