In his treatise on the ideal form of government, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes articulated the idea of the State as an entity with a monopoly on the use of power, in particular, violence. The right to use such violence as was necessary to maintain peace was to be vested in the Sovereign, and a social contract between subjects and Sovereign would abdicate to the Sovereign all rights of the subject to determine themselves. Most strikingly, the Sovereign (a monarch, an aristocracy or a democratic group) could never be accused of injuring his subjects. Though Hobbes argued that his Leviathan (a state vested with absolute power) was preferable to a State of Nature he described as a war of All against All, it was never particularly appealing to those outside of power. Never more so then when the State wields its monopoly on power against its own citizenry. At such a time one may justly ask if an implicit social contract that is so far reaching is truly a sensible philosophy.
Ferguson, MO, has occupied a lot of my mental energy this past week. I was glued to twitter on the night of the first heavy SWAT response. As a white European man living in a rural area of the US, I feel that it is not my place to discuss the specificities of Ferguson. I have retweeted many of the observations made by African American and other people of color from around the US. This is their story to tell, not mine.
That being said, coming from a country with a mostly unarmed police force, the shooting of Mike Brown is a particularly jarring reminder that I am not in Kansas anymore. I can only view the gunning down an 18 year old unarmed man in the street as evil, cruel, and excessive act. Having lived for five years in Baltimore, I have learned a lot about the context of oppression of inner city black populations by the state in which these shootings and subsequent riots happen. I also have friends in law enforcement who have patiently shared their perspective with me, despite my strong a priori distaste for sanctioned police violence. I have come to realise that, in the context of a racist and oppressive system of institutions, these events end up playing out as a kabuki theater where roles are pre-determined by a greater narrative. It is difficult to see a way forward sometimes. I believe shit is fucked up.
There is a tendency for transatlantic comparison to occur whenever these incidents happen in the US. The fact is always brought up (as indeed I just did) that policemen in the UK are unarmed. The resulting statistics from this are pretty striking. And yet, if you look at the UK police force's history of dealing with civil unrest, it's less lethal perhaps, but seems hardly edifying. In the 1970s and 1980s, police charged striking coal miners with batons, severely wounding many. Towards the end of the 80s, the poll tax riots and protests were challenged by policemen on horseback riding into the crowds. When a crowd panicked at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989, the police's refusal to open the stadium doors led to the death of 96 people. The subsequent attempt by the police to cover up their action and smear the dead as drunken hooligans was only uncovered in 2012 following a public enquiry. Getting that enquiry set up took 20 years of campaigning by the survivors against an uncaring establishment. Those events were marked by the clear class distinction between those being attacked (working class men and women in the North), and those in power.
More recently, the Metropolitan Police (London's police force) has come up for repeated criticism for its handling of protests and anti-terrorism measures. There was the routine containing of globalisation protestors for hours in the street without access to water or toilets. There was the shooting of Brasilian plumber Jean Charles de Menezes on the Underground at point blank range by armed anti terrorism officers, despite a complete lack of evidence that he had anything to do with any bombings. No officers were convicted or even disciplined for this, though the police commissioner eventually resigned. In 2010 following the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, rioting erupted throughout the country. In 2009, during anti-G20 protests, Ian Tomlinson died as a result of being struck by a police officer. The Met police initially tried to claim he died of natural causes, yet video footage soon surfaced showing the police violence. Eyewitness accounts directly contradicted the police narrative, which is a recurring theme throughout all these events.
In 1999 the McPherson report came out on the wake of the murder of Black British teenager Stephen Lawrence. The Metropolitan Police had made a mockery of the investigation, convinced that the perpetrator had to be black (they were both white), that the murder was not racially motivated (it was), and that Lawrence had been involved with drugs (he wasn't). The report accused the met police of institutional racism, a term I suspect few White British people fully understood. And despite that, Stephen Lawrence's killers were only convicted in 2012, after years of campaigning by Stephen Lawrence's mother. The met police still has a difficult time with ethnic minorities, and accusations of police brutality (particularly in custody). The fact most police officers are unarmed does not reduce the level of mutual distrust between police and some communities. The Leviathan in the UK may wear a slightly different mask, but its actions are surprisingly similar, even if the targets are somewhat different.
Yet, what Ferguson really reminds me of is the police in my other home country, France. In France, the police doesn't even really pretend to deal fairly with French citizens of North African descent in the suburban projects (banlieues) around the big cities. In fact, after several years of annually escalating unrest, a minister of the interior who would later become president famously declared he would clean out the suburbs with a pressure hose. In 2005, two children died while running into an electric fence to escape the police. Rioting, looting, protesting followed. France's dedicated, quasi military riot police, the CRS, rolled out in their distinctive black vans. CRS cops are armed with water canons, batons, tear gas, black visors and the more or less complete support of the State to do whatever they want. My mother was involved in the 1968 student uprising, and from her I learnt that if you see the CRS coming, you run. For days running battles raged in the suburbs of Paris and other major cities, while life continued as normal in the city centers. The comparison with the situation in the US is all the more chilling when you remember that French Algeria essentially operated under Jim Crow-like laws until the war of independence in the '50s. Again, the detail of Leviathan's actions are shaped by a State's history, but in the broad behavior there are repeating patterns.
I can see these patterns in all these places. When Leviathan strikes, it does so with brutality, and with a disturbing precision in its targets. Knowing the specific histories of oppression in France, the UK and the US, one can predict with a fair degree of confidence who will be on the receiving end of physical violence wielded by the State. Another pattern is therefore also clear. In all three cases, I and people like me are never the target. In all three countries, I can walk mostly unaware of Leviathan. I see these patterns affect others. If these others did not have means to make me see them, I might never even notice the cost of Leviathan, I might think this arrangement was for the greater good. I might think all was well in the best of all possible worlds,
I am glad that I do not. I am thankful that enough people have raised their voices, their camera phones, their keyboards so that I can see these patterns wherever I live. I do not yet know what I can do about them, but it is good not to be blind.