When protests in Baltimore erupted in April over the murder of Freddie Gray by six police officers the internet and social media exploded. People asked question such as “why are they destroying their own neighborhood?” or “Why can’t they just be peaceful?” Everyone from the current Mayor of Baltimore to President Obama referred to protesters as “thugs,” taking away from the legitimacy of their actions (1). They put concerns about property ahead of concerns about people. Many outside of the black community are still trying to understand why. I believe the most effective tool for explanation is the and understanding of the “monopoly on violence.”
The “monopoly on violence” was developed by Max Weber, a German sociologist and founder of modern sociology in an essay titled “Politics as a Vocation” (2). Weber argues that the state is any “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” and that “the modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination.” Governments and the people are in a voluntary relationship with each other. People trade liberty and freedom in exchange for protection. Government derives power from the people but maintains it by exercising force to the protect them. When government blurs this line, as it did in Baltimore, the relationship breaks down and people rise up to restore the balance. We see this in every popular uprising in our history from the Revolutionary War, to slave rebellions, the Stonewall riots, the Civil Rights Movement, and in other cases like the Branch Davidian and Move standoffs. The circumstances in each case are different but the motives remain similar.
Meanwhile in Waco
Regarding the recent Waco biker brawl at a Twin Peaks restaurant there are clear differences in law enforcement's response. Here, we had organized armed biker gangs that in an adversarial relationship with each other arrive at a place that law enforcement knew they would be (3). Violence broke out with at least one police officer saying it was the worst he’d ever seen (4). The result was the deaths of 9 people and 170 arrests, and while it remains unclear how many killed were shot by police, a very large cache of weapons was retrieved (5). The response seems appropriate, but I can’t help but wonder had the racial makeup been different would the response have been the same? In Baltimore police used military style weapons and vehicles against unarmed protesters that were mostly black. The government made war on the people, exercising its right to use force as a means of maintaining control. In Waco, where the crowd was mostly white, the scene was practically opposite (6).
The response reminds me of a book by political theorist, military strategist, and Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, titled “On War” (7). He wrote that “war is politics by other means” meaning that when politics fail, war becomes an extension of them. Consider this with Weber’s “monopoly on violence” and the situation in not only Baltimore, but also Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, as well as the popular uprisings mentioned earlier, don’t seem so outlandish. Consider reports that described parts of Baltimore as having lower life expectancy than North Korea (8), or gerrymandering (9), or gentrification (10); these are all political means by which black communities have been and continue to be disenfranchised. When politics fail to keep the neighborhoods at bay they’re enhanced by the making of war. The response in Baltimore was so egregious it resulted in the President announcing limits to the sale of military vehicles and equipment to local law enforcement agencies (11).
Comparing responses to Baltimore and Waco has been difficult over the last couple of weeks because a natural disaster, rain, literally and figuratively flooded Waco, our televisions, and our newspapers (12). However, as the waters recede they reveal another discussion on disproportionate treatment of populations based on race. It’s no secret that black communities are disproportionately affected by natural disasters because black communities are disproportionately impoverished. Part of the reason the communities are disproportionately impoverished is due to the fact that blacks in America are paid disproportionately less than whites (13), and they’re also jailed at disproportionately higher rates for the same crimes (14). A quick search on Google for “Waco poverty map” yields census backed data that, when paired with flooding reports, details which neighborhoods have truly been hit hardest (15).
Riot versus Celebration
However, disproportionate poverty, impact of natural disasters, and treatment by law enforcement and the government isn’t just anecdotal. There are many instances where mostly white groups descended upon their neighborhoods rioting, looting, and causing destruction of property in response to trivial motivations, namely sporting events and seasonal festivals (16, 17). In these cases we don’t hear from much more than a local enforcement official. We hear nothing of thugs. Instead we heard of revelers. There is no 24 hour news cycle. There are no statements from governors, never mind the President. Paramilitary police forces are not deployed and the “celebrations” fade into obscurity. Furthermore, a news story from last week pictures a white elderly man from Georgia open-carrying an AR-15 in an airport, ultimately receiving not even a warning (18). What if this man was black, or even Muslim, would the response have been the same? If the person is white, black, Muslim, or anything else, the law should apply fairly but when those laws are applied differently that is when we have a problem.
While working on this piece another instance of disproportionate law enforcement overreach and police brutality occurred. Ironically, like the Waco biker incident, it was also in Texas, in a town called McKinney, about 2 hours north of Waco. In this case a white police officer drew his weapon on a crowd of unarmed black teens and took down a 14 year old black girl, knelt on her back, and aimed his gun at the crowd (19). Fortunately, this time no one was killed and the officer has since resigned (20). Still, time after time detractors point to things like black on black crime (a fallacy) as well as any number of police shootings where victims were white, especially cases where cops were black, as a means of diluting the racial narrative (21). Yet, a study produced by The Guardian, a UK publication, and released last week found that while non-white American’s make up 38% of the US population, yet nearly half of those killed by police were minorities, and 66% of those killed were unarmed (22, 23, 24). Just 15% of whites killed by police were unarmed. As a result federal lawmakers are now seeking to institute mandatory reporting for police killings, something that, surprisingly, has never existed before (25).
Guardians or warriors?
The theories of the “monopoly on violence” and “war as politics by other means” are relevant across a variety of interactions between the government and the people, including the Waco biker brawl. The difference is in the application of these concepts and understanding that disparate treatment equates with racism. Law enforcement has lost sight of the role it plays in our society, taking the position of guardians in some communities, and warriors in others (26). The mainstream ignores that police in the US kill more people in just days (27), than other nations do in years and additionally we have the highest incarceration rate worldwide (28).
Perhaps what communities across the US more prone to an adversarial relationship between police and the population need is a modified version of the so-called “Boston Miracle” (29). There are bad people on the streets but there are also bad people in uniforms. If one group, law enforcement, acting with the support of government, are going to treat entire communities like war zones full of criminals, why would we expect the people to look at law enforcement as friends when law enforcement treat them like foes? The rest of the US, the media, and our mainstream dialogue about these incidents also need to change. Our Constitution begins with “we the people” because we are all the people, supposedly without division, and when one group is disenfranchised we need to stand in solidarity, not turn our backs
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