Hate crime laws and police

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Hate crime laws are usually intended to escalate punishments levied against people who commit crimes against protected classes of persons because of the target’s membership in a particular group or category of people. The establishment of protected classes usually aims to prevent discrimination against sociopolitically marginalized groups along lines of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or other more “intrinsic” traits (let’s leave aside problems with that idea of “intrinsic” for now). Louisiana just enacted a law that includes police (firefighters and paramedics were tacked on, but clearly not the primary targets) as part of a protected class of persons in hate crime law; a piece of “Blue Lives Matter” legislation. This law will be mirrored in other states. The bill supporters argue that this will help counter-balance a supposed “anti-police prejudice” that is making the lives of police especially dangerous. This kind of rationalization is little more than a form of authoritarian gas-lighting that obfuscates substantive and serious grievances people (especially more vulnerable people) have against the violence and political obstacles systematically produced and defended by police as an institution.

It is old hat to observe the lack of special danger for police when compared to loggers, gardeners, construction workers, garbage collectors, fishers, among other lines of work, and the danger has been on a downward trend for years. The “war on cops” cited by Blue Lives Matter supporters is a fabrication. Police may feel anxious that they are under more scrutiny or being counter-surveilled more frequently, but their frustrated expectations of possessing impunity behind a Thin Blue Line hardly constitutes evidence of a “war”. Even if it were more dangerous to be a cop, or more serious popular resistance against the police itself materialized, this would not justify categorizing police as a protected class within hate crime laws.

First, much like the phrase “Blue Lives Matter” itself, as well as its “All Lives Matter” cousin, this deflects attention from systematically perpetuated inequalities, discrimination, and violence by projecting an imagined situation of false equality. Completely abstracted from social context and power relations, police are depoliticized and imagined as just one group among others, deserving of respect and “equal protection”. The role of police as an enforcement institution embedded within a stratified social order that maintains many inequalities, exclusions, and forms of discriminatory violence is naturalized or ignored. The long (and ongoing) history of police in devaluing black lives is forgotten, as is the entire basis for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Time itself gets distorted here. Violence against black lives is excused variably yet telically as a necessity (even an inevitability) for purposes of order, anti-criminality, or animal control. It receives a full, empathetic hearing for “context” and police perspective. The claims of “self-defense” ritually invoked by police end up masking their individual aggression when it is occurs, as well as the prior aggression of historically accumulated structural and institutional violence. Portrayals of violence against police on the other hand are always at least partially amnesic, denuded of structural explicability, justifiability, or historical reason.

Second, categorizing police as a protected class is dangerous for those who value democracy as well as those who oppose authoritarianism. The potential for authorities to use this to create a chilling effect against dissenters is high. Charges of “resisting arrest” that are used frequently already act as a similar punitive escalator, but hate crime charges (perhaps saved for more vocal leaders or energetic protesters) would carry potentially greater costs. Given the function of police in maintaining the status quo, any opposition to or resistance offered against police during protests, riots, strikes, or other forms of dissent could be construed as a potential hate crime. Minimal evidence (someone in the crowd made a rude gesture, or held an A.C.A.B. sign, or pushed back, or yelled something mean, and an officer felt targeted because they are police and were “afraid for their safety”) and a sympathetic judge (hardly a rarity) is all that may be needed.

Finally, including police as a protected class not only perverts but inverts the intent behind hate crime legislation in the first place. Much like the white student, Abigail Fisher, who sued the University of Texas on the grounds that affirmative action admissions criteria violated her 14th Amendment rights (an amendment created in part to redress racial inequalities in the aftermath of chattel slavery), including police in hate crime laws uses protections intended for the vulnerable and disempowered to actually buttress the benefits granted to those who are already firmly protected within the existing political and legal frameworks. Louisiana is adding insult to very real injuries in doing so, and promising more injuries in the future.

 

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Filed under Blue Lives Matter, Hate crime, Police, Uncategorized

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