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on cops and anarchism

Yet another Twitter/Mastodon thread that grew into a more verbosely explained blog post.

While I don’t consider myself an anarchist, I find a lot of their positions interesting and I’ve had a largely good impression of anarchists as a community online. This blog post is a reflection on the role of policing, as informed by my view of the anarchist community.

Whether one lives in a democratic or authoritarian state, the basic impression any government wants to give to its people is that “this society has laws, you better follow them or else”. The basic stated job of any police force or legal system is to enforce the laws passed by the government. Sometimes, these laws make sense and are unobjectionable by most (hardly any people would justify murder or rape), sometimes they serve to set more-or-less objective boundaries on what is or isn’t allowed (stealing can be justified in some circumstances, but actually legislating these circumstances and figuring out when they would apply without creating gigantic loopholes would be really hard), and sometimes they just serve to maintain a feeling of public order (like laws against loitering or vandalism).

But it’s hard to convince people that the latter categories are particularly worth enforcing – there are some fun-haters who would stand by anti-loitering laws or claim tagged-up walls are more annoying than the constant streams of advertising seen pretty much everywhere these days – so when it’s time to justify police (mis)behavior, typically it’s their job at stopping objectively-evil crimes that’s emphasized the most. Even though, statistically, law enforcement does a terrible job at it. And even that job then comes at the expense of cops also arresting, assaulting or killing innocent people – or killing people whose crimes would never justify a death penalty in a court of law. And whenever such an atrocity happens, the friendly relationship between law enforcement officers and prosecutors, the power of police unions and other factors make it very unlikely that the police officer would get an appropriate punishment. Same inefficiency also spreads to property crimes – the one area where, in a capitalist society where property rights are supposed to reign supreme – law enforcement should be especially efficient.

(And, of course, I haven’t yet mentioned race or nationality or religion, characteristics that make law enforcement’s relationship with some groups of people even worse in a lot of countries.)

However, the one job cops are good at – and where the more seemingly-useless laws start to make sense: giving people the impression that laws are being enforced, that there’s a certain way things “should” be: person X “should” own property Y, empty homes “should” not have homeless people in them, public parks “should” not have skateboarding teenagers. As agents of law and order, police serves to remind people that there is an order, as written in laws and property deeds and all other regulatory documents.

Which also is often not true: if you and/or your lawyers can craft good enough paperwork and outsmart the bureaucrats, or if you appeal to the authorities well enough, or if you outright bribe people, you can easily rewrite the order of things and get away with it. The government can write laws to restrict its abilities, but it can ignore these laws just as easily. On the other hand, a poor person’s access to the legal system is severely hampered. Public defenders are so understaffed and overworked, that they often ask people to plead guilty to crimes they have not committed. If they don’t have enough time on a case where they could literally save a person from prison, they’d have even less time for a property dispute, especially if the other side can drown them in arguments and documents.

And to me, honestly, the idea that a rich and powerful person can write enough documents, spend enough money and outsmart enough bureaucrats to start legally owning something they shouldn’t, to the point that a hundred years later, people won’t even remember that the thing in question was basically stolen – that sounds less like a 21st century civilized society and more like a medieval grand strategy game. And, apart from the weapons of war being loopholes, bribes and clever lawyering instead of swords, spears and catapults – how is that different from feudal lords waging wars against each other to conquer others' lands or put a peasant community under their rule? How is that different from the stereotypical portrayal of “anarchy” where the strong rule over everyone and the weak have no protection?

By comparison, actual anarchism at least understands that (1) hierarchical relations, including ones based on private property, are bad and should be avoided, and (2) the best way to survive and thrive in a society where you’re not protected from above is to help each other. Anarchists may be stereotyped as molotov-cocktail-throwing terrorists who want to destroy government so they can spread chaos, but it seems like in reality, most of them prefer to set up mutual aid facilities and stuff.

I still find anarchism kinda scary: the idea that there’s no book or document or even web page that says what should be allowed or who should have the final say regarding things seems weird to me. It sounds like the kind of society where you might be assaulted or kicked out of your home simply because your neighbors don’t like your face. But then, that’s already reality for a lot of the world’s poor and marginalized people in countries that do have law enforcement systems and books full of seemingly-equal laws that somehow get applied against the rich and powerful way less often than they should be. And, even though I’m a middle-class white majority-ethnicity person living in a country that at least pretends to be a democratic state, if I ever end up in a situation where justice is violated, I doubt the police will help me, either.