Police, Social Order, and Exemplary Violence
What Peasants' Revolts Have to Teach Us
The most striking aspect of the recent wave of unrest across the United States is the role of the police. Police brutality, exemplified by the death of George Floyd, is the immediate cause of the protests; on a more general scale, police serve as an emblematic symbol of broader issues of racial injustice and systemic discrimination. The video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for minute after excruciating minute while he pleaded for help that never came crystallizes all of these longstanding problems in one brutal series of images.
Riots, looting, and much more often, peaceful protests, have all followed. In sum, this is the most widespread and significant wave of social upheaval in the United States in at least half a century. As I write, I can hear constant sirens and helicopters, and more occasional loud bangs, echoing across Los Angeles. The seemingly endless videos of police brutality, the inevitable result of ongoing confrontations between police and even the most peaceful protesters, have become the focus. While this is far from surprising to most Black Americans, it has come as something of a shock for a great deal of white America, even those aware in theory of vast racial disparities in policing.
Seeing clip after clip of officers in armor and helmets firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds and beating unarmed protesters with batons drives home this reality more fully than any abstract awareness of police misconduct. They are essentially rioting themselves, in full view of the public. The good cops (that we’re constantly told make up the vast majority of police) have utterly failed to rein in the few bad apples. Whether this should have been novel information is rather beside the point; it’s out in the open now. There isn’t much room left for White Upper- and Middle-Class America to buttress police with paeans of support and ballooning budgets while still acknowledging their excesses and promising to do better next time. The sight of violent force deployed in this fashion time after time in recent weeks has forced a reckoning, not just with police actions but with the underlying logic of policing.
What, exactly, are these people doing out there?
The obvious answer - enforcing the law - is essentially laughable in the face of the contrary evidence we’ve seen. Which laws, and to whom do they apply? Are police not subject to those laws when their own actions are essentially lawless? If the answer to that second question is “no,” given the difficulty of exercising any oversight or control over police, then so much for that theory.
Another answer - they’re protecting property in a system whose central concern is the protection of property rights - holds a bit more water, but still falls apart upon closer inspection. If property were really the focus, police would be spending practically all their time and energy preventing looting, tracking down the perpetrators, and guarding property against theft and destruction. Peaceful protests - which don’t inherently threaten private property - would be guarded, perhaps intimidated and controlled, but not actively confronted. They are in fact doing some of that, but it’s hard to say that it’s the central goal or approach.
We should consider an alternative theory: The police largely see themselves as the designated and heroic protectors of a particular kind of social order, one that’s rooted in racial hierarchy and the ownership of property, but which isn’t defined solely by either one.
This is how even famous, wealthy Black athletes (like James Blake, Thabo Sefolosha, or Sterling Brown) still end up on the wrong end of police violence while gangs of non-wealthy white folks can roam their neighborhood, armed with firearms or baseball bats, with the active approval of those same police. Whatever their wealth or fame, the former group is subject to the police, but not protected by them; whatever their lack of wealth, the latter is protected by the police, but not subject to them.
The increasingly popular imagery around the “thin blue line” - like this one, where it’s combined with the Punisher logo (not threatening at all, guys!) - makes this explicit: Police, in their self-conception, are the only thing standing between society and anarchy. Arming them with military-style weapons, equipping them with military surplus, and telling them that they’re warriors - all things that have defined policing over the past two decades - makes the boundary between cop and civilian all the harder to cross.
None of this precludes police brutality against non-minorities, minority representation among police (or their role in furthering this social order), or minority property ownership. It likewise doesn’t mean that police never enforce the law or protect property, whether it belongs to the favored groups or not. It certainly doesn’t mean that all cops are bad. It’s just that those activities are secondary, or incidental, to what policing is about: enforcing that particular social order. The full-throated support that police unions offer for even the most obviously unacceptable actions by their members, the blue wall of silence, makes this an institutional rather than an individual problem. It’s not a matter of a few bad apples; the problems are baked into the police’s conception of their role and the way they go about it.
This would seem to explain why police are so eager to seek out confrontations with protesters: Far more than looting, the protesters’ actions and complaints are a direct assault on the social order police see themselves as defending. It’s also why they don’t see themselves as accountable to the people their police work targets - they’re lower in the hierarchy of that social order, so what genuine right do they have to protest? This also explains why the protesters bristling with long guns and actively seeking confrontation who stormed the Michigan capital were met with approval, while protesters against police brutality have been met with violent force. The latter threaten this particular conception of the social order and are thus illegitimate; the former reinforce it.
Are there other factors involved? Of course. Chasing looters is hard and might be dangerous, and confronting a rioting group of petty bourgeois armed to the teeth with AR-15s could easily result in shots fired; hemming in protesters and shooting tear gas at them is much less threatening, so perhaps this just reflects the instinct toward self-preservation. It’s obvious that not all police officers across the country are equally invested in this social order and its defense, or are even aware that their actions mean they’re doing so.
But policing, as we’ve created it, nurtured it, and embraced it over the past decades and centuries, seems to exist for the defense of this order. Trump, as he does in all things, exacerbates these tendencies. Trump himself rose to power through his explicit embrace of this formerly implicit concept of the social order. He has repeatedly said the quiet parts out loud, making it clear who belonged in the in- and out-groups and what the hierarchy was supposed to look like. Now, police across the country are doing the same thing in the name of “law and order.” As Adam Serwer points out (in the piece linked above), “Reporters today do not bother asking Trump what law and order means, because everyone already understands that it simply means violence.”
And this is the key point. Social orders don’t tend to stay in place through sheer inertia, though the force of inertia and tradition does help; instead, they require active maintenance. Nothing better maintains a social order than violence, the more exemplary and public the better.
All of this has gotten me thinking about medieval peasants’ rebellions. This isn’t the most obvious parallel for our present situation, and I’m not sure how far I’d methodically push the comparison, but one aspect seems especially relevant: the central role of violence, particularly public violence, that elites used to repress them.
Peasants’ revolts were a threat to an explicitly hierarchical social order that placed nobles and churchmen above dirt-farming peasants and grubby-fingered town-dwellers. These people were hardly ignorant of how their social betters saw them, or of the inherent injustices in their world; far from it. Medieval people, even those on the lower rungs of the social ladder were quite aware of how their world worked and what they wanted from it. As they have done since the beginning of recorded time, the oppressed engaged in the basic forms of everyday resistance outlined by the anthropologist James Scott in his classic book Weapons of the Weak: work slowdowns, lying, feigned ignorance, quiet sabotage, anything that would cause trouble without inviting open retaliation.
But quite often, and especially after the Black Death, those everyday tensions boiled over into far more open and violent confrontations. Material conditions for the lower orders of society improved somewhat after the deaths of roughly half the population; a formerly loose labor market became much tighter, giving peasants much more leverage over their lords than had previously been the case. Lords weren’t going to give up their privileges and social control, and the result was a recipe for large-scale revolt and rebellion. The Jacquerie of 1358 in France, the Ciompi Revolt in 1378 in Florence, the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: these were all a big deal, and there were many more, both large and small.
Four parallels seem relevant here.
First, whatever the underlying causes, rebellions of this sort were fundamentally political: their immediate triggers were things like the demand for political representation in the government of the Florentine Republic (Ciompi), the French nobles’ failure to defeat the English in the Hundred Years’ War (Jacquerie), and burdensome taxation (1381 Peasants’ Revolt). Our conception of absolutist rule by kings, nobles, and urban patricians overlooks the fact that common people expected their elites to hold up their particular end of the bargain, whether that was successfully prosecuting warfare, maintaining fair fiscal demands, or otherwise addressing the interests of the people.
By repeatedly violating the rights of protesters and those who happen to be on the wrong side of the racial divide, like George Floyd, police actions trigger a crisis of political legitimacy for the whole order they protect.
Second, these revolts were generally quite conservative, in overall terms. Those engaged in revolt were not interested in violent overthrow of the social order; instead, they wanted to hold their betters to account for their failure to live up to their ideal of how the system was supposed to operate, and turned to open actions as a result. In other words, it wasn’t so much a matter of overthrowing the king and ushering in an egalitarian utopia as one of making the king, the nobles, and the churchmen do their job and look after the little people like they were supposed to. That could occasionally evolve into something more extreme - it did in 1381 and with the radical Hussites in Bohemia after 1420 - but the rebels’ demands usually seem quite modest, compared with upheavals of recent centuries. “Don’t let the tax collectors sexually assault local girls,” one of the initial concerns of the 1381 rebels, is a lot less revolutionary than “abolish nobility.”
In the same vein, even “defund the police” should still be seen as a call for action within the constraints of the current system, where police are funded by tax revenues and theoretically subject to city governments. This is nowhere near as radical as open assaults on groups of police officers or widespread calls to abolish the city governments they serve.
Third, those engaged in revolt were only rarely members of the poorest and most marginalized groups in society. “Peasant” was a broad term, encompassing everything from landless wage-laborers to well-off but non-noble people with diversified holdings in land and property. The 1381 rebels were drawn from the latter group, not the former. The Ciompi in Florence were lower and middling artisans, skilled workers who wanted their occupational organizations to have a say in the city’s governance. The same pattern repeated over and over again: People rebelled because of the disconnect between how they were treated and what they felt they deserved. That gap was widest with solidly prosperous independent farmers and middling artisans.
Similarly, it’s not a coincidence that the protesters all around the country are demanding what amounts to equal treatment under the law. There’s an enormous gap between the rights Black Americans are supposed to have and how the social and political order treats them; police violence is a visceral and visible manifestation of that gap, no matter how wealthy the victim happens to be. The broader support on which the protests draw comes disproportionately from those in their teens, 20s, and early 30s, a series of generations shaped by economic precariousness and ineffectual political institutions at every level. They too are responding to a profound sense of the gap between what they see in reality and what they expect, albeit one with slightly different roots.
Finally - and this brings us back around to the core topic, policing - peasants’ rebellions were all met with overwhelming force.
The rebellions themselves involved plenty of violence. The English 1381 rebels executed those they considered traitors to the King and the Commons, including rich merchants and the hated Flemings of London, while participants in the French Jacquerie hung nobles and burned manor houses with their lords inside.
But what the rebels got in return outweighed their actions by orders of magnitude. Participants in the 1381 revolt were dragged to death behind horses, dismembered, beheaded in the street with blunt axes, and anything else the victors could think of. In the process of putting down the Jacquerie, one French lord personally cut the hamstrings of a peasant father and son who had burned down his manor house; roving bands of French nobles simply killed any peasants they ran across whether they had participated in the uprising or not.
It’s easy to think of these actions as simple medieval brutality, reflections of a crueler age, or revenge for the wrongs done to the victims. That’s not entirely without merit. But all of this went beyond revenge: It was about reminding the rebels about who was in charge, about where they were in the social and political order, and whose job it was to enforce that order. This was all done in public, explicitly and intentionally so. The violence was exemplary.
This offers us an alternative way of viewing the actions of police in the past weeks. Rather than thinking that they ought to be chastened by being caught on tape beating, tear-gassing, and pepper-spraying protesters, perhaps doing all this in full view of the public is the point. They’re not afraid of being filmed, because being filmed simply reinforces the central theme: If you come to protest, an action that explicitly challenges the order and my place in it, this is the consequence. Expect more of it.
Sure, a few bad apples have been suspended or fired for doing it a little too brazenly, and some (like Derek Chauvin and his accomplices) have even been charged with crimes, but far more have simply gone about their business with no apparent fear of the consequences. The police in Seattle who sent seven squad cars after a single protester who filmed them pepper-spraying a nine-year-old girl, claiming he pointed a laser pointer at them, are an instructive example of this tendency. It’s retribution, of course, but it’s also about sending a message: Try to hold us accountable, and we’ll find you. Whether the violence is real or merely threatened, the goal is public acknowledgement of this order, rooted in racial inequality and the protection of property.
The police, in this scheme, are the privileged wielders of that violence, the maintainers of the order, and therefore above and separate from those whom they theoretically serve. The formalities of statutory law and the legal control of elected officials over their police forces pale in comparison to the sheer physical reality of that order. Beatings, tear-gassings, pepper-sprayings, and shooting of rubber bullets will continue in service of that order and the preservation of the privileged, protected, well-paid position of those who maintain it.