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The System Will Not Save Us

We should be careful about embracing the state's violent power, even after the Capitol siege.

capitol police
Elvert Barnes/Flickr

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Last week’s Trump-inspired siege of the Capitol building was an undeniable outrage: an affront to basic democratic principles; a sign of the right’s devotion to white minority rule above all else; and a reminder about the fundamental failures of policing in this country.

In short, it was yet another in the endless string of lessons we are taught about who this system, at its core, has always been constructed to protect. Democrats and Republicans alike sent cops out in full force to destroy the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, while the widely telegraphed prospect of white nationalist fanatics storming the Capitol was treated as not much to be concerned about by the building’s normally hyper-aggressive police leadership. Black Capitol Police officers trying to handle the violent racists in their midst watched their white colleagues take selfies with the mob. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

It is appalling that Black and leftist protesters get crushed and white fascists are handled with kid gloves, and it’s very understandable, under the circumstances, to demand a kind of retributive justice—to refer to the mob as “terrorists,” to beef up our laws around “domestic terrorism,” to throw every book possible at the perpetrators. The scales must be balanced. The far-right must be rounded up. This all makes sense on a basic level, but we should be very, very careful about how we respond to something like the Capitol crisis. If there was ever a time to push beyond the boundaries of the state as it currently exists, it is this one.

There was an illuminating exchange on Friday between NPR’s Alisa Chang and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy about what happened last week (emphasis mine):

MURPHY: I think that is probably the biggest problem here, that had they had 1,000 or 2,000 prepositioned National Guard troops at the Capitol, I don’t know whether the breach would have occurred. And then there are some really difficult questions to ask that I don’t have the answers to right now. Obviously, we equip these Capitol Police officers with weapons. And by and large, they chose not to fire those weapons. If you aren’t prepared to use lethal force, then it’s just about how many people they have versus how many people you have.


CHANG: But, Senator, do you feel that the failure to arrest more people on Wednesday is going to only fuel their return on Inauguration Day and potentially create much greater unrest?

MURPHY: I do. I mean, it’s pretty hard to go track these folks down when they’re dispersed all around the country. We have not seen enough high-profile arrests in the last 24 hours so as to create a disincentive for this to happen again.

So, the solution, according to Murphy and, implicitly, Chang, was for more violence—more arrests, more “lethal force” from the Capitol police. Again, it has a logic to it—haul these scumbags in! Do what you have to do!

I am not so glib as to say there is an easy short-term solution to the problem of the Capitol siege. There are white supremacist forces, here and now, causing harm. That is not a small thing. But let us also not pretend that the American system cares that much, or wants to do much about this in any significant sense. White supremacists targeting the mechanics of democracy is not an example of the system being challenged. It is the American state’s natural way. It is an example of the system working as it’s intended to work—working more crudely and horribly than is perhaps normal, but working nonetheless. That system, by definition, cannot save us—not in a way that is real and true, and that will bring us meaningful justice.

And let us not pretend that there is no cost to embracing the violent power of the state, even if it is for seemingly righteous ends. It is another way of pledging allegiance, of signing onto the project. We have decades, centuries really, of experience with what happens when we do that as a society. You get mass incarceration. You get rampant mass surveillance. You get forever wars which always turn out to be too “complicated” to wind down. You get a bipartisan embrace of vast, unaccountable, constantly escalating force in the hands of the executive. You get nearly a trillion dollars a year for the military treated as sacrosanct while healthcare for everyone is seen as a radical pipe dream.

You get police departments running elite spy units and stuffed to the gills with military-grade equipment. You get cops who are in charge of politicians instead of the other way around. You get schools that become prisons by another name. You get a culture that defaults to sanction and punishment so instinctively that one state, New York, is now threatening fines both for not distributing the COVID vaccine quickly enough and for giving it out to “not eligible” people.

We know who really pays the price for this in the end. It’s not white people. It’s not conservatives. When we look to the system for help, the system responds by doing what it always does: it amasses more money, more manpower, more violent authority, and it uses it on the most vulnerable people. This almost never goes in the other direction. The state does not willingly or easily hand these things back. When we turn, in our eagerness for immediate justice, to the supposedly righteous power of the system, we may get short-term results (and even that is by no means guaranteed) but we could also seal our fate in ways that could come back to haunt us.

That is why going one step further in our thinking is so important. It’s why not just reform, but the destruction of the two-party system matters—because what we have now is so clearly incapable of helping us. It’s why the upending of our political institutions matters—because, at their core, they make a mockery of democracy. And it’s why police abolition and prison abolition matter—because they are movements that seek something beyond the desire for the system to train its capacity for harm onto more seemingly just places, or to allow more diverse groups of people to control the machinery of state violence; because they are not merely demanding the application of police violence in “fairer” ways, but acknowledging that events like the Capitol siege show why American policing is not a tenable prospect on a fundamental level. They are saying that the system can’t save us and that we need a new one instead.