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What Are People Supposed to Do?

Why should they play by rules that the powerful continually ignore?

On Wednesday, a Kentucky grand jury indicted former Louisville police officer Brett Hankison, one of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor.

The grand jury did not indict Hankison for killing Taylor. It didn’t indict the other two officers who participated in her killing, either. No, it merely said that, as Hankison fired the bullets that killed Taylor, some of them went awry and went into a neighboring apartment. That, the jury decided, was wrong, and it indicted Hankison for “wanton endangerment” — not of Taylor, but of the people next door. Killing Taylor was presumably regrettable but ultimately fine.

Taylor’s name didn’t even appear in the indictment. The jury may as well have said that, as a Black woman, she had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. In the eyes of the state, it was like she had never existed.

Joe Biden released a statement criticizing the decision and calling for reforms, including “addressing the use of excessive force, banning chokeholds, and overhauling no-knock warrants.” He also warned that “violence is never acceptable” from protesters.

On Wednesday night, Louisville police arrested at least 127 people during protests following the announcement about Taylor’s case. Two police officers were shot amid the protests but are expected to recover.

The decision came 65 years to the day that Emmett Till’s killers were acquitted. The American justice system, at work again.

It’s all here, the pattern we have seen play out time and again. The police kill a Black person. People are then told that they must wait for the law to run its course, that they should put their faith in the justice system, that they can reform things without going overboard. Then the law makes clear that it has no use for justice. (In Breonna Taylor’s case, the law made clear that it had no use even for a mention of her name.) People are then told to stay calm, not to go too far in responding, reminded to vote. The police are sent out to suppress the anger caused by their own actions. Then the cycle begins again.

The state demands loyalty. It tells us that the only truly exalted form of dissent comes through a ballot. It reminds us that it’s not acceptable to be too mad about things—that people have to keep themselves constantly under control.

Meanwhile, the state also grants itself a monopoly on violence, near-total legal impunity, and a seemingly endless string of reminders that it doesn’t have to play by the rules it enforces with such ruthlessness on the lowly citizenry.

It is worth asking the question: What, exactly, are people supposed to do in this situation? Why should we expect anyone who cares about, say, the idea that Black people are human beings to put their faith in a system that proves itself so consistently unworthy of that faith? Forget police abolition; police budgets have been going up in cities across the country in 2020. What are people supposed to do when the government spits in their faces like that?

The fact that this is playing out against the backdrop of an election that Republicans are openly signaling they will attempt to steal only drives the point home. If Donald Trump winds up using the tools of the state to evade democratic accountability, people will be told, just as they are always told when the system is trying to protect itself — just as they were told 20 years ago — that this is America, where the essential soundness of the state is never in question, where we respect rules that are there to protect everyone, where the most important thing of all is to accept that this is the way things are. And anyone who declines to do that will find themselves ejected to margins.

I have no singular answer to the “what should people do” question, but it is important to ask it, and to not be surprised when people decide that they are done playing by rules that powerful people clearly have no intention of following themselves.

Screenshot: Reuters