I'll repeat a story here from the "Troubles" of the spring of 1970. After the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, after the National Student Strike and disruptions at a number of major American universities, after occupation of sections of the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois by demonstrators and then Illinois State Police and then units of the Illinois National Guard — after a whole lot of shit went down, a group of very nice Methodists or Unitarians or some such thought it would be good to bring together "the kids and the cops" for some discussion sessions.
Ah, yes: "What we got here is ... failure to communicate."
The "kids" that showed up were largely graduate students in our mid-
and late 20s — the "youth rebellion" never included all that many
teenagers — and the cops were a pretty elite group from U of I
in-service programs for police on their ways up in their departments.
Relevant here is one word from the conversation between the
professional students who were practicing low-power politics and the
professional police who were living, for a while, like grad students:
the word "civilians."
The cops talked about the "civilians," and we asked "Who?" and then snickered.
"Hey, man; this ain't 'The 'Nam,' and we're not the Cong — and you're not the 101st Airborne."
Still, we protesters got a kick out of "civilians," and both groups
came to use it for people neither protesters nor cops.
What turned out to be significant is that use of "civilians" by cops in
general conversation, or, more exactly, what it represented, or, still
more exactly, what it came to represent. For a long time, a lot of cops
had felt themselves separate from "civilians"; by 1970, even highly
educated and sophisticated cops were willing to express such feelings in
words, to "civilians."
That cops identified as a group and said so wasn't a big deal; I
identified as a graduate student and teacher and more specifically a
graduate student and teacher in English; the rest of youse guys were
"civilians." In the decades since 1970, however, there have been trends
that make that cop/civilian distinction significant, and given those
Since the end of the Vietnam War and military conscription, there's
been an increasingly wide gap between a voluntary professional military
and a non-military civilian population. Simultaneously, there was quiet
undermining of the problematic Posse Comitatus Act and undermining of the much more positive tradition of keeping the military out of civilian law enforcement except in extreme cases, most especially in forcing state authorities to recognize the Constitutional rights of Black people.
Additional trends were to talk about a "War on Crime" and a "War on
Drugs" and to back up the rhetoric not only with using the military for
drug interdiction but also with militarizing police forces with SWAT
teams and heavy armament.
And along with that relatively low-profile use of the military to
enforce laws — "Counter-drug operations" are part of the US Navy's
SEALs' mission — there has been a medium-profile arms race among drug cartels, police forces, and average US citizens.
I grew up in Chicago back when the City wouldn't have sent grief
counselors over to my high school if some kid got shot. Still, it was a
shocking story when my mother told us how she and her sister had to hide
behind a car during Prohibition when a territorial dispute was moved
along by a drive-by shooting with a "Tommy gun"; automatic weapons with magazines were rare. Such weapons are not so rare nowadays, and, indeed semi-automatics and firearms generally are common in much of the United States.
Cops and the military may be converging, and both can legitimately see
themselves separated from and other than the civilian population — at
the same time as that civilian population is becoming, in one sense,
less civilian. A cop must assume that many of the people around him are
armed and trained, or, perhaps more dangerously, armed and untrained in
the use of firearms.
Throw into this set of trends something very good: most police nowadays
are far more likely than, say, in the 1950s, to blatantly
"profile" Black people and other minorities and mistreat them, at least
not where the police brutality might be observed and recorded and cops
behaving badly might find themselves and their departments sued.
Nowadays, indeed, police officers are far more likely than in 1970 to be
Black themselves — or Brown or female or Asian — and far more likely to
treat civilians alike.
The downside here is what I'll call increasingly equal-opportunity
"wogification" of that civilian population: civilians are Other and not
us and all potentially armed and dangerous and to be treated without
obvious brutality — certainly no more public lynchings or castrations —
but as if they were all dangerous criminals.
And maybe detainees and POWs in those wars on drugs and crime.
So: So let me make a couple of suggestions.
First, everyone, cool it with figures of speech using "war" unless you maybe want to combine William James on "The moral equivalent of war"with Arthur C. Clarke's observation in 2001: A Space Odyssey
that space exploration could be as exciting as war. If anyone wants to
talk about "the conquest of space," that's fine with me, just think a
bit before you open your mouth about how big space is and how ludicrous
the idea that it can be conquered. Aside from that: if it doesn't
involve intentional production by the State of huge-scale property
damage and impressive numbers of dead, wounded, and maimed, it ain't
Second, moving toward third, let's call off "The War on Drugs" and
replace crusades against crime with intelligent, compassionate,
effective, and robust enforcement of sensible laws.
And finally, we need some cautious disarmament. Indeed, even as
long-term survival of human civilization on a large scale means
substantial and rapid reductions in the total number of nuclear
warheads, even so, quality of life in the United States depends upon
gradual arms reduction among the military, cops, and civilians. Where we
Americans are currently, the Second Amendment isn't so much
guaranteeing the rest of the Bill of Rights as undermining key parts of
it (think "stop and frisk" and locker searches at schools). We also need
a cultural shift suggesting that truly tough guys and gals get by with
martial arts and, at most, weapons more personal and elegant than
point-and-spray descendants of Tommy guns or even aim-and-shoot cowboy
We need to get to more civil civilians and to cops who are less street
soldiers with paramilitary backup and more civil civil servants and
civilian officers of the peace.