Police and Protesters as Potential Allies


“The ruling class has…needed people to control those on the bottom. Some of the largest male occupations are police, security guards, prison wardens, immigration officials, deans and administrators, soldiers, members of the National Guard and state militias, and, of course, the father of the family as the disciplinarian.”

Paul Kivel, You Call This a Democracy?

The current demonstrators protesting alleged police harassment and unprovoked killings of unarmed black men and boys surfacing throughout U.S. highlights the longstanding and continuous tensions and confrontations between police forces and the communities they are meant to serve. An essential question we must discuss and eventually answer, however, is: “Whose interests do they actually serve?”
Examination reveals that in communities where incidents of police killings occur most frequently, law enforcement officers come primarily from similar socioeconomic classes (middle and working class) — while not necessarily from similar ethnic, cultural, racial, or gender backgrounds — of the people they patrol. What we are witnessing is an intra-class conflict in the service of the wealthy ruling class.
The Myth of Meritocracy
As infants, starting in the family and taken over later by the larger society, we are weaned from our mothers’ breasts or the bottle on the Pablum of meritocracy: the concept that individuals are born onto a relatively level playing field, and that success or failure depends on the individual’s personal merit, motivation, intelligence, ambition, and abilities. To further the point, society holds up people like Horatio Alger, Frederick Douglass, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama as prime examples of success — people who have succeeded by “pulling themselves up by their boot straps,” people who have risen like a phoenix from the ashes of poverty or other adversities as the “self-made” embodiment of the “American dream.”
As we are told, people possess “personal responsibility” for their life’s course. Those who accumulate enormous personal wealth earned it, and they have a right to keep it. If, however, people fail, and if any inequities exist in our society, as the blame-game states, this arises because of the individual’s own personal or cultural weaknesses, deficiencies, or deficits. The so-called “cultural deficit model” in education argues that any underachievement among students of color or working-class students results from characteristics or features imbedded within their cultural and community backgrounds.

Chris Magnus

At a moment when most police departments are reacting defensively and responding in a militarized way to protests, Richmond Chief of Police Chris Magnus has stood with the protesters. Credit: Instagram photo by Matt Haney (@matthaneysf).

In reality, society waves this myth of meritocracy in front of us like the fake rabbit circulating around the track to trick greyhounds into running as fast as they can to win prizes for their trainers and owners. The concept of meritocracy provides justification and cover to the nation in refusing to acknowledge and in denying the actual causes for the tremendous chasms in the wealth distribution and in educational achievement, and for the overall systemic inequities based on social identities.
But how meritocratic is our nation when compensation for corporate CEOs has risen an astounding 725 percent between 1978 and 2011 while the average workers’ salaries have increased a mere 5.7 percent over the same period. Today’s official national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour equals $3.00 less accounting for inflation compared to the minimum wage in 1968. The top financial rewards went to only 400 people increasing their income between 1992 and 2007 by 392 percent while their average tax rate fell by 37 percent. These same 400 people accumulated more wealth than the lower 60 percent of the U.S. population combined. Thus, frustration, resentment, and anger often develop for those of us when the reality crashes with the hype.
Indoctrination & Surveillance
The family, by socializing the young to accept and follow authority and the hierarchal structure within the family unit, prepares the individual’s eventual acceptance of authority within the workplace and within the social order. Hierarchies in terms of wealth, race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and other social identities in the workplace parallel equivalent hierarchies within society at large.
The socialization process within the family (as well as within other social institutions such as schools, religion, the media, and others) transmit, according to Eli Zaretsky, “a ruling class ideology whereby individuals are deceived into accepting the capitalist system and the dominance of the capitalist class more or less without question.”
Friedrich Engels saw how economic developments encouraging the accumulation of private property required the fortification of the monogamous family to guarantee that men’s property would be inherited by their biological heirs. Engels represented one of the first to argue that women’s subordination was not the result of any biological dispositions, but rather, caused by “men’s efforts to achieve their demands for control of women’s labor and sexual faculties [which] have gradually solidified and become institutionalized in the nuclear family.”
Michel Foucault’s concept of “Panopticon” (in Greek mythology, the monster with 100 eyes) helps us to understand the function and effectiveness of regulatory surveillance first initiated through the “parental gaze” and reinforced by official social actors such as police officers. Foucault took the term from the structure of institutional buildings such as prisons first designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Cells within these prisons radiate from a central watch station permitting a single guard to observe all inmates (though not simultaneously), without these inmates having the ability to see the guard or to know exactly when this observer gazes upon them. This arrangement effectively forces inmates to assume that the watchperson inside the station is constantly watching them. The Panopticon metaphor represents the omnipresent nature of being watched and monitored.
Foucault maintains that all socially-constructed hierarchal systems demand forms of surveillance, whether actual or imaginary, to preserve dominant and subordinate positions according to those upholding authority or power. Surveillance maintains and extends power by exercising subtle, often imperceptible, as well as not-so-subtle signs and warnings that one is being watched. Through Panopticon, people conduct themselves in ways that anticipate negative consequences from those they perceived as having authority over them.
Intra-Class Conflict
While the vast majority of police officers enter law enforcement with completely good intentions to serve and assist the public and to support their own families, as guardians of ruling class interests, officers from the middle and working classes serve, often unconsciously, as enforcers for the ruling class through surveillance and control, and by keeping the potentially unruly hoards at bay.
Ragnar Danneskjöld, author and philosopher Ayn Rand’s mouthpiece for the elite corporate class and symbol for “justice” in her polemical novel Atlas Shrugged, quite tellingly expresses Ayn Rand’s true purpose when she put these words in his mouth: “I’ve chosen a special mission of my own. I’m after a man whom I want to destroy. He died many centuries ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in.”
Hank Rearden, one of Ayn Rand’s “righteous” industrialists asks: “What man?”
Danneskjöld replied: “Robin Hood….He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, I’m the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich — or, to be exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich.”
I ask, then, what role do the guardians of the ruling class play in this scenario? And what if these guardians refused any longer to adhere to this divide and conquer strategy developed by the ruling class, and, instead, joined with their communities to challenge the status quo?

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

One thought on “Police and Protesters as Potential Allies

  1. the idea of Barack Obama “pulling himself up by the bootstraps”, from Punahou School, Columbia and Harvard, is pretty funny.

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