In the United States, “politics” is pejorative.
Even those we employ to navigate them rue the very word.
To “engage in politics” is a sinister act; to be “politically correct” is an immobilizing burden; to “politic” is the most basal form of cynical groveling. And we reserve these characterizations for those—politicians— who are willing to endure our self-righteous scorn.
There is a bizarre, baseless belief that “politics” is an action we undertake solely when we’ve lost our national wits and devolved into tribal, selfish beings. But few weeks could better evidence the contrary than the past one. American politics are ubiquitous, and with frightening regularity, they function precisely as they are intended.
On Wednesday morning, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) lay mangled in the infield of an Alexandria, Virginia, baseball diamond. His own maroon pooled around him.
The alleged shooter, 66-year old James Hodgkinson, unleashed a hail of gunfire upon Scalise, Capitol Police Officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner, Lobbyist Matt Mika, and congressional staffer Zachary Barth. All were gathered at a practice for this year’s annual congressional charity baseball game. And it was in the wake of this carnage that Hodgkinson’s profile began to take shape in the public square.
Hodgkinson—a reported Trump detractor and GOP dissident— boasted a catalogue of social media posts and chilling, personal encounters with a deep antipathy toward the conservative agenda and its foremost champion. This, in addition to Hodgkinson’s apparent volunteer work for the Bernie Sanders campaign, painted a clear picture of a politically-motivated assailant.
Laypeople, media included, inevitably and understandably drew similar conclusions.
And there was no shortage of lawmakers and media members willing to ruminate publicly on the supposed sanctity of our political discourse.
We knew not, at the time, just how ironic and foreboding their words would become.
Excluding its use as some sort of mantra or wishful incantation, the notion that American politics exist largely in the absence of violence is untenable. Far too many have been taken at our national behest for this to be so. Elected officials ― state prosecutors, county sheriffs, governors, attorney generals, senators, presidents ― have ascended to office on the assurance that “deviant populations,” largely consistent of people of color, would be brought to heel. From Mississippi to Maine, South Florida to Phoenix, and the way to the White House, portrayals of America’s diverse, urban centers as lawless cesspools in need of forceful order have gained traction.
Leaders of all statures have appropriated law and order ― often, in unison with law enforcement officials ― to establish their public persona and convey a political objective.
To this end, it bears questioning why it is we never consider police shootings political.
Police today serve under the authority of a president who promised an unfettered expansion of their powers. An officer today can reasonably operate under the assumption that the highest office in the land has lent them blind loyalty. And yet, when deaths and alleged misconduct occur, we are implored to believe they are thoughtless errors rather than a natural result of newfound power and privilege within the well-connected police lobby.
On July 6 of last year, St. Paul, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez riddled Philando Castile’s body with bullets during a traffic stop as Castile’s girlfriend and her daughter watched at his side.
Castile, a registered gun owner who reportedly notified Yanez of the gun in his pocket, was mistaken for a robbery suspect due to his “wide-set nose.” Yanez shot Castile and alleged Castile made him fear for his life.
We learned late Friday afternoon of Yanez’s acquittal on charges of second-degree manslaughter, as well as two counts of reckless discharge of a firearm, meaning neither Philando Castile nor his family will receive justice.
He will instead join an ever-growing list of Black bodies wrested from the earth by the state without any assignment of guilt on the perpetrator. The violence inflicted upon him was a reflection of the nation’s fear about a perceived, inherent criminality within Black people.
On a macro level, the juxtaposition of Yanez’s acquittal against effusive rejections of political violence we witnessed in response to the Alexandria shooting provides a clear and disturbing reality:
Countrywide, the way we categorize matters we deem “political” is tainted by bias and provides undue cover for oppressive institutions.
Our national delusion regarding the violent nature of our politics is twofold.
In a nation such as ours, where professed aversion to politics and its products is a pastime, we are not inclined to believe those we empower with dominion over human life act with the same malice, petulance, and biases we do. It is our preference to imagine it is we ― the mere mortals ― who busy ourselves with politics as our law enforcement officials float pristinely above, shielding us from danger.
But this is clearly a political decision; as much as lending the privilege of infallibility to any other government agency would be.
If all IRS employees were suddenly granted indomitable power over American citizens, and granted far-reaching, extrajudicial authority, our allowance of that policy would stand as a political statement. It would be a declaration of how we wish to envision our future.
The same applies to our law enforcement agencies.
When, as we’ve witnessed, a raft of highly publicized police shootings involving black and brown people occur without consequence, that too is a declaration of our future aims―that too is political―and it suggests black and brown people are nonessential to the future of our nation.
When we elect leaders who propagate racist falsehoods in order to suggest a rise in black deviance, our tolerance of this is an indictment of our politics.
And when we collectively allow law enforcement officials to act upon these motivations, their work becomes less about law, more about order, and a wholly political act.
Our national delusion regarding the violent nature of our politics is twofold.
For one, it is peddled, in part, by our kiddish self-imagination and esteem. We classify our public discourse among the renowned, regal sort. In Washington D.C. and capitals across the country, our governmental structures are a picturesque homage to a revered time. Greek columns, Latin etchings, and ornate sculptures mark our supposed appreciation for the core principles of democracy established in eons past.
We have not earned these.
Additionally, our delusion is conjured from a deep national shame. Condemning police violence — or, minimally, citing it properly as a political strategy rather than a bizarrely frequent accident—requires an assumption of responsibility to which Americans have largely not conceded. Police, in our eyes, are investors operating our blind trust. We imbue departments across the country with an inexorable power, color them with our horrid biases, and feign outrage when they brazenly carry out our bidding.
This is cowardly.
When James Hodgkinson opened fire upon a field of Republican congressmen, he acted with a grave worldview as his inspiration; according to which, all obstacles were to be vanquished from the earth. His was a political attack, not simply because of who it targeted but because its intent was to shape our society in sinister ways.
It is not our privilege to indict the most exaggerated instances of political violence and accept those to which we invest.
If we are to truly condemn violence in our politics, we must scrutinize it in its every iteration, individual and state-sanctioned, and not solely when doing so affirms the majesty of our American dream.
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