Rule By Overseer

Radley Balko highlights the ridiculous case of a man arrested for interfering with police for filming them while they are on the job. Considering a passive observer, filming an arrest, to be “interfering” must be a special police corollary to the uncertainty principle that I missed in physics class. A friend asked the question, “how can one know what not to do?” This is a good question. If the laws on the books, and publicly clarified by the “authorities” are no shield, then what do we have?

As I mentioned before, police interactions with “civilians” are similar to the interactions between enslavers and slaves of the past. The rule on what can and cannot be done are set by the government official with whom you are interacting. Instead of rule by law, we have rule by overseer. Instead of viewing the police officer with whom you are speaking as a man as yourself, consider him a would-be slave master. He is has little reason to doubt his superiority to you. He has rights, and we have responsibilities.

How can it be otherwise? Whenever there is an asymmetry in recognized rights, there is great danger in interacting. During such interactions, the well-being of the oppressed is almost entirely dependent on the goodwill of the oppressor.

Consider the risks involved when an ordinary citizen has an interaction with the police. If a police officer is the violator, except in extremely egregious cases, nothing will happen to him. He will not be immediately fired after the accusation. A very bad outcome for a police officer will be him being fired, with no criminal record, and the ability to compete for a private sector job just like everyone else. Even in the case of him being prosecuted, he will likely be acquitted, and even if he is found guilty, he will be punished much less severely than an ordinary citizen.

On the other hand, consider the risk for a citizen. If a person with a regular job is arrested and held for several days, he may be fired from his job. An employer may not be able to afford to employ someone who is not at work, irrespective of the reason behind the absence. That means that even a misbehaving officer can ruin a person financially, even if that person is ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. As I have mentioned before, this asymmetry is similar to that which existed between blacks and whites in the US (and especially the American South) prior to the middle of the 20th century. In such an environment, rather than being oppressive, segregation is actually desirable for the oppressed class. Unfortunately, the government does not permit mundanes, as the heroic William Norman Grigg calls ordinary citizens, to segregate themselves from the state.

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