The police assaults in Ferguson, both at the individual level, with the killing of Michael Brown, and at the tactical level, with the militarized attacks on protestors, have brought a wealth of commentary from the left adding context.* I particularly like this article by Mike Konczal, Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit: The Neoconservative Origins of Our Police Problem, because it looks back 50 years to show the roots of the current crisis. Konczal says that the neoconservative theory of policing African-Americans through domination comes from a book by Edward Banfield, The Unheavenly City.
But according to Banfield, the core problem was modern liberalism, and in an interesting way. The big issue was the “professionalism” and bureaucratization of city services. The rioters had nothing to fear from the police, who were blocked from exercising their own judgement on the ground by an administrative layer of police administrators. In the logic that would form the basis of Broken Windows policing, the poor learning “through experience that an infraction can be done leads, by an illogic characteristic of childish thought, to the conclusion that it may be done.” And potential rioters were learning this because “the patrolman’s discretion in the use of force declined rapidly” with the growth of the modern liberal state..
The idea that governments should use force against the loathed masses was prevalent in the 19th Century. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault explains that penal reformers in the late 17th Century hoped to be able to reform most criminals and help them see the value of being normal productive citizens. Then he gives recidivism rates, and shows that convicted people weren’t affected by any of the reform programs in the prisons or juvenile homes or other institutions. Why, then, did the government stick with a failed system, he asks.
Penality would then appear to he a way of handling illegalities, of laying down the limits of tolerance, of giving free rein to some; of putting pressure on others, of excluding a particular section, of making another useful, of neutralizing certain individuals and of profiting from others. … And, if one can speak of justice, it is not only because the law itself or the way of applying it serves the interests of a class, it is also because the differential administration of illegalities through the mediation of penality forms part of those mechanisms of domination.
Id. at 272.
Penality is the entire system of crime detection and punishment. The system is set up to allow an administrative level of justice at street level. The local gendarmes keep track of delinquents, people whose crimes are relatively petty offenses, pickpockets, prostitutes, shoplifting, public drunkenness; and use their discretion as to who gets punished with jail and who gets slapped around, who is tabbed as an informer and who is ignored. The police treat more serious illegality fairly equally, murder, armed robbery, physical attacks, brigandage and arson. There are, of course, class issues in this classification between delinquency and illegality. The upper class, the aristocrats, were not imprisoned for delinquency, and were rarely subject to jail for more serious crimes.
But this delinquency of wealth is tolerated by the law and, when it does find its way into the courts, it can depend upon the indulgence of the judges and the discretion of the press. Id. at 288
Foucault describes the privately operated juvenile detention center of Mettray, which opened in 1840. Its goal was to raise the boys to be good citizens.
‘The least act of obedience is punished and the best way of avoiding serious offences is to punish the most minor offences very severely; at Mettray, a useless word is punishable’; the principal punishment inflicted will confinement to one’s cell; for ‘isolation is the best means of acting on the moral nature of children; it is there above all that the voice of religion, even if it has never spoken to their hearts, recovers all its emotional power’ [quoted from] Ducpetiaux, … 377); the entire parapenal institution, which is created in order not to be a prison, culminates in the cell, on the walls of which are written in black letters: ‘God sees you.’ Id. at 294.
This is a brilliant explanation of the reasons for the difference between the treatment of known scofflaw Cliven Bundy and Michael Brown, and many other dead Black Americans. The point of the delinquency is to mark the accused as not human, not a decent person, not a person entitled to any rights, not a citizen, not one of us. It worked then, and it works now. Men guilty of walking while Black not normal. Greedy corrupt Wall Street bankers are normal. Cliven Bundy, who uses public land for his private wealth is normal. Fox News and right wing militias defend Bundy, but are no where to be seen in Ferguson, because none of those people are normal.
The people who get to decide what is normal are the rich and powerful. They use their control over government to establish the line between acceptable delinquency and unacceptable delinquency and illegalities. In 19th Century France, the rich and powerful wanted docile bodies to work themselves to death in factories, and the norms that were created aligned with those desires. Today, the people who decide the limits of the normal want docile bodies to work and to shut up about everything except sports and other television fare, except to support our unending wars and the 50,000 richest citizens in their desire to run the government for their benefit.
So shut up and work. When is football?
Pic from Sam Lane is an illustration in Discipline and Punish.
*Here are a few, Andrew O’Hehir discusses police militarization here, an idea that has finally hit the mainstream press, but has been lurking in the background, thanks in part to Radley Balko. Glenn Greenwald and Digby both discuss the issue both discuss the issue, with a number of interesting links. Aaron Hanlon takes up the explanatory power of American Exceptionalism, here. Brittany Cooper discusses the anger in Ferguson and African-Americans more generally here. Paul Rosenberg goes into the radical conservatives racial hatred here. Mychal Denzel Smith takes up the issue of non-existent racial justice here.