Every day a new story comes out about something awful a police officer has done. And 99% of the time, nobody seems to care. The death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland is just the latest in a constant barrage of public atrocities committed by men in government uniforms. It is not an isolated incident, nor are its circumstances unique, yet much of the public has again been polarized into their usual political factions – the dusty "obey the law and you won't get hurt" conservatives and the chronically offended "check your riot-shaming privilege" progressives.
But for anyone serious about stopping cops from shooting unarmed men in the back, throwing grenades into baby cribs, tasering eight-year-olds and punching women, including a 9-month pregnant Air Force veteran, the common thread in all of these tragedies should be examined at its roots. It is not racism, patriarchy, lack of funding, or poor training. No, the source of all this brutality is a massively invasive police state.
Since Ronald Reagan re-declared a "War on Drugs" in 1982, police have steadily become more militarized and intrusive. Every traffic stop is a pretext for a potential search for banned contraband, and an increasing number of stops do not even require particularized reasonable suspicion. There are more than 100 SWAT team raids every single day. The judicial branch has facilitated this evolution, with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens lamenting in 1991 that "this Court has become a loyal foot soldier" in the War on Drugs.
This trend of police aggressiveness has only intensified following 9/11. Unending foreign wars armed policymakers with endless justifications to continue their assault on civil liberties. With the passage of the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping and domestic spying became the norm, ushering in an age of unprecedented police presence to accompany a citizenry already hamstrung by little recourse. As Bush said in 2006, "The Patriot Act is vital to the war on terror….[and] will allow our law enforcement officials to continue to use the same tools against terrorists that are already used against drug dealers and other criminals." On New Year's Eve in 2011, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law, defining the entire United States as a "battleground" in the war on terror and providing the president the power to capture and indefinitely detain any American citizen deemed a suspected "belligerent" without a trial or even evidence.
Once you put the current issue of killer cops into context, it becomes clear: Racism did not kill Freddie Gray or Michael Brown or Eric Garner. The policies of a smothering police state did.
An agent of the state, acting on the state's behalf, using state-granted police privileges to enforce state-created laws, killed each of these men. The same story with Kelly Thomas. And Andrew Lopez. And the thousands of forgotten others deemed 'justifiable homicides' over the years – over 377 in 2015 already. It is wholly predictable that when a country has ceded liberty for "security," the entire relationship a society will have with its law enforcers will fundamentally become adversarial. No longer is a cop's job to "protect and serve." Rather, as Radley Balko writes,
"When you arm a cop like a soldier, when you dress 'em like a soldier, when you tell 'em to fight in a war and then send 'em out into a neighborhood that he has no stake in and doesn't consider himself a part of, you get a very antagonistic, us-versus-them relationship between the officer and that community."
This 'us-versus-them' relationship undoubtedly has had its worst effects on the poorest and most vulnerable communities. Without a doubt, police antagonize black men disproportionately, and that's inexcusable. But the root question should be why police are antagonizing anyone in the first place. Decades of police militarization, the wars on drugs and terror and an ongoing reduction in privacy and freedom has made America a nation of suspects. The rampant unaccountability of cops is not primarily a race problem – more white people are killed by police than black – it's an authority problem.
It has been exactly 23 years since the Rodney King riots, but the underlying issues have only intensified, with mob violence and racial division used to further polarize Americans. Don't fall for the partisan trap. It's a distraction from the real issue: the state's monopoly on force versus the individual. When you put the issue of out-of-control police into its proper perspective, it becomes clear that the real war is not on drugs, terror, or even crime – it's on you, regardless of how much melanin you have in your skin.
Will Tippens is a third-year law student at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and plans to take the Tennessee Bar in July 2015 and enter general private practice. A passionate student of libertarianism and Austrian economics, Will has worked as a research associate with the Nashville based Beacon Center of Tennessee, volunteered for the Ron Paul 2012 campaign and was the president of the Memphis chapter of Young Americans for Liberty from 2012-2013. Follow him on Twitter @willtippens