Viral videos of beatings and killings by police are forging what might be a significant and lasting political movement — a full-scale revolt against what everyone used to believe was the most essential function of the state. Not only has this function turned murderous; the machinery of the state is unwilling to hold police accountable.
The resulting anger is palpable, each protest more tense than the last. The police arrive to supervise the marches and sit-ins. But they arrive as the enemy. Their authority is gone. The protesters suddenly have in their sights the very embodiment of the thing they are protesting. Every gathering has the feeling of being on the verge of exploding, which only makes the cops more paranoid and quick to release the tear gas or pull the trigger.
The protests are likely to further intensify the fears and resentments on all sides. That means that the protest movements might extend much longer than the usual news cycle. Consider that these protests are only the latest in a series.
In fact, we are experiencing the third great wave of US political street protests since 2009, a real turning point in the history of American liberty. The first wave was the Tea Party. The second was Occupy Wall Street. And today, around the country, in cities and towns large and small, people are protesting the abuse and killings of citizens by the local police.
In each case, there is something to inspire the rebel within all of us. The Tea Party has valid complaints, but so does the Occupy movement. And anyone who can watch the viral videos of killings by police without some emotional sympathy does not have a well-formed conscience.
What if these are all variations of the same general revolt?
American political culture treats these protests as distinct and even divergent in their goals. The Tea Party was called “right wing” because the bones of contention at its inception were high taxes, wealth transfers, and health care nationalization.
Occupy was considered “left wing” because it emphasized the evil of the rich and the need for government to redistribute more.
The new anti-police protests are supposedly about racial disparities and injustice, mainly concerning the interests of racial minorities — blacks in particular.
There is a sense in which these categorizations are true. The protests attract different demographic groups. And these differences cause narrow political minds to think that they cancel each other out, as if these movements are just a street version of left and right, populist realizations of politics as usual.