Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, & the Monopoly On Violence

apartheidHobyahs2smallIf one citizen threatens another, the police may be called on to intervene.  When the police threaten a citizen, to whom can we turn?

Last night a St.Louis Coun­ty grand jury decid­ed to not indict Dar­ren Wil­son, a Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri police office who, in August of this year, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenag­er.  Many are out­raged by this and the whole ordeal has cast a light on the ugly racial ten­sions that per­sist in the Unit­ed States.

But I’m present­ly con­cerned with the issues of legit­i­ma­cy that cas­es like this raise.  Max Weber defined the state as any body that suc­cess­ful­ly claims a monop­oly on the legit­i­mate use of vio­lence.  Let’s assume that this con­cep­tion of the state is cor­rect.  That monop­oly on the legit­i­mate use of vio­lence per­sists only so long as the cit­i­zens of the state can trust that the monop­oly will not be abused.  When this trust evap­o­rates, the agents of the state become just one (unde­ni­ably well-armed but also vast­ly out­num­bered) group among many.  So, cas­es like this do not just threat­en to paint the state in a bad light, they pose an exis­ten­tial threat to it.

As Ben Cas­sel­man reports, grand juries almost always indict unless the defen­dant is a police offi­cer.  There are sev­er­al pos­si­ble expla­na­tions for this, but one of the most plau­si­ble is that there is a fear that if police offi­cers are not giv­en the ben­e­fit of the doubt in cas­es like this, the effi­ca­cy of the police force will be com­pro­mised.  I con­tend that, whether the pur­pose of the police force is to pro­tect the cit­i­zens of the state or just the exis­tence of the state itself, police offi­cers should be indict­ed more often than ordi­nary cit­i­zens pre­cise­ly because fail­ing to do so threat­ens to under­cut the legit­i­ma­cy of the state and thus the effi­ca­cy of the police force.

EDIT: See Chase Madar’s piece for The Nation, “Why It’s Impos­si­ble to Indict a Cop” for a deep­er look at the lee­way grant­ed to police offi­cers who use vio­lence.

EDIT: A Stat­en Island grand jury has failed to indict the police offi­cer who choked Eric Gar­ner to death.  See Richard Cohen’s brief dis­cus­sion, “Deci­sion in New York City exac­er­bates mis­trust in jus­tice sys­tem.”  Here’s to hop­ing that fed­er­al civ­il rights inves­ti­ga­tion can go some dis­tance in restor­ing jus­tice.


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