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Protests against police a good place to start removing powers

Calls for defunding the police are really about stripping police of many of the powers they have today. It’s a good call, a necessary step in removing powers from governments, corporations and those who hold too much sway over the freedoms of individual citizens.

This isn’t a cry for some libertarian utopia. Rather, it’s about knowing that power corrupts, and we’d all be better off if power was limited, decentralized and in more hands rather than fewer.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic tale The Lord of the Rings, the battle of good versus evil is exemplified as a journey to fight the evil Sauron by destroying the ring he’d fashioned to subjugate the free people of Middle Earth. The key was to unmake the ring, not to use its power to fight Sauron: the ring would ultimately corrupt anyone who took up its power, no matter how well intentioned.

“Indeed he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream,” intones the wizard Gandalf, spelling out both the intent of doing away with power and the power-hungry’s inability to fathom someone wanting to follow that path.

In opposing the idea of defunding, police organizations seek to defend their turf, to hold on to power. While acknowledging both the existence of systemic racism and that they often respond to situations for which they’re not trained/qualified – the likes of mental-health crises and addiction cases, for instance – police balk at suggestions their budgets be cut so that the money could be better spent addressing such social issues.

In reality, defunding police doesn’t mean simply doing away with law-enforcement agencies. Rather, they should be stripped of many of their powers, including the likes of stop-and-frisk measures applied disproportionately to minorities. From strict probable cause rules and the removal of so-called qualified immunity protections to a reversal of militarized policing, curtailing police powers would lead to a safer, more equitable society.

Worries about our decline into a police state are not new – they’ve been growing for decades – but in the context of today’s climate in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, those fears are in the spotlight. For minorities, police powers have long been an issue, notes Tamari Kitossa, an associate professor of sociology at Brock University, in a recent piece for The Conversation.

Along with others, he rejects the notion of a few bad apples making other police officers look bad. Rather, the problems are systemic.

“There is no good police versus bad police. The sociological imagination rejects personalizing explanations. Police are police; they are the states’ organ of repression.

“In a social order that is based on social inequality, even the most benign and friendly cop is little more than an ideological prop to make us grateful that the state can be merciful and is your friend. Black people know otherwise,” he writes.

In that context, defunding the police and using the money to pay for mental-health and addiction professionals, social workers and outreach programs make much more sense. Less confrontation, more help to those who need it. Given that violent and serious crime make up a fraction of what police deal with – typically less than five per cent, and such crimes have are fewer now than even 20 years ago – it makes sense to look at alternatives.

In the big picture, we need to ensure not only that police powers are curbed, but the governments have far less ability to harm citizens, which includes completely unravelling the surveillance state – massively restricting the use of Orwellian technologies such as cameras, monitoring of mobile devices and sweeping collections of email and other digital data. The same needs to apply to dangerous private companies such as Google, Facebook and the like: public-minded regulations would seriously curtail these corporations, and perhaps even force them out of business if they couldn’t find a way to operate without storing any personal data.

The use of technologies to monitor populations is about maintaining control over people, not public safety. For corporations, it’s a way to make money. For governments, it’s a lie meant to help those in power stay there, which should be rolled back. For private companies, profits can’t be allowed to supersede the public good. 

Along with a host of other fearmongering descriptions aimed at the social protests that have erupted in the U.S. and elsewhere, Donald Trump has spoken of anarchy.

The word is somewhat applicable to what I’m suggesting here, though not in the way Trump uses it. Anarchy conjures up images of bomb-wielding zealots – nervous, furtive, bearded fellows dressed in black, chain-smoking their way through meetings in the back rooms of bookstores and print shops, something akin to the communists with whom they’re often associated.

While anarchists come in a variety of flavours – from the socialist variety through to the libertarian offspring of Ayn Rand – the true believers see governments of any stripe as intrinsically evil. The goal is the overthrow of all coercive systems, allowing for individuals to live unencumbered by rules set by others. Left to our own devices, they argue, we will all get along just fine, as it’s in our own best interests to live and behave rationally.

Eliminating all government and all controls is impractical. What does work is restricting power to a minimum, ensuring that society is as free as possible. Really, it’s about balancing power: the average citizen has little, so they need to be protected against governments (including police) and wealthy corporations who have much more of it.

As with past protests against specific injustices such as racism and broader issues such as inequality, those involved are in favour of a change – perhaps a revolutionary change, in some cases – in the status quo. Many protests in recent years are part of the growing anti-globalization (more correctly anti-neoliberalism) movement. Few of those involved have been violent, and fewer still in the burning and looting, ironically being used by the likes of Trump to press for more police and repression.

The movement to rein in police powers is a good first step to applying that to governments and others where a power imbalance exists, putting the public at risk. We want the ring of power destroyed, with no one strong enough to harm the people, unlike the situation that exists today where we’re all in the danger zone.

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