As my colleague Adam Weinstein noted a few weeks ago, it has become a minor cliché in American political rhetoric to ask your audience to imagine how the media would cover some domestic development if it were taking place overseas, in one of the countries we consider less “free.” But the device does make clear the extent to which we are willing to tolerate authoritarianism and petty tyranny here in the United States. How can anyone accurately describe what is happening in Portsmouth, Virginia, for example, without lapsing into the language of the foreign correspondent? The security forces are threatening to detain their political opponents.
In June, protesters beheaded a few Confederate statues in Portsmouth and tore down another, which landed on and injured a demonstrator. Several months later, Portsmouth police, taking advantage of Virginia’s magistrate system, which bypasses elected prosecutors in these decisions, charged various local civil rights leaders, public defenders, and the president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, Louise Lucas, with felony charges of conspiracy to injure a monument.
Lucas had left the scene hours before any of the statues were harmed. The charges seemed timed to interrupt a Virginia Senate special session to debate new police reform legislation. The local prosecutor was bypassed, perhaps on account of her reformist tendencies. The police named her a possible witness, in what appeared to be an attempt to remove her from the process entirely.
All of this, especially when you take into account the attempt to sideline the prosecutor, is very ham-fisted and obvious. Here it is, again, in foreign correspondent voice: The security forces are cracking down on the opposition. On behalf of the people whose interests they truly represent, the police were persecuting people like Lucas, whose only claim to authority is that they were “elected” by “citizens.”
This week, a white Portsmouth resident brought charges against Lucas’s daughter, the city’s vice mayor, Lisa Lucas-Burke, for the apparent crime of demanding that Portsmouth’s police chief resign. As HuffPost’s Ryan J. Reilly reports, “Since a magistrate judge signed off on the complaint, Lucas-Burke will have to appear in court to respond to the allegation that her political speech against Portsmouth’s police chief violated the ‘noninterference in appointments or removals’ provision of the city charter.” And, “if found guilty, she would be forced to forfeit her position as a city council member and give up the vice mayor’s post.”
All of that stuff about the city charter and Virginia’s magistrate system is meant to sound dull and arcane. It is designed to give cover to police as they work to stop the political opponents of local power brokers from gaining or exercising too much power.
The Virginian-Pilot’s Ana Ley and Gary A. Harki reported that “elected officials, activists and historians” have identified a “clear pattern” in which Portsmouth’s “majority-Black population pushes its government to repair strained police relations, spend more tax dollars on children and pass countless other measures to make Portsmouth more equitable,” only for that majority to find its representatives hounded out of power by the police.
For ousted police Chief Tonya Chapman—the first Black woman to lead a municipal police department in Virginia—it was unspecified “concerns with leadership of the department.” For then-Councilman Mark Whitaker, it was a federal forgery investigation spurred by then-Sheriff Bill Watson, one of Whitaker’s fiercest political foes. For former Mayor Kenny Wright, it was a bizarre low-speed car chase over an expired inspection sticker.
The man who got the police to arrest Lucas-Burke has said that his decision to file charges had “nothing to do with race,” adamant that people play “the race card” (a term he used frequently in his HuffPost interview) “way too much.” But he does at least seem to understand what the police are and what they are for: The Portsmouth Police Department has been functioning like a political agency, clearing out anyone who dares challenge the accepted way of things. Kyle Rittenhouse, who seemingly deputized himself as an honorary cop mainly on the strength of his commitment to Blue Lives Matter memes, and then allegedly shot multiple people in the name of maintaining (a particular) order, had a similar understanding of the purpose and role of the police.
“It’s indicative of a [group] that is in the death throes of losing power,” Virginia Delegate Don Scott said at a rally outside the Portsmouth courthouse on Wednesday. “Any time we speak up, they try to take the leaders and make an example of them by making sure they silence the rest of you.”
Scott might be correct about the motive, as Portsmouth’s citizens seem intent on electing people who will challenge the power its cops represent, but political outcomes in the U.S. only occasionally reflect the preferences of statistical majorities. A police department that fears its inevitable political demise might do everything in its power to forestall that demise, but a police department that believed it would simply never face any consequences for its actions would probably act largely as the Portsmouth Police Department has.
Ideally, this is the behavior of a department that is fearful of its inevitable extinction. But it also looks quite a lot like a department that expects to get away with arresting a state legislator along with a large number of its local opponents. Arresting defense attorneys is not a particularly subtle display of power.
“Most cops are good,” former Vice President Joe Biden said last week. But that conception of cops is as useless a frame for understanding what needs to be done about American policing as “most tobacco lobbyists want to provide for their families.”
Again and again, the police encourage us not to think of them as individual agents whose qualifications and actions can be judged discretely, but instead as partisans with a distinct ideology. The police, as currently (and historically) constituted, are a political force. We cannot take politics out of policing without taking the existing police out of policing.