You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Police Take the Side of White Vigilantes

Over the past week, cops have shown that they share a coherent ideology.

Mark Makela/Getty Images
Police in Philadelphia on May 31

Who are the cops for? Over the last week, all across the country, in ways large and small, they’ve shown us.

In Philadelphia on Monday night, the cops made it fairly explicit on whose behalf they police the streets. As they unleashed tear gas on unarmed protesters marching on Interstate 676, getting caught on camera spraying gas directly into the faces of harmless, seated demonstrators, across town they allowed an actual roving mob of men armed with baseball bats and other improvised weapons to violate curfew and move about with impunity. Or something more than impunity: an endorsement. Residents reported attempting to get the police to arrest or disperse the would-be vigilantes and being mocked and dismissed.

“We don’t take sides,” Philadelphia’s police commissioner said the next day. “Our mission is to always protect all persons.” That is what she is supposed to say. But the untruth of that claim is well documented. Over and over again, cops take sides. They do so in broad daylight and at night, on cell phone–captured video and behind mysteriously nonfunctioning body cameras.

In Chicago last weekend, a man in tactical gear with a long gun brandished it menacingly at protesters. “Open carry” of firearms is illegal in Illinois. The police had a quick chat with him and sent him on his way unmolested. As police departments have everywhere else, this one gassed and beat unarmed demonstrators who were protesting police violence. “We don’t tolerate police misconduct—ever,” the mayor said. But they do. They have tolerated it among Chicago police officers for 100 years.

What would lead a police department—not a few misbehaving officers but every officer on the street, in this instance—to dismiss a heavily armed man as no threat (to either their own safety or the safety of the community) in one case, while, in another, viewing an unarmed local activist as so much of a threat that multiple cops decided to surround and brutally beat him with batons?

The incidents in Chicago and Philadelphia are evidence that American police across the country share a coherent ideology. Armed white boys don’t code as a threat to them; “anarchists” and angry black people do (even if the protesters are the ones at least attempting to engage in constitutionally protected behavior, while the roving white gangs are flagrantly violating the law). That disconnect, the galling image of watching the law so obviously tossed aside under certain circumstances, highlights a fundamental truth about what’s happening across the United States. The police are not using brutality to enforce “the law.” They’re using the law to enforce something else: a particular social order that is, to them, worth fighting for.

The words “white supremacy” make some people shut their brains off (especially when so many cops are indeed black and so many people they’re brutalizing during these clashes are white), but the order, and the ideology, that these police departments, from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Philadelphia, are enforcing is one that dates back to the beginning of our country’s history, one that relies on the domination and subjugation of particular classes and groups, often out of the fear that, if given power, they would turn around and return the favor. That is what makes the response to these protests so brutal, so urgent, for the police: In town after town, they seem to ignore any course of action that might de-escalate tensions in favor of the ones that only serve to prolong the conflict.

Make no mistake: Cops have allowed other demonstrations, even very large ones, to play out with minimal or no interference. Heavily armed right-wingers marched on statehouses last month decrying measures to arrest the spread of Covid-19, and the police universally treated them as peaceful and lawful demonstrators, even as they threatened lawmakers and burned at least one governor in effigy. There were no violent crackdowns, no curfews, no brawls on the streets, no kettling or mass arrests. There was no tear gas. No major George Floyd–inspired protest has received the same courtesy, as far as I can tell. Fifty cops decked out in full riot gear descended on 14 quietly protesting students in Hoover, Alabama, on Tuesday, and arrested them all.

A few weeks ago, in Huntington Beach, a city in Orange County, California, thousands were allowed to gather and demand the reopening of the beaches, in spite of a worldwide viral pandemic, with minimal police interference. A protest of police violence in the exact same place weeks later was met with the usual displays of force.

This disparity in cop reactions to demonstrations could be seen as a bias against the left and in favor of the right, but that’s not the whole picture. A wholly unregulated, seemingly impromptu militia is allowed to participate in the guarding of Philadelphia not strictly because it might be more likely to support the Republican president, but because it is white and vocally defending the extant system of dominance and hierarchy against those who seek to upend or even simply reform it.

Those afraid of the complete reimagining of American policing tend to prefer to treat cops as individual and discrete actors, in order to separate the “good” from the “bad”—to say that the majority of them never kill anyone, that hardly any commit the acts of brutality and criminality that capture headlines. The question then becomes simply finding more of the good and fewer of the bad, or somehow turning the bad into the good. But none of the good apples arrested any of those white guys with baseball bats in Philadelphia. None of the good apples enforced the curfew against them. They chose to exempt the one group that enjoys special privileges and immunity from state violence for reasons even the squishiest moderate has to acknowledge.

Why each individual cop turned a blind eye doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that good cops don’t seem to police the bad ones. (Unless directly ordered to do so by their superiors, cops simply never arrest cops for committing crimes in the line of duty.) And this means we can judge them for what they do collectively.

Cops aren’t even more interested, as their critics sometimes accuse them of being, in protecting “property” than they are in protecting people. In Manhattan, New York police allowed widespread looting while gearing up for a prearranged clash with non-looting protesters. Philadelphia cops who put up a huge show of force to protect a statue of a notorious racist aren’t protecting “property” so much as declaring their allegiance. Minneapolis cops, it has been reported, have completely abandoned the largely black north neighborhoods of the city where arsons (not protest- or riot-related fires) have been rampant, forcing citizens and community leaders to organize spontaneously for their own self-defense. (It serves, perhaps, as an accidental trial run for police abolition.)

At one point last weekend, Chicago police responded to a ridiculous claim of a caravan of antifa soldiers streaming over the border from Indiana by dispatching a chopper. Cops react in legitimate and genuine panic at the fantastical prospect of vans full of antifa coordinating violence in their towns, even as they mainly ignore actually extant far-right provocateurs streaming in from the sorts of outlying suburbs where the cops themselves live. Cops frequently lie to the press, understanding that journalists will disseminate whatever they’re told, but when police in Louisville, Kentucky, told the press that their officers were worried protesters were putting bleach in leaf blowers, you have to understand both that the Louisville Police as an institution did not actually believe this was happening, and that its officers still consider bleach-blowers a far more serious threat to their safety than actual firearms carried by actual anti-government extremists.

Democratic (and occasionally libertarian) politicians, liberal think tanks, and policy shops have produced lots of proposals designed to prevent what happened to George Floyd from happening again: implicit bias training, de-escalation training, body cameras, use of force restrictions. None of these figures have a plan to stop police from allowing a white mob to violate a curfew with impunity while brutally repressing protesters representing the “other side.” What is the reform plan for that, exactly? What is the reform plan for police choosing to believe deranged conspiracy theories about demonstrators?

It is almost reassuring to believe that the police want peace but are, through ineptness or poor training, bad at achieving it. They have told us, over and over again, that they are a political force with specific goals. Are we ready to listen yet?