One of the more common hallmarks of what are referred to as “failed states” is the checkpoint. You’ve seen it, or read about it, or maybe experienced it while traveling in regions where the center failed to hold. A road blockade, manned by armed men, slowing and stopping cars. Picture it, if you want to heighten the drama, at night, your headlights glinting off Kalashnikovs.
In some cases, they are there demanding tribute: a toll for using the road, used to fund their insurgency. In other cases, they may be there to stop enemy militias or terrorists or other brigands and bandits from entering their newly-gained territory. It’s usually both. In any case, in the absence of the restraining power of the state means that they have the force of law. Their strength, their guns, give them power.
The primary difference between a “failed state” and a strong one is the regulation of violence. In America, as in pretty much every other country, we have given a monopoly on legitimate violence to the police. This can be defined broadly to include all state and federal organizations, or, as most of us experience it, the day to day local cops. The social contract underpinning this is that we have granted them the extraordinary right to use violence and to kill when needed, so that the rest of us don’t have to resort to doing it on our own.
Obviously, the “monopoly on legitimate violence” is a pretty thin veneer. Nearly every town has organized crime, whether that’s the demonized gang or the romanticized mafia. None are legitimate, per se, but all operate through corruption, blind eyes, and a rough agreement to uphold the status quo. In-group violence is usually tolerated; out-group violence is often prosecuted. It’s uneasy.
But that’s not really the problem. The problem is that, as a country, we have only ever really completed half the bargain. The social contract shouldn’t just be “you, because of your badge, are allowed to do violence.” It’s supposed to be “We are entrusting you with terrible power; you will be restrained (in every sense), plainly scrutinized, and judicious.”
American policing is the exact opposite. It’s unrestrained, flush with political power, and the default mode is to demand obedience and passivity. It is power, and its power gives it power. It takes extraordinary rights while bucking off even the most basic restrictions. It controls your day-to-day and is a life-and-death authority in every interaction, based entirely on the power it has taken for itself.
It is, in short, warlordism.
Glimpses of a Hot Midwest Spring
In Chicago, this afternoon, a police accountability board released bodycam video of the killing of 13-yr-old Adam Toledo, who we were told by cops, prosecutors, the mayor, and even the defense, had a gun. In the video, he had dropped the gun, and had his hands up, turned toward the police, before being gunned down. There is a grotesque argument being had as to whether there was a reason to shoot him; what there is no argument about is that the cops lied. Their story was a lie, a knowing lie, and was only shown to be a lie when the footage was released. But even so, cop union officers howled at the injustice being shown to them, and quailing politicians spent more time praising police than questioning why we should ever believe them. Is ever thus.
In a suburb of Minneapolis, police killed Daunte Wright a 20-yr-old Black man, pulled over for having an obstructed rearview mirror. He had a warrant for a misdemeanor. The cops treated it as a matter of life or death, and when he didn’t comply, he was shot. The official excuse is that the veteran cop thought she was aiming her TASER. The official excuse still can’t explain why such a nothing situation demanded obsequious compliance or face an execution.
Meanwhile, the Kenosha cop who paralyzed Jacob Blake for the crime of not listening will not face any discipline. After all, he told Blake not to get into his car. Blake was doing nothing wrong, and wanted to leave. But when a citizen disobeys a cop, that citizen risks the death penalty.
Meanwhile, the trial for Derrick Chauvin, the murderer of George Floyd, whose death sparked last summer’s searing heat, continues.
Back in Brooklyn Center, protests over Wright’s killing grow, as does the police reaction. Riot-gear clad cops complain of having soup cans thrown at them and react with tear gas and rubber bullets. Mass arrests, curfew, and pleas from politicians for citizens not to be violent. After all, violence is the responsibility of the police. They treat it as a duty.
These cops, and the Minnesota State Police, know how to handle protests. They’ve been training for it in a multi-state effort to crush protests against pipelines, in this case Enbridge 3 — As the excellent investigative journalists at the anti-fash outfit Unicorn Riot revealed, the MSP worked with police from North and South Dakota to learn tactics used to attack peaceful protesters at the treaty-breaking DAPL line. (Background on that here)
To recap just what is happening in Minnesota: a city already on-edge over the police murder of a Black man sees another clear killing which, even if it was an accident, was the direct result of police treating Black people like an occupied people. As good citizens protest, as they get rightfully angry, and don’t feel that they have to be docile in the face of brutality levied out by ostensible civil servants, they are beaten and gassed and broken by police who trained for this in defense of a private company.
The Occupied and the Enemy
Taken together, this seems to be a story entirely about race. And in a way, it is that, of course. The history of American policing has been that of systemic abuse against people of color. If people like me are just beginning to see America as a police state, where the police act as an occupying force, that’s been the reality for Black people for centuries.
But even though I argued the police state reality in that link above, I sort of want to walk that back a bit. And here I want to tread carefully, since I do not mean to even sort of imply equivalence. I don’t think that the police treat Blacks, Latinos, and others as an occupied people, as I said. I think they see white people as the occupied people.
This is what I meant above by “warlordism”. Warlords (an inelegant and usually racialized term, but we’ll reclaim it for white folks) have territory that they control. Even if they see themselves as defending their people, they do so from a position of unquestioned power. They brook no dissent. They control any petty local politicians, who usually are allowed to operate under very constrained circumstances, and never allowed to interfere. They operate with impunity. And while the people in that territory aren’t under the gun, and indeed can live very well if they agree to the system (which, why wouldn’t we?), there is the knowledge that the warlord and their men can fuck you up at any time.
I can get away with a lot as a middle-aged, middle-class white guy, but if a cop feeling his oats told me to jump, I might not have to ask how high, but I damn sure couldn’t stay planted.
So where does that leave the primary targets of police violence? As the people outside the warlord territory. Here I admit the idea is complicated, since we aren’t talking about physical territory. It’s mental territory. It’s the idea that the fiefdom belongs to a few, for the complicit comfort of the many, and paid for with the lives of others.
This is literal, in the sense that so many police departments get their funding from traffic tickets, and those are usually targeted at the poor and people of color, who have to comply or face a beating or killing (this was probably the case with Wright). This was the case with Ferguson, whose revenue came disproportionately from fines and fees levied against its black citizens, which led the DOJ to call the police department a “collections agency“.
That’s targeted theft, yes. More than that, it is targeted theft done with the explicit promise that if the target resists they will be killed and their murder will be lied about. If they don’t stop at the checkpoint and pay money to the men with guns, the guns will be turned against them, and there is nothing anyone can do.
There are attempts at reform, but the police wield too much political power to truly be stopped. Politicians from the most performatively blood-thirsty Republican to the most reform-minded Democrats parrot police narratives and mewl about good cops, as if the reality of good cops changed the larger reality of a broken system. In big cities, reformist Mayors come in and then are instantly broken by the police unions, who threaten to withhold services if anyone sniffs at their prerogatives.
The Breaking Point
What has happened is what has happened around the world for nearly all of history. The powerful need protection. They grant a license for violence to a small protected caste. That caste accumulates more power, usually by its license for violence, but also by its ever-present threat to turn that violence against the powerful or back away and let anarchy bloom.
They become insular. They become an institution unto themselves. They become unaccountable. And they expand the scope of their targets, until everyone is a potential target. Some much more than others; some are ever the targets, and live their entire lives in the shadow of this violence, their possibilities mutated and warped by the reality of fate. Others keep their heads down and thank the violent gang for stopping the other violent gangs, pretending that because the system works for them, the system works.
It doesn’t, of course. There was never really a social contract with America’s police, because from the beginning they were granted the right to commit unchecked violence. The system was set up to allow them to do whatever they wanted against runaway slaves, immigrants, fieldworkers, union organizers, Blacks trying to vote, Black people driving a car anywhere, Black people just standing on the corner. They were granted these rights and left unobserved, because that’s how our system worked. America’s inherent racism ensured that there never was anything to check the violent rights of police. After all, they were just using it to protect us against them.
What happened could have been predictable to anyone who knew the slow tide of history. The police became so powerful that resistance is impossible. And so the social contract is completely broken. There is no oversight, no accountability, no scrutiny. Those given the power of life-and-death demand it with no strings attached. They demand obedience. They demand passivity. They were granted it so long that any attempt to rein it in even a little bit spins them into convulsions of murderous violence — the crunch of the baton, the hot choking gas, the flying bullets, the rageful beatings, the gleeful stompings.
In other countries, when people resist their warlords we see it as bravery. Here, it is decried by Presidents demanding that citizens remain peaceful while cops are allowed to rampage behind body armor. That’s more than a broken social contract. That’s a society completely broken and failed. It’s one where the powerful can kill the powerless without hesitation. It’s just another country, collapsed under the terrible weight of its own violence.