What the police did in Oakland the last two days was, by any reasonable standard, a terrible crime. Faced with a group of peaceful, unarmed people exercising their constitutional right to free speech and free assembly, the police used brutal, military-style tactics to disperse them. They used chemical weapons whose use in war is banned by international treaties. They fired rubber bullets that, while not as deadly as normal bullets, can still cause very serious injury.
They did all this in order to disperse a group of people that was doing absolutely nothing wrong. As I said, this was a crime — and on the face of it, a profoundly malicious act as well. No moral person should consent to participate in such activities. Yet the Oakland Police Department not only apparently faced little resistence within the ranks, but was also able to get neighboring departments to contribute supplemental forces.
The degree of moral bankruptcy this act displays is shocking. Willingness to go along with it is indicative of one of three things. First, it might indicate that the person involved is morally depraved. We should not be surprised if a profession that requires the use of violence attracts people who enjoy using violence. Second, one might conclude that the person involved is completely unthinking, blindly following orders. Finally, it might indicate that the person involved is a moral coward who realizes what they’re doing is wrong but goes with the flow anyway. And this goes not just for exceptional acts like the breakup of these riots, but for the everyday acts of racism and repression that are part and parcel of contemporary law enforcement.
From this, I can only conclude that America’s police forces are profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. If you go into the police force as a basically good person, the odds are much greater that one will grow more morally callous than that one will remain true to one’s conscience. It is only in this context that the hero-worship surrounding police in American culture is understandable: only by imagining all police officers to be saints and heroes can we ignore the obvious facts about the nature of the job. I can imagine situations in which joining the police force would be a necessary or appropriate choice, but contemporary America is not one of them.