Complicit & Constipated
The killing of George Floyd, the community’s peaceful demonstrations in protest, & the polarizing public disobedience that has emerged in a response to sickening police provocation and the complicit, constipated approach of the Hennepin County prosecutor have hit me hard, Given my professed love of the state I still consider home, to be silent now is to join with Minneapolis police and the apparatuses of power that support them.
So I wrote in an email to friends last week. Folks who have known me for any length of time know that Minnesota is a central part of my identity, even as I near the end of a second decade of expat status. For reasons related to my own personal connections & cultural interests, Minneapolis is the center of Minnesota.1
My feeling about the complicity of the Hennepin County prosecutor stems from a belief that the endemic poor training & low standards for police (not just in Minneapolis, but across the country) are not simply ignored in the dominant public discourse, but actually invisible to the drivers of that discourse — most of whom are white & middle- or upper-class. Poor training & low standards have been the status quo for decades, of course, but the collective pass police received after 9/11 exacerbated things exponentially. Police & their political allies have not simply continued to leverage “tough on crime” rhetoric & policy as a cudgel against elected officials & politicians on the left; they have co-opted the “Support the Troops” genuflection for “first responders” & local-level operators in counter-terrorism efforts. The “Thin Blue Line” flag is perhaps the most odious symbol of this attitude. It’s essentially a gang sign — the colors of a gang with unchecked access to the state’s authority.
This is not to deny that police have a difficult, often thankless job. Even when it’s as minor as a traffic or parking ticket, nobody relishes an interaction with a cop acting in the line of duty, for reasons that can have nothing to do with the particular officer responding. But these difficult, thankless jobs require higher standards of conduct. I can’t claim to be the first person to make the observation, but contemporary policing in America has adopted all the worst aspects of military culture, plus the military’s equipment & tactics, with very little of the collective accountability stressed in the modern American military.2
When the 1st Marine Division was led by James Mattis3, he conveyed a number of expectations to us. Some of them are notorious quotations that place him in a line descended from an earlier, less circumspect generation of general officers.4 Just before the 2003 invasion, Mattis wrote to the Division, “Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” Mattis knew that any success by 1st Marines was predicated on the legitimacy of the occupation with the civilian population. When I was in Iraq under Mattis in 2004, any individual Marine’s use of lethal force, even to preserve life, had to be cleared by a sergeant or above unless we were already taking fire. The same principle applies, though our leaders & the police lobby have refused to acknowledge that domestic policing is not a war against insurgency. This CIA counter-terrorism operative turned Georgia cop gets it:
People need to imagine the end of a war. That’s what they need to accept. Our training is spot on: We’re in a war on crime, and it’s us versus them, and our neighbors are sheep we need to protect. You hear the term civilians. I thought we were all civilians! Our training fits the mindset.
The question we need to ask is: What’s the point? What do we want to see happen? It’s about what we expect the police to do. If I was commissioner of all police on the planet, I’d say there’s a ceasefire in the war on crime. We’re going to work for the 99 percent of people instead of against the 1 percent. Most 911 calls I go to are not crimes. They may become crimes, but our job is to stop it. We’re taught that it’s a war. It’s not. But it’s becoming a war.
We are the action arm for a fucked-up national mindset. This doesn’t exist in isolation. America has the police force that it votes for, that it funds. This system is what we set up. We spent a lot of money and a lot of time over hundreds of years to have this police force. We are trained for what we’re hired for, and what we’re hired for is war.
Back to complicity & constipation. Complicity already exists — it is perpetuated every time a city council, manager, or mayor authorizes the purchase of military weapons — MRAPs or other war wagons, AR-15s, concussion grenades, and other instruments of war — for police use. It is reinforced every time anybody votes for officials who authorize these purchases, who endorse military tactics used by domestic police, or who otherwise carry water for “the Thin Blue Line.” This complicity doesn’t have to continue, but the forces that seek to compel it will be difficult to resist, even after Minneapolis.
In my thinking, constipation is a symptom of complicity. Yes, Derek Chauvin was fired quickly. But that constipation is why Derek Chauvin remained free, despite evidence so compelling that any person without a badge would have already been arrested — even if specific charges were pending. That constipated complicity emboldened Minneapolis police, who belligerently attacked demonstrators, provoking polarizing civil disobedience by mid-week, which led to further police provocation, civic unrest, police attacks on journalists and medics, and the entrance of rogue anarchists & fascist saboteurs behind the human shield of righteous protesters. An acquittal of Derek Chauvin would be disastrous, so prosecutors do need to make the best-informed charges they can in this murder case. Ultimately, the Hennepin County prosecutor filed charges of third-degree murder & second-degree manslaughter against Chauvin on 29 May. But an earlier arrest did not hamper that effort, particularly as reports seeped out that Chauvin & his fellow ex-cops were not cooperating with the investigation.
Here is how & why I tie the constipation & complicity threads together:
- Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd while on duty as an agent of the government, authorized to use deadly force without clearance from any higher authority.
- Chauvin murdered George Floyd while he was face down and restrained by two other officers.
- Chauvin murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, while he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.
- Chauvin murdered George Floyd while a fellow officer, Tou Thao, kept bystanders — including an off-duty EMT — from intervening.
- Chauvin murdered George Floyd while he was being recorded by a bystander’s cell phone.
- That snuff film became unignorable evidence, not just of yet another police murder of a Black man, but of the state’s ongoing violation of its social contract with the people.
- The Hennepin County prosecutor abetted Chauvin’s violation of that contract by not ordering his arrest; whether or not the prosecutor wanted to get the ultimate charges in line first, there is strong reason for the public to believe Chauvin received treatment any other person would not simply because he was an agent of the government.
- The violation of that social contract should call in to question the state’s legitimacy in the eyes of anyone who watches George Floyd die.
My thinking here is not novel. In a recent piece for The New Republic, its features editor Ryu Spaeth wrote:
The spasms of violence we saw in Minnesota and elsewhere, this collective scream of rage, is what happens when the social contract between citizens and their government is so thoroughly, irredeemably broken.
A couple days before that, Konstantine Anthony, a candidate for Burbank City Council, tweeted:
Riots prove that police do not keep order, only the social contract does. When the state violates that contract against the public, then the public no longer holds that contract valid with government or the capital it favors.
Nobody enjoys a riot, which is exactly the point.
Anthony’s tweet helped me formulate a reply to people who are put off by the civic unrest that has swept from Minneapolis across the country (including my own community). I expect I will need to make this reply to members of my own family.
Trevor Noah’s video,“George Floyd and the Dominoes of Racial Justice,” was, however, the most powerful discourse on the brokenness of the social contract, and the necessary accountability of those vested in the state’s authority. Watch it.
The American social contract has been broken for centuries. That white America is only just now reckoning with this reality as it is finally & thoroughly rubbed in its face does not change reality’s historical factuality, or the grave national peril this reality has exposed in this moment. Riots are the symptoms of a cancer white America has too long ignored. If one wishes to take issue with these symptoms, one must not just admit to the existence of a disease causing them, but loathe and commit to treating that disease.
For any of us to do anything else is to remain constipated & complicit.
As I mentioned here, Cup Foods, the market where a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, was four blocks from my last Minneapolis address. I went into Cup regularly for cigarettes, drinks, & Middle Eastern snacks. I have relatives in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities metro, and out-state Minnesota.↩
I don’t mean to suggest the military is a perfect institution — this would be a lie — but it is doing much better than the police, who purport to follow the military’s model.↩
Mattis was then a major general in the Marine Corps. He was forced into retirement after clashing with the Obama administration during his tenure as CENTCOM commander. He later became the first Secretary of Defense in the current administration, which is now on its fifth secretary (two of them confirmed and three acting). Mattis resigned in protest, rebuking the foreign policy positions held by the current occupant of the White House.↩
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear something like “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” uttered in some police squad rooms of major American cities. But, this was a general’s directive to his Marines about to perform occupation duty in a hostile foreign country.↩