Originally published in the September/October 2012 issue of Orion. Now republished for the first time online.
In an era of government-sanctioned polluters, communities must defend themselves
Several years ago I spoke at a benefit for an organization working to prevent a toxic waste site from being built in their community. Yet another toxic waste site, the organizers clarified, since there already was one. It should surprise no one that their community was primarily poor, primarily people of color, and that the toxic waste was being brought in so that distant corporations could reap bigger profits.
The organization had been fighting the dump for years, on every level, from filing lawsuits to holding protests to physically blockading the dump site. Several people at the benefit commented on the bizarre role that the police played in all of this. Many of the cops lived in the community and were themselves opposed to the toxic dump. But when they put on their uniforms and headed off to work, their jobs included arresting their neighbors who were trying to protect the neighborhoods where their own children lived and played.
We’ve all heard of dues-paying union cops busting the heads of strikers because their capitalist bosses tell them to. And of cops arresting protesters trying to prevent the cops’ own water supplies from being toxified (while of course not arresting the capitalists who are toxifying the water supplies). And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had fantasies that at the next economic summit or World Bank meeting, members of the police will experience an epiphany of conscience and realize they share class interests not with those they’re protecting but rather with those at whom they’re pointing their guns. And in this fantasy the police then turn as one to join the protesters and face their real enemy.
At the benefit we shared all sorts of fantasies like these, and we all laughed at how unrealistic they were. There have been instances in which the police have worked with the people to stop government or corporate atrocities, but they’re too rare.
And then we shared some other fantasies, which all consisted in one way or another of police choosing to enforce laws that are already on the books, laws that protect our communities. Laws like the Clean Air Act, or the Clean Water Act, or for that matter laws against rape. We fantasized about what it might be like to have police enforce carcinogen-free zones, or dam-free zones, or WalMart-free zones, or rape-free zones.
And then again we laughed, since we knew that these fantasies, too, were unrealistic. It’s not the job of the police to protect you from living in a toxified landscape, even if that landscape is being toxified illegally.
In fact — and this may or may not be surprising to you — the police are under no legal obligation to protect you at all. This fact has been upheld in courts again and again. In one case, two women in Washington DC were upstairs in their townhouse when they heard their roommate being assaulted downstairs. Several times they phoned 911 and each time were told police were on their way. A half hour later their roommate stopped screaming, and, assuming the police had arrived, they went downstairs. But the police hadn’t arrived, and so for the next fourteen hours all three women were repeatedly beaten and raped. The women sued the District of Columbia and the police for failing to protect them, but the district’s highest court ruled against them, saying that it is “a fundamental principle of American law that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual citizen.”
So there you have it. Time and again, many similar cases have yielded the same case law, at local, state, and federal levels. But a lot of rape victims already know this; only 6 percent of rapists spend even one night in jail. And the people in that community who were having a toxic waste dump crammed down their throats with the professional support of the police also know this. As do the human and nonhuman people of the Gulf of Mexico, who are still being killed or injured by the Deepwater catastrophe — and who will experience far more of the same, since the U.S. government is supporting more deepwater drilling. As one technical advisor to the oil and gas industry put it, “We are seeing deep-water drilling coming back with a vengeance in the Gulf.”
So here’s the question: if the police are not legally obligated to protect us and our communities — or if the police are failing to do so, or if it is not even their job to do so — then if we and our communities are to be protected, who, precisely is going to do it? To whom does that responsibility fall? I think we all know the answer to that one.
A lot of people seem to love to talk about the virtues of self- and community-reliance, but where are they when we need to defend our communities?
Fortunately there are many examples of communities rising up to defend themselves from wrongdoing from which we can and should learn. Pre-Revolutionary — or you could say revolutionary yet pre-1776 — American patriots, sick and tired of rule by a distant elite (sound familiar?), increasingly refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Crown Courts and other institutions, and put in place their own systems of justice. The same has been true for the Irish in their struggle for independence. The same was true of the Spanish anarchists: part of their project included pushing fascists out of their communities and another part consisted of putting in place their own neighborhood systems of justice and community protection.
I think often of something a former head of “security” for South Africa under apartheid said: that what they’d been most afraid of from the revolutionary group the African National Congress had never been the ANC’s sabotage or even their violence, but rather that the ANC might be able to convince the mass of South Africans to not believe in law and order as such, which in this case meant the law and order imposed by the apartheid regime, which in this case meant the legitimacy of the exploitative apartheid government, which in this case meant that their greatest fear was that the ANC would convince the majority of people to withdraw their consent to be governed by an elite that does not have their best interests at heart.
In our case, we don’t need an ANC to convince us of the illegitimacy of many of the actions of those in power. Those in power are doing a great job of convincing us by their own actions. If the Gulf catastrophe (and the continuation of deepwater drilling) doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. If fracking and the poisoning of our groundwater doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. If the governmental response to global warming — ranging from vindictiveness against climate scientists to denial to measures that at very best are completely incommensurate with the threat — doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. If the total toxification of the environment, with its inevitable health consequences for both humans and nonhumans, doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. I routinely ask the people at my talks whether they have had someone they love die of cancer, and at least 75 percent almost always say yes.
And when I ask people at my talks if they believe that state and federal governments take better care of corporations or of human beings, no one — and I mean no one — ever says human beings. Reframing the question to consider whether governments take better care of corporations or the planet — our only home — yields the same result.
If police are the servants of governments, and if governments protect corporations better than they do human beings (and far better than they do the planet), then clearly it falls to us to protect our communities and the landbases on which we in our communities personally and collectively depend. What would it look like if we created our own community groups and systems of justice to stop the murder of our landbases and the total toxification of our environment? It would look a little bit like precisely the sort of revolution we need if we are to survive. It would look like our only hope.