On the pretense of ‘law and order’

When I was working towards my master’s degree and working as a teacher’s aide for my then-favorite professor, I remember a student stating his aspiration to work in law enforcement.

My professor immediately asked, “Whose law?”

It’s a good question and one I continue to pose. Because the answer, if we are honest, is that it is the law of a constitutional oligarchy,[1] a law that applies very differently to the rich than it does the poor, especially of color,[2] a law that protects property even over the lives of the poor, especially of color.[3]

Something very similar can be said of ‘order.’ Because whenever social justice protests are accompanied by any form of property destruction, the cry rises for “law and order,” and the response, a response that doesn’t get much airplay, is that Black lives are more important than capitalist hoarding.

When people are getting killed and we assert any other value, be it the rights of other people, be it ‘law and order,’ be it the protection of property, be it anything else, we are asserting that those people’s lives are less important than those other rights, that ‘law and order,’ that property, that anything else.

And when, as with the racial justice protests, we observe that the people who are being killed are disproportionately of any subaltern group, in this case Black,[4] the characteristics of the oligarchy are, in effect, wealthy white male supremacist, and the fact of their institutionalization renders them systemic.

It is not, of course, only the rich who caterwaul about ‘law and order.’ I see “thin blue line” flags and “we support our police” signs all around Pittsburgh, more often in poor and working class neighborhoods than I do wealthy ones. Part of this is an identification with Donald Trump, who is now appealing to ‘law and order’ in his reelection campaign.[5] And its hypocrisy appears in its violent embrace by avowedly white supremacist militia groups in evident collusion with the police.[6]

But one of the very few virtues of the Trump presidency has been an unmasking of at least some of our self-deceits. We can no longer pretend, not really anyway, we are a “post-racial” society. We can no longer pretend, not really anyway, that gun nuttery in conjunction with support for the police in conjunction with the wailing for ‘law and order’ in conjunction with Confederate flags amount to anything other than widespread and systemic white supremacism within our society. We can no longer pretend, not really anyway, that we value Black lives.

But we pretend anyway. Which is to say we value even our pretense over Black lives.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10,” Not Housebroken, April 22, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/04/22/a-constitutional-oligarchy-deconstructing-federalist-no-10/
  2. [2]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  3. [3]David Benfell, “On police,” Not Housebroken, August 12, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/10/on-police/
  4. [4]Mark Berman et al., “Protests spread over police shootings. Police promised reforms. Every year, they still shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people,” Washington Post, June 8, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/protests-spread-over-police-shootings-police-promised-reforms-every-year-they-still-shoot-nearly-1000-people/2020/06/08/5c204f0c-a67c-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html; James Downie, “Time to toss the ‘bad apples’ excuse,” Washington Post, May 31, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/31/time-toss-bad-apples-excuse/; Wesley Lowery, “Aren’t more white people than black people killed by police? Yes, but no,” Washington Post, July 11, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/07/11/arent-more-white-people-than-black-people-killed-by-police-yes-but-no/; Brentin Mock, “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings,” CityLab, August 6, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/08/police-officer-shootings-gun-violence-racial-bias-crime-data/595528/; Elie Mystal, “There’s Only One Possible Conclusion: White America Likes Its Killer Cops,” Nation, May 27, 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/white-america-cops/; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Do We Change America?” New Yorker, June 8, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-do-we-change-america
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The authoritarian populist president embraces neoconservatism–to advance his own tyranny,” Not Housebroken, July 29, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/07/21/the-authoritarian-populist-president-embraces-neoconservatism-to-advance-his-own-tyranny/
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Donald Trump’s ‘brown shirts,’” Not Housebroken, September 4, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/30/donald-trumps-brown-shirts/