An Empire State of Mind

By Falguni Sheth Commondreams

Over the last week, among the multiple images that horrified and angered the American public, two that stood out: One is an image of Dorli Rainey, an 84 year old protester at Occupy Seattle with milk dripping from her face, after being pepper-sprayed by a uniformed Seattle officer. Another is the video clip of a uniformed Davis, California police officer pulling out two cans of pepper-spray and directing it at the faces of non-aggressive, stationary student protesters at UC Davis. Both images have gone viral. I suspect this is because there is something so grotesque and terrifying about watching a uniformed officer pull out a can of chemicals that are designed to seriously, if temporarily, cripple and paralyze the its victims. Watching the lurid spectacle happen in real-time has the effect of paralyzing the viewer.

Occupy Seattle's Dorli RaineyOccupy Seattle’s Dorli RaineyBesides the outrage that these events provoked, several questions have been raised, even by those who have followed most global political news over the last decade: “What are they thinking? Why these heavy-handed tactics? Why is it ok to assault people instead of arrest them?” And others, perhaps without knowing why, are horrified but not at all surprised. Why not?

These heavy-handed tactics should come as no surprise to any of us. The ability to assault people prior to–no, instead of arresting and charging them with crimes–has become an explicit staple of United States foreign policy since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, on Oct. 22, 2001. That bill, some 350 pages long and written over much longer than a month’s time, authorized the state police and army forces to wiretap, investigate, search and detain individuals as part of a pre-emptive strategy to seek out “suspected terrorists,” that is, before they could do damage to “US” (pun intended). Augmented to this was G.W. Bush’s presidential endorsement of torture and rendition strategies, along with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan under the auspices of waging a “War on Terror” and the associated military bombings of thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (with President Obama’s continued support of rendition, the expansion of military drones targeted towards “suspected Al-Qaeda” buildings, and of course, civilians). Tack on Presidential Obama’s enthusiasm to assassinate suspected terrorists in lieu of a trial (Osama Bin Laden), even when they are American citizens (Anwar Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan).

What does any of this have to with police brutality in response to peaceful political dissent and protests in NYC, Berkeley, Seattle, Oakland, Davis, and elsewhere around the country? Everything. We are in an “Empire State of Mind,” with apologies to Jay Z and Alicia Keyes. We have become conditioned to accept and expect police brutality to be imposed on everyone but “US”: African-American men and women; Muslim men and women all over the world, including Western and Northern Europe; Latino migrants in the US. We have also become used to justifying police brutality as directed towards “people who deserve it.” This, at bottom, is an Empire State of Mind. An Empire State of Mind is one where those who order and those who carry out the brutalization and murder, can do so with the assurance of complete impunity because they have the approval of political and media elites, and through them, a widespread public.

Think about it: it is still laughable to consider the possibility of GW Bush and Barack Obama being put on trial for the torture, warrantless detention, or the innumerable murders that have been ordered on their watch. Was there ever a moment when someone thought that President Obama would order the punishment and reprimands of rogue bankers, or the arrest of CEOs who authorized their staff to push toxic mortgages or carry out irresponsible trades that eroded the pensions and life-savings of everyday working people? The evidence of widespread fraud and misconduct is widely available. But in an oligarchy, the prosecution of elites is left to the fantasies of action movies.

Why then are we surprised that the chickens have come home to roost? We have become accustomed to police and army brutality around the world. We have stopped protesting it to a large extent, in part because our sentiments have been mocked (witness the most recent endorsement of the president by the SEIU, with its promiscuous cooptation of OWS rhetoric). We have stopped, if we ever did, seeing the connections between the gluttonous disemboweling of the economic security and safety nets once available to the lower and middle-classes, and the war on immigrants. At a basic level, the latter is a distraction from the former: “Hey, look, a foreigner is taking your job,” says Congress, while they are being paid off by Wall Street bankers to prevent the passing of legislation that would protect pensions, salaries, benefits of working-class folks from being plundered. Similarly, we have refused to make the links between the persecution and torture of Muslim men in the name of “fighting terrorism,” and the ever-greater harassment of US citizens: “We need to track devious elements for your safety.” We vote for these folks continually, but are shocked when the same spurious logic is turned against American citizens.

We are shocked by the police brutality of Dorli Rainey and the Occupy Davis protestors because they are guilty of nothing but loud political dissent. Why then should we not revisit our suspicions of the unproven assertions of the criminal tendencies of millions of men and women around the world and here in the US? We need to see through the aspersion that have been unceasingly cast by the United States government, the 1%, and their minions in order to justify their assaults, brutality, and murderous actions? It’s an Empire State of Mind, not only abroad but increasingly here at home. And the way to dismantle an Empire State of Mind is to revisit our assumptions about the targets of violence and brutality. If brutality can be leveled at American students wrongly, then we need to accept that it’s been meted out unfairly in the Wars on Iraq, Afghanistan, Terror, and Latino migrants, among others.

We shouldn’t be shocked. We should, however, continue to be outraged: the War on OWS, the War on Terror, and the War on Immigrants, are all part and parcel of an Empire State of Mind. We need to consider that each of these wars is equally dubious, intended to distract US by casting a spurious guilt political dissenters, the working-class, the unemployed, the foreclosed, and other innocent civilians. This is the most basic step needed to resist those state officials, the 1%, and their minions who plunder the government coffers, our taxes, our bank accounts, our equity, our homes, and our livelihood and security, while pretending that their theft and their brutality is conducted for our protection.

Falguni A. Sheth is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory at Hampshire College. She is the author of Toward a Political Philosophy of Race (SUNY, 2009), explores state-driven racial divisions and persecution. She was formerly an Immigrant Rights Commissioner of San Francisco.