Law and Order*
“Law and order.”
For generations this phrase has been a cudgel of simplistic rhetoric used by right-wing politicians to forge a path to power. At its core is an appeal to the divisions and racism that have plagued our nation since its inception. Now the hypocrisy of the phrase can be measured in the blood and terror wreaked on Capitol Hill.
I have written about the events of January 6 a couple times already on Steady. After this week’s trial, we now know that what we saw that day was but a small peak at the full fury and violence of the insurrectionists. This is a story that is both an actual crime, and also symbolic of so much that is wrong in this nation, in its current state and in the echoes of its history. I imagine I will return to this topic many times in the weeks and months ahead. But for now, let us look at the events of that fateful day through the lens of law enforcement.
What we saw play out at the Capitol was a battle between an armed mob and two police forces: the Capitol Police and Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police. As others have noted, there are many questions about the law enforcement decisions that led up to that day—the staffing, the assumptions, the allocation of force. But one thing has become clear in the Senate impeachment trial: these police officers, in a moment of violence and panic, acted heroically en masse, even as they were being menaced and beaten. Their actions, personified by the heroics of officer Eugene Goodman but writ large, likely saved many lives. One of their own, Brian Sicknick, died in the aftermath of the attack. Two others later died by suicide.
It is impossible to talk about the police in this country without all the overlays of race and power that have defined our democratic experiment since its founding. “We are a government of laws, not of men,” John Adams famously stated. But those laws were ultimately crafted by men (and they were all men at the time) who wrote their perspectives and biases into legislation. These laws, once written, were left for others to interpret and enforce, often with brutal consequences. “Law and order” meant slavery. It meant ripping families apart. It meant state-sanctioned violence, rape, and reprisal. It meant the crushing of Black souls who had the temerity to believe the word “all” in “all men are created equal.”
Of course, this is not just a distant history. Jim Crow was enforced by men armed with guns, badges, and state and federal statutes. Lest anyone with a fair mind believe that we have escaped those dark shadows, continuing police violence against Black men in particular, and people of color more generally, is proof of the opposite.
But for all the problems with law enforcement, and there are many that need urgent addressing, it is also true that most police officers are decent and courageous. The ranks have become more diverse as well, although that alone is far from sufficient to address injustices in the system.
The video and audio evidence makes it apparent. The self-appointed “patriots” who attacked the Capitol were by and large thugs who had no respect for a badge or the law. And neither did those who stoked and incited the assault. The blood of all the officers who were injured or killed is on their hands.
We have proof of what we always should have known. The police were yet another expedient tool for Donald Trump to use and discard when it suited him, like a gold-plated toilet that has outlasted its worth. How does one reconcile the chants of “blue lives matter,” with what happened on 1/6? The answer is you can’t. The voices that loudly proclaimed their support for the police during the marches in the summer are eerily silent now.
When Trump lauded the police time and again in his rallies, it was always to serve as a way to denounce those he wanted to cast as the “enemy:” Black and Brown Americans. He was eager to pardon the racist and cruel Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona yet he is unconcerned with the dozens of injured women and men in blue who courageously protected the U.S. Capitol. Trump sees the police like he sees all of this nation, as two teams. Team Trump, and Team un-American. Unfortunately we have learned that there are many in law enforcement, and the military, who support Trump, and Trumpism more broadly. Many who have been arrested for the attack on the Capitol wear or have worn a badge, or have served or are currently serving in the armed forces. None of this is surprising, and there should be a concerted effort to purge these people from positions of power.
In a desperate and predictable play to defer and deflect from the facts, Trump’s supporters and apologists are going all in on arguments steeped in false equivalence and “whataboutism.” They point to last year’s social justice protests spurred on by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. The vast majority of those marches were peaceful. The incidents of violence that did occur were crimes which should be prosecuted, and that is what is happening. But there is no equivalence. Overwhelmingly, those who marched then did so for a just cause—racial justice. They were not in service to an autocrat seeking to overthrow a legitimate election. It was a movement of the people, from the bottom up. January 6 was an armed insurrection meant to undermine democracy, instigated from the top down. They literally attacked under the banners of Trump, like a marauding army. As someone I heard noted, no one was marching under the banner of Nancy Pelosi.
This moment of crisis boils down to whether the sins of America’s past should be confronted and expunged or whether they should be distorted and mythologized?
As events at the Capitol unfolded, I couldn’t help but think of Colin Kaepernick. I will be honest. As I have said before, my own instinct is to stand for the National Anthem. That is what is in my heart. But I recognize that in this country the First Amendment allows for peaceful protest. The operative word being “peaceful.” Kaepernick took a knee to bring attention to police brutality, years before last summer’s protests. For this act, he was driven out of his job with vile aspersions by Donald Trump and many others, all in the name of respecting the flag and the police. How ironic, now, to see the images and video from January 6. That revered American flag has been turned by a violent mob into a weapon, to beat the police. And it was instigated and encouraged by Trump.
The best way to honor police is to honor the Constitution they swear to protect. That means rooting out bad cops. That means building systems that are more just. That means confronting racism head on. A president who contemptuously spit out “law and order” to attack his opponents ended up ruling over an era of unlawfulness and chaos.
Our strength is in a government of laws, and in women and men who understand how those laws should be written, implemented, and enforced. The brave police officers who made a stand at the Capitol were heroes who protected not only the lives of those inside but the very spirit that embodies that hallowed building. We need leaders and a system that is worthy of their service and sacrifice.
The hypocrisy of those who lectured America for years on “law and order” is profound. We see them now as agents of a violent insurrection. But this moment can also be an inspiration to finally confront what has too long been dismissed. We can recognize how privilege begets power. And we can be vigilant for how that power is used. We do need laws. We do need order. We do need the police. But these are institutions that must be built around justice, fairness, and equity. Not the slogans of autocrats backed by mob rule.
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