This is a draft of an op-ed I’m working on. I’ll need to tone it down a bit.
Connecting The Dots Between Ferguson And Wall Street: Inequality Breeds Violence
Americans have taken to the streets in protest during the past few years in numbers that have not been seen for decades. From Occupy Wall Street to the more recent protests in the wake of police shootings, there is a growing sense of unrest and a rising swell of voices. The Occupy movement was focused on economic inequality, with the slogan: “We Are The 99%!” Those protesting police violence have been focused on racism in criminal justice systems and the growing epidemic of violence perpetrated by those who are meant to serve and protect. Their slogan has been: “Black Lives Matter!” Little has been said about the relations between these two movements, and some have even suggested that there are none.
In fact, those protesting the conditions of global capitalism and those protesting racialized police violence are addressing issues that are fundamentally related. Economic inequality has historically been one of the best predictors of violence, both between countries and within them. Moreover, racism itself has long been one of the basic mechanisms of capitalist exploitation, as part of the divide-and-conquer strategy of the ruling classes. Finally, police officers are members of the 99%, and yet they are largely called to protect the interests of the 1%. The psychology of police violence hinges on the tensions that result from this hypocrisy.
The historical evidence is clear concerning the correlations between increases in economic inequality and increases in violence. It has recently been brought before the public with the publication of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. The years leading up to WWI are exemplary in this regard, as profound domestic social unrest compounded tensions between imminently warring states. This was the only other time in modern history that economic inequality was as staggering as it is today. You are not paying attention if you don’t see the rise of geo-politically motivated violence, especially in the Middle East, as a result of inequalities on a global scale. Closer to home, increases in police repression designed to quell popular discontent are also, quite obviously, directly correlated with the worsening positions of workers and the under and unemployed.
The links between capitalism and racism have also been well documented. It is a little recognized fact that the breakdown of union power in the late 1960s was facilitated, in part, by the racial tensions that spread through heavily unionized industries (especially steel and automotive) in the wake of pushes to desegregate the unions. Working class whites have always been the most vocally racist group in America, so much so that they have often been willing to sacrifice politically and economically advantageous class alliances in favor of racial alliances that would disempower their collective bargaining power. This is a trend that has long been favorable to the perpetuation of a divided working class, which is also now split along the lines of gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, etc. This leaves those who are most exploited in a fragmented state, unable to stand up against a relatively unified ruling class. How can workers fight for their rights when they are fighting against each other?
Importantly, police officers too are members of the working class. Only they are unique in so far as they have jobs that allow them to understand themselves as heroic, and as commanding respect. Despite the portrayals of fictional “TV cop heroes,” the data shows that the vast majority of time police spend on the job is not spent fighting violent crime; it is spent enforcing relatively minor bureaucratic rules (see the work of former LAPD officer turned sociologist, Marc Copper). Moreover, the vast majority of those met with violence at the hands of the police are not really criminals; they are typically guilty of minor bureaucratic infractions. What they have done is to make the mistake of disrespecting police officers and underestimating the possibility of violence being brought to bear in what is basically a non-violent situation. Regardless, the police are consistently called in to defend the interests of the ruling class, despite the fact that they are members of the working class. Consider the common idea held by police that the Occupy Protesters are really just disaffected rich kids. Demographically, this is simply untrue. But it is an important belief because it says to the police, “Don’t think of yourself as defending the rich against the demands of the working class, consider yourself as disciplining the ungrateful bratty children of the rich” (see David Graeber for more on this). Likewise, the characterization of black protesters as potentially violent, and always intent on looting, leads to different perceptions on the part of the police than if they were portrayed as disenfranchised and exploited workers, struggling to make a life.
Racialized police violence will go on for as long as the true fault lines of conflict are obscured by misinformation. The police are the most important potential allies of any large-scale movement for social justice. Perhaps as economic inequalities increase, the class-consciousness of the police will increase as well. When a police officer comes to see the person they’ve pulled over or who stands across from them at a protest as a vulnerable, low-paid, stressed-out, worker, just like themselves, perhaps then some mutual understanding will emerge. When the police drop their riot gear and join the protesters, only then will the sweeping changes needed in our society become a possibility.