James Brennan: Watching the watchmen

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published September 2, 2014

Without government — and without police — we, as human beings, would lose most of our rights.

James Brennan

The comedian George Carlin once said, “Rights aren’t rights if someone can take ‘em away,” instructing his audience to read up on the internment of Japanese Americans to “find out all about your precious fuckin’ rights.”

Japanese Americans had their freedom taken away because the government stopped protecting them (and, in turn, acted directly against them). Carlin believed that human beings have no rights even with government, and in some ways he’s correct. Rights and freedom are just ideas that human beings invented and try to enforce. We aren’t always successful, but in a country like the United States, rights and liberties have strong protections and enforcement mechanisms, allowing us — for now — to have a good amount of freedom. Like all things, this freedom is temporary. But what keeps it alive is government.

If you disagree, answer me this question: Where do rights come from? Many argue that their rights are inalienable, that they come from some “creator” or from nature, as the Declaration of Independence argues. These are both fine theories, but I can’t recall the last time God arrested and tried a murderer, nor the last time “nature” stepped in to protect black children from mobs outside of segregated schools. Natural rights are an interesting concept, but rights aren’t real unless they’re protected. That’s the whole point of government. Yes, the state can be used as a tool for tyranny as well, but human beings come together and create government so that our freedom will be guarded.

Police are one of the most basic mechanisms governments use for the protection of rights. They are called law enforcement officers for a reason — they enforce laws, and laws are typically aimed at protecting key rights like life, safety and property.

I won’t mince words: I hate American police in their current form. While the events in Ferguson, Mo. this summer should not surprise anyone who is vaguely familiar with criminal justice in America, they are nonetheless appalling. Police officers have become armed to the teeth and conditioned to a mindset of us vs. The Criminals/The Rioters/The Thugs. Instead of protecting rights and liberties, police are often taking them away from people. I don’t trust police, and I probably never will, but with that being said: I would never want to live in a country without them.

The only reason we have the freedom that we love is because the government (usually) protects us. The Constitution and all of its amendments are brilliant, amazing ideas, but even if they’re written down and passed by legislatures, they mean nothing. We need a way to protect our rights, and police are one of those ways. The consequences of an overly militarized police force go far beyond one notable incident where a teenager is killed and protests are oppressed. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke of injustice anywhere threatening justice everywhere; the threats to civil rights and civil liberties seen in Ferguson, Staten Island, Davis and other cities is a threat to every American. As police fail to do their job, our rights slip away.

In Ferguson, police and the governor shut down freedom of movement and assembly, enforcing curfews and assaulting protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. It didn’t matter what the Constitution said at that point — its defenders were busy rewriting the First Amendment with their guns and tanks. These same events have happened before, they will definitely happen again, and they could feasibly happen anywhere. Rights are not permanent; they last only as long as we protect them.

In 1963, Governor George Wallace of Alabama made his famous “stand in the schoolhouse door,” physically standing in the way of Vivian Jones and James Hood as they attempted to register for classes at the segregated University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy federalized the state’s National Guard, and a military escort guided the students past the governor to officially desegregate the University. Six years earlier, President Dwight Eisenhower used armed troops to protect the freedom of nine Black students in Little Rock, Ark. who would have otherwise been attacked by a mob of segregationists.

Sometimes, we need “jack booted government thugs” — not to take away our rights but to make them real.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.