In the recent film X-men: Days of Future Past, the “Sentinels” are robots programmed by non-mutant humans in the government to hunt and keep down the feared and marginalized population of “mutants.” Eventually, however, their programming undergoes major “mission creep,” and according to Wikipedia, the Sentinels, “expand their targets beyond mutants to baseline humans based on the logic that they have the potential to produce mutant descendants, culminating in a dystopian future where most of humanity and mutantkind have been wiped out.” This is an apt parable for the police state, which is also used against the marginalized, but which also eventually will turn on its creators and enablers.
The late scholar Chalmers Johnson used to say, “Either give up your empire, or live under it,” referring to the truth that foreign empires tend to foster domestic police states. American experience, especially in past years, has shown just how prescient this unheeded warning was. The September 11, 2001 terrorist blowback from U.S. imperialism in the Middle East excused a massive swelling of the “homeland” security state, as well as an imperialist double-down in the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. These foreign wars, in turn, engorged our police state even further, as a torrent of surplus military gear streamed into our local police and sheriff’s departments, ramping up an already long-running militarization of the police in America.
This militarization has been largely under the radar, in spite of efforts to publicize it by prolific libertarian writers like Will Grigg and Radley Balko. The issue has finally broken into public consciousness and mainstream media coverage after police responded to protests and unrest (over the police shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown) in Ferguson, Missouri with militarized full-spectrum dominance, putting all their new toys from the Pentagon to use and on display.
And yet, even with their news and social media feeds bombarded by images of an American town that are indistinguishable from images of occupied Iraq, many conservatives are still clinging to a “Support Your Local Police” attitude toward the matter. They don’t see the images as indicative of the tyranny of empire “coming home.”
This in part is due to identity politics, which currently dominates judgments concerning public affairs, at the expense of principled concerns for justice and individual rights. These generally non-black, middle-class “law and order” conservatives identify with “black neighborhood” blacks in Ferguson about as little as they identify with Arab townsfolk or bedouins. To many of them, it is not a truly American town that is being militarily occupied, or true Americans being tear gassed. In X-men argot, they’re not “baseline humans,” so it is deemed okay if the “Sentinels” get rough with them.
And so they look upon the situation in Ferguson with the same approval or indifference with which they might look upon the U.S. Army’s occupation of Fallujah or the Israel Defense Force’s occupation of Gaza.
Indeed, it makes sense that they would react to both similarly, since both American blacks and Palestinian Arabs are effectively under military occupation. In fact it just so happens that both occupations really took off in the same year: 1967, the year of both Israel’s Six-Day War and America’s Long Hot Summer. Murray Rothbard, in the fall of that year, wrote the following about the latter:
“It is no accident that virtually every single case of black rebellion in the cities in the summer of ‘67 was precipitated by police brutality: by beating up a Negro cab driver in Newark, by raiding and beating up an after- hours drinking club in Detroit. It is also no accident that, despite all the press hysteria about sniping and looting, the greatest bulk of the crime committed during the riots was by the enforcement-thugs of the State: the police, the National Guard, the federal troops. Almost all the killings were of Negroes by the police and troops; in fact, the behaviour of these enforcers was clearly reminiscent of the behaviour of U.S. imperial troops in Vietnam, or, in fact, of military occupiers anywhere in their continuing, permanent war against the native colored population. Thus, if a sniper fired from a building, the characteristic response of our police-Guard- army “protectors” was to spray fire into the entire building, heedless of the destruction and the casualties that would have to follow. One of the great lessons of the summer rebellions which we all should absorb is that the black population of the United States is a colonized and subject people.”
The “law and order” conservatives of that day were little different from today’s. Identity politics reigned then too, and they identified with the urban blacks as little as they did with Vietnamese rice farmers. And so these future members of President Nixon’s “Silent Majority” smiled on, or turned a blind eye to, the police and troop brutality of ‘67, as well as the subsequent waves of individual-liberty-crushing “tough on crime” policies, including especially the drug war, that have would fall so heavily on blacks in particular that it would unmistakably amount to a military occupation.
As a result, blacks in America are constantly subjected to being hassled, threatened, and manhandled by cops on the street, whether they’re walking or driving. It is so pervasive that not even beloved black TV stars are immune. See LaVar Burton describing his routine for surviving getting pulled over the police.
Such harassment, with great frequency, often escalates to a shakedown, in the form of some kind of charge or citation for a victimless “crime.” Any kind of resistance, or even a mere expression of exasperation, can result in being beaten or choked, perhaps to death, or gunned down. See for example the recent case of Eric Garner, who was accosted by the NYPD after he broke up a fight they were ignoring, which must have embarrassed them, as it exposed their uselessness. They accused him, with no evidence, of selling untaxed cigarettes, which shouldn’t be a crime in the first place. He refused to go along with them, fed up by this latest instance of their long-running harassment of him, exclaiming, “It stops today!” Incapable of brooking such defiance to their pretenses of authority over his person, all four officers jumped him, one applying a chokehold that put so much strain on his heart that it killed him. See Will Grigg on this story here.
Or the victim may be caged, and beaten there. See, for example, the case of Henry Davis, another recipient of the tender mercies of the same police department that shot Michael Brown and placed the whole Ferguson community under martial law. They arrested him due to a case of mistaken identity, caged him anyway, and after he complained about having to sleep on the concrete floor, severely beat him. Then they sued him for property damage over his blood getting on a police uniform during his beating.
And then there are the militarized home invasions that result in the terrorization, and often the deaths, of innocents. See for example the case of Aiyana Jones, a 7-year-old girl who was burned by a flash grenade (as 2-year old BouBou Phonesavanh also would later be) before being shot and killed by a Detroit police officer in a SWAT raid, while cameras were rolling for a cop-glorifying reality TV show. Click here for Will Grigg’s coverage.
Many victims end up funneled into the prison industrial complex, over victimless or petty crimes, where the brutality is ramped up even further. See for example the case of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate, who was scalded to death in a shower by prison guards in Dade, Florida, such that his skin sloughed off his dead body in pieces when they dragged it away.
And if any kind of organized serious resistance to this systematic treatment arises, it is suppressed with indiscriminate brute force. See for example the 1985 police fire-bombing of the residential building inhabited by black liberation group MOVE, which killed 11 people, including 5 children.
Almost every injustice listed above has exact parallels in the daily life of occupied peoples in foreign lands. And these injustices are committed against American blacks at astounding rates.
And almost all of it can be traced to the beginning, in the late 60s, of the “law and order” and “tough on crime” policy movement. What adds outrageous insult to outrageous injury is that the establishment has managed to propagate the myth that this is precisely the time in which things allegedly got much better for black Americans, and that they have the government to thank for it, since it is also the period in which the state began to tranqulize and etherize the black community with the debilitating sop of the Great Society welfare state and Federalized public schools, as well as the corruption and distraction of egalitarianism-through-force and electoral politics. “Social justice” and “civil rights” were the mess of pottage that American blacks were fed to cover the fact that they were simultaneously being systematically deprived of actual justice and self-ownership rights through the imperial police state.
This is why New Orleans-based singer/songwriter Randy Newman, in his 1974 song, “Rednecks,” was able to skewer the conceit that the government policies of self-satisfied 20th-century Northern liberals had liberated and uplifted the black people:
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize That the North has set the [black man] free Yes he’s free to be put in a cage In Harlem in New York City And he’s free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago And the West-Side And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston They’re gatherin’ ‘em up from miles around Keepin’ the [black men] down
Nixon’s Silent Majority is still with us, and, through its continued unquestioning support for cops, for “tough on crime” policies, and for the drug war, it is still propping up this imperial police state that brutally dominates the black population in America.
Many of these same “conservatives” are also the same ones who support U.S. imperialism abroad, and even use the same kinds of reasoning to defend their policies as foreign imperialists use to defend the persecution of Arabs abroad by both the U.S. and the Israeli governments. When brutalized people sometimes act brutally, they use that as an excuse to further collectively brutalize them, which only makes things worse. Islamic terrorism and Palestinian rockets are the analogue of serious crimes committed by blacks in that both are used as an excuse to ramp up collective punishment of entire communities and regions, including tactics of humiliation (like stop-and-frisk in New York City and invasive checkpoints in Palestine) and much worse besides (like grinding the Palestinian people with bombs and blockades), as well as disproportionate and unjust punishment of petty criminals (like gunning down black thieves or Palestinian rock-throwers).
Even if only for their own sake, “law and order” conservatives had better get past their policy-foolishness and identity-politics biases right quick, and stand up for the rights of all individuals against the police state, including “black neighborhood” blacks. After all, Chalmers Johnson’s maxim “Give up your empire, or live under it” is just as true for domestic empires, as it is for foreign empires.
Marginalized, kooky, and/or defiant whites have long been subject to the boot of the imperial police state: see the Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Bundy Ranch incidents. But, lately “ordinary” non-blacks have also been feeling the sting of its heel, as they too have more often seen themselves or their loved ones become targets or collateral damage in the War on Crime, and especially the War on Drugs, and the War on Anyone Who Pisses Off a Cop. This is why the most obvious excesses of these domestic wars have received more attention of late. As anyone who follows PoliceStateUSA, Copblock, The Free Thought Project, or Liberty Crier (or simply has a Facebook account and libertarian friends) can see from the unstinting flow of police brutality stories, images, and videos, American non-blacks are already beginning to experience what has been a daily reality for blacks for decades. See for example the case of Michael Bell who was shot and killed by a police officer in front of his own house in 2004. The officer was summarily exonerated, prompting his father, Michael Sr, to become a police accountability activist. See the father’s recent article in Politico reflecting on Ferguson and his interview with Scott Horton.
After all, the raison d’être of the state is to arrogate to itself ever more parasitic revenue, power, and importance in society. The notion that a militarized imperial/police state won’t, like X-men’s Sentinels, have extensive mission creep and expand its targets to include its creators and enablers, is far more of a fantasy than any science fiction or super-hero movie, many of which communicate important truths.
To paraphrase Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Arabs, and I did not speak out — Because I was not an Arab.
Then they came for the blacks, and I did not speak out — Because I was not black.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
This puts an entirely new spin on the lyrics to the “Bad Boys” theme song of the police-glorifying TV show “Cops.” Indeed, what are you going to do when they come for you (and yours)?
As more and more people of all varieties find themselves or someone they love terrorized or worse by one of the 124 violent SWAT raids that now occur in America every day, we would do well to remember that the SWAT team also originated in 1967, established by Daryl Gates at the LAPD, and its first use was against black political dissidents.
Give up your empire or live under it.