Confrontations between angry citizens and oppressive authorities figure prominently in the American political imagination. Americans are educated to believe that their country was established to end arbitrary government repression and tyranny, to make government accountable to the people. For the people of Ferguson that is precisely what fighting police brutality is all about. So it’s worth revisiting how Americans conceive of the struggle to restrict the government’s use of coercive force.
There are several ways to constrain government agents from employing their power tyrannically. First, you have institutional measures, rules and laws. The police are subordinate to democratically elected officials. Their actions are limited by laws and regulations, undergirded by the rights enumerated in the constitution: limits on the duration for which suspects can be detained without charge, requirements for warrants for searches and arrests, situational rules governing the use of force. They must justify their actions to judges. Officers who break the law can be jailed themselves. These cross-limiting institutional checks and balances are supposed to prevent those who enjoy the privilege of state-sanctioned use of force from wielding it indiscriminately.
A second way to push back against arbitrary state force is direct political action by groups of citizens. When large numbers of people demonstrate in the streets, when they boycott businesses, occupy buildings or neighbourhoods, or engage in civil disobedience, even authoritarian governments generally have to respond. In democracies, this sort of action will affect elections and drive policy change: either compromises will be struck, or aldermen, governors, perhaps even occasionally a member of Congress or two will lose their jobs. Run hard against police brutality and you may just find yourself mayor of New York City. Indeed, by Thursday, the demonstrations in Ferguson had already forced changes in tone and policy. Jay Nixon, Missouri’s governor, took control over the town’s security away from the local, nearly all-white, police department, which had botched the job, and handed it to Ron Johnson, head of the state’s highway patrol, who is black. Mr Johnson quickly exhibited a deft touch, walking in a memorial march with protestors and dishing out hugs and empathy. Political action of this sort depends on an aggressive free press, and on citizens’ liberty to communicate and organise.
In recent years, a third theory about how to restrain arbitrary government power has become popular in America. Increasing numbers of Americans have become convinced that the most important factor constraining the government from infringing popular rights is widespread possession of firearms. Since the 1990s the National Rifle Association (NRA) has insistently argued that the right to bear arms is the “first freedom” from which all other freedoms flow, and that governments will eliminate the rights to freedom of speech, religion, association and so on unless citizens are able to shoot back at government agents. The NRA and the more radical group Gun Owners of America have used confrontations between federal agents and cantankerous gun-owning dissidents to make the case that only gun ownership stands between individual freedoms and government oppression. “The founders warned of the ‘monopoly of violence,'” said Glenn Beck in his keynote address to the NRA convention in 2013, “because they knew that governments could turn against their people. And if the government had a monopoly of violence, tyranny would go undefeated.” (The concept “monopoly of violence” was not used by America’s 18th-century founders; Max Weber coined the idea in 1919. But you get the gist.)
Curiously, observes Francis Wilkinson in Bloomberg View, gun-rights advocates have not used the confrontation in Ferguson as an example of a situation where possession of a gun might have protected a citizen from the illegitimate use of force by a government agent. They have not argued that Michael Brown might be alive now if he had been able to shoot back at the police officer who killed him, or that the demonstrators who fired warning shots when police tried to shut down protests would have been justified in shooting officers to defend their right to freedom of association. No such arguments have been heard with regard to any of the unarmed black men killed by American police officers over the past few years. One wonders what might account for the fact that gun-rights advocates defend the right of a white Nevada rancher to shoot agents of the Bureau of Land Management, but not the right of young black men to shoot police officers.
In his 2013 speech Mr Beck actually argued that black men ought to buy guns to defend themselves from racist violence, decrying the fact that Martin Luther King was denied a gun permit in Alabama in 1956 “because he was considered a challenge to the people who were in control of the system.” It is not clear whether Mr Beck was arguing that King should have shot police officers in Birmingham when they beat peaceful civil-rights protestors and set dogs on them. It’s such an interesting lacuna, really: to argue that government officers are agents of oppression, that people should own guns to defend themselves against government oppression, that not just whites but above all blacks should recognise the need to own guns to protect oneself against government oppression, yet somehow to pass in silence over the question of whether black people should actually shoot government officers to defend themselves from oppression.
But perhaps we should be grateful for the inconsistency. The killing of Mr Brown did not happen because America’s citizens or its police are too lightly armed, or too reluctant to believe they have a legitimate right to shoot someone in a disagreement. It happened because America’s citizens and its police are too heavily armed, and too quick to believe they have a legitimate right to shoot someone in a disagreement. It happened because Americans are losing the talent for solving social conflicts by building responsive institutions, and are instead embracing video-game fantasies of solving social conflicts through violence. How to talk Americans down from that ledge is a riddle I don’t know the answer to. But Mr Johnson seems to have some good ideas.