Discipline and Punish

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” – Anatole France

The New York City Police Department, apparently wounded from recent criticisms of its conduct, has undertaken a virtual work stoppage. In the past week, arrests have dropped by 66% and ticketing for minor offences such as traffic violations has plummeted by 94%. The stoppages come amidst several quite overt displays of disobedience on the part of rank and file police, who several days ago turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio as he spoke at the funeral of two murdered officers.

Max Blumenthal, reporting for Alternet, has offered evidence that these protests – far from being the spontaneous behaviour of a few disgruntled officers – represent the beginnings of an organized and extremely pernicious campaign against the mayor, his administration, and the wider popular campaign for police reform that has blossomed across the United States. Blumenthal:

AlterNet has obtained emails revealing plans to organize a series of anti-de Blasio protests around the city until the summer of 2015. Billed as a non-partisan movement in support of “the men and women of the NYPD,” the protests are being orchestrated by a cast of NYPD union bosses and local Republican activists allied with Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor who recently called on de Blasio to “say you’re sorry to [NYPD officers] for having created a false impression of them.” The first rally is planned to take place at Queens Borough Hall at noon on January 13…A cursory glance at message boards on a semi-private police chat forum suggests that opposition to de Blasio within NYPD ranks has descended into raw racial paranoia. 

The support for anti-de Blasio, “pro police” measures offered by figures on the American right is striking, if unsurprising, given their general attitude towards any kind of work stoppage – particularly one supported by several [police] union leaders. This curious omission in the general conservative antipathy to worker organization of any kind is not without precedent. In the midst of his assault on the state’s labour movement, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker managed to leave out traditionally Republican constituencies like police and firefighters, turning his offensive instead against teachers and other unionized public employees.

I hope you’ll pardon my sardonic tone in the preceding, because I don’t mean to imply there’s any kind of ideological contradiction here. The political right, which says it believes in values like individual liberty, personal responsibility, order, and which defends “private enterprise” as an indispensable bulwark against bureaucratic coercion, has never really had a problem with its two ostensible adversaries: the state and “collectivism”. Far from it. The same conservatives who routinely complain that popular protests are unduly disruptive, or that an overreaching state is crippling individual initiative, now defend the right of the police department in America’s largest city to unilaterally retreat from its basic duties and a campaign to discredit its most senior elected official.

Despite their rhetoric, the modern conservative has little problem with the state as such. They may have devised a sophisticated and politically effective demonology to discredit and undermine its social functions (social security, public health, environmental stewardship, redistribution) but when it comes to its disciplinary or coercive functions (namely those which involve the institutionalized use of force, in this case to suppress popular protests against systemic racism), we are told these are simply above criticism.

And so, the same talking heads we could expect to bleat about “politicized union bosses” and “collectivism” in the face of a strike by teachers, steelworkers, or public servants, are now great champions of a work stoppage by the New York City Police Department and a campaign against the city’s elected chief executive.

The emperor seems to be lacking his clothes.


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