Ferguson, Missouri’s police department has released its report on the August 9th shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, a redacted document that ACLU attorney Tony Rothert says violates Missouri’s Sunshine Law by omitting key information.
Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer provoked impassioned demonstrations and debates on police brutality and the very nature of policing in the United States, leading many observers to wonder if Americans are now living in a full-fledged police state.
But what is a “police state?” The phrase has become an almost commonplace feature of our conversation on police violence and militarization, a convenient way to give voice to growing fears about deteriorating civil liberties. The history of the phrase offers insight into its contemporary usage, a way to analyze the current situation in the United States and decide whether indeed we Americans now live under a police state.
Historian and political scientist Mark Neocleous explains that the “term Polizeistaat, usually translated as ‘police state,’ came into general English usage in the 1930s,” increasingly used at that time to describe totalitarian governments such as those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Still, Neocleous is quick to clarify that, notwithstanding this popular twentieth century usage, it presents a “historical problem” to the extent that it suggests a certain inappropriate picture of “the original ‘police states.’” Those original police states were, rather than brutal, totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, early predecessors to the modern welfare state, or Wohlfahrtsstaat.
Given these historical connections between the welfare state and the police state, we might revise our understanding beyond the twentieth century definition, broadening the concept to include not only the most extreme and draconian twentieth century tyrannies, but most, if not all, contemporary “administrative” states. Once we begin to understand these connections and the growth and development of the total state during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, phenomena such as the murder of Michael Brown become easier to understand. Whether we call it the welfare state or the police state, the reality is that we live in an environment completely dominated by regimentation — coercive control over and regulation of almost every aspect of our lives.
Historically and theoretically, it is impossible to disentangle the welfare aspects of the modern total state from its police functions. Just as the progressive, administrative state gave rise to a growing class of professional bureaucrats, so too did it increasingly professionalize — and correspondingly militarize — police forces. The language of expertise, efficiency and specialization provided the rationale for the modern state’s systematic establishment of professional police. Such professional police forces, unlike earlier forms of community protection, were intentionally quasi-military in character, instructed to occupy, study and control the policed communities, to make policing a fully developed science with its own methodologies and techniques.
Market anarchism is an argument for a more free society, one in which power is divided to the greatest possible extent and provision of important services such as defense is not monopolized, but left to the peaceful push and pull of voluntary trade and cooperation. Monopolies, insofar as they are exempt from competitive pressures, lend themselves to abuses of power like the contemptible crime that took Michael Brown’s young life. Brown’s murder is not an aberration susceptible to remedy through better police training. It is rather a predictable symptom of the underlying disease that is the United States’s authoritarian police state, the treatment of which is to eliminate professional policing as a coercive monopoly and thus to end the impunity that officers currently enjoy.