The Shifting Sand of Context

“He has the right to defend himself from deadly force.”

That’s a line that gets tossed around a lot these days, particularly whenever a cop kills a black person.

It’s a nice-sounding sentiment, but it isn’t true. For instance, it doesn’t apply to a citizen who defends himself when a cop pulls a gun and threatens to shoot.

So there’s an asymmetry here. A context. “It was self-defense” applies to a cop who shoots a citizen, but it doesn’t apply to a citizen who shoots a cop.

So, if we want to be clear, we have to say that a cop has the right to defend himself from deadly force. A citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop.

Let’s broaden the context a bit. What if you shoot a cop who is off-duty, in plain clothes, who pulls a gun and threatens to shoot you over a matter of your dog pooping in his yard?

Well, your life is probably over, either way — if the cop doesn’t kill you, then the lawyers will make you wish he had, and you’ll almost certainly go to prison, even if you only winged him. But that’s our current fuckup of a legal system. In theory, you would have the right to defend yourself. I think.

We would have to clarify again, by saying that a citizen does not have the right to defend himself against a cop who is doing his assigned duty.

Let’s broaden the context a bit further. What if the cop’s assigned duty is to provoke a violent response?

There used to be a concept of “fightin’ words” — the idea that normal people can be provoked, sometimes with words alone, into a violent action. I don’t know if this actually had any legal standing, but it certainly served to take the edge off a judge’s sentencing in the past.

Think of that scene in the film Crash, when Matt Dillon’s cop character is feeling up the black man’s attractive wife while “searching” for weapons, just to try to provoke a violent reaction from the husband. It resonates, because we all recognize the asymmetry of power in this scene. The cop can do whatever the hell he wants, and get away with it.

“That’s a movie, it doesn’t happen in real life,” is one predictable response. Uh-huh. That’s exactly why the scene resonates so strongly.

“There are always a few bad apples,” is another predictable response. “And they are prosecuted vigorously and drummed out of the … well….” Uh-huh. We see lots of that vigorous prosecution, and bad cops getting drummed out.

This is basically saying that no one assigns cops the duty of stirring up trouble. That just doesn’t happen. Right?

Except when you look at a place like Ferguson, where the dim-witted city officials decide that they are short on funds, and decide to take up highway robbery.

Jaywalking? Fine ’em. Double parking? Fine ’em. Sleeping on a park bench? Lock ’em up and fine ’em. If they can’t pay the fine, double it. If they don’t show up to pay the fine, put out an arrest warrant and fine ’em again. If they can’t pay that, put them in the prison system and get kickbacks, as well as giving the “perp” a police record that effectively ruins their life.

That’s not stirring up trouble? Really? Before you make that your final answer, are you sure you don’t want to call a friend?

The fact is, it is increasingly the official duty of police officers to enforce laws that stir up trouble.

In many cases, these laws are the legacy of our national history of racism and slavery: the laws are intended to enforce an inequality in society that was considered natural and just at the time — at least by those (white) people with legal voice and standing — which is now considered natural and just by almost no one.

In many other cases, these laws are merely intended to keep the poor impoverished, and out of sight. No one wants beggars on the street, or sleeping on park benches, and we’ve always had this strange, Puritanical, Calvinist belief that the poor somehow deserve their lot, so it doesn’t matter much if we make their hard life harder.

The biggest problem is, of course, the disastrous Drug War, which has been going on for nearly a century. The Drug War was founded in racism, and resulted in the twisted vision of “law and order” that we see flourishing around us now: something that any American citizen from the 1800’s would have viewed as standing in complete antithesis to the ideal of Freedom this country was presumably founded upon. Virtually every criminal law on the books regarding “drugs” is a legal abomination, and its enforcement is all but guaranteed to stir up huge buckets of flaming trouble.

Finally, adding spice to this unholy mix, we have the neoliberal economics of the last forty years, which has twisted our nation’s vision from freedom, to “free markets,” in which the whole of human activity and governance is reduced to competing against each other for money in the marketplace. Entire cities are being effectively defunded, though they are still expected to provide all the normal services. City officials have been reduced to extorting money from their citizens, and it is the cops who are officially ordered to go around breaking the knees of people who don’t pay up.

So let’s look at the question again in this still-broader context.

A cop goes to the door of a person who already lives on the edge of ruin, to serve a warrant that is going to destroy that person’s life: force them to pay trivial fines they can’t afford, take time off work that will cause them to lose their job, brand them with a police record that will make it hard to get a new job afterward, get them evicted from their home and have their children taken away, and — to top it off — all this in an environment where cops can do whatever the hell they want.

Even if the cops don’t, they can. And everyone knows it, including the cops.

Is it any real surprise that someone might come to the door with a shotgun?

So it leads me to the question: when you hold the power to stop someone on the street and do literally anything you want to them, right up to killing them without consequence, and then deliberately provoke a fight with that person, holding not only their future, but their children’s future hostage, do you give up the right to defend yourself from deadly force?

I’m not asking the legal question. I’m asking the moral question.

Go watch the movie, Rob Roy. This is not a new question.

This entry was posted in General.

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