Power vs violence


Ta-Nehisi Coates laments the frequency with which American society obliges the police to solve problems abjured by voters and the men and women they elect:

At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one’s children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can’t be every place.

When Walter Scott fled from the North Charleston police, he was not merely fleeing Thomas Slager, he was attempting to flee incarceration. He was doing this because we have decided that the criminal-justice system is the best tool for dealing with men who can’t, or won’t, support their children at a level that we deem satisfactory. Peel back the layers of most of the recent police shootings that have captured attention and you will find a broad societal problem that we have looked at, thrown our hands up, and said to the criminal-justice system, “You deal with this.”

Robert Nisbit’s definition of power precedes what I remember reading in Hannah Arendt, who in the wake of campus demonstrations, the bombing of Cambodia, the Plumbers, and Kent State distinguished power from violence when politicians often treat them as synonyms (“Power arises from the consent of groups”). The larger problem here is that with voters electing politicians who deny funding for the programs that examine mental illness, drug use, and so on, the vacuum will get filled by force and violence.

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