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Monday, September 18, 2017

Police Riot in a Failed City: On the Streets of St. Louis

Since Friday, the streets of St. Louis, Missouri, have been filled with competing groups of demonstrators and protestors. For most purposes, the police were nowhere to be found. Instead, uniformed law enforcement professionals consistently forewent their role as police officers and became protestors, and at points rioters, themselves. Rather than upholding their sworn duty to represent the public, the police consistently chose to represent themselves: the acted as defenders of the police department as an institution, rather than representatives of the City and the public. They allegedly shot at and gassed a storefront owner (who was then targeted by the police union, which allegedly released the owner's phone details; trampled people in their way, squirted mace and shot plastic bullets at journalists and peaceful protesters, and by Sunday had, like the other protesters, started chanting their own protest slogans: "Whose streets, our streets."

These failures of policing point to a larger problem with the City of St. Louis. For African Americans, it is what sociologists and political theorists call a failed state. Lisa Miller, the Rutgers political theorist, has written perceptively about the interrelation between crime, punishment, and failed states. Her point is that local governments can fail in the same way as states can: that they can undergo a crisis of authority so severe that the government lacks the authority to make its will felt. Her point is that the appearance of authority through authoritarian interactions on the street or in the courthouse masks a broader inability to establish authority in other, less visible, ways, such as the provision of fundamental social services. In particular, she focuses on the homicide rate as a symbol of the state's inability to provide security for certain of its citizens. Drawing from Loïc Wacquant, we could call these hyper-failures: failed states experienced by racially specific groups or locales within a state or a city: the sort of racially segregated concentrated deprivation Tommie Shelby calls the "Dark Ghetto."

Policing is not just wearing a uniform. The police are a distinctive institution within the government. They have distinctive moral duties that apply to them in their role as police officers. Not just anything that the police do whilst wearing the uniform they do in their role as police. If that were the case, then we could never say, "Call yourself a police officer? A real police officer wouldn't do that." As public officials, they have a moral duty to act as neutral agents of the state. As police officers, they have a duty to protect the public from unlawful force, including unlawful force deployed by state officials such as the police. When the police become partisans, acting for one part of the community and against another, then they risk becoming vigilantes, rather than police. On Sunday night, when the City of St. Louis Police deployed their considerable force against the people as partisans of the Police Department rather than the public they are sworn to protect, they became not "real" police, but police in name only: not public officials, but protesters and at times rioters; just one of the factions engaged in a conflict with the public on the streets.

The police can be police in name only because they are defined not only by their moral duties, but by their legal ones too. They have special legal powers to arrest, and to use a certain amount of force when they enforce the criminal law. They can, however, use these official powers to commit criminal acts: when they engage in an unlawful shooting of a civilian; when they pervert the course of justice by planting evidence; but also when they intentionally and unnecessarily break windows of local shops; or recklessly physically assault defenseless civilians lying on the street; or use unnecessary and excessive force to mace non-threatening journalists covering their activities. These are features of authoritarian states around the world; in this country, they exist from state to state on the micro-level. These authoritarian state and municipal forces are, however, an expression of a deeper problem: the withdrawal of state resources from certain communities and neighborhoods. The City of St. Louis is a prime example of this type of governance.

Lisa Miller (no relation), in her recent article, What’s Violence Got to do with It? Inequality, Punishment, and State Failure in U.S. Politics, and in her book, The Myth of Mob Rule, uses homicide levels to demonstrate that for certain people, the state fails to assure them the guarantee of security, and so one of the central functions of the modern liberal state. She then shows that failures to provide security often go along with failures to provide other features of the state: adequate health care, or education. Tommie Shelby hammers that point home in his book, Dark Ghettos, where he demonstrates that the absence of criminal enforcement is a feature of concentrated deprivation experienced by segregated, urban African American communities, and extends into other life opportunities, such as employment.

We might think of these segregated neighborhoods of concentrated deprivation as micro-failed states or hyper-failed states: places in which the failure of the state is limited to a specific micro location, and imposed upon a specify group. As Lisa Miller demonstrates, these groups lack security at rates far in excess of the rest of the population. For example, the homicide rate per 100,000 for African American men between the ages of 18-24 in 1980 was 98.5; for African American women of the same age, 23.8; for white men of the same age, it was 16.8; and for white women, 5.5. While the homicide rate for all other groups had fallen drastically by 2004 (after rising to a peak in 1994), it had fallen for African American men aged 18-24 only to 97.8. While many may like to present that rate as simply "black-on-black crime," Jill Loevey's book, Ghettoside, reveals that such criminal is heavily facilitated by police officers simply withdrawing their services from minority urban communities. That is part of the failure to ensure security.

Of course, another way of failing to ensure security is when the police are themselves the perpetrators of violence. That is, the very people with the duty to protect are the people who inflict violence, both great and small, on the community. The City of St. Louis and St. Louis County are at the epicenter of both homicides and police-on-civilian violence. In 2015, St. Louis was the homicide capital of the United States, many of those killings occurring in centers of concentrated deprivation. St. Louis also leads the nation in the rate of police killings per population, according to one web site that charge police violence from January 2013 through June 2017. The rate of police shootings indicates the police are operating in authoritarian mode, rather than public servant mode. The State of Missouri is so insecure for African Americans that the NAACP has advised black people to use "extreme caution" when in the state.

Authoritarian policing works well within failed states. In authoritarian police forces, "Police do not exist to help citizens, they exist to service the state. They do not placate the public, they direct it; they are not pressured by the public, they bully it…. Authoritarian police stress control through deterrence, not prevention through amelioration…. A sign of this is the martial appearance of Authoritarian police, with weapons displayed prominently. Authoritarian police try to overawe, and they easily do so having so many controls on their side." David H. Bayley, A World Perspective on the Role of the Police in Social Control, quoted in P.A.J. Waddington, Policing Citizens: Police, Power and the State (1999).

In St. Louis City and St. Louis County, the police have demonstrated to the nation over the last four years that those departments operate to serve the police first and foremost. They certainly do not serve or protect African American residents of St. Louis. When police authority is challenged, the police engage in a mass demonstration of violent force. They respond to protesters with mace, teargas, sonic canons, shields and batons. And they do so, not in the name of the City or its people, but in the name of the police itself, denigrating the right of the people to protest against what they see as police injustices. The City struggles to control them: the City of St. Louis is, in effect, a failed state for its African American residents.

Posted by Eric Miller on September 18, 2017 at 03:05 PM | Permalink


The utility of the concept of "failed state" has been very widely questioned when applied in international relations. See eg Woodward, Susan L. The Ideology of Failed States: Why Intervention Fails. Cambridge University Press, 2017; Call, Charles T. "Beyond the ‘failed state’: Toward conceptual alternatives." European Journal of International Relations 17.2 (2011): 303-326; Call, Charles T. "The fallacy of the ‘Failed State’." Third World Quarterly 29.8 (2008): 1491-1507. It would be a shame to expand its use to other fields. These concerns can be expressed without using that particular trope.

Posted by: gdanning | Sep 19, 2017 11:40:03 AM


What we want is for minorities to internalize basic universal legal and moral precepts--like people in western europe do--so we don't need any larger or more authoritarian police force than they do in, say, Norway or Canada.

Unfortunately, the only way to do this is to have the sort of low unemployment and high wages (after taxes) that they do in those countries.

Posted by: Northern Style | Sep 19, 2017 5:07:00 AM

So is police presence truly withdrawn from minority urban communities, or even truly lower in minority urban communities, in general in American cities, than it is in non-minority urban communities? Or is there just not enough police presence given the staggeringly higher crime rates in some minority communities? I want to ask a straight, non-tendentious question, but I'm finding it difficult; often people who share your general constellation of views find such fault, as I think you do, with the police presence in such communities that it seems a bit like a damned if they do, damned if they don't quandary. For example, you complain, quoting Bayley, that police, when "operating in authoritarian mode" as you say they do in St. Louis, "stress control through deterrence," instead of "prevention through amelioration" (which frankly sounds like a slogan more than a thought). But . . . deterring violent crimes is what you say police in minority urban communities don't do enough of, and how would police prevent homicide through "amelioration"? Amelioration of what, and how? I am quite prepared to accept your characterization of the St. Louis police's behavior in this present crisis, but I have to say that I question whether you truly want the volume and type of policing and incarceration it would take to drastically reduce homicide in St. Louis or Chicago.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Sep 19, 2017 3:29:22 AM

You should probably update your post to take away the defamatory claim about the police breaking a storefront window. The article you linked to was updated to include video of a civilian breaking the window. Additionally, they did not "recklessly assault" the woman lying in the street. I urge everyone to click on the links in this post and judge for yourselves.

Posted by: biff | Sep 18, 2017 8:15:12 PM

Very helpful discussion and analysis. Thanks so much.

Posted by: J. Baker | Sep 18, 2017 4:55:45 PM

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