When police think they’re ‘punishers,’ they cease to be police

When police think they’re ‘punishers,’ they cease to be police June 2, 2020

Here’s a USAToday write-up on that video of LARPing Minneapolis police officers disgracing themselves by abusing their authority: “‘Light ’em up’: Minneapolis officers seen firing paint rounds at people on their porch.”

The article notes that these folks had every right to be on their porch, even during curfew, but not — officials claim — to be on your porch if a passing parade of armored loons on your otherwise quiet street screams at you to go inside. “If a law enforcement officer or other public safety official asks you to go inside, or take any other action, you must follow the instruction,” says a statement from the Minneapolis Department of Public Safety.

Umm, “any other action”? No. Nope. Uh-uh.

Law enforcement officers and public safety officials have legitimate authority to give instructions in service of law enforcement and public safety. They have no legitimate authority to give absurd or capricious instructions, to give nonsensical or Kafkaesque instructions. And they have no authority to enforce their instructions by breaking the law themselves or by undermining and violating public safety.

And police never, ever have the authority to punish those who fail to comply with their instructions. Not with paint guns and tear gas, or nightsticks, fists, boots, or knees. Punishment is not their job. Their badge doesn’t cover that. Never has, never will.

The Punisher is a comic book villain whose only superpower is that he has a gun he kills people with. He first appeared in the comic above, wherein he tried to kill a falsely accused innocent man. He’s not a Good Guy.

That distinction is essential and definitional for police. And it’s one that police increasingly do not understand — as explicitly demonstrated by police bros’ increasing fondness for putting the comic-book Punisher logo on everything.

This is not some fuzzy gray area of subtlety and nuance. It’s a bright, bold line between freedom and fascism. When police act like its their job to punish, the rule of law can no longer be in effect. It gets replaced by the rule of cops.

In many communities, this happened long ago. Those communities are lawless, not because the citizens who live in them fail to abide by the law, but because the rule of law has been replaced there by the rule of Frank Castle, by capricious wanna-be Punishers who can dole out punishment for anything at any time. It is exhausting and terrifying to live under such a lawless, illegitimate regime. To be law-abiding in a lawless community requires a kind of hyper-compliance to an ever-shifting, ever-changing set of unruly rules. It means you can dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ and still find yourself in illegal legal trouble because some lawless cop’s breakfast didn’t agree with him and he’s in a surly mood.

The tension and stress and relentlessness of trying to live like that is literally unbearable. It cannot be borne indefinitely. And so — inevitably and expectedly and utterly unsurprisingly — the people subjected to such lawlessness periodically fail or refuse to bear it. They protest. They appeal to some legitimate authority that they themselves have never enjoyed. Or they erupt into lawlessness of their own.

When police routinely break the law — when they punish and dole out punishment and strut about as punishers — those police establish the ground rules of no rules, creating whole territories where there is no rule but what they say, which is to say no rules at all. Why do they see themselves as punishers? Because they can. Looters exhibit the same behavior. They’re just doing what the punishers have taught and shown and told them they can do — whatever they can get away with.

What we’re seeing right now, in city after city, is American citizens rejecting the rule of punishers and demanding the rule of law rather than the lawlessness of abusive policing. They’re protesting against the capricious and illegitimate abuse of authority. And police, in city after city, are doubling down on that same abusive, illegitimate, we-don’t-need-no-stinking-badges lawlessness. They’re asserting their authority to assert whatever authority they can get away with because they have bigger guns. And when their guns aren’t big enough, they’re calling in the National Guard. The National Guard don’t wear badges, of course, but perhaps its better to not wear them at all than it is to wear them while utterly disregarding their meaning. If we’re going to impose military occupation, at least let’s have the candor of doing it in military uniform.

(This does raise some thorny legal/ethical questions, though. Before sending in uniformed soldiers, officials really need to take a hard look at centuries of jus in bello ethics and ponder what they are thereby inviting and justifying. National Guard officers marching into Philly this week might also want to read up on General Howe.)

When the only authority you yourself recognize is brute force, that becomes the only authority you hold. And when that is the only source of authority you hold, you have no path and no plan other than escalate, escalate, escalate. Keep doing the thing that’s not working — the thing that can never work — and just do it harder. This is what we’re seeing now, across America, with absurdly armored police running wild in the streets, brutalizing the public in the name of “public safety.”

We’ve become inured to the absurd strangeness of that. We’ve come to expect a massive, heavily armed police presence at (some kinds of) protest rallies as though this made any sense at all. We’ve accepted this provocation and pre-escalation as though it was logical or necessary. Why would it be? Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances — these are all explicitly legal activities, named and enshrined specifically in the Constitution in a way that nothing about that police presence is at all. Battalions of armored police forming perimeters around such protests is no more called for — no more acceptable — than any such pre-emptive police action would be if they showed up to form an armed and armored perimeter around football fans at the homecoming game, or around the thousands of citizens exercising another set of explicit First Amendment rights at, say, Joel Osteen’s church.

And police don’t even have the good sense to feign an objection when media report on their disproportionate presence as “a show of force.” They just nod in agreement, saying, yup, that’s what we’re doing — we’re making a show of force. And not a one of them seems to realize how damning that admission is, how it utterly undermines any claim of lawful legitimacy.



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