Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the date July 4 may become obsolete, marking a rebirth of a country alongside a new constitution and a new system of governance.
Tomorrow, July 4, 2020, hundreds of thousands of Americans will celebrate the last Independence Day of their lives. They will not live to see the next one. They will die of COVID-19 before the same date in 2021.
July 4 does not mark the formal separation of the United States from the United Kingdom. That happened later, in 1783, after the victory of the American revolution over the British Empire. At its start, the American revolution seemed to be a doomed endeavour.
Nevertheless, on or about July 4, 1776, a revolutionary cadre issued the Declaration of Independence, stating that the 13 colonies would start writing their own laws - despite still being unsure of how to go about that. They would call themselves the United States of America, still a plural and not a singular noun. The declaration is mostly a list of grievances against King George III, stating that he had trampled over their rights and ignored them. Some of the grievances are economic, involving taxation, and others are political, concerning representation.
Yet, some of the most important outrages listed concern British soldiers murdering people with impunity, the same issue that animates American politics today and motivates activists to call for the abolition of policing as an institution.
In the case of British soldiers, the Declaration of Independence plainly accuses King George III of ‘’protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States’’ and keeping ‘’large bodies of armed troops among us…He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.’’
American protestors facing down phalanxes of heavily armed, indeed militarized, federal, state and local police perhaps recognise a similar predicament. The fear of a ‘’mock trial’’ for police accused of murder is a real one, with examples of police escaping prosecution because prosecutors are too close - professionally - to police departments.
Indeed, the Declaration of Independence also demanded the abolition of police, specifically British troops who could kill Americans and get away with it. A black man in Boston, Crispus Attucks, was the first American martyr of the Boston Massacre in 1770 when British troops took aim at colonists who were demonstrating against new taxes. The killing of Attucks and four others solidified Bostonians opposition to colonial rule. Two soldiers who shot were found guilty of manslaughter.
As with the American protestors of 2020, the revolutionaries of 1776 knew they were outmatched in a military sense against the British Empire. They were fortunate enough to face arrogant and inept British generals, and were fortunate they knew the land they fought upon better than outside forces. But without foreign intervention in their affairs, their revolution would likely have failed and the Crown would have hanged all of them.
The revolutionaries were lucky enough to benefit from the diplomatic and glandular agenda of Benjamin Franklin, a Philadelphian printing-press owner and journalist-turned-polyglot. Franklin convinced the French to deal the British a knock-out blow at sea by 1783, when both sides signed a peace treaty in the French capital. For his efforts and flair, Franklin’s face is now on the 100 dollar bill, and ‘’Benjamins’’ remain synonymous in American slang with banknotes.
US President Donald Trump’s incandescent face will probably never end up on any money, dollars or otherwise, the latest opinion polls suggest. Trump has stumbled into the role of King George III in the eyes of millions of Americans. The BBC still remembers the 18th-century monarch as the ‘’mad king who lost America.’’ The eerie parallels multiply.
Since the start of protests over the killing of George Floyd began in late May, Trump’s approval ratings have slid further. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans are sympathetic with the cause of police reform, even as Trump proclaims how much he loves the force and how much the police love him. The questions is, do Americans themselves love the police as much as Trump does? Perhaps this has not been considered.
Indeed, as coronavirus cases surge across the country, one recent National Public Radio poll finds a full 50 percent of Americans ‘’strongly disapprove’’ of the job Trump is doing. They rate as some of the highest and most intense disapproval ratings for a president in the history of presidential polling. Another survey found that about 63 percent of Americans, of both the Democratic and Republican parties, think the US is headed in the wrong direction.
Was it on the right track before Trump? The body count of American policing, about a thousand people a year, would suggest it was not. As of 2020, a full 244 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, Americans of far more shades are still protesting over the same things: the impunity of police just as they did the impunity slave catchers, who could legally kidnap human beings and return them to a life of torture, which is what slavery was.
The legacy of that institutionalised system of racist torture has sabotaged or undermined all other allegedly egalitarian experiments since. While white people were able to boast of their liberty, slaves led the same lives before and after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Indeed, after the revolution and the founding of the republic, new laws came into force that made slavery more brutal. Southern states passed laws forbidding slaves from learning how to read, hoping to prevent slave rebellions. In 1857, the US Supreme Court decided that black people, whether free or not, could not be considered full US citizens.
Dr. De Lacy Davis, a retired black police officer from New Jersey and east coast representative of National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability, says that policing in the US cannot escape the stain of chattel slavery, a specifically American system where being born with black skin condemned a baby to a lifetime of ‘’chattel slavery,’’ where the children of enslaved people were automatically slaves as well.
‘’It was only in the US, in the Americas and Caribbean, where slavery was predicated on your skin colour. We have not been able to get from under that and what is being done now is in the United States is it is being unmasked. We are being forced to have this conversation,’’ Davis told TRT World.
Davis, a police reform advocate, maintains that bias against black people persists because of a culture of impunity that puts police departments, and police unions, in conflict with the public.
‘’If there are police officers who engage in criminality that means you have to prosecute corrupt cops. You have to jail criminal cops,’’ Davis said. ‘’There has to be a clear standard. The laws are already there. There should be civilian oversight. There are 18,000 police departments in this country. They cannot police themselves.’’
Davis says law enforcement needs a special corps of prosecutors who handle only complaints against police, from abuse to murder. That way, prosecutors who rely on police officers to be witnesses in court cases will not be in the position of trying to prosecute police as well. Such a conflict of interest can result in a ‘’mock trial’’ for authorities accused of misconduct, the kind of hearing the American revolutionaries denounced.
Indeed, the need for civilian oversight of armed agents of the state, was a key priority for the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Now the descendants of people held as slaves, some by the signers of the Declaration themselves, are marching and agitating to end impunity in policing. They are engaged in the grandest of American traditions and are far from being traitors to law and order.
Slavers and killer cops are the real anarchists. Slavery and police abuse flourishes today when legitimate authority retreats or collapses. Slavery favours might and not right. The only law a slaver knows is brute force and ruthless coercion. The officer who killed Floyd, Derek Chauvin, was acting in service of that same anarchic logic. He killed him because he could.
In American chattel slavery, there was no hierarchy except for skin tone, and no right besides the right of a white slave owner to legally maim or kill a black person. The impunity of British Imperial soldiers, as well as pre-revolutionary slave drivers, lives on in unaccountable American policing, the real deadly anarchy that operates under the pretense of law enforcement.
Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the original Constitution did anything to address the mass torture of human beings. Neither document provided for the rights of Native Americans, who would see their land lost to European settlements before a railroad-run campaign of mechanised massacre began after the Civil War. In short, the establishment of the United States did not mean the end of colonisation. Rather, colonisation was now under new management, organised from a different, more humid capital.
Dismantling that inhumane management remains the continuing task of the American revolution, one that did not end with the surrender of the British and the abolition of the Crown’s authority in the colonies. Indeed, at the time, the very notion of ending colonial rule seemed like a terrible, treasonous idea. British troops, these monarch-apologists maintained, were simply there to protect colonists from their enemies on the continent, specifically the French and their indigneous allies, against whom the British had fought a decade long war between 1754 and 1763.
In 1776, dismantling the authority of the Crown in the colonies seemed unthinkable to some. There were still Americans loyal to the King; they were more comfortable with the monarchy than whatever the revolutionaries in Philadelphia were cooking up. Just like in 2020, some people are more comfortable with biased, brutal and broken policing than they are with an unknown alternative.
‘’Politicians and police departments are genuinely shocked by demands to defund and abolish, They’ve never heard it before, certainly not by crowds in the streets,’’ Chase Madar, a civil rights attorney and New York University law professor, told TRT World.
But what does defunding and abolishing the police actually mean? To Madar, it means an assertion of democratic control by unarmed people over the police departments that are supposed to protect them. Abolishing police means ending the violence inherent in the system of policing, and ending the anarchy of lawless paramilitary groups abusing their monopoly on the legal use of force. It seems like common sense.
‘’It means taking budget and legal authority away from the police and shifting it to other arms of government. Police should not be the ones dealing with homelessness, mental illness, drug use, poverty, sex work, school discipline. A lot of police readily admit this but resent having their budgets and authority reduced. Too bad! It’s the only way. Again this project is not just about negating police power it also has to be about building up other arms of government to deal with these problems,’’ Madar said.
‘’Many of the changes people want — school discipline handled by educators, not by police; mental breakdowns handled by non-cop responders — are already in place locally and need to be adopted as models everywhere. There is already a vital movement of practical abolition here and there even if it doesn’t call itself by that name!’’
Rather than a refutation of the concept of a constitutional republic, police reform advocates in the United States are its modern manifestation, demanding that the public be there to watch the watchmen themselves. They are wary of such oversight, as is predictable, and enormous hurdles remain before the realisation of even a marginally less violent version of American policing can come into being.
But history also provides a dire warning about the consequences of failure. Frederick Douglass, a man who escaped slavery in Baltimore, Maryland in 1838 to become a titan of the movement to abolish slavery, told a mostly white audience in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852, a decade before the outlawing of chattel slavery, what Independence Day meant then to people enduring the torment of the ‘’peculiar institution,’’ as it was then sometimes called.
‘’What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,’’ Douglass said.
‘’To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.’’
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, the date July 4 may become like any other. A new day could take its place, marking a rebirth of a country alongside a new constitution and new system of government, one that sews up the cynical loopholes and sad lapses of the current one.
Whatever that day may be, if it ever comes at all, Americans should already know some black children, who will be watching, in awe, at the fireworks on Saturday night, are already fated at some unjust second to fall at the crack of a police bullet. It is a holiday they will never live to see.