Time to Start Over

Philadelphia police fire chemical weapons at protestors after cornering them in a no-exit space off I-676. Image: JESSICA GRIFFIN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER, Philadelphia Inquirer

Now, for the time being, as the active phase of street level protest has paused, reports are coming in detailing the scale of police brutality occasioned by the protests. Lovers of irony will note, how those protests were themselves sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, itself the culminating police misdeed in a long history of police brutality against Black and Brown bodies. During one recent protest in Philadelphia, the police managed to corner a large group of protest marchers off the enclosed shoulder of an expressway, trapping them with no escape, like a hunter might his quarry, before assailing them with chemical weapons and batons, not to mention less imaginative punches and kicks. In the current graphic novel that is America’s militarized police force, it is impossible to miss the editorial comment that such scenes provide from the perspective of power: whatever the Constitution might promise with regard to the right of speech and assembly, the cops are the hammer and the protestors are the nails, and in the name of ‘law and order’ the hammering commences. Lest we see all this as some unfortunate overstepping of bounds, some regrettable overreach, with the lazy ‘both-sides’ responsibility assessment, it pays to remember that, to the contrary, the very system itself was designed for this, designed to do this, and the punch happy and kick happy and choke happy cops are simply playing out the roles scripted for them over the last century of political fear- mongering and military build-up. The whole spectacle signifies the carefully cultivated fear of white Americans, and the decades-long obsession it has unleashed for battling the ‘enemies within.’

Back in the distasteful days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, a certain “enemies list” was said to be compiled and passed around the dark corridors of the West Wing. Names on that list represented targets of political opportunity for the loyal operatives and true believers in Nixon’s gothic and racially and culturally streamlined vision of America. Having been nearly counted out of American politics just a few years earlier following his loss in the 1962 California governor’s race, Nixon rose again in 1968 like a jowl cheeked phoenix from the political ashes to win the 1968 presidential election. His comeback catapult was a promise to America – at least the white majority who voted him in – to deliver a strict dose of ‘law and order.’

‘Law and order’ was a political dog whistle phrase referring to the ‘enemies’ who had risen up in the psychedelic and multicultural 60s, enemies who, as it turned out for Nixon, were a necessary commodity when selling law and order to white America. How could the sheriff be a hero, after all, if there were no bad guys? White Americans loved the western movie High Noon, but how would it have looked if Gary Cooper mustered all that courage only to find no enemies when the clock struck 12:00? Just lunchtime I guess. The whole thing hinged on a simple logic: no enemies, no disorder; no disorder, no law and order problem to solve. 

Fortunately for him – unfortunately for the nation – Richard Nixon was among the most talented seers of enemies this country had ever produced, and he understood perfectly the Machiavellian rule that nothing succeeds politically like fear. His whole brilliant formula was a simple bit of beginning algebra that any eighth grader could grasp: start with the variable E(i), meaning imagined enemies, multiplied by F cubed, representing exponential fears, equalling P squared, totaling the political power accrued. Nixon first showed off his skills in the equation of fear-mongering and enemy-baiting as a young California congressman just after WWII. He catapulted into prominence while serving on something called the House Un-American Activities Committee (really, that’s what it was called). Known by its initials as HUAC, this was a clown-committee of toxic white racist congressmen whipping up a fear of domestic communism by declaring war on America’s ‘enemies’ – that is to say, the enemies here at home. These were people identified by HUAC as ‘subversives,’ or when the evidence was thin, as ‘potential subversives,’ and thus even if not exactly Communist red, then at least a shade of pink. So, whether communist crimson or just pinko commie, as Nixon famously once said of his democratic opponent in a California Senate race, HUAC would leave no stone unturned. And Nixon was their hero, a man climbing up a political ladder of fear and enemies that he helped to build. Fed with raw intel by the FBI, Nixon & HUAC fiendishly smeared, accused, and alleged their way into tarnishing and (sometimes) destroying the reputations and careers of their fellow Americans. They even called Gary Cooper himself, the actor who played the sheriff character in High Noon, to testify for the committee, name names, and point fingers at those he suspected of being communists in Hollywood. No trials. No judges. And a low standard for ‘evidence’ that included heresay, rumor, guilt by association and a whole playbook of other dirty tricks. It was, said the writer Lilian Hellman, herself targeted by HUAC, a perfect scoundrel time. And those branded in the HUAC witch-hunt were stamped as disloyal, as enemies of the state. “We were at once the most powerful and insecure country in the world,” remembered writer Maureen Howard.

And by the time he unexpectedly reached the White House in 1969, Richard Nixon fronted an entire phalanx of stiff- necked, bourbon drinking, utterly toxic, white male Republican racist politicians (in America they’re known as conservatives). Their stock-in-trade was ‘law and order’ and they fanned the moral panic of the (also) white middle class of taxpaying, voting, and mostly suburban mothers and fathers, now terrified at what their baby boomer kids had become in the swinging 60s. These kids, remember, were also white, drafted from the Mickey Mouse Club and their sleepy Leave It To Beaver suburbs, straight into the culture wars of the 60s, and the maelstrom of sex, drugs, and anti-war protest. That last bit – protesting America’s Viet Nam War – was enough by itself to balloon Richard Nixon’s enemies list, and one of those he famously targeted, the ex-Beatle John Lennon, he tried to deport from the country. When you throw in a civil rights movement, a black power movement, a Black Panther Party, an ex-Beatle, a Latino farm worker movement, and – oh, what the heck – a sexual revolution and ‘bra burning’ feminism, the whole thing looked like a sumptuous buffet line to Richard Nixon, with bowls and plates and trays of enemies piled high, just for the taking. 

Now we all know that tricky Dick face planted into a big poo pile of imagined-enemies called Watergate a few short years later, but not before he plunged the country into another war. This time it was called the ‘War on Drugs’ and soon it became it’s own separate buffet line in the smorgasbord of enemies. As the Nixon administration fixer, John Erlichman, later recalled it:

You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

And with that, a new and more potent calculus of fear was promptly created, this time adding D-squared (drugs) and R-cubed (race) to the formula in what became a full blown algorithm of arrest and mass incarceration, stretching into our own time of anti-racist protest. Here was a ready-made racial trifecta of white-feared ‘crackheads,’ ‘crack whores,’ and ‘crack babies,’ all of whom were depicted in the mainstream white media during the 80s and 90s as black, poor, violent, and known to be living in ‘crack houses’ (just for good measure) in the ‘inner cities.’ So irresistible to white politicians was this witches brew of white racial and class fears, that even mainstream white media types like Tom ‘the Greatest Generation’ Brokaw and liberal white wine-drinking democrats like Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton, got in on the act, and joined their toxic, racist, and bourbon-drinking conservative colleagues across the political aisle. Together they passed a massive crime bill in ‘94, modestly called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. In Nixonian terms, they promised a ‘tough on crime’ solution for the ‘inner cities’ designed to defeat this new class of racialized, drug-crazed enemies. Although Tupac knew ‘both black and white is smokin’ crack tonight,’ the clear aim of the bill was racial, and as Hillary Clinton said, it was the black ‘superpredators’ terrorizing the white-psyche that symbolized that aim. With mass arrests and massive investment in a domestic arms race that militarized the country’s police force, Officer Friendly soon gave way to Officer Rambo, and white America gave up on civil rights in favor of mass incarceration. The newly enhanced formula of fear paid off with all-star quality stat lines: 

Now the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Black men make up 6% of the U.S. population, but 40% of the prison population. 

And so here we have arrived, with a president elected on a campaign of fear, who openly scorns democrats, the media, and protestors alike as enemies, valorizes the use of force against them, and publicly eggs on the police to commit more violence still. Even down to his vulgarity, Trump is a product of the Nixon fever dream, connected by the dark totems of Roger Stone and Roy Cohn, and standing here looking back from the moment of George Floyd’s killing and the police violence that has followed, it is easy to connect the dots from Derek Chauvin to Donald Trump to both Clintons to both George Bushes, to that Gary Cooper wannabe Ronald Reagan, to Richard Nixon and HUAC and the whole obsession with enemies and the militarized police state it has wrought. Let us speak no more of reforming this system, which after all is doing what it was designed to do. And let us not be swayed by the threat of further dark consequences. As Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “It is always a great crime to deprive a people of its liberty on the pretext that it is using it wrongly.”

It is time. We have to start over.

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