MRBlog | America, Dystopia

Riot Gear

By Thomas J. Whitley

As we enter another week, many are trying to make sense of the last week, which brought us the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers and an attack on Dallas police officers that left five dead. Over the weekend, we saw protests all over the country calling for an end to police violence and for accountability in our justice system. But it was the protests in Baton Rouge this weekend, and especially the response to these protests by the Baton Rouge Police Department, that made me realize that we already live in the dystopia that authors such as Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Veronica Roth, and Suzanne Collins warned us about.

Prominent activist and former Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay McKesson was arrested in Baton Rough Saturday night, an arrest he live-streamed on Periscope. McKesson’s arrest stood out because of his prominence and because his video appears to show him being “flagged” and arrested rather randomly. McKesson maintained after his release Sunday that it was the BRPD who escalated the situation. Their arrival in tactical gear the likes of which our military do not even don in battle, their unpredictable arrests of protesters, their use of force, their use of a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), and their use of armored vehicles to physically push protesters out of the way seem to be evidence in favor of his conclusion.

Most striking, though, are the justifications given. Baton Rouge Police Lt. Jonny Dunnam explained Sunday night that the BRPD was justified in their actions of entering private property to arrest protesters because they “had already broken the law” by obstructing traffic. Though hundreds had obstructed traffic, not all were arrested, and during the video of one set of arrests, it appears to be the police who are in the streets obstructing traffic and not the protesters.

Later in his interview, Lt. Dunnam ominously explains that “once you’ve broken the law, there is no safe space.” Such a statement would seem reasonable were protesters not protesting the very fact that police continue to kill people and continue not to be convicted. The rules, it appears, are selectively enforced against “civilians” and disproportionately against people of color. Just like the totalitarian regimes of power that we root so vehemently against in our favorite dystopian works of fiction, our totalitarian regime of power cannot let even the slightest infraction go unpunished. Never mind that some of our brothers and sisters live in legitimate fear of becoming the next victim of state violence turned viral hashtag, we must ensure that vehicle traffic is not impeded by pesky calls for justice and reform. The authorities must be obeyed at all times. The will and hope of the dominated must be crushed.

I imagine that many others have asked what I’ve asked a few times over this last week: what have we become? The answer, I’ve come to realize, is that we are what we have always been. Sure, we’ve progressed some. But the America that is happy, peaceful, and free from state violence and distrust of authority has only ever existed in the lives and minds of white Americans. We don’t need to read dystopic fiction for stories about a world where people are arbitrarily segregated, fear of the state is real and justifiable, and the infliction of state violence on the bodies of those deemed less worthy is standard operating procedure. We already live in that world.


Image via Tony Webster