Authoritarian Institutions are a Danger to Us All

Author’s note: This essay was written this summer with a friend and colleague in Australia at Griffith University, Shannon Brincat.  At the time, we were both feeling intense unease at the presidential election campaigns and the continuing and increasing violence toward communities of color using the “neutrality” of law and order as a shield for bigotry and racism. Black Lives Matter faced, and still faces, criticism from those who thought that “All Lives Matter”, or that “Blue Lives Matter” just as much–this, of course, missing the point in such a way that makes the original point that much stronger: yes, all lives matter, but we are focusing on the black lives right now because all experiences and evidence of racially biased police shootings, incarceration rates, and institutional violence at all levels point toward the need to focus on black lives right now.

I share now, at the the beginning of a time when the rhetoric of the Trump campaign found victory in the Electoral College, but not in the popular vote. The authoritarian tendencies we saw when we wrote this are even more pronounced as we move toward inauguration day. It seems even more pressing we share this now given this version of “law and order” that Trump offers could be advanced with even more bigotry fervor. We are all bracing for what this means in the next four years and beyond. And we find it even more crucial that white folks have hard conversations about what we need to change in ourselves and in our institutions to truly support democracy and to end white supremacy in all its forms.

We must stand in whatever ways we can. And then go further.


We have been alarmed at how many of our fellow white folks just don’t seem to get the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, or even worse, not care.

Some say all lives matter… right?’ as if BLM somehow detracts from what the law and liberal democracy rests upon: we are all equals. The real problem, they say, is that we keep seeing color. “All lives matter” becomes a way, however well meaning, to erase the experience of black folks in the US as different from that of whites. As Chris LeBron writes, the disagreement between blacks and whites over whether or not black lives matter is “genuinely special and momentous” and is a problem of political will. Whites refuse to see the racism and embedded institutional cycles of violence that affect black folks, and other people of color in the US.

‘Stand up for police or else order will crumble!’, say the more conservative-minded. As if being gravely concerned that the probability of being (black, unarmed, and shot by police) is about 3.49 times the probability of being (white, unarmed, and shot by police) (or 5 times as high in 2015), will somehow weaken the law and democracy they so admire. They insist that those shot by police must have done something wrong and that they deserved it. Never mind that a broken taillight, or selling CDs, or reaching for your ID, or walking home after school doesn’t hold a death sentence in the US.

Both positions are based on deadly misunderstandings of what it means to be black in America.

So, we pen this, my fellow white folks, in hopes that giving you another reason for why you should care about BLM will motivate you to support social change and justice for black folks, and for all. We hope to appeal to something in your self-interest rather than justice, ethics, and morality because it appears the wrongful death of minorities at the hands of public officials is not enough to motivate you. We are not going to discuss white privilege – of how you still gain from the structural racism of the social order you live in (here’s an account in comic-strip form). Nor will we address the deep social and economic reasons for crime, or the manifest inequality between crime and incarceration between white and black offenders. That should be well-known by now.

Rather, we wish to appeal to our common interest to not live in an authoritarian society, to not wake up in a police state tomorrow, or next week, or next year.

BLM is not just about race, nor blackness – for Native American’s also figure disproportionately high in police shootings. Police also kill women and Latin Americans with little to no attention from the press. It is also about how we as a society control our public institutions. Even more simply, it is how we try to control public authority. It is about the limits that the public has over its own officials, the standards these authorities should meet, and the values these institutions should uphold.

In a democracy, public authority is supposed to serve the people at all times. It is derived from the mandate of the people during an election, that mandate is made into laws by parliament/congress, and the executive–of which the police are a part–then executes and enforces.

The role of the police is, and should be, carefully circumscribed. It has never been the police’s role to determine whether people are guilty or innocent of crimes, nor to punish citizens who have broken the law. That is the role of the judiciary. But the public seems to be confusing this more and more. The alleged Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson, killed by a robot delivering a bomb is a chilling case in point.

The typical justifications bouncing around on social media is that everyone must ‘comply’ with the police at all times even though this tends to obfuscate the rights of the person being arrested. And in the case of Philandro Castle, he was killed during an act of compliance: he was reaching for his wallet as he was told to do by the officer. The subsequent move that blames the victim for not complying in the exact way the officer demands and added to this, media soon reports on extraneous factors that that supposedly justify the killing. Soon after the shooting, we are saturated with compromising or ‘unsavoury’ photos and videos of the victim, or information on previous convictions or ‘bad’ behavior. None of these elements bare any relation to the case at hand and are purely prejudicial. Moreover, they turn the narrative to the punishment of the victim for crimes they allegedly committed and one in which the police are somehow justified to take on this role. Again, never mind that none of these alleged crimes or wrongdoings carry a death sentence.

This is the authoritarian turn. It is pernicious as it is privileged because it assumes that “If they obey the rules, they will be safe.” But they aren’t. As Vilissa Thompson has shown black citizens are “are always in danger” whether they “follow the rules or break them.” Statistics on this are irrefutable. And when black persons are killed in this manner the assumption is on them: they are punished on racialised grounds. ‘The black community’ is treated as something homogenous with each instance of violence serving as an example of the need for black people to “fix themselves.” Contrast this with white criminals who are never asked to stand in for their race after they commit a crime. They are bad apples, or mentally ill, or gravely misunderstood, but never indicate a greater problem in the “white community.”

What is blurred by this insistence on ‘compliance’ at all costs – as if this excuses or explains such shootings – is that in the history of Western democracy it is has never been the role of the police to judge or punish. When the role of the police becomes blurred in the public mind – when they are seen as being able to punish wrong-doers – then we are in danger of expanding the role of the police beyond its democratic mandate. As Justice Gleeson reminds us, there is a long-recognised need to guard against vesting discretionary powers in the police because this may amount to a power to make law or to dispense with compliance with the law. Yet when these shootings and their tacit acceptance become systemic – as they are now – the danger is for democratic life as a whole. Authoritarianism looms one step closer.

We live in a time of a dramatically increased danger of authoritarianism. Many have commented on how our time parallels the world politics and political economy of the 1930s and the rise of fascism.

This links to the Trump phenomena and the rise of fascist tendencies are symptomatic of this. So too are the police shootings and the call to comply, comply, comply. These expose the “belief in absolute obedience to authority” – the submission to the strongman for no reason other than they are the assumed authority figure. Adorno identified this tendency as ‘Authoritarian Submission’, that is, a submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup. Nazism was incredibly effective at harnessing this. The conservative personality may do this to feel more secure, because a strong, unequal social hierarchy makes the “world seem less chaotic.”

The liberal does it for more hidden reasons. The problem here is that because this authoritarianism is not directed against them, this liberal, white majority do not feel the heel of tyranny. Moreover, buoyed by the false ideology of liberalism – that belief that we are ‘equal under the law’ – many assume it is not happening to blacks either. They acquiesce to authority but this time under the mantra that ‘all lives matter.’ This so-called progressive view believes if ‘we are dutifully comply with authority’ then everyone will be safe, because officers of the law – like the law itself – should be formally equal. These shootings are exceptionalised as a mistake, and the structure need never be called into question. This is the hubris of by which the liberal-progressive simply assumes authority will work for their interests. But it manifestly does not do so for all. Until it does, we have to interrogate and constantly question our institutions of authority, lest they fall into fascism while we sleep in the comfort of our privilege.

And this is why you, fellow white folks, should be most concerned with BLM – especially its “Campaign Zero”. This 10 point plan lists recommendations for policing reform that even conservative commentators say “makes a lot of sense”. Given Rudolph Giuliani, (“Trump is right about ‘Stop and Frisk'”) stands to hold a position in Trump’s cabinet, we must act in all ways we can:

– End “broken windows” policing (because vandalism does not lead to murder)

– Independently investigate and prosecute police misconduct (because judges cannot judge themselves)

– Provide more training for police officers (so they do not shoot first or get scared in common situations)
– End for-profit policing practices (I mean, how was this even allowed in the first place… clearly leads to a conflict of interest)
– End the police use of military equipment (yes, we are civilians after all)

They are pragmatic ways to have a responsible, ordered, and just police force that is bounded by democratic principles, and even more crucially, Campaign Zero is coming from the people who best know what reforms are needed. They have suffered under the yoke of white supremacy, from slavery, to Jim Crow, to state sanctioned murder by police. It is their words that matter and their lives that should matter. White folks, we need to stand and use our privilege to fight those suffering oppression.


5 thoughts on “Authoritarian Institutions are a Danger to Us All

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