Protesting, Privilege, and Police: Stark Contrasts in State Responses to the Voice of the People

The duality of this country. Violent protest marked the beginning of America, and this sense of liberty against injustice still runs through our veins today. Yet liberty for whom? The sensibilities of both the privileged public and those who wield political authority will shift at a moment’s notice from a deep acknowledgement of the rights of the citizenry to protest with vehemence to a rhetoric of law and order, stating firmly that the protestors must maintain peacefulness and pursue only legal means, while simultaneously utilizing state power via the police to escalate conflict even at times when protesting remained squarely in the bounds of what is permitted by constitutional rights.

These rhetorical slights of hand, always disconnected from the specific histories leading to deep grievances fueling viscous protest, are very palatable to the average privileged American — for them, human rights are already so obviously guaranteed that in situations where these rights are being denied to other citizens, it is automatically rationalized as “their fault.” And unless they’ve actively had relationships and opportunities for education on the experiences of others in this country, are they really that wrong in their reasoning? If you can storm a capitol building with heavy artillery and not face any escalating violence, what must you conclude about a protest which does lead to escalating violence?

Here, the state and its various concrete manifestations are imagined as genuinely neutral — its actions are fully governed by the letter of the law, and likewise the options for citizen power against state overreach are delineated. If you don’t brake the rules, nothing bad could happen, they think. This is, of course, not an accurate paradigm for understanding the very off the cuff responses of the state to those protestors whose political goals are judged, for whatever reason, as threatening to the mythos by which the American nation defines itself and asserts its sovereignty and goodness.

Where in the constitution does it say officers of law are above rule of law? Where in the constitution does it say when tear gas and rubber bullets may be employed against lawful assemblies? These are not decisions stemming from a concrete legal basis, but ones which are essentially of an improvisational nature, to be justified on legal bases after the fact.

We must develop eyes to see such situations clearly and realize the deep precarity of such state power asserted over the citizenry. That’s why I can’t condemn any of the rioting tactics on a collective level back in my home state of Minnesota — the contract with the state is that they guarantee such things as natural rights and Justice and in return the populous will subscribe only to those legal means provided by the state for redressing conflict.

Yet in the murder of George Floyd we see both the state gruesomely seize the most basic right — that to life itself — from a citizen on an entirely non-judicial, arbitrary basis; and simultaneously, justice against this infraction is showing little signs of actually materializing. And this is not an isolated incident, but truly a continuing of a precedent — both in the Twin Cities in particular and in America generally has such justice been ignored by the legal means provided by the state.

So, in such a case, the citizenry has every right to assert their lawmaking power by making transparent that the contract of law and order truly is a two way agreement, and if the state is going to desecrate this agreement, then the people will retaliate until a new, legitimately functional legal means can be instituted for upholding justice in these cases where the state has previously acted only as a barrier to this transcendent value when it worked to their benefit.

Extra-judicial, state sponsored violence has no place in a country which flies the banner “land of the free.” These are our neighbors, our loved ones, being callously murdered in broad daylight. There never has been an excuse for such things. Now the people are saying they will accept no reasons, and will not rest until there is legitimate redress to these grievances. Feel their anger. It is more righteous and holy than the decaying mythology of America as a bastion of freedom. This anger has the potential to purify and renew this promise to freedom, if only we allow ourselves the ears to truly hear.

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview