Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Law and order

By Edward Said

Edward SaidDuring the past year, New York City has been racked by three major crises involving both the police department and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a very right-wing man of extreme as well as volubly expressed views that have frequently landed him in serious trouble with the people he was elected to serve. In the first instance, a Haitian black man, Abner Louima, was apprehended by policemen in Brooklyn, taken to the station for interrogation, and then badly beaten, sodomised with a bottle and subsequently hospitalised with several broken bones, including his jaw. At the criminal trial, the self-confessed police perpetrator of Louima's injuries, one Justin Volpe, was sentenced to thirty years, while his three accomplices were found guilty of obstruction of justice at a later civil trial. The second case was the shooting of an unarmed Guinean, Amadou Diallo, by white policemen who fired 41 bullets at him (of which 19 found their mark) because they said they thought he was armed. They were acquitted, to the whole city's astonishment. The third and in a sense the most inflammatory, thanks to Giuliani's support for the policemen involved, concerned the killing of an unarmed 21-year-old black, Patrick Dorisman, who was shot at his doorstep for no evident reason. Without justification, the mayor had Dorisman's police record -- the young man had been arrested and acquitted for assault and possession of marijuana -- released to the press, as if to justify the man's shooting, even though it was perfectly obvious that the white policemen who did the shooting could have had no prior knowledge of Dorisman's record.

The troubling theme in all three killings is not only that they involved blacks being shot by white policemen, but that Giuliani's sympathies seemed mostly to be for his officers rather than for their victims. In a racially divided society such as this, it is noteworthy that Giuliani's political reputation has been staked from the beginning of his tenure on the fact that New York's image had been that it was a violent, dangerous place (largely because it was known to contain a large non-white population of essentially poor people), an image which his administration has totally changed. It is certainly true that New York has now become one of the safest cities in the country: Giuliani has increased the police budget, he has put thousands more police on the streets and, most significantly, he has promoted harsh measures against the city's undesirables, i.e., the poor, minorities, the homeless, etc. As a result, it has been assumed that anyone not white and middle-class must fear for his or her safety, since the police have been encouraged to arrest or otherwise detain "suspicious" individuals with relative confidence that they will be rewarded rather than punished for their actions. Part of this strategy has been to put white policemen rather provocatively on the streets of Harlem, as if to say to the inhabitants of that section "here we are, whether you like it or not." The Diallo case in particular aroused the black community's ire; and the Dorisman killing, given Giuliani's egregious proclamations in support of the man's execution so to speak, fanned the flames of racial war.

Nor has New York been alone in the matter of police brutality. In Los Angeles, another huge city with a considerable minority population, policemen in the Ramparts area have drawn attention to their brutal methods, not only because of how violent they have been, but also because the media has revealed that in addition to its bullying the police has also engaged in drug-selling and extortion in the supposed discharge of law and order. The American jail system is therefore bursting with great numbers of unjustly persecuted blacks whose "crimes" are dubiously prosecuted by policemen who claim that they are acting on behalf of society to protect the majority from an already down-trodden and long-suffering minority.

Every government allows itself the prerogative of a monopoly on coercion, except that in the United States there is a constitutionally protected right for citizens to bear arms in their own defence. This is why the debate on possession of guns -- which is higher per capita than any place on earth -- is intense, and why also the lurid incidents in which schoolchildren kill each other are so terrifyingly frequent. For a country that preaches against violence and "terrorism" all over the world to be more violent than any other is deeply contradictory. And for elected officials like Giuliani to boast that they are eliminating crime by inciting the police to more, rather than less, violence is a terrible thing. The fact is that ever since the Nixon years the phrase "law and order" has acquired the status of a right-wing slogan. It first appeared during the Chicago Democratic Party convention in 1968, when the riots associated with Vietnam protest were brutally crushed by the Chicago police acting on the principle of law and order. Since that time dissent, debate and protest -- as in Seattle during the November 1999 riots against the World Trade Organisation -- have been opposed by the forces of law and order, as has agitation on behalf of integration, abortion rights, and anti-war protest. The idea is that whatever the government does carries with it the authority of rectitude, so that even abuses such as the killing of unarmed black men can be sanctimoniously ascribed to maintaining law and order.

In the American context, therefore, "law and order" has to do with an interpretation of law and order that favours the strong, the wealthy, the conservative currents in society, whether those happen to be in office or not. This is perfectly evident during debates while the presidential election campaign is in course: George Bush Jr is the law and order candidate, Al Gore is not. The notion is at bottom that the police is there to protect vested interests in the society and to make sure that social change occurs very slowly, if at all. This is why struggling minorities in particular associate the police with the blocking of their march towards equality and economic advancement.

In non-democratic societies such as those in much of the Third World, the police is also associated with the notion of law and order, except that law and order is a phrase implying the defence of the government, which would otherwise fall were it not for its battalions of policemen, republican guards, presidential security and so on. This is very much the case in the Arab world where as long as I can remember the police -- except for the lowly traffic policeman -- is immediately identified in the popular mind with interrogation, torture, unjust detention, surveillance, spying and cruelty. Think of the fear struck in one's mind as one faces a security official at the airport: this is no bureaucratic experience but rather a confrontation with the regime itself. It is highly significant that in most Arab countries the principal symbol of ruthless efficiency is not the tax collector or the legal system, but the security apparatus. Who has the most up-to-date cars, telephones, arms, and who is the best-dressed, the most spoiled and pampered? It is always the security teams whose main job is to guarantee the ruler's life, his regime and its interests, regardless of whether those happen to coincide with the interests of the population or not. There is no appeal for the average individual if he or she is picked up and taken to jail for "questioning." The whole idea imparted to citizens of so many of our "democratic" or "revolutionary" republics (and certainly of the monarchies) is that the police is there to strike fear in everyone in order to deter attempts against the regimes, rather than to protect the interests of a favoured segment of the population. But whereas in a democracy it is possible to change the administration and its methods through election, in our case we have no such option.

The result has been that terror has replaced the idea of law and order, terror that can be visited on the wayward or inattentive citizen. Armies, by the same token, are not necessarily there to fight against the enemy (despite the vast amounts spent on munitions, air forces, and heavy, mostly unusable artillery) but rather to confront the population should it entertain plans for democratic change, and of course to provide commission agents with handsome profits from arms sales. In the end, it is sadly the case that an objective alliance has grown to connect many non-Western security forces with those of the United States, where paradoxically the same distorted situation does not in fact obtain, and the police is subject to the law as well as citizens' review boards, elections, and so on.

The key to police brutality wherever it occurs is citizenship, the notion that all citizens of a society, including the police and security forces, are entitled to the same privileges and obligations subject to constant revision and re-interpretation. Political discourse in the Arab world has been so wrapped up in matters of security having to do with outside enemies (Israel, imperialism, etc.) that no attention has been given to the lamentable absence of real democratic processes inside our societies. Everything in those societies has suffered as a result, from education, to the legal system, to intellectual culture, to civil and political institutions. As every day goes by the situation worsens and for reasons that should make each of us profoundly ashamed the Arab world is the only part of the globe to appear as if it existed outside time and space in the ordinary sense. I said in an earlier article here, Godot will not come and it is no use waiting for a saviour. The problem of law and order, like all other problems, is one of our own making, and its only solution must be ours as well.


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