Mob Terror and Police Politics

April 15th, 2021  |  Published in Uncategorized

Near the end of Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois reflects on the role of mob violence in the counter-revolution of the 1860s and 1870s, which overturned Radical Reconstruction in the south. Of the Regulators, Ku Klux Klan, and other extra-legal forms of white terror, he remarks that "the kind of thing that men are afraid or ashamed to do openly, and by day, they accomplish secretly, masked, and at night. The method has certain advantages."

Prominent among these advantages is the plausible deniability available to the ruling class, when racist violence is undertaken outside, and nominally against the state—though Du Bois does note the porous boundary between the police and the mob, as when he remarks that "the New Orleans riot in 1866, which stirred the nation and influenced a presidential election, was due primarily to the fact that the head of a secret order was also Chief of Police."

In the era of "Defund the Police" and in the wake of the police murder of Daunte Wright, however, these passages take on a different significance. Consider a comment from Imani Perry, who says that "In some important ways what we see now is worse than lynching. Because it isn't a mob that engages in extra-legal violence. It is an agent of the state, with the authority of the state, killing people without any process..." That is, the police no longer need to enforce white supremacy by looking away from mob violence; instead, they can murder Black people and dissidents openly, before retreating to their fortress and raising the Blue Lives Matter flag, a symbol that differs from the Klan hood or the Confederate flag only in that it signifies loyalty to a racist terror organization that is also treated as a legitimate arm of the state.

Du Bois' commentary also illuminates stories like this one, one of many recent examples of rightist legislators attempting to officially recognize and legalize vigilante attacks, in this case the use of cars against protestors. (Transportation advocates might note that this move builds on the longstanding bipartisan project of legalizing vehicular murder, but that's a whole other topic.) So rather than merely allowing extra-legal violence as in the Reconstruction era (though that happens too), the police and their representatives in government are engaged in a project of extending their monopoly on legitimate terror to include select civilians as well.

All of this is relevant to the issue I considered in a recent Jacobin article: the way police, who take up a third or more of many municipal budgets, are able to undermine local democracy. Examples of this abound, including in my own back yard.

The attempt to extend state legitimacy to right wing vigilantes looks a bit different when we recognize that at a local level, the police already operate beyond democratic accountability, and therefore the difference between what is and isn't considered legitimate violence isn't dictated by the law, but by the police themselves. Laws like the Oklahoma let-them-run-over-protesters law is only codifying the facts on the ground, and making it harder for popular pressure to force police to enforce the law in ways they would prefer not to.

Which leads me to a final thing I thought about in light of Du Bois' comments on mob violence: the January 6 siege of the Capitol. Countless words have been expended in debates over whether this event represented a terrifying fascist assault on democracy and narrowly-avoided coup, or merely a cartoonish spectacle that will serve only to prop up the reputation of conservative Democrats and justify new powers of government repression.

But perhaps we should consider that what made the Capitol attack both ridiculous and terrifying was the place it occupies in the larger framework of what we might call modern, 21st Century American "police state politics". The genealogy of this politics can be traced directly to slavery and Reconstruction, which is why Du Bois' account remains so essential today.

If the attempted coup of January 6th seemed half-assed and farcical, perhaps that's because at the national level, the right still prefers to contest power through the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy. Which is not to say they do so democratically—witness the reliance on counter-majoritarian institutions like the Supreme Court and the Senate, as well as the central place that voter suppression now occupies in Republican strategy.

Nevertheless, this use of elections differs from what happens at the local level, where the police, and the capitalist interests they serve, have undertaken a very successful effort to completely separate the coercive apparatus of the state from democratic accountability, leaving city mayors and the like to bluster and deflect even as they are seemingly unwilling or unable to impose any sort of authority on the police forces they nominally control. You can see why a bunch of cops (a constituency well-represented on January 6) would think that occupying the Capitol might work. If they did that at my local City Hall, it might just work, and the reason it doesn't happen may just be because my mayor and city council are (with admirable but largely ineffectual exceptions) such reliable servants of police interests.

There's more I want to work through and think about here, but I think this way of seeing things helpfully complicates a lot of debates on the left over "electoralism" and the supposed alternatives to it. Much confusion is produced by an assumption, implicit in many of these arguments, that the United States is a bourgeois democracy, and that such a thing can be defined clearly in opposition to some kind of "authoritarian" alternative.

But capitalist democracy is always an unsteady tension between the rule of the people and the rule of money. And as Dylan Riley recently observed, the capitalist class has never accepted democracy except grudgingly and in limited ways. Socialist strategy, if it is to take seriously the argument that socialism is the project of making society genuinely democratic, must grapple with the obstacles to winning that struggle within a system that is not, as it stands, particularly responsive to democratic pressure—or where socialist elected officials may find that when they gain access to the levers of power, those levers have already been disconnected.