What’s in a Uniform?

The Red and Black Cafe, an anarchist business in Portland, Oregon, became the subject of controversy after a cafe worker told a uniformed police officer to leave the building. The often overtly threatening responses from police supporters have revealed the self-serving absurdity of how government uniforms are viewed.

Characteristic of the less-murderous pro-police sentiment is that expressed by Jim Crooker, the police officer who was asked to leave Red and Black. In a video on cnn.com, he says that kicking someone out of a cafe “based on the color of the uniform” he wears “sort of harkens to the days of Segregation.”

This is a completely two-faced comment. Cops do want to be treated differently because of the uniform they wear and the badge they carry. They want to be treated with deference. When police officers give commands to people, enforce the will of local bureaucrats, stop and frisk non-threatening individuals walking through their neighborhood, or haul someone away in chains to a cage and felon status for an action that harmed nobody, they expect a certain treatment based on the uniform they wear. And they expect to be honored for the uniform they wear, even when other individuals who wear the same uniform murder, rape, assault, or continuously violate peoples’ rights with little or no consequences.

But its two-faced nature isn’t the only thing that makes Crooker’s statement ridiculous. People wearing police uniforms enforced racial segregation in the United States. They used force to uphold the rules made by the powerful until social consciousness and direct action raised the political costs of enforcing certain rules.

When someone wears a uniform, that individual has chosen to identify himself with the group his uniform represents. The police uniform represents the authority of the state. It is a visible sign that they protect and serve state power. As contrasted to race, which signifies little besides ancestry and the way in which others — including state enforcers — will treat the individual.

Protecting and serving state power often involves surveilling those who oppose state power and pushing out people who get in the way. Crooker says that he was in the cafe to “familiarize” himself with the district “to provide them better service.” I’m not sure what kind of services the police are “providing” the workers and patrons of an anarchist co-operative, but it’s obvious their services are not wanted. Unfortunately, the state and its supporters are against the idea that some people would choose to take care of things without coercive power structures. Opting out is generally prohibited by force.

And a lot comes down to the power of individuals to make choices outside of how well they will follow the “duty” that has been defined by those in charge. Jim Crooker chose to be a police officer, and the Red and Black workers chose to be anarchists. As Henry Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, if the officer wishes to do good, he should resign his office.

Uniforms are frequently used as a substitute for personal responsibility. We are supposed to automatically respect military personnel for the uniforms they wear, but we are not supposed to hold them as individuals responsible for what they do while wearing the uniform.

When authority is challenged, its supporters are quick to throw down the velvet glove and wave the iron fist. They try to cover for their choice to use violence and threats by passing the responsibility onto others. The anarchists of Red and Black, by contrast, are willing show that yes, individuals do have a choice to support authority or support liberation, and they have a responsibility to make the right choice. Maybe that touched a nerve in those who threaten them with violence.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory