We Can Enforce The Law Without Tyranny

When police abolition is discussed the first question brought up by most is fear based. Who will stop the murderers and rapists? Or in other words who will exercise force to make people submit to the rule of law if we no longer have police?

That this question comes up in this way so often speaks to the propaganda around the police and the notion that violence is the means to an end for the majority of conflict resolution. At the same time, it would be naive to assume that enforcing the law never requires force. The question then should be asked, when is force being legitimately applied and why does that justify the abolition of our current system? To answer this we need to look not only to the history of policing, but to the history of our government and its origins in the writings of John Locke.

John Locke

Locke was a philosopher in the 17th century who wrote a number of important works. In the political realm his most famous work is The Second Treatise of Government that arguably forms the basis of both the US Declaration of Independence and the original US Constitution.

In the Second Treatise, Locke forms the logical basis for the separation of church and state as well as that of legitimate government. Locke postulates that humans in nature exist in a perfect state of equality, liberty and executive power. They only subordinate these natural powers to the legislative power of society with the intent to better preserve themselves, their liberty and property. To do so with any other intent would be irrational.

Sect. 142. These are the bounds which the trust, that is put in them by the society, and the law of God and nature, have set to the legislative power of every commonwealth, in all forms of government.First, They are to govern by promulgated established laws, not to be varied in particular cases, but to have one rule for rich and poor, for the favourite at court, and the country man at plough.

The trust people put in government to subordinate themselves to laws that could lead to their own death is based on the firm promise that those laws will be applied fairly and equally.

Locke also states…

…wherever the power, that is put in any hands for the government of the people, and the preservation of their properties, is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass, or subdue them to the arbitrary and irregular commands of those that have it; there it presently becomes tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many.

When people address the issue of pervasive police violence and corruption abetted either fully, partially or unwittingly by the government they are referring to tyranny.

Sect. 202. Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

In many areas of the country, the police no longer exercise authority derived from the rule of law, they exercise it solely by force. The reason is that people living in those areas no longer consider police authority to be legitimate due to their continuing excessive and egregiously malicious use of their powers. This hampers enforcement of the law across the board, because even non-violent offenders consider themselves at risk of death and act appropriately within that belief.

Locke also tells us why this sort of tyranny does not cause the dissolution of government very often and also why the riots we are seeing are a sign of how bad things have become.

Sect. 225. Secondly, I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniencies being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.

The public is willing to put up with a lot of stupidity from government. Government can screw up on the little things and people won’t revolt, but when they screw up on the big things over and over again people rise up. The response we are seeing on the streets is based in pervasive abuse of the system by those that are supposed to govern it.

Locke even tells us he doesn’t have the answer on handling resistance of illegal force (essentially what we see as protesting and rioting), because if you let it get to that point you’re a fucking idiot.

Sect. 209. But if either these illegal acts have extended to the majority of the people; or if the mischief and oppression has lighted only on some few, but in such cases, as the precedent, and consequences seem to threaten all; and they are persuaded in their consciences, that their laws, and with them their estates, liberties, and lives are in danger, and perhaps their religion too; how they will be hindered from resisting illegal force, used against them, I cannot tell. This is an inconvenience, I confess, that attends all governments whatsoever, when the governors have brought it to this pass, to be generally suspected of their people; the most dangerous state which they can possibly put themselves in, wherein they are the less to be pitied, because it is so easy to be avoided; it being as impossible for a governor, if he really means the good of his people, and the preservation of them, and their laws together, not to make them see and feel it, as it is for the father of a family, not to let his children see he loves, and takes care of them.

The Conflict That Keeps The System In Place

It’s easy to see why people are upset and that the obvious solution is to have police do the right thing, but there is a conflict that we refuse to acknowledge. The conflict results from the exigencies of capitalism. Police started as a way for those in power to enforce unfair and unjust practices on laborers. In the South, modern police arose from slave patrols, while in the north police forces were created at the behest of merchants to control labor unrest in the face of “riots” (protests and strikes in actuality) over appalling working conditions.

The nature of modern policing in the USA is based on this origin and it has never really changed. We’ve thrown good on top of bad for so long that it’s hard to see to the rotten core of policing anymore, but it’s there and it’s the reason why we need to abolish them and find something different. We can legitimately exercise force to require people to submit to the law only when we have removed the gross excess of tyranny imposed upon them by those chosen to enforce the law.

Reform won’t work, but abolition will.

A recent article on ForeignPolicy.com entitled “I Abolished and Rebuilt the Police. The United States Can Do the Same.” by Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili makes claims that it has trouble backing up with facts.

Defund, Reform, Abolish

Before examining the article, there needs to be clarification around the terminology being thrown about. There is a misunderstanding around whether “defund the police” means to reform them or abolish them. This is an actual disagreement on the liberal side.

For instance Christy E. Lopez writing in the Washington Post links defunding to reform, while Mariame Kaba writing in the New York Times links defunding to abolition.

At the same time Fox News conservatives want defund to mean abolish, because they claim police abolition is the same thing as anarchy. This has centrist liberals scrambling trying to claim defunding is definitely reform.

The reality is that abolition does not mean a descent into anarchy. Police abolition does not mean abolishing laws or law enforcement. It means dismantling a system of oppression that has affected both blacks and whites for over a hundred years.

Abolition Is Not Reform

The article by President Saakashvili rather than a tale of abolition is actually a lesson about why reforming our system has never worked and will never work.

Distrust of police is symptomatic of a widespread sentiment: The system is built to protect the interests of elites. If we could solve this problem in Georgia, so can Americans. With that said, reform in any society is a continuous process because backsliding is always a danger. In the seven years since I left Georgia, the current ruling party has done nothing but erode the institutions that my government built. Approval of police dropped precipitously from 87 percent to 59 percent following the violent dispersal of peaceful protests in Tbilisi last summer.

President Saakashvili did not abolish policing in his country. He reformed the existing system putting it back together in much the same fashion while attempting to root out the more extreme elements of corruption. He is correct in that the system is built to protect elites, but he did not eliminate that failing, he put back that same core system and the result is the “violent dispersal of peaceful protests” he mentions.

Police Are Corrupt Because The Police System Is Corrupt

Policing both here and in Georgia is a symptom of a larger problem. For much of the late 1800s and early 1900s we existed in the same state as Georgia did before their reforms. Modern organized police in the USA originated as a way for merchants to keep their workers (or slaves) in line and have the public pay for it. Police were part of corrupt state and local governments that ran crime operations alongside actual government giving their organizations a veneer of respectability. Probably the most well known of these political machines was Tammany Hall. Police were the muscle behind political power and mostly they went around putting down “rioting” as the elite termed it, which was actually laborers protesting and striking against horrific working conditions.

When Prohibition started, corruption of the system became universal. With thousands of speakeasies in most major cities it was a given that police could not enforce the law. Power shifted away from political machines into the hands of bootleggers giving rise to the myth of the gangster. These gangsters did the same business the machines were doing, but without the veneer of respectability. Police at this point became little more than enforcers for the people that would pay them the most.

Police over the years have been given more jobs (most of which they should not be doing) to assuage the public as to their existence, but at the same time, as we see in the reaction to the current protests, their real role is still to enforce the will of those in power using extreme violence.

This is what President Saakashvili either failed to understand or is just being dishonest about. His police force received training from the USA.

A new force was built around new recruits.[3] The United States State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law-Enforcement Affairs has provided assistance to the training efforts.[5]

He took the model of policing we have used for over a hundred years and tried to place some level of accountability on top of it, but the reality is that doesn’t make the police accountable to the public, it makes them accountable to the politicians who are beholden to the rich. You still have heavily armed police available to be used at the discretion of the powerful to put down the public and that is what happened in the recent Georgian protests.

Abolish The System

The only real solution to the policing problem is to abolish policing as we know it and make changes to the system that creates the “criminals” we are putting in prisons by the millions. Again, this is not an abolition of law or law enforcement, this is a rejection of the way we currently go about law enforcement. This is also an economic choice more than anything. If we choose to pay people a living wage, give them a clean environment and affordable healthcare both mental and physical we will largely eliminate the need to put down the “riots” of society.

We can start by giving away all of the jobs police do that could be done better by some profession other than a police or at the very least by someone that isn’t heavily armed with a blank check to kill anytime they feel threatened.

  • Direct traffic or organize parade routes
  • Issue civil citations.
  • Assist people in mental or physical health emergencies.
  • Defuse a violent situation or deal with those that intend to hurt people.
  • Investigate sexual assault and domestic violence issues and support survivors.
  • Deal with substance abuse issues.

Once police stop doing these jobs we can pretty easily evaluate whether we need a heavily armed paramilitary organization to operate on a wide scale across our country. If anything, there will need to be a small force in each urban area that continues to react to violence (police don’t prevent violence) because we won’t deal with the incredibly easy access to firearms in this country.

That said, if we don’t deal with income inequality and the rest of the societal issues mentioned above then there won’t be a police force in the country that can stop people from burning things to the ground.