Protect and Serve

A short entry today following on this piece by Glenn Ford at BAR.

The police are there to protect property. Their second mission is to exercise control on the poor. What that means in large measure, is to control black and brown skinned people…the racial dimension cannot be overlooked. Statistics bear this out if one looks at exactly ‘who’ is in prison.

There is another trend at work in the US (and to a lesser degree in parts of Europe) and that is the blurring of the military with the police. The third trend is the privitization of both the police, the military, and the prison industry.

In the 1960’s the US government began to expand police powers, which coupled to an increase in the severity of sentencing laws, resulted in an increase in the number of people incarcerated. In other words, the culture saw punishment as the solution to social problems. Just throw people in jail. However, in order to do so more prisons had to be built and the only way to afford doing this was privitize. So, venture capital was to be used to build the prison, and then lease the beds (sic) out to the state. A bit like a hotel actually.

Today, this has expanded to include construction of facilities for the housing of undocumented immigrants.

As Ford points out in the above linked article, all of this smacks of 19th century convict leasing, or more to the point, echoes the old slave system.

Dostoyevsky said you can measure the quality of a society by the quality of its prisons. What one sees with privitization is that corporate public relations firms are able to reinforce an already existent ideological framework that believes efficiency (as defined by free market zealots) overrides any belief in compassion or rehabilitation. Or as Phil Smith once put it, ‘doing well beats doing good’.

Private prisons have tripled over the last ten years.

The new militarizing of the police is only the logical outcome of a society bent on punishment. Clinton passed the precursor to the PATRIOT ACT — and then Bush pushed through the PATRIOT ACT itself. The fallout from 9/11 has been to both militarize the police and increase domestic surveillance (as well as expand police powers of surveillance). Campus police now carry M-16s and drive around in armored personnel carriers (sic). The stop and frisk laws are both a result of state department PR on “terror threats” as well a re-surfacing of an almost slave system racism — in other words, the foundations of US society are still present. They are driven by media depictions of endless terrorist threats and less noticeably, the fear of the poor. I wrote about Zombie films in this context a while ago — but its only one trope. Fear is the currency of the state. Crime must be punished….unless you are rich. Crime equals robbing a liquor store, not robbing investors of billions. Crime equals the poor. Crime equals black and brown, gangs, the inner city and meth labs in the hills of Arkansas. It does not equal Arbusto Energy or Enron.

Perception is everything in the US. The “bad guys, good guys” trope is everywhere .. and the only corrective is the police, and internationally, the military.

Here is an excerpt from Steven Grenhut:

“In the summer of 2006 a frail, troubled 18-year-old girl named Ashley MacDonald ran through a nearly empty Huntington Beach, California, city park in the early morning holding a small knife. An onlooker called the police and soon two large male officers showed up. They shot the girl to death with 18 bullets, claiming she had lunged toward them and put their lives in danger. It was just another day for law enforcement in suburban Orange County, where—despite low crime rates—police have become increasingly aggressive and militaristic.”

The new police ethos now encroaches daily on the lives of white suburbia. Visit any mall and you will see armed rent-a-cops patrolling, eying you with suspicion. Take a plane trip….have your shoes X-rayed (never mind the original justification for that procedure turned out to be utterly bogus). Get patted down, questioned. Go to a super market and you might be asked to show the contents of your purse of shoulder bag. Once upon a time this was an insult, you were being suspected of being a thief. Today, people simply comply — its routine. Its a culture of control. Of domination. And those who are targeted the most often are the poor. My guess is that very few corporate CEOs, while shopping (on those rare occasions they dont send the maid) would NOT be asked to show what was in their briefcase.

Lets remember that in theory, soldiers go to war to kill and conquer. The police to keep the peace (peace officers..sic). So just on the face of it, the militarized police of today are blurring into soldiers going to war. The perception itself has changed. Why is this OK? The answer is the manufacturing of fear. Now, its also useful to remember schools were built to resemble Bentham’s prisons, and factories to resemble both.

Stop and frisk. Its more control, more racism.

There is a footnote to do this having to do with the Occupy Movement. The brutality of the police response is evidence of the new militarizing. And more proof of its use against the poor. SWAT teams do not invade the upper east side, or Bel-Air. Of course nobody is protesting their poverty in Bel-Air. Under Obama dissent is being criminalized…formally. The tropes are in place: good guys and bad guys.


  1. Thanks for this John. This piece in particular may speak to why narrative needs the criminal. This deep routed feeling that we have never escaped our brutal history. We are all criminals……. however these CEO’s you speak of seem to be on another level. Zero accountability. As chris hedges says “inverted totalatarianism”. Crazy fucked up shit.

  2. Narrative needs the criminal is self evident, but the WHO is the point of struggle. The evil doers escape the narrative of the criminal because of generations of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy and classism.

  3. john steppling says:

    Yeah….see, its interesting how one defines criminal. But there remains this Oedipal level….our own personal sense of guilt…desire etc. Its what Guy and I spoke of in the comments on the Dialogue #2 thread. How that intersects with the social-historical is complex. The head of Wakenhut Prison Construction is a criminal….a morally bankrupt criminal. But the personal level still exits…not outside that, but within it, in a sense. These are seperate registers……and jack’s comments are right on in a sense, too. We have a history — and it intersects in the social.Its not really a question of robbing a liquor store. Thats irrelevant. For we still exist in a struggle born of our primary split from the mother…..from ‘lack’….which is for lack of a better term the psychoanalytic. Now that has historical dimensions too…often neglected in a lot of post modern analysis. But our dreamwork, our mimetic narrative of desire…which is where our sense of identity comes from…..this comes out of a sense of transgression, and guilt. Responsibility for the horrible fantasies of murder and fratricide. So its both the foundation of the social, and outside of the social. Its imaginary for one thing. As i say , its complex.

  4. john steppling says:

    and because of this….because our identity is, at least partly, based on this dynamic…..this originary narrative as it were, we are pulled in the direction of the criminal narrative. The Devil is more interesting in paradise lost. Denzel in Training Day is more interesting than Ethan whatshisname. We are pulled toward the truth of that criminality because its who we always are. In socialist paradise, we are still criminals. A show like Dexter, to take a banal example, sustains itself because dexter is a serial killer. He is always narrating himself as guilty. Im simplfying this, because its very complex and not easily given to a Cliff Notes version…..but I think its clear we see ourselves — certainly in our mimetic reading of any narrative, as guilty.

  5. Joanna Perry-Folino says:

    Original sin ( we are doomed from the beginning) makes us guilty and flawed. Christianity and Judaism makes us guilty and flawed. We in the West identify with the criminal because we are essentially desperate creatures at war with ourselves. And we find no way out so the narrative of the criminal and the guilty is where we look for our liberation and our incarceration all at the very same time.

  6. Very fantastic, I like this blog and I shared this topic on my facebook profile. I think agree with you ! I cant speak english very good but. My opinion you unterstand me .

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