Derek Scarlino

Police, Power and the Poor

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

It is safe to say that among the middle class in the US, the police are widely appreciated and respected. However, among the lower classes, police are often abhorred. Why?

Through observations, historical analysis of socio-economics, and some two-bit psychology which is the result of Psych 101 back in college, I want to attempt to dissect the differing views of police officers in society (specifically American society), and try to explain said differences.

We first start with the middle class – the class that, as far as I can tell, is the most grounded in a reality predicated on the status quo, economically and socially. It is the most oft-represented class in mainstream media, though the opinions claiming to represent middle class interests come from elites. It’s the largest class, and as such, it has more stories and experiences to tell. It also comprises most of the wide gap between the rich and the poor. Many middle class Americans have observed both of these levels, and that allots the middle class a great deal of perspective – when the choice is made to recognize it.

The accumulation of wealth is argued to reduce empathy and increase unethical behavior. A wealthy person both born into that wealth and living a relatively comfortable lifestyle, will never truly relate to the lower classes unless they spend a great deal of their developmental years with them. Maybe. This is why the rich do not understand certain things about the lower classes, but as society’s normativity is set by them, we often see arguments throughout mass media pertaining to conjecture about what drives poor people to petty crime despite the shortcomings of these lazy arguments in addressing the effects of actual wealth on behavior. It results in what has been a largely successful attempt to vilify the poor and get society to view the underclass as dangerous, lazy and deserving of their lot.

The middle class is also subjected to the assumed power of the elite en masse; the best example of this being the recognition of law. Laws, not to be confused with rights (or justice), throughout history have typically been advocated, created and enacted by a given society’s elites. For those laws to ever stand a chance at achieving their intended purpose, keeping the rich safe from the “dangerous classes”, they (the wealthy) would need to engage heavily in validating their position to those between the top and the bottom to encourage acceptance of those laws as societal norms, as well as the norm in seeing the poor as guilty.

We do not need much historical analysis to see that this has happened quite successfully. Is it good? Is it bad? Right now, it’s merely a matter of perspective.

Law and order have certainly changed over many centuries, from Hammurabi to Common Law. It has been generally accepted throughout the human experience that theses changes have been indeed a good thing. Revolution, and the threat of it, have certainly given much clout to the fact that law, as dictated by elites, should not focus on outright oppression; too much coercion is not what society needs.

The adoption of these rules that are cast down to us, again, need to be accepted as legitimate by the middle class if the elites hope to retain their power. Why? The elites are often the smallest social class, and thus the centuries old ruse that that status should be respected, and protected through law, has precipitated into modern times. Clergy and the evoking of higher powers were once used to propagate the need for some to be more important than others; today it is buddy-cop movies and police chase videos.

Society is led to believe the one-sided story that the smallest percent at the top propagates in order to protect itself and its power over everyone else. We are endlessly reminded about the “great men” who founded our nation, and praise them for their insight into democratic institutions in government. However, it was exactly those men, like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who felt that democracy should not be wasted on anyone outside of the most elite classes of society. Many times, history’s best intentions are a bit less genuine under the microscope of hindsight; the drive to continue a repressive state of being was as strong then as it is now, and it existed far longer before our nation came into being.

Police most commonly come from middle class backgrounds. Dad was a cop, an uncle, a cousin, a brother, a spouse – all very common in the middle class. The values of the middle class reflect this. More often than not, the middle class sees it fit to agree with police and accept their role in society (which itself is arguable). It also seems that for as long as there have been police, or those who fulfill that role in a society of enforcing authority and protecting property, there has been opposition to that institution, and distrust of it.

A quick reflection on the history of class in what would become The West reveals well-documented fact that the middle class was not always a constant in society. The gap between rich and poor, though still a concern, has shrunken since constitutions, revolutions, and limited democracies have become more common in parts of the world. Additionally, the fight for worker and civil rights has helped create and strengthen the middle class. Thus, there lies the suggestion that police, enforcing the laws of the powerful, propertied classes, have always had a truculent relationship with the poor – especially since the days of the more pronounced distinctions between the two classes.

How? Often left out by capitalists all too eager to claim responsibility, the birth, and growth, of the middle class has been dependent on social movements and struggle against established order to advance their rights and gain them air to breathe and space to live that wasn’t under the boot of monarchies, clergy, military dictatorships, aristocracies, etc. This no doubt would inevitably lead those seeking increased agency into conflict with respective entities of “law” enforcement, and it did.

In modern America our lower class lives in a reality that can never be fully understood by an observer. Empathy is useful in understanding it, but that understanding will always fall short. Humans, being capable of abstract thought, can certainly understand many things about one another, but there are always shortcomings relative in size, contingent on variables such as race, sex, creed, age, gender and class among others.

The legitimacy of any order from which one can recognize inconsistencies in fairness or evidence of exclusion will be mitigated, ignored, and quite possibly challenged by those who put the onus on authority to prove that legitimacy. The growth, and acceptance, of democracy has fostered this reaction to abuses of power. Widespread promotion of democratic ideals in our society today justifies the perceptions of inequality, exploitation, and exclusion that would lead us to recognize that such things are, inherently, abuses or wrongdoing.

The middle class sees a system which more or less works for them. This is why the middle class is generally more prone to acceptance, and even loyalty, of order and authority in society – even in the face of widely recognized disparities in justice. This commonly gives rise to the, “If you don’t like it, leave my country” mentality. The ostracization of protesting, or any redress of grievances, becomes common and stems from inconsistencies in perception; e.g. “If I did it, so can they (lower classes).”

The lower one’s place is on a socio-economic scale, the greater the perception of inequality. No society’s rules work for every person in that society, ever. It is the divide in understanding between those who make the laws, those who enforce them, and those who are subjected to them that makes this so.

In the rat race purported by our obsession with property, everybody wants something more – and quite possibly something that they cannot have. Those who have covet more; those who have not are subjected to the same forces which incline us toward private ownership. This concept is reinforced every single day, and for the poor in the United States, they have taken to the bait with great zeal. Consider the main themes of urban pop culture often correlated, strongly, to the poor; the pursuit of “things” and the flaunting of them when attained.

When someone does not subscribe to the laws which they perceive as unfair, they may take an alternate route in attaining the things they want. Also, the drive to possess can be strong enough to lead to the same ends in the same way. As long as there has been law, there has been the glorification of outlaws. From Aladdin to Robin Hood to something that Disney hasn’t gotten its hands around, like John Dillinger, Gandhi and Christopher Wallace, many people who defy the law are often the objects of intense admiration. They seek a means to happiness and fulfillment of life that is more in line with their values, and those of the people around them, than the values cast down from higher classes. Needs and wants produce schemes to attain these things.

This partly explains the adoration that the youth of this nation have for a “gangster” or “hustler” lifestyle, particularly among marginalized classes who are punished and stigmatized for it far more. These are seen as people who get what they want. Adolescents are particularly sensitive to issues of fairness and equality, and they are impressionable to a fault. It is the adoption in the mind that what is otherwise seen as crime is completely justifiable to attain ones ends. The pursuit of property often leads to objectivist methods by which to attain it regarless of class, but again lower classes suffer more consequences by challenging established legal frameworks of the state. Either the path to it is custom crafted around those who define law and order, or it is not, but one thing remains: the pursuit of “pleasures” is paramount, and the means to attain them do not matter.

That is where the police come in. The concept of a “good and honest” way to make a living is completely subjective. If one can break the law and get away with it, then their way is “good” to them. Honesty is an irrelevant topic in society. We are utterly bathed in dishonesty in the media, personal relationships, and in politics. Thus, the relativity of “honesty” balks at its own societal relevance.

Policework often revolves around the activities of the poor. It is an established aspect of society that poverty breeds crime, though there are many, many reasons for this correlation. Thus, if the government which gives the police their power does little to nothing in regard to alleviating the stresses of its economic philosophy, or the very real trappings of a flawed justice system, it can count on having to employ police to pacify the masses through force and deterrence in the event that the social contract is perceived to be broken. History shows, many times, especially in dictatorships and occupations, that force and deterrence do not work forever.

Another way to live is to accept the established order. However, in accepting it there is a willingness, be it tacit or overt, to dismiss that order’s inconsistency and its double-standards in order to live life without attracting the punative attention of authorities like the police or government. Such inconsistencies can be consciously subverted through concerted, open admiration for elements of an order of power, like a lesser Stockholm syndrome. The police and the military top this list of elements. These institutions are rallying points to assure the timid that their acceptance of authority is justified and that their lives may continue unmolested so long as they stay on their knees. Beyond this context, there really is no reason to assure oneself in the mitigation of the wrongs of authority.

Democracy tells us that equality is good, and inequality is bad. By accepting the wrongs of an established power or authority, we contradict one of our most treasured tenets of society because we’re giving up on the foundations of core democratic ideals. By not adhering to it, we effectively disrupt the message. By siding with police at all costs, we delay our own progression as a society. Authority becomes the truth at the expense of the contrary. This intensifies the struggles of the poor.

If the struggles of the poor, and the perceived poor, are not recognized there will be no end to the struggle between police and these elements of society subject to the most repression. The police are the forceful arm of the upper class, and if society at-large feels such force is always appropriate, then the criticisms of spontaneous violence are narrow, lazy and moot as the inaction and apologies for force help foster the conditions which unleash violence against the state and its appendage institutions. The laws which police enforce have had a historical tendency to discriminate against the poor. By resisting an order that does not work for them, the poor are subjected to the power of the wealthy through the police. Due to discrepancies in class to class understanding and values, we are either inclined to side with the police or the poor. To be neutral is to side with the oppressor, as I have written before.

Police are subjected to stricter guidelines today than at any point in history, and that is telling of one thing – force will eventually prove itself illegitimate and prompt reform. Yet, the most important function for an established order, like a government, is its own survival. Every right ceded to Americans has been fought for, not granted outright. The wealthy dislike change. Those with the highest stakes in “how things are”, whether monetary or values, are most opposed to ambiguity. The wealthy also control the government, and it should serve as an important observation to those who question the government now after years of open consent for wrong doing, that the government hasn’t changed all that much. It remains a front for the interests of the elites.

Still, the middle class is infused with stories, movies, and books which glorify the defenders of order. If continued progress is sought after in society, society cannot then be so blinded by such things. It is costly to simply accept the role, and more importantly the actions, of police officers without question; the actions of police are a reflection of the powers who direct them. If it had always been the case that some in our ranks never questioned authority, we would likely have never developed out of a feudal society.

There are two reasons why the lower classes are considered the “dangerous classes”; propensity of crime in response to unwillingness to abide by or recognize imposed order, and the proclivity for revolution as a reactionary means to challenge both power and poverty, and change them. This would clearly be a grave strike to the elite. Their social position, and with it their control over their own destiny at the expense of those who have less control, would be in jeopardy.

When we take a closer look at the role of police in relation to power and the relationship with the poor, questions about their actual role in society, and the necessity of their existence, do arise. Can order in society exist without police? The answer to that is, simply, yes, it happens in communes and smaller facets of society all the time; though there are a number of factors to consider such as the voluntary, egalitarian, non-patriarchal nature of many places where police presence is almost negligible like Chiapas in Mexico, Mondragon in Spain’s Basque region, Rojava in northern Syria. Even the creation of rape crisis centers in the United States took root as a feminist reaction to the blindness of law enforcement to rapes and assaults against women. The lack of rising crime rates in response to police strikes in places like Acapulco or the scaling back of services by the NYPD further the arguments against any foregone conclusion that society needs police to keep the peace. Again, everywhere is different, but values largely dictate the need for police.

In most of these areas, where wealth is more equally distributed and the material differences in ownership and property are either collective or minimal, there is less crime, especially violent crime, due to the lack of incentive to act outside of the law to obtain property or survive day to day. There is also, for potential order-subverters, the collective opinion that the current situation is conducive to happiness and tranquility among the residents of such neighborhoods or municipalities. There’s an element of mutualism to it that even the most ardent neighborhood capitalist doesn’t realize. Why else do we hesitate more to break speed laws in small towns? The police have less to do. The focus of police work in areas of general economic equality changes to something which is arguably arbitrary. In places like New York City, where crime has fallen in parallel to national averages since the early 1990s, there’s a stronger indication that economic opportunity (or simple the basic ability to provide for oneself) and even heightened awareness of lead poisoning have more to do with the drop in crime than Rudy Giuliani’s broken window policies.

In capitalist systems there will always be discrepancy in personal wealth. Again, haves and have nots. The greatest police presence occurs, deliberately, where the greatest distinction of wealth and general dissatisfaction of life is most prominent — Baltimore is a depressing example of this. So, in societies that do place emphasis on wealth, material possessions and acquisition of property as mediums by which to evaluate character and status, police will be needed to defend the order of those who enjoy the benefits from those who do not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s