A jolt from the gut startles him awake; he is gasping for air. He’d spring up in bed to inhale if he could, but some invisible weight on his chest keeps him pinned to the mattress.
Panic courses through his body from crown to gut, and he fears the Grim Reaper has slid into the room like a referee from one of those wrestling shows to give the three-count. His right-hand stutters across the white cotton sheets, fumbling for the power switch to his bedside lamp, while the other frantically clutches at the side of the bed.
The gurgling sound of his struggle to breathe rouses his wife. “Honey?” she asks, turning on her own bedside lamp. “Honey!!” she repeats, her hand on his chest as her confusion turns to dread. She calls 911.
After a couple of days in the hospital and numerous tests, the doctor descends through the fluorescent ceiling lights and plops down next to the man’s cot. His cushioned stool squeaks under his weight. “Well,” says the doctor with a satisfied grin, “It seems we’ve finally found the cause of your near-miss with death.” The paper bed liner rustles beneath the man as he braces for the diagnosis.
Angina was the specter that grabbed the man by the heart the other night, a chest pain caused by a lack of oxygen-rich blood, the doctor explains. If he doesn’t change his health routine — less pizza, more jogging — this man won’t live to see his sixties.
A near-miss with death calls us to reflect on the choices that brought us to the precipice of our mortality. It’s an invitation to make changes — that is, if we want to live.
Last week, democracy in America as we know it stood on the ledge of its own mortality and peered down into the chasm of authoritarian rule when armed so-called patriots “stormed” the U.S. capitol with weapons, flex cuffs, and a bouquet of conservative banners, including the battle flag of the Confederacy.
They intended to prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 election results.
“U! S! A!” these self-designated “patriots” chanted as they broke windows, looted laptops, and smeared feces throughout the Capitol, looking to make hostages of our lawmakers — all for love of country.
It was later reported that a number of those insurrectionists were off-duty police officers from around the country, as well as military veterans. That is one of the most disturbing details about the so-called Capitol Riot. Let it sink in: our own police laid siege to the Capitol.
That fact alone should elucidate to Americans just how sick our democracy is. We should be rushing it to the emergency room. But some Americans want us to downplay this episode and what it signals about the health of America’s democracy with calls for unity and to “put it behind us”.
The reality is, we can’t put this behind us any more than a person can walk off a heart attack. We’re in the midst of a political crisis that could end America as we know it.
America must swallow the hard pill that a police state can’t be a democracy. The police are an inherently anti-democratic institution, and its recent coup attempt demonstrates that the country’s investments in policing will backfire on the general American public unless there’s an intervention. We must either eventually defund the police, or prepare to eulogize the very idea of America altogether.
Americans must unsubscribe from the dangerous myth that policing is the linchpin of public safety. Numerous scholars have explained that police forces were established to serve and protect some — the rich and white being of paramount importance, with this protection trickling down the rungs of human hierarchy until “public safety” runs dry somewhere in middle-class terrain.
In his book The End of Policing, sociologist Alex Vitale explains:
“The police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and non-white people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”
Some of the first police were established as paramilitary forces to return African fugitives to forced labor camps in the American south, suppress colonized populations around the world, and control ‘undesirable’ populations on behalf of wealthy elites.
Whenever targeted populations organize themselves to fight for freedom, law enforcement agencies organize themselves to stop them. This means policing isn’t rooted in democratic soil. Police have always existed in opposition to movements pushing to make society more equitable.
And in the United States, a tremendous amount of resources have been invested to preserve its racial order.
“Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do,” explains law professor Paul Butler. “Virtually every objective investigation of a US law enforcement agency finds that the police, as policy, treat African Americans with contempt.” America allocates military-grade weaponry in some cases and, in some cities (not states), billions of dollars, toward that end.
In New York City alone, the police budget for 2021 is $6 billion dollars. Author Danny Katch explains:
“If billionaire and ex–New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up and [stack his wealth in individual dollar bills lined end to end], his $25 billion in wealth would stretch all the way to the moon . . . and back . . . five times.”
By that measure, there’s enough money in the New York City Police Department budget alone to stack to the Moon and back…and then some. Now imagine the stacks of money for the hundred-billion dollars spent on policing in the U.S. annually. That is an unfathomable amount of money directed toward maintaining white power.
Even the insurrectionists seem to understand what that money is really for; that’s why they seemed surprised by what little repression they received last Wednesday.
“They pushed me down and maced me,” exclaimed “Elizabeth from Knoxville” in disbelief.
“You work for us,” rioters exclaim as they try to force their way through a narrow hallway, with their own police shields.
“This is not America…They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots,” one woman cried.
Those complaints convey their understanding that American law enforcement institutions aren’t meant to police them — not primarily. It’s time America found the moral courage and humility to confess that these insurrectionists didn’t pull their assumption — that the police wouldn’t treat them like Black people — out of thin air.
The insurrectionists know intuitively that Black people exist as the enemies of civil society in America’s white supremacist common sense. They know the police are supposed to be the guardians of white society, holding us Black savages at bay.
The problem, though, is that once a weapon is built, there’s no way of ensuring it will only be used on the enemies for whom it was first intended.
The off-duty cops that “stormed” the capital have demonstrated that the institution built to limit democracy for some can catalyze the loss of democracy for all, as they brought the tools they usually use to put down Black Lives Matter protests — flex cuffs, batons, shields, pepper spray, and tear gas — to terrorize the Senate.
America’s chickens have come home to roost. It has tolerated that anti-democratic spirit called white supremacy for generations, especially in law enforcement, and that same energy compelled law enforcement officers to try to take democracy from the American public in general.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that was the last we’ll see of aspiring insurrectionists. There’ll be more attempts to secure white dominance in the future, likely the near future.
We shouldn’t assume they view last week as a defeat. It could’ve been a trial run. They proved to themselves they can infiltrate what should be one of the most secure government buildings in the country, and that their comrades in blue will respond slowly and handle them gently.
America has been jolted awake in the night, gasping for air. The diagnosis is clear: we’ve been playing fast and loose with our political health. We can’t expect to indulge in white supremacy and have a healthy democracy.
Calls to move past these events without taking stock of how we got here and what needs to change will only ensure that America’s democracy remains weak and vulnerable. We need to make serious changes — stat!
To be sure, there are those who will argue that without the police — the on-duty police, that is — the Capital Riot may have been worse. Sure, it’s good there were some on-duty cops to confront the off-duty cops, but only because it was our best defense at the moment, not because it’s the best that can be imagined. After all, even Gandhi said that if the choices before someone are violence or inaction against oppression, violence is the better choice.
Nevertheless, we must never forget that a coup can be stopped without the police’s weapons through organized, strategic, nonviolent struggle. There’s a vast canon of literature out there that details how ordinary, organized, unarmed people can thwart armed putschists and brutal authoritarians, even while outgunned and outnumbered.
Today, perhaps the best we can hope for is that some “good cops” will confront bad cops in the extreme event of an attempted coup. But we can also work to make the principles and tactics of nonviolent civil resistance so common and well-known that, in the future, the American people can stop a coup or even a foreign invasion through nonviolent struggle, as scholars like Gene Sharp have put forward in their work.
We’ll only need police for as long as it takes us to implement something better. Our inability to think of what an intervention would have looked like without police last week isn’t a point of legitimacy to the police force, but an indictment on our political imagination. We don’t need bigger police forces, we need more creativity and political will.
As many experts have argued, the solution to crime isn’t policing, but making sure people’s basic needs are met. And to paraphrase Vitale, the antithesis to policing isn’t anarchy, but “a robust democracy”.
America’s near-miss with a government takeover invites us to reflect on the choices that have brought us to the precipice of a fascist takeover. It’s a chance to make changes — that is, if we want our “grand experiment in democracy” to continue.