At protest after protest in recent years, when police officers have moved in with their pepper spray or rolls of orange mesh to break things up, the same chant has greeted them: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” It rang out in the Occupy encampments and in the movement for black lives. It could be heard last week in the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, where thousands of protesters thronged the streets outside Donald Trump’s rally. As Phoenix police fired tear gas canisters, pepper balls, and flashbang grenades into mostly unarmed crowds, it was clear that what the officers were protecting was power. “It was a war zone that was initiated by the Phoenix Police Department,” Alejandra Gomez, an organizer with Living United for Change in Arizona who was in the crowd, told me.
The chant took on a particularly urgent tone in Charlottesville, Virginia, in early August, as armed white supremacists waving torches and wearing body armor marched and assaulted residents. Video released last week confirms that at least one of the white supremacists, as care worker Corey Long had earlier noted, fired his gun into a crowd of counterprotesters and, in the words of the New York Times, “strolled past a line of about a dozen state police troopers who were safely positioned about 10 feet away behind two metal barricades. None of them budged.”
Who do the police protect, and who do they serve? These are real questions, not rhetorical ones, and after the last couple of weeks, more people than ever are asking them out loud. Yet the president of the United States is intent on encouraging the same old horrifying answers. Whether he is denouncing “both sides” in Charlottesville or urging Long Island police officers to replicate the kinds of tactics that killed Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Trump has emphasized at every turn that he is less interested in the rule of law than in order by any means. His decision this week—announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a National Fraternal Order of Police event—to resume at full force the 1033 program, in which the weapons of war are distributed to local police departments, was another such salvo, as was his pardon of the infamous former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which Trump hinted at in Phoenix and then issued Friday night, even as Texas braced for unprecedented flooding from a catastrophic hurricane.
Arpaio once laughed as he compared his infamous outdoor prison in Maricopa County, Arizona, to a concentration camp; prisoners there, according to Gomez, were denied air-conditioning in 120-degree heat and fed moldy bread. Arpaio neglected to investigate violent crimes against Latinos and instead spent his resources rounding up and terrorizing immigrants. He was convicted of criminal contempt for defying an order to stop his practices, which a court ruled regularly violated the rights of Latinos. By pardoning him, Trump has sent a message to police officers at the core of his base. Not only will he support the worst of police abuses; he also believes that those abuses are part of an officer’s job.
The fact that violent crackdowns on protesters, rough treatment for criminal suspects, and brutal mistreatment of immigrants are seen as simply prerogatives of the police is indicative of “a fundamental crisis in police legitimacy,” writes sociologist Alex Vitale in his forthcoming book, The End of Policing (Verso, 2017). While the police tend to argue that such behavior is necessary to keep people safe and society in order, the leniency we have seen being offered to armed white nationalists this summer suggests that violence is not meted out equally.
Indeed, Vitale writes, the origins of policing are rooted in colonialism, labor conflict, and slavery. From armed slave patrols in the American South to colonial policing by the English in Ireland to the police riot at Chicago’s Haymarket Square during the eight-hour-day strike, police have been expected to protect private property and serve power. “The reality,” Vitale writes, “is that 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 nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”
Meanwhile, the president seems just fine with that—more than fine, in fact. And so we get the curious spectacle of the police claiming they face discrimination (“blue racism,” in the words of one poorly-thought-out ad) even as the executive branch hands them everything they ask for.
During the early days of Occupy, one would occasionally hear a different chant aimed at the police: “Cops! Are! The Ninety-Nine Percent!” It was an attempt to reach out to police officers who, protesters noted, might also feel the pinch of austerity. But as the weeks wore on, the chant came less and less often, as even the most optimistic of protesters realized that none of the officers they faced were going to break ranks and halt the pepper-spraying, the arrests, the teargas, and the evictions of protest camps. Wherever they might fall on the economic spectrum, the police did not, apparently, feel like part of the 99 percent.
With all the intense debate over Trump’s vote totals from the “white working class” in the wake of the election, it’s surprising that the position of police has not received more scrutiny. Police have an uneasy relationship to the rest of the working class, but they do share many markers that are often used to determine working-classness in the media and in scholarship. A majority of them are white men without college degrees; they have unions and often bargain fiercely for their working conditions. The average police officer makes a little over $61,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; only about 30 percent work in departments that require college. Many of those who do attend college, Vitale tells me, attend criminal justice programs that are primarily taught by instructors who are themselves former police, offering more of a “how-to” than a critical examination.
This matters because while college attainment is a poor indicator of one’s class position, the education that police officers do get, whether in a criminal justice program, the police academy, or on the job, is designed to set them apart from the rest of society and create within the force an ideology of its own. “Policing represents a deeply conservative view of the nature of the state,” Vitale says, in which “the only appropriate role for the state is a repressive one, to use punitive mechanisms to coerce people into proper behavior.”
This ideological position, Vitale adds, is more pronounced in the United States than elsewhere, and it has been heightened in recent years. Police and their unions lean Republican and have for a while now; their support for Trump is certainly no surprise. In fact, in 2012 it was a major shock when the Fraternal Order of Police didn’t endorse the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. After Romney backed an Ohio law that attacked police collective bargaining rights alongside those of public-sector workers, he faced angry pushback. Police, used to being carved out of such bills as they had been in Wisconsin, instead found themselves working with other unions to successfully overturn the bill via referendum. Mike Weinman of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police told me at the time, “It’s kind of different for us to sit at a table with all these folks. It worked out pretty well, but there was some apprehension there for a little while.”
Mitt Romney’s enthusiastic support for the plan doomed him with the national FOP; in Ohio, the union even endorsed liberal Democrat Sherrod Brown for the Senate. But this story is notable precisely because it is so rare, as Weinman noted. Police unions may support collective bargaining rights, but they have little record of fighting for them unless their own are on the chopping block. Historically, it has been the nature of the police to help suppress labor conflict, not to support it. Solidarity, for police, tends to be for those on their side of the “thin blue line.”
Trump’s overtures to the so-called “white working class,” combined with his vocal denunciations of leftist protesters and his calls for more police with fewer restrictions, was the perfect blend to win the support of police unions, as well as that of border patrol and other law enforcement unions. Indeed, the ascent of Trumpism seems to only be fanning the flames of an us-versus-them mentality. The sight of the “thin blue line” flag, an American flag all in black with one blue stripe across it, is more and more common on homes and on cars—photographer Paul Weiskel even captured a police officer with such a sticker on his service revolver at the protests against white supremacy in Boston recently.
The flags, Vitale says, are “part of the idea that there is a war on the cops.” They began as an awareness and fundraising campaign for fallen officers, but have now become part of the ideology that says that because the police risk their lives, any criticism of them is equivalent to endangering them and undermining their ability to maintain order. “After its becoming so politicized,” he adds, “I think that we can say that the public display of that symbol is going to be highly correlated with Trump supporters.”
The flag heightens the “us or them” mentality, the idea that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people must simply be controlled. “That is very much the Trump worldview. ‘We are just going to build a wall,’” Vitale says. “The Thin Blue Line accomplishes the same task. It is the domestic wall.”
This mentality persists even as policing has in fact become safer. Jobs more likely to kill you than policing include roofing, garbage and recycling collection, farming, and construction. It persists even though police officers rarely face consequences more dire than a few weeks’ desk duty for killing civilians, and even though a recent Washington Post study found that hundreds of officers fired for misconduct were rehired through appeals required by union contracts. Police union contracts are often the envy of the rest of the labor movement; while grandstanding politicians love nothing more than to swipe at “overpaid” government workers whose pensions are bankrupting the city, state, or country, they rarely target police.
This is no longer an issue of one election; Trump may not have kept many of his promises, but he is keeping the ones he made to the police officers who supported him. And it’s also not just about Trump; around the country, police work hand-in-hand with far-right politicians orchestrating crackdowns on immigrants, harsher penalties for crimes, and so-called “blue lives matter” bills that make crimes against police equivalent to crimes against marginalized and oppressed groups. In California, for example, the California State Sheriffs’ Association is working hard to bury a “sanctuary state” proposal, and one sheriff even publicly floated the idea of her county simply ignoring the law if it were to pass.
While the occasional story of an officer with neo-Nazi tattoos or apparent ties to white supremacist websites does surface from time to time, this is not a matter of individual officers going rogue. It is a belief system produced through the decades of American policing, a history that includes police collusion with white supremacist vigilantes in the South and elsewhere, as Vitale points out. There is also police overlap with militia groups like the Oath Keepers—in 2015, reporting for my book, I spoke with Sam Andrews, a former Oath Keeper who had left the organization over its refusal to endorse an open-carry march he held with black residents of Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area. For the police in the organization, he said, such a thing was a bridge too far.
These days, open collusion with white supremacist groups might be less common, but an offensive post made to the Instagram account of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of Newburgh, New York, this August struck a nerve because it seemed to echo the policy on the ground in Charlottesville. The image, rapidly denounced by the PBA and the police department, showed a Confederate flag juxtaposed with a photo of young black men with sagging pants, with the words “This does not offend me” emblazoned over the flag and “This bullshit does” over the photo. It was a sign, once again, of just who “us” and “them” is.
And so, in the age of Trump, police and the institutions that represent them continue to double down on their siege mentality. As protesters confront white supremacists in city after city—as I write this, Berkeley’s streets are full of red flags and tear gas—police still seem to see protesters, particularly protesters of the political left, as a sign of disorder. The movement for black lives, along with its demands for accountability or even abolition of the police, is felt to be a particular threat to police officers, and Trump has done his best to encourage this feeling. With his approval ratings at an all-time low and officials departing his administration like proverbial rats from a sinking ship, Trump has sent a signal to what Marcy Wheeler has noted is the “respectable” part of his base—the police—that anything goes. This should concern us.
Many of the arguments that Trump would quickly put an end to democracy have been overblown. Yet if there is a fear of creeping authoritarianism in this country, it should be in the nexus of law enforcement and Trumpism. Michael German of the Brennan Center for Justice, a former FBI agent, warned that the combination of allowing certain groups to commit political violence—against opponents of the government—with intensified crackdowns on protests against the government is how police powers expand and governments stop protests altogether. The fact that Trump’s ideal police force is one that cares only for its ever-increasing power to enforce order with ever-larger weapons should frighten us all.