Seeing Through Police by Mark Greif

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A surprise of being around police is how much they touch you. They touch you without consent and in both seemingly friendly and unfriendly ways. The friendly touch is the first surprise. A policeman allowing protesters to cross the street touches you on the arm or back as you cross. Face-to-face, police will put a hand on your shoulder, from the front, intimate as a dog putting his paw up. It is unnerving. Women say male police know very well how to touch, even in public sight, in ways that are professional and neutral, and also in ways that are humiliating and sexual, with no demonstrable distinction dividing the two. The police know, and you know. Like a reversal of electric polarity from protective to hostile, this conversion of mood does not only follow the policeman’s individual initiative. It traces something like an atmospheric charge among police in groups, their silent experience of a phenomenon, their habitual tactics in response.

In confrontations on a curb (when you stay on your sidewalk, because the public street is forbidden except to police), they may press lightly on your collarbone, “holding you back,” just measuring out the distance with their arms. You can even be held up in this way, if you relax. Shoving you requires a separate, additional level of their energy. Batons and gloves extend the police field of touch, insulating them from the brutality that their arms and hands will do. A gray- haired professor of history I know put his hand on the top rail of a metal police barrier, at a protest, as one will do when standing still. An officer forbade him to touch it. All macho, the historian refused to move his hand. The policeman smashed it with his baton, splitting the flesh but not breaking the bone. That was a conflict over the reciprocation of touch: the rail and the baton were proxies. The unspoken rule is that the citizen must never return touch.

Singling out an individual for arrest, the next escalation is to grab the citizen body at the neck or shoulders— attacking from the front, blackgloved fingers grip the face, while from behind, the palm shocks the base of the skull— pushing at the fulcrum of the neck to hurl the person down. Sometimes the cop’s left hand pulls up or tears at the arrestee’s shirt or outermost garment while pushing with the right hand. A poet in his forties I know was thrown to the ground like this because he stepped outside a crosswalk at the beginning of a march. Other officers swarm the downed man or woman and pull at arms and legs, and kneel on the back or the neck or head, or mash the face into the pavement under their palm while cuffs go on. The final escalation is punching, beating, or kicking. Sometimes this is reserved for the arrestee on the ground who is already restrained, as a form of punctuation. Sometimes it is done in the van or on the way to it. Police are more likely to do this only when they believe they cannot easily be recorded with cameras.

The purpose of touching by police is to make persons touchable. Touch readies more touch. It is preparatory. The restraints in civilization on attacking anyone, especially a citizen who portends no harm or threat, are fairly high. For most forms of violence that breach civilized norms, even if it is one’s art or profession, steps of habituation are needed. The “sudden” violent arrest at a protest is almost never sudden if you have been watching the officer and the longer sequence. The process of change in an officer who will then bring someone down is not oriented to the target, but seems interior, oriented to the self; by the expressions that pass over his face, usually in an instant of stepping back, withdrawal, and the cessation of interaction or negotiation or “management,” you can detect a kind of change of availability that prefaces the attack. It very often seems to surprise, even astonish or trouble, nearby officers, when the attack comes, yet they still know to capture and cuff whichever citizens wind up on the ground (sometimes the wrong ones, as the trailing officers will often also push down and even cuff bystanders who happened to get knocked into indirectly in the attack).

Police are different things to different people. Not because each person has his or her own subjective view on the constabulary, but because the meanings of the functions of police vary with a citizen’s identity, as one or another possible target or beneficiary of policing.

“Directing traffic.” This function of restricting and encouraging movement through a city may be the very oldest job of police. Police maintain a spatial order. The most manpower and work time are still devoted to it. What is traffic? Certain neighborhoods contain certain types of people and behavior. Others contain others. Various subjects must move through corridors of the city to redistribute themselves over the course of the day and night. But they must not unsettle police’s fundamental sense of who belongs where. Today, when police are accused of racial bias in their traffic stops and pedestrian searches and must justify themselves, they speak with pride of the fact that they will not just stop and question black people but also stop and question white people caught in black neighborhoods and rich people cruising in poor neighborhoods. This, to their minds, is parity. They don’t recognize their role in making up the boundaries of these neighborhoods in the first place, or why not all neighborhoods are functionally the same for the activities of life.

“Catching criminals.” This is the activity police truly like to identify with, however little of their time it occupies. Occasionally police stumble on red- handed robbers, or thugs fleeing an assault. The bulk of “catching” people lies in traversing the city, as necessary, to find some people on the word of other people. Police act as go- betweens for antagonists who may even be practically within arm’s reach— yelling outside their cars in a fender bender, or giving opposite accounts of a domestic dispute. Real “investigation” and “detection”— the glorious business of tracing an unidentified malefactor after the fact of a crime, without just finding out, from the witnesses closest at hand, who did it— is an activity that exists in police departments, but only among a tiny number of specialized personnel who don’t even have to wear uniforms.

Where the police identify a crime against the city, state, or law, rather than an affronted person— the so- called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale— we can best speak of another police function as distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal. The police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (mostly carried by those on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (unlit taillight, noisy muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals— the poor and marginal— and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals, as soon as they are stopped and frisked and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. (Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all.) The majority of violations technically listed in the tables of the law are of no interest to uniformed police. Those committed in the course of doing business, in the professions, and in government aren’t likely to be actively detected or sought by anyone. They are accidentally or competitively disclosed— leading to the awkwardness of the need of some settlement, which is then dealt with by regulatory agencies, guilds, or accrediting bodies, plus, at the far extreme, civilcourt proceedings and court- mandated money exchanges. Very rarely are police or even criminal justice ever brought in.

The most admirable and defensible of the exemplary police activities is “keeping the peace.” It is also the least discussed, the least subject to written laws and directives, and the vaguest. In a democracy of equal citizens, people will inevitably conflict, even through no fault or crime of one party or the other. Someone will take advantage, or threaten. The role of the police here is to pacify— and pacification, in a civil democracy, is no bad thing intrinsically. It is a vital, valuable thing.

Enforcing racial terror: this exemplary function, unofficial or officially denied though universally known, owns no familiar phrase. In recent decades, African- Americans have made proverbial the facetious offenses that police seem to be pursuing: “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” “walking while black.” The history of racial terrorism by whites is old. Police have gradually taken up its responsibilities in a process that goes back more than a century. Police departments’ role in racial terror has survived even where racism has waned and their forces have integrated nonwhite officers. Racial terrorism is simply a part of the job for local and metropolitan police forces in America— any policing at the level of the city, broadly construed. This may have been replicated in foreign municipalities, as in London policing of Caribbean and South Asian populations, and Paris policing of North Africans in the banlieues. Racial terror does create enormous complications for any ordinary theory of what American police do, however— just as it carves a fundamental division between the experience and expectations non- African- American citizens have of police and those held by African- Americans.
 

I would like to add a different essential function of police: being seen.

If you want sometime to sympathize with police, watch young ones when they don’t know they’re observed. The young cop stands on a corner, squinting in bright winter sun. Pedestrians approach from every side, with questions, asking directions, or start talking without introduction, boring him, because he is part of the street like a stop sign. Or, as one does with a stop sign, they ignore and veer around him (sometimes deliberately, pointedly, despising him for his uniform).

You can see how hard it must be to ready a face for each of these people that will look authoritative rather than deferential. Between encounters, you could watch the front fall, strained by all these obligations. That is why our comic picture of a moment of rest for the harried policeman requires he take off his patrolman’s hat and wipe the perspiration from his face, as if smoothing down the instrument that’s put to such exhausting work.

The basic ambition of a policeman is never to cease to project force, stolidity, an unbroken front, seriousness, intimidation. But that’s impossible. Policing contains daily humiliation at each inevitable failure of the policeman’s front. The uniform itself, the badge in its widest sense, like the luster of all shields meant to dazzle, is meant to maintain this front regardless of the individual inside. But the uniform can never succeed entirely. You would need RoboCop. All police are mortal. There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires imagination of these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away. The traditional English name for the mana with which police uniforms are invested is surely awe. Erving Goffman, in his famous conceptualizations of front, face, and performance, recalled Kurt Riezler’s point that the inevitable obverse of awe is shame. 

The coupling of awe and shame among police comes out in our awareness of police symmetry and asymmetry. A shield is worn on the peak of the hat, while a second one covers the heart. The gun descends from one side of the utility belt, and, traditionally, the stick hangs from the other. Sometimes a heavy flashlight substitutes. Looking at individual police, they almost always seem lopsided. The belt pulls down on one side. The blouse comes undone. They are constantly hiking up their pants. The regulation shoes are the same as those of nurses, waiters, and mail carriers. Heaviness gathers at the waist, in a sedentary, slow, caloric job. There is something in police that droops.

The symbol of police in this dimension in North America is the donut. The donut is equivocal. It is not loved as apple pie is. It has no national or official standing as apple pie does. It has a local message only. Donuts, like other deep- fried delicacies, do not travel well. Yet donuts have our rueful affection. Really, it is the pursuit of coffee that drives police to donut shops. Donuts confirm what they will not admit with their badge and gun, that they are the ones who must be awake all the time, in public, in the extremely boring job of sitting in a place, either thereby to assure passersby and the public that they are sitting there, watching, or to ensure that other people don’t sit there. This sitting is being added to their nature; the stasis gathers at their waists. They are living traffic cones. Traffic cones, too, would drink coffee and eat donuts to stay awake. 

Most surprising, perhaps, is that the more time you spend looking at police, the more you see that the law is not a true resource for them. A rationale, yes, but a thin one. Police lack law. I didn’t notice this until I really started watching them, thinking about what I had seen, reading about them and reading research done on them. The original television version of Law & Order split each episode into two parts. First, policing; second, courtroom proceedings. It took me years to notice that the title was backward. Police are order. This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to avoid mess or clean it up. The cliché from Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, her cross- cultural study of the constitution of dirt and taboo, holds up here: What we call dirt is only “matter out of place.” Police clean up. 

It is always hard to remind or convince police that their stated loyalty is to the Constitution. It’s not their fault, really, so much as it is the fault of a municipal organization of authority that keeps legal thinking at a level “above their pay grade.” A bad consequence is that it’s quite difficult to make police feel responsible for civil- rights violations or unjust laws, since rights and the law of the polity are not theirs to know or decide. The police reformer David Harris describes the experience of a friend in the Oakland Police Department, directing police retraining around racial violations, which crystallizes a general truth.

In 2001, Captain Ron Davis, a twenty- year veteran . . . led an in-service training session on racial profiling. . . . Davis began by asking the assembled officers a simple question: “What is your job?” . . . “What I want to know,” he asked, “is, what is your mission, and the mission of your department? To what are you dedicating your time, day after day?”

Most of the answers were variations on “fighting crime”: “Catching bad guys”; “Getting criminals off the street”; “Keeping the streets safe from predators”; “Chasing crooks”; “Taking down the guys that need to be taken down”; “Responding to nine- one- one emergencies”; “Helping the department achieve its goals”; “Carrying out the chief ’s orders.” . . . Then he asked, “What does your oath say? When you graduated from the academy and became a cop, you all raised your hand and took an oath. What did you swear to do?” . . . Silence. . . . Eventually, an officer gave Davis the answer he sought: “We swear to uphold the law and the Constitution.” Another officer spoke up. “Well, sure, that’s the oath,” he said, “but everyone knows what this job is really about.”

I’m not sure anybody knows. Not us, but also not police themselves, not politicians and government, and not political theorists.

Part of the reason police seem at present unreformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. It’s possible they never have. When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought. If police don’t take stock of the Constitution, I sometimes wonder, might it be because our Constitution can’t conceive of them?

“Police” as a word and concept exists in Europe from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries forward, as a word for the administrative state management of population and territory— Polizeiwissenschaft, for the incipient German bureaucracies. Modern Anglo- American police forces date to the urban development of private hired watchmen and guards for merchant or guild- professional spaces. Benjamin Franklin helped reorganize and rationalize one such force, among his many civic projects, in Philadelphia before the American Revolution, as he relates in his Autobiography. Their major urban institutionalization occurred in London under Robert Peel in 1829 in the Metropolitan Police Department (yielding officers nicknamed “bobbies,” for their founder, and the traditional abbreviation for the department, “the Met”). 

This metropolitan form of police organization marked a dividing line with the tradition in Europe. On the Continent, crown monarchs had kept even the prosaic functions of policing tied to the sovereign. This meant that the European tradition, emanating from France, wove military power, spying, and control of the poor in with urban regulation and penal justice. First abolished by the Revolution, police surveillance was reconstituted a decade later under Napoleon. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault described the position of European police with the 1768 motto of Vattel: “By means of a wise police, the sovereign accustoms the people to order and obedience.”

“Police” and “policy” are cognate: our liberal political tradition has focused on the second. The most revealing juncture in classical liberalism may come in a rare discussion from Adam Smith, in the 1762 lecture given the title “Of Police.” For Smith, what matters to civil government as “police” possesses sufficient dignity only when it speaks to what we would call economic policy. The constabulary is acknowledged as a necessity for its execution of the criminal law but is beneath political notice:

Police is the second general division of jurisprudence. The name is French, and is originally derived from the Greek πολιτεια [politeia], which properly signified the policey of civil government, but now it only means the regulation of the inferiour parts of government, viz. cleanliness, security, and cheapness or plenty. The two former, to witt, the proper method of carrying dirt from the streets, and the execution of justice, so far as it regards regulations for preventing crimes or the method of keeping a city guard, tho’ usefull, are too mean to be considered in a general discourse of this kind. 

“The proper method of carrying dirt from the streets” and “the method of keeping a city guard”: twin practicalities.

Liberal and social- contract theories of democracy— those that begin from Hobbes and Locke and that form the official philosophical background to the American Republic that was constituted in 1789— do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. This is perhaps because, on a strong version of contract theory, police ought not to exist. How could democratic agreement fail to be self- enforcing in its daily practice if the agreement is real, sustained by each individual’s consent? Social- contract theory does include the discouragement and rectification of error after definite breaches of the contract, as punishment will address the convicted wrongdoer who either gave in to the temptation of interest or was perverted to it by some personal flaw. But the right agency for requital is penal law. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact. There is no location alongside or outside the citizens and their contract, for a supplementary force or additional locus of authority and violence, for mediation or interruption. There is no place for any intervening agency with political force, except as a kind of collector or picker- upper of persons— hence, one very much like a trash picker or one who carries dirt from the streets, as Smith proposed.

With the growth of the role of police in democratic societies, a theory of their presence and place in government has simply not emerged in proportion to their power and variable function. The only really worthwhile thing we have is empirical description, from the late- twentieth century field of police sociology— and this research has been most useful in dispelling illusions, not creating comprehensive philosophy. An impressive number of practical things have been studied and yielded surprising findings, on such topics as work hours, organization, decision making, dramaturgy, constituencies, professional attitudes, and differential application of the law to people of different identities and situations. The radical theorist Mark Neocleous gives some results:

Both the “law and order” lobby and its Left critics have failed to take on board the implications of a mass of research on the police. . . . The overwhelming majority of calls for police assistance are “service” rather than crime related: in an average year only 15 to 20 percent of all the calls to the police are about crime, and what is initially reported by the police as a crime is often found to be not a crime by the responding police officer. Studies have shown that less than a third of time spent on duty is on crime- related work; that approximately eight out of ten incidents handled by patrols by a range of different police departments are regarded by the police themselves as non- criminal matters; that the percentage of police effort devoted to traditional criminal law matters probably does not exceed 10 percent; that as little as 6 percent of a patrol officer’s time is spent on incidents finally defined as “criminal”; and that only a very small number of criminal offenses are discovered by the police themselves. Moreover, most of the time the police do not use the criminal law to restore order. In the USA police officers make an average of one arrest every two weeks; one study found that among 156 officers assigned to a high- crime area of New York City, 40 percent did not make a single felony arrest in a year.

The disillusioning thrust of this work on the usual mandate for police— stopping crime— had already been distilled forty years ago by the most famous and influential sociologist of police, Egon Bittner. As he archly put it in 1974: “When one looks at what policemen actually do, one finds that criminal law enforcement is something that most of them do with the frequency located somewhere between virtually never and very rarely.” Yet the next step of theorizing from this new knowledge, a task also authoritatively identified with Bittner, pushed this ironic mode into the theory itself. What even the most original sociology of police seems to show, again and again, is that police are paradoxical and their strictures unworkable. They don’t fit philosophically. As a stopgap profession poised between other philosophically grounded institutions, police are “impossible.” Perhaps police ought not to exist, thinking theoretically, since their behavior is inadequately supported by the democratic social order’s explicit justifications. Yet they must exist, practically— despite their errors— precisely because they have proved themselves in democracy as both “first responders” and a “last resort,” a mobilization of nondefinition and nonfixity for all sorts of situations: the agency thrown at anything in society that can’t be accommodated or that we don’t want to see. Bittner’s formulation is the one that has lasted, and haunts the field as the only really original and lasting philosophical contribution to what our police are:

I propose to explain the function of police by drawing attention to what their existence makes available in society that, all things being equal, would not be otherwise available. . . . My thesis is that police are empowered and required to impose or, as the case may be, coerce a provisional solution upon emergent problems without having to brook or defer to opposition of any kind, and that further, their competence to intervene extends to every kind of emergency, without any exceptions whatsoever.

And that’s all they are— that’s their essence. “The assessment whether the service the police are uniquely competent to provide is on balance desirable or not, in terms of, let us say, the aspirations of a democratic polity, is beyond the scope of the argument,” Bittner apologizes.

In his analysis, the key term from his definition may well emerge to be “impose,” or “coerce”— and the sine qua non for Bittner’s picture of police becomes availability of force (or even violence). The apparently damning body of Bittner’s work has been embraced by police chiefs, perhaps because it furnishes executives with the only plausible apology in the face of continual criticism. One major professional association now gives out its annual Egon Bittner Award to a municipal chief who has survived more than fifteen years of service— not ironically, but in earnest. 
 

Suppose, though, we did want to find the place of police in a democratic polity, in the sense of what version of their role can be desirable for democracy.

Their feature of visibility might be a place to start. Police lift accidents, events, and gatherings into vision. They enhance situations but no one mistakes them for the main show. The officers are a blue aniline dye, poured into channels of society, down alleyways and interstates, sketching in blueprint the lines of public space, how we distribute dispersion, how we distribute assembly, how we distribute crime, how we distribute safety. Or in a sense police are the grease or gunk— the fluid or sand— that speeds or obstructs shifts in the constitution of social reality.

Police are piped along the edges and borders of spontaneous or planned gatherings, installing for others, in the moment, the outline of public significance. One knows to walk toward anywhere that police are standing, where they mark the significance of something else: a parade, a concert, a demonstration, or an arrest, an abuse, an accident.

One can go to enjoy them, their offer of theater and ritual to daily occurrences, as they establish a space of eventfulness. Or to watchdog them, to make sure that their handling of people can’t occur invisibly and unaccounted for.

Secrecy by police in any public place always identifies them as suspect. Yet police departments hold tightly to their capacities for secrecy and claim them to be necessary for their heroic function of detection and investigation. Insofar as detection of crime is what police wish their job were about, police are likely always to strain for greater secrecy in a democracy.

Where sight disappears, in the paddy wagon and the police station, abuse becomes possible. (And indeed these are the sorts of places, along with jails, a democratic police might seek to eradicate or open up.) One knows the hush that occurs in a crowd when an arrestee disappears into the closed, windowless wagon; the citizen, even as a criminal, has temporarily disappeared from the democratic public (until arraignment, the space of salvation by habeas corpus— then one looks for marks on the face, marks on the wrists and the body, from abuse). This is one of those gaps into which citizens fall where democracy can disappear.

Yet the real rival of sight is not just secrecy but touch, which registers itself only between bodies that know what has actually been done but can’t prove it by other means. Police possess touch, citizens should possess sight. A question is why a third element that could stand between sight and touch doesn’t come much more to the fore, when we think of police, in some way that we would find democratically recognizable: talk. Talk is the actual basis of a democracy. It is the specifically democratic dimension of human relations. It restores the assurance of neighborliness. Talk is also what police actually mostly do in encountering the public; yet one doesn’t think of police as talkers and listeners first, but as bullies. What happens when citizens and police talk in the fateful encounter? How do they talk? And if they don’t talk, why not?

Suppose we say this: Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law, or eloquence. Their medium is not law. They do not always use entirely memorable or wholly coherent words. Usually they enter situations of conflict which they did not cause, but which they are required to enter into as third parties. There, they are deliberately distracting, grandstanding observers. Turning the attention of other parties away from each other and instead to themselves.

When you look at them in the right way, focusing on the middle range between space- holding inaction and violent attack, negotiating can be seen to be what the police do unendingly, habitually— but unfamiliarly, because in some way they generally refuse to recognize or care about the original goals of negotiating parties. They bring a separate set of criteria to bear, and not always appealing ones. Is this chargeable? Should this person be removed or transported temporarily? When can I leave, and how do I scare these citizens a bit so as to feel they won’t come into conflict again, and police won’t need to come back? Police negotiate without an obvious, single, unitary reference or goal— other than to end the necessity for their being there. And they are always asking themselves a separate question of whether to lift a person out of the horizontal conflict and into the vertical mechanism of criminal justice— a process for which the cop won’t really be ultimately responsible, and which he won’t have to enter himself.

Even a traffic stop, for the most minor infraction at a stop sign or in a twenty- mile- an- hour zone, becomes a negotiation. Here the negotiated outcome may be a “warning,” when a warning is ostensibly a name for something official although in fact “the official” has been denied or put away. “Okay, I’m going to let you go with a warning.” The “warning” is not known to the statute book. It does not exist as a juridical category. But it is one of the major categories of police thinking, and one that— instead of objecting to its arbitrariness, or uneven application— we might want to preserve. Because it is a key moment when police, without breaking “front,” without admitting deficiency, acknowledge that negotiation has been won by the citizen.

Police exist so we can see them on the corner, or on the subway platform, so that we know, when we move in public, that no other person can take us for unseen, to rob us or molest us without defense. They exist sometimes just to mark a lane closure (by standing in it) or road construction (by standing in front of it) or a town fair (by standing at its entrance). They announce eventfulness, and in some way their mere presence stands against danger. 

Of course we feel differently if we think the danger they might think they see is us. Or if we resemble their idea of obstruction, or of notable event. When police eye African- Americans, harass African- Americans, obstruct the movements of African- Americans, and wind up drawing their guns and murdering African- Americans— which even in the twenty- first century they do with regularity and impunity, no matter the police department or region of the United States— it’s first because America still sees racially. Kidnapping an African labor force to build the country is still the country’s unrepented sin. The mad but ingenious mechanism of coding the difference between free and slave by “color,” not by an actual spectrum of tans but “white” and “black,” as metaphysical as day and night, bright and dark, sight and obstruction, nobility and stain, lingers. Police, as devotees of sight and seeing, sustain this way of looking at every citizen of recognizable African ancestry.

What differentiates a place that seems clean, orderly, and peaceful from the same location with items out of place, mixed up, confusing, noisy, and conflictual isn’t just aesthetic norms in the neighborhoods police come from, but what they think that “we” want, by how we see. But who are we? The police sociologist Peter K. Manning, one of the best ethnographers of police departments, has strongly made the point that one thing police tacitly depend on most is how they think their client citizens view them as they undertake patrols and arrests— yet many of the formalizations they use to imagine such “law- abiding citizens,” “good people,” “the public,” rigidly enacting an absent standard of order, alienate them from their actual citizenry. The place they possess least guidance and clarity is on what “good people” want and how we want to be treated: 

The police were designed to respond to citizen demands and requirements for service as much because this represented prevention or deterrence of the sources of crime as because the police were intended to act symbolically as one citizen would to another in time of need.  The symbolic centrality of police action as standing for the collective concern of people, one for another, cannot and should not be underestimated. Law has grown up as a means of formalizing the conditions under which the police must act and cannot act but does not provide the basis on which they do or should act.

Violence, too, is given to police as a technique they alone can use, in the service of the overall nonviolence or pacification of society, such that citizens need never use violence legitimately upon one another— they route it through police, so to speak. But this formal device, too, winds up defining police by their application of violence. They wind up originating violence as a means of resolving any social deadlock. Police add violence to situations. If we can see, and see through, police, we may see that this becomes a way of injecting testing violence or domination into the heart of society in a public way. Small comfort, perhaps, since there is no guarantee that we will oppose the wicked things that police may show us. Our neighbors may support that wickedness. We may have no idea how to fix it. Still, police violence differs from forms of violence and domination which have no visible presence, or public check. The police measure out in public what the society will tolerate, even to our shame.

Is it ever possible to love police? Certainly at the personal level, momentarily, it’s possible, when they save us from direct violence, or return a lost child home. I mean beyond that. Perhaps the other scenario really is when we know they have order or law on their side, and they don’t apply it— because, they hint, their adherence is to community, not to the State. “I see you, and I let you go, for the sake of an order you and I share which is yet not the law.”

This reaches to a completely different part of theories of democracy— to fraternity, solidarity, sympathy, sociability, trust— the least formalizable part, the part most betrayed in recent years (or maybe always) by moneyed politics and corrupted government. The least articulable part, and a place to start.

“Mark Greif writes a contrarian, skeptical prose that is at the same time never cynical: it opens out on to beauty and the possibility of change.” – Zadie Smith

Against Everything is a thought-provoking study and essential guide to the vicissitudes of everyday life under twenty-first-century capitalism.