The Ethics of Resisting Authority

Benjamin J. Deen and Liquori Tate, two police officers from Hattiesburg, have died. According to news reports, they were shot by two brothers.

I hesitate when I write about current events involving a crime. According to the law, a presumption of innocence exists. Yet, the vast majority of media coverage – especially if the event includes something controversial like dead cops – portrays the events as factual. Even when hedged with words like “allegedly” and “suspects” it’s near-impossible to report on this kind of story without implying that the accused are factually guilty. This, of course, shapes criminal justice: it biases the public against suspects and ensures they will not have a fair trial.

For the sake of discussion, let’s just say the suspects are already guilty. This is more honest, anyway. Not because we know they are guilty, nor because their guilt has been proven, but because that’s the way people already interpret criminal accusations. “These two young men are being accused of x, but we really have no idea if they did anything wrong,” simply doesn’t allow for a story.

I’ll suggest something else: these two brothers, regardless of criminal guilt, may not have done anything wrong even if they did kill two police officers.

Not because it’s open season on police officers, but because the powers police wield have never been legitimate to begin with. The powers of law enforcement are derived purely from the ability to commit acts of violence with the sanction of the state. Resisting those powers is an act of self defense.

That you can be stopped on a pretext and be forced to submit to the demands of other people, the consequences of you not doing so being violence (in the form of beatings, arrests, fines, imprisonment, and even homicide), is fundamentally illegitimate. This means that most interactions between law enforcement and the public are illegitimate. It isn’t a wonder when someone shoots a cop – a rare event. It’s a wonder that more people don’t.

You wouldn’t be exaggerating if you said that almost all police interactions involve violence. The reason anyone complies with the police at all is fear. The fear that if you resist violence will be used to secure your compliance; the fear of resisting on top of the fear of the arrest itself. It’s multi-layered coercion, layers of threats. As soon as the legitimacy of police violence is brought into question, resistance suddenly seems more justified.

And many people, perhaps most, do question that legitimacy even if they do not resist.

But we don’t need to be abstract about it. The fact is that every interaction with law enforcement is a potentially fatal encounter. This isn’t hyperbole. Law enforcement students and trainees are taught this very thing. During routine traffic stops police officers often begin the encounter with the thought I might have to shoot this person in the backs of their minds.

No one should be forced to sit still while someone approaches them with the intent to harm them, or who is seriously considering the possibility.

It’s worse if you happen to be black in America. You might comply, but have your jaw kicked in regardless. If you’re subdued by the police, you might end up dead in custody. And if you died this would not even be a rare thing. Merely being approached by the police constitutes a threat.

This wouldn’t be problematic if the police only approached people who deserved to be threatened. But law enforcement does not work that way. Most police encounters involve crimes that are both nonviolent and victimless. And no one should fear for their life solely because they have a broken taillight, or are in possession of a prohibited item.

The news has already uncovered the fact that the Banks brothers had criminal records. Yet, there is little mention as to why the police stopped them in the first place. I also noticed this in coverage of the recent shooting of Brian Moore, a police officer from New York. We seem to take it as a given that the police can stop anyone, for the flimsiest of reasons or even no reason at all, and make demands of them.

Indeed, demands such as show me your driving permit seem reasonable. But they only seem reasonable because we’ve lived with them our entire lives, because we’re conditioned to accept them, and because few people question them. They aren’t reasonable because of reason, they’re just perceived that way because we accept them. When justifications for this kind of authority are explored in the abstract, they turn out to be far more feeble than our broad acceptance would indicate.

In fact, overreaches that seem minor today have literally led to wars in the past. (American War of Independence, anyone?)

When the automobile was invented, or even after automobiles had been in circulation for some time, the way modern police handle traffic would have been viewed as a gross violation and overreach. (Yet traffic flow and road safety has improved little since then.) It would have been completely unacceptable to know that automobiles were being used as a pretext for investigating crimes, a la that person looks suspicious, cite a moving violation for an excuse to search him. Being stopped on the street and forced to identify yourself to law enforcement also falls into this category. In fact, many crimes exist today only because we invented them in the last few generations.

What I am saying is that we need to question why the police were involved at all. We need to ask if it is justified, ethically, and not merely if it is legal. It does not matter if the police were doing their jobs, what matters is if the act would be right absent law, badges and uniforms. A good heuristic is this: ask yourself if it would have been justified if it two people who were not cops did it. If two random men, strapped with a belt of weapons, tried to stop a vehicle would it be justified? And, based on that, if two men inside the vehicle were stopped would it be justified for them to defend themselves?

This, of course, depends on why they are stopping the vehicle. Maybe the vehicle just ran over a child. You’d probably be considered a hero for stopping that vehicle even if it was illegal for you to do so. We’ve come to the point, then, where right doesn’t line up with legal. On the other hand, if you tried to stop the vehicle because it had a broken taillight – and you wore a belt of weapons to help you do it with violence – you’d be crossing the line.

This also illustrates another point: ethics, at least here, are situational. We can’t always make one-size-fits-all rules and expect them to work. Yet, the very existence of modern law enforcement depends on one-size-fits-all and the vigorous enforcement of even minor infractions. And while some rules may be more universal than others, law enforcement depends on complicated, ever-shifting legislation that may call for strict penalties one day and permit the act on the following day. We might all approve of “don’t murder” being enforced with violence, but using violence to enforce “don’t drive with a broken taillight” suddenly seems less justified.

Unfortunately, we may never know why those two police officers stopped the Banks brothers. In the case of Moore, it was said that the police saw Blackwell move something in his waistband. Normally that would be a dubious claim, because it’s a common pretext for police harassment. However, Moore didn’t shoot himself. A firearm was present. This makes it more credible.

Yet, even if Blackwell had a firearm it doesn’t make the stop justified. Recall the heuristic. Ask yourself this: would it have been justified for you to demand that Demetrious Blackwell submit to your investigation? We’d be right to admit that we have no authority to do such a thing. The truth is that no one does.

And laws that claim to grant such authority are merely the legal enshrinement of inequality.

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