Why is Baltimore Burning?

Riots have broken out in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray, who died due to injuries he received while being transported in a police van. Gray was not buckled in, but was in handcuffs and leg irons, and may have been given a “rough ride,” meaning the police van was driven with the intent of causing Gray injury. The six police officers involved have been suspended pending an investigation of their conduct during the arrest.

Sadly, abuses of police power against minorities seem fairly commonplace across our country. Citizens’ capacity to record police behavior and the tide of anger created in response to such abuses have made such cases major news in the past year. Heightened awareness that police seem to be above the law’s requirements, and that minority populations are often not provided with the protections of law to the same extent as white citizens, has caused civil unrest. And rightfully so.

John Austin famously claimed legal rules were threats backed by sanctions – “if you x, we will punish you.” H.L.A. Hart, however, showed that such sanction-centered accounts ignored an essential feature of law: the “internal point of view.” In a stable legal system, Hart said, citizens don’t just feel obliged to follow the law because there is a gun pointed to their heads. They feel obligated to follow the law, in part because they benefit from it – they believe their lives are better off overall due to the rule of law.

This is why citizens stop at a stop sign in the middle of the night when there is no police officer present and no traffic camera in place. This is why most people don’t steal. This is why most people don’t cheat on their taxes. Because they “buy-into” our legal system. In philosophy speak, in a stable legal system citizens have internalized the law as practical rules for conduct. Citizens accept the law as a required standard both for oneself and for everyone else in their society. They agree not to take other people’s stuff, drive at unsafe speeds, and act in other harmful ways so that they are protected from people taking their stuff, running them over, etc..

Note that there aren’t enough government agents with guns to hold one to every citizen’s head to force them to follow the law. It takes terror-tactics and suppression of free speech to rule by force, and this sort of imposition of power by the few over the very many is unstable. Liberal democracies require citizens buy-into the political system for a stable exercise of power, as does every other type of political system.

In the US, this feeling of buy-in has been corroded in many neighborhoods, and amongst some minority populations. In my city of Chicago some citizens feel like police officers aren’t there to protect them, but to harass them. Whole neighborhoods – one just six blocks from my house – rightfully feel left out of the social contract that serves as the basis of rule of law. City schools are such that even the kids that graduate from high school sometimes aren’t given the skills to go to college or get a decent job. CPS high school students graduate with a second or third grade reading level. The roads are full of potholes; there are almost no proper grocery stores (so-called food deserts); and it takes three times as long to get to an emergency room via ambulance as it does in the white neighborhoods because there are very few trauma centers. In such neighborhoods alternative systems of rules have arisen to compete with or replace state and federal law: gangs have developed sophisticated hierarchies of authority, with written codes of behavior and designated jurisdictions, law enforcers, judges, and methods of punishment. There is no basic equal treatment for a child raised in these neighborhoods; no equal right to avail themselves of the state and federal laws such that they can build a life equal to children raised elsewhere.

The prevalence of police cameras in these neighborhoods – though they are creeping into every neighborhood – both acknowledges and encourages a lack of buy-in. The police camera is the modern gun-to-the-head, telling citizens that they are not trusted to stop at the stop sign when no one is looking, implicitly acknowledging that for some citizens it no longer makes sense for them to feel such an obligation.

Add to this the use of unjustified, deadly force against minority men and boys by police, and we should not be surprised when civil unrest erupts. The law enforcers act in a way that shows they are not bound by the law’s dictates – they are above the law. Most minority citizens obey the laws and still do not benefit from them to the same extent as white citizens. They then watch police break the laws, causing deadly harm in some cases, with no consequences. And the police still benefit from the laws they break.

And so we have seen erosion of the rule of law, in some populations, in some neighborhoods, and in rioting as a response to police brutality. Addressing the problem means addressing the lack of buy-in, which means addressing not just the unequal treatment of minority citizens, but unequal opportunities of minority children in their neighborhoods. There is no easy, cheap, or quick solution. We must invest in our fellow citizens.

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