The Rule of Nobody
By Zack Barowitz
Below, police from twelve law enforcement agencies deploy riot equipment and military-style tactics at racial justice demonstrations last June. -Photos by Caroline Losneck
According to the City of Portland website, “The Racial Equity Steering Committee is charged with reviewing the City’s approach to public safety,” including: the scope of police duties, the nature of its community partnerships, and to recommend changes to curtail systemic racism. These are hot button issues for sure, but one thing that everyone can probably agree upon is that legislative policy has its limitations. A legislative body cannot account for every aspect of civic life, nor can it enforce policies other than to assign the task to bureaucratic agents such as inspectors, regulators, and most notably, police.
Police are agents of the state and are inextricably tied to the multiple structures of government policies that they are meant to enforce. And while policy might have its limitations, bureaucracy does not. Sadly, we have reached a point where our regulatory apparatus has become so technocratic and so byzantine that it simultaneously surpasses normal human intelligence while it negates it.
Bureaucratic expertise – whether it be in city planning, industry regulation, or the law–lies not with knowledge and judgement, but with the understanding of a complex matrix of codes, standards, and regulations often enforced by multiple agencies but rarely accountable to just one. The anonymity of the enforcement and lack of accountability is what made the political theorist Hannah Arendt consider bureaucracy as a form of tyranny because those caught on the wrong end (whether they add an illegal addition to their house or are caught drinking in public) are subject to punishment and harm.
As Hannah Arendt wrote:
Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.
Historically, and to the present day, the role of police has been to enforce administrative ordinances and protect business interests. Over the years the duties of the constable have included land surveying, verifying weights and measures, capturing freed slaves, and squelching labor demonstrations. But for many years the primary role of police has been to “maintain order” which in large part means regulating behavior particularly in the realm of “crimes of vice,” such as public drinking, drug use, and prostitution – generally directed toward the underclasses. (Public drinking is a good illustration. It is illegal to drink on a sidewalk unless a business establishment pays for a license and a permit.) Such notions of behavior as crime prompted author David Graeber to describe police officers as “bureaucrats with batons.”
So when it comes to considering the purpose of policing, it is most useful to think in terms of bureaucratic systems and not isolated incidents by individual actors.
The relationship between politicians and police is a sort of social contract. Since 9/11 and probably a lot longer than that, governments have sought to diminish individual liberties in favor of heightened security (think of the days when you were allowed to bring toothpaste on an airplane). Police are charged to fill the gaps where policy fails. In exchange, they are empowered to use force and may employ tactics and behaviors not suited for civil discourse. If an excess occurs (such as lethal force) the police may expect a large bureaucratic government (from local review boards up to the Governor) to protect them.
It is therefore both the limitations of policy and the intention of it, that the police are often left to their own devices to decide which activities are sanctioned and how to deal with them; often by summary justice.
In Portland, the City Councilors and members of the Racial Equity Steering Committee don’t carry guns and batons. They don’t legislate justice in the streets, but they empower police to enforce certain policies. While we might see thoughtful and respectful discourse in the council chamber, the dynamic shifts dramatically in the streets when the city official is carrying a gun. Because behind that gun is not an individual but the full power of the government that it serves.
As employees and representatives of the city of Portland, police could be judged by the same standards as city councilors. However, that is not the system. The system we have does not rely on rational discourse, instead, it allows the police to fall back on the threat – and use – of blunt force in the name of the law.
Zack Barowitz is a Portland resident.