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The 1919 Police Strike, The Rule, The War On Drugs, Some Informal History

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There isn't much about all this that's new. It started long before I was born, which was in 1948. Some things aren't so easy to cover up as they used to be; and some things we aren't bothering to hide anymore. Who's gonna care? Something orders of magnitude worse will come next, and it won't matter. That's how our national leadership stays one jump ahead now. So far. It's similar in this way to a Ponzi scheme. The math caught up with Ponzi. Math is under assault now, along with the rest of public education. Probably coincidence"

The still-growing movement to abolish policing is having an unprecedented impact. I'm pretty sure there will be changes, particularly in funding, which is where Americans show they mean business. The Civil Rights Movement proved this when they targeted businesses, to get at the politicians, and get segregation abolished, as explained in The Cops Can Be Defeated But Not by Taking Obama's Advice by Kevin Young.

It worked on legal segregation, anyway; my uncle was one of the knights of Camelot, a young lawyer holding the educational purse-strings under the new Civil Rights Act. He also supported the Movement. He put his house in fashionable Dumbarton Oaks up to bail out "The Washington 7" or five, or thirteen, or twenty-three; we numbered unjustly arrested groups of protesters then, hoping not to lose them as they sank for years into the slow-grinding mill of quiet, brutal repression. He lost the house; he never lost his commitment to racial justice. My late Father-in-law was among the "Hattiesburg Eleven" (yet another group-arrest), part of Dr. King's organization.

But segregation itself was not going away, and the same kind of inertia is in play now. There will be noise and dust, and smoke and mirrors, and maybe one or two shining examples to be quickly sabotaged and paraded as failures. But the deep mind-set is that we need police because, you know, "Security." That is a mythical beast, to be found nowhere on Earth. The economy runs on it. Security, oil, weapons systems, and drugs. But there ain't no such-a thing. Never was, never will be. The word, secure, means "fastened," not "safe."

What gives the government its ultimate authority? Is it "the Will of the People?" Nobody seriously believes that. School children know what really gives a government the Last Word: it's the Rule of Law.

But let's consider what that rule really is: the United States Government has the option to kill anyone, anywhere in the world. That's the undiluted bottom line. That's why, in all these years, in all these bloody murders and lynchings, nobody was brought to justice. Under the Rule of Law, it was only the Government doing its thing. Cops-and-Robbers. War on Terror. Naskerty ("National Security").

What if there were no police?

In 1919 there was a police strike that resulted in nine deaths. Mostly shot by the National Guard, except one striking cop, who tried to disarm some strike-breaking cops, and was killed by a civilian. Calvin Coolidge rode the publicity to the Vice-Presidency, or so he said. It was considered a big setback for unions. There was hooliganism costing businesses something like $40,000. Well, that was a lot of money in them days. And there were, it was said, Bolsheviks.

It all seems kind of quaint and stagey now. A steam-punk romance out of old Boston politics. But I recall learning about it in elementary school, as an example of Why We Have Police. It seemed like there was this wave of pent-up crime just waiting to spill over into the city the minute the comically mustachioed cops turned their backs.

It was nothing like that, of course.

Ah, memories. Walking along a boat dock on the Chesapeake one morning about three AM, waiting for the crab-drudgers to take on fuel so I could spend the day freezing on a rolling deck puncturing my palms through heavy gloves on blue-claw spikes, I met an officer with a new, super-fast Coast Guard boat. He took me below to see the polished bronze and chrome twin engines, and told me about the big bust that earned him this new command. He had boarded a freighter in the York River that was loaded down with marijuana.

A couple of months later, I learned from a local wharf-rat that this freighter-load of worthless chaff was chum. A sinking derelict had been run aground as bait for whatever law enforcement attention the real shipment might have attracted, as it went right up the middle of the Bay to Baltimore in a line of barges a mile long. A conspiracy involving local sheriffs, state cops and a couple of judges was taken down not long after that.

The War On Drugs came, and everybody got into the act. Hollywood made out like a bandit. All these "police procedurals." I sailed up to Baltimore and tied up next to the old tugboat dock where they would shoot a famous gritty cop show. A year or two before that it had been the landing where colorful flocks of whores gathered to wait for the big orange lifeboats full of merchant-marine seamen on shore-leave. The steel mills at Sparrows Point closed, and shipping was gasping its last, but tankers were lined up all the way to Norfolk waiting to unload crude. The girls were part of the neighborhood, just around the corner from where the local member of Congress lived. John Waters was just a local boy then. Johnny Eck, one of the stars of Freaks, the Tod Browning classic, was a famous screen-painter. Screen-painting was a charming Baltimore folk-art.

Business was booming as the WOD ramped up, eventually midwifing the private prison-industrial complex, and drug manufacturers eyed narcotics markets, black and white, then in control of the cartels. The banks, how could any business run at all without the banks, illegal drugs accounted for about twenty percent of the world economy. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Turkey, Mexico, a dozen other countries had big stakes in the game, feeding American cities and rural small towns heroin as Presidents came and went. Unmarked cash, as we all were to learn in the Iran Contra Hearings, is bulky, it had to be transported on cargo-pallets. And the inner cities were not the big profit-centers we were supposed to believe they were: most of the dope ended up in white people.

The whole thing now looks pathetically shabby and incompetent. Or it does if you thought it was a war on illegal drugs. Except there was so much money! There were one or two really good popular movies made about the actual workings of the industry that gave us China White Heroin and the tsunami of cocaine that drove the D.C. legal profession. I mean, all the lawyers I met there in those times were at parties hunched over coffee tables heaped with white powder. You could develop a habit without ever spending a dime, just being polite to people in suits who greeted you holding a switch-blade piled with snow up to your face. This was not your seamy, sleazy film-noir underworld, it was young professionals double-parking their BMW next to cars with Congressional license plates in Georgetown, and up in Adams Morgan and Chevy Chase.

The Drug War generated so much business activity that addiction became the Business Model. If you didn't notice, maybe you don't have a word processor or office suite, or the latest movies streaming on your laptop. We don't buy things now. They get automatic upgrades, as long as the credit card doesn't max out. Baby-minders. Espresso-makers. Light-bulbs.

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I'm an old Pogo fan. For some unknown reason I persist in outrage at Feudalism, as if human beings can do much better than this. Our old ways of life are obsolete and are killing us. Will the human race wake up in time? Stay (more...)

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