We must not tolerate this brazen authoritarianism

Jul 26 JDN 2459057

Imagine for a moment what this would feel like:

Your girlfriend, who works as an EMT, just got home and went to bed after a long shift. Suddenly you hear banging on your door. “Who is it?” you shout; no answer. “Who is it?” you ask again; still no answer. The banging continues.

You know there is a lot of crime in your neighborhood, so you bought a handgun to protect your family. Since it seems like someone is about to invade your home, now seems like the obvious time to use it. You get the gun, load it, and aim it at the doorway. You hesitate; are you really prepared to pull that trigger? You know that you could kill someone on the other side. But you need to protect your family. So you fire a few shots at the doorway, hoping it will be enough to scare them away.


The response is a hail of bullets from several different directions, several of which hit your girlfriend and kill her while she is asleep.


Then, the door breaks down and several police officers barge in, having never announced themselves as police officers. They arrest you. You learn later that they were serving a so-called “no knock warrant”, which was intended for someone who wasn’t even there. They were never supposed to be in your home in the first place. Your girlfriend is now dead. And then, to top it all off, they have the audacity to charge you with attempted murder of a police officer because you tried to defend your home.

Now imagine what this would feel like as well:

In the evening you joined a protest. It was a peaceful protest, and there were hardly even any police officers around. There was no rioting, no vandalism, no tear gas or rubber bullets; just people holding signs and chanting. It’s now about 2:00 AM, and the protest is ending for the night, so you begin walking home.

Suddenly a van pulls up next to you. It’s completely unmarked; it just looks like a rental car that anybody could have rented. The door slides open and men in tactical body armor leap out of it, pointing rifles at you. They demand that you get in the van with them, and since you think they’re likely to shoot you if you don’t, you comply.

They handcuff you, cover your eyes with your hat, and drive you somewhere. They unload you into a building, then frisk you, photograph you, and rummage through your belongings. Then, they put you into a cell. They have not identified themselves. They have not explained why they abducted you.

Only after they have put you into a cell do they identify themselves as federal agents and start reading you your Miranda rights. They still won’t tell you why you were arrested. They ask you to waive your right to counsel; when you refuse, they leave you there for an hour and a half and then release you. Only as you walk outside do you realize that you had been taken to a federal courthouse.

These stories did not happen in Zimbabwe or Congo or Nicaragua. They did not happen in Russia or China or Venezuela. They happened right here in the United States of America. The first one is the story of Kenneth Walker in Louisville, whose girlfriend Breonna Taylor was murdered by police who didn’t announce that they were police and were never supposed to be in his home. It wasn’t a completely random error; the intended target was someone Breonna Taylor knew. So yes, it was possible that the intended target—who did have a legitimate warrant out for his arrest—might have been present. But how does that justify not even announcing themselves as police?

The second is the story of Mark Pettibone in Portland, who was abducted by anonymous paramilitary forces in an unmarked van. The Department of Homeland Security (an Orwellian name for an agency if ever there were) released a report on the incidents of “violent anarchists” that justified their use of such extreme measures: Most of them are graffiti or vandalism. There are a few genuinely violent incidents in there: Some throwing rocks, some pointing laser pointers at police officers’ eyes, and at least one alleged pipe bomb; but in the whole report there is only one incident listed in which any police officers were injured.

This is authoritarianism. It is not like authoritarianism; it is not moving toward authoritarianism. It is authoritarianism. Secret police in unmarked vehicles abducting people off the street is simply something that should not be allowed to happen in a liberal democracy. Right now it is rare, and for this we should be grateful; but it should not be rare, it should be non-existent. And we should continue fighting until it is. This is not a utopian dream, like imagining that we could make rape or murder non-existent. This is a policy choice. No other First World country does this. (Indeed, are we even a First World country anymore? We were supposed to be the paragon of the First World, but I’m not so sure we even belong in the category anymore.) What we have made rare they have managed to avoid entirely.

While arrest warrants are a necessary part of law enforcement, “no-knock” warrants are inherently authoritarian. Police should be required to identify themselves: Not simply that they are law enforcement, but what agency they work for, their own names and badge numbers, and the reason they are conducting the arrest. A “no-knock” warrant would already be unjust even applied in the best of circumstances (capturing an organized crime boss, perhaps); but typically they are used for drug raids (is criminalizing drugs is even right in the first place?), and in this case the person they wanted wasn’t even there.

Pettibone was at least promptly released. Walker will grieve the loss of his girlfriend for the rest of his life. Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove, the officers who shot Breonna Taylor, have still not been charged.

I wish that I could blame Trump for all of this and promise that it will go away when he loses the election in November (as statistical forecasts strongly predict he will). But while Trump and those who enable him have clearly accelerated and exacerbated this problem, the roots run much deeper.

For many people, particularly Black people, the United States is a de facto police state, and more or less always has been. (In fact, in most ways it’s probably better than it used to be—which isn’t to say that it is remotely acceptable right now, but to point out just how horrific it once was.) Harassment and abuse by police are commonplace, and death at the hands of police is a constant fear. Many of us are blissfully unaware of this, because we live in places where it doesn’t happen. This violence is highly concentrated: Major US cities vary in their races of police homicide by nearly a full order of magnitude.

The power of our government is unmatched. We have the third-largest standing army (after China and India, each of which has four times our population), the fourth-largest police force (in addition to China and India, add Russia to the list—though their population is less than half ours), and the largest incarcerated population in the world. Our military spending is higher than the next ten countries combined. Our intelligence services are not simply the largest in the world; the CIA alone accounts for nearly two-thirds of all worldwide intelligence spending. And while by the CIA is by far the largest, the US has over a dozen other intelligence agencies. When this power is abused—as it all too often is—the whole world feels the pain. We cannot afford to tolerate such abuses. We must stamp them out while we still can.

Getting Trump out won’t fix this. We must get him out, for a hundred thousand reasons, but that will not be nearly enough. Like hairline fractures in a steel beam that become wide gashes when the bridge is loaded, there are deep, structural flaws in our society and our system of government that are now becoming visible under the strain of crisis. I for one believe that these flaws can still be mended. But the longer we wait, the closer we come to a total collapse.

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