Watching, reading, and thinking about Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, and the current nonviolent and violent reactions to that killing, I keep going back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, in her essay on violence, draws an important distinction between violence and power.
Politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. (Reflections on Violence)
The power that concerns Arendt is the power of political communities. Power is the result of people coming together for political ends. Or as Arendt says: “Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities…”. However, Arendt here adds a supremely important caveat: “…what, however, it does need is legitimacy.” Power is dependent on legitimacy. This is why violence is the opposite of power. When the power of a political community is legitimate, when it is recognized as legitimate by those who form the community, then there is no need for the violence of domination. It is only when legitimacy disappears that violence takes center stage.
In many parts of this country, power—the power of the state, derived from the people—is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. This is a direct result of the deployment of the forces of domination over communities of color for hundreds of years. The reaction to the violence of the state is twofold: on the one hand, the creation of alternative forms of power, nonviolent power which competes with and sometimes influences state power; or, alternatively, when the violence of domination breaks the power of community totally, the response itself is violent.
The death toll in the African-American community reminds one of the death tolls of occupied peoples in other parts of the world. In Baltimore, the city currently on fire, over 100 African-American men and women, between 2011 and 2014 “won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations.”
As we stand now, city governments in various places in the country have lost their power and can only project violence. For decades, if not centuries, the role of the police has been to preserve order as much as to enforce law. “Order” has almost always meant the protection of property and property values. The protection against harassment from those gathering to present their grievances. The seclusion of the haves from the have nots, the sheltered from the homeless. The mandate of the police was almost never to protect the marginal from the powerful. The runaway slaves were to be returned, the homeless were to be declared vagrants, the petitioners were to be kept “orderly” and segregated.
If we want to start doing business differently—the business of building a society whose power is derived from the people and not the deployment of violence—there needs to be a rethinking of the legitimacy of police power. In part, we have to demand a shift in the balance of power between communities and the police. The police forces have to answer to the communities they are meant to serve and not vice versa. There must be a system of civilian oversight which has serious teeth. We must demand independent prosecutors for cases of officer involved shootings. The sheriffs and police commissioners must serve at the pleasure of the civil authorities rather than be directly elected. This gives the oversight commissions the power to force the retirement of those office holders if their actions are egregious.
We are, in the end, all in this together. We all must demand that those who are commissioned in our names to enforce our laws, start from the presumption that on the face of every single person is written “thou shalt not kill.” We must, in the urgency of this moment, repeat at the highest of decibels and in the most hallowed of places that Black Lives Matter.