An adversarial police state isn’t necessary…but it’s by design

My girlfriend and I were in Sweden. She has family there and I have friends there and this was during a time when you could just go visit people in another country. It seems so long ago…

Anyway, we covered a lot of ground driving around Sweden and I discovered a few things. One is that as a people, the Swedes aren’t a very emotive bunch. I’m a big laugher and a loud talker and that behavior drew a lot of attention. To be fair, it seemed like they were reserved not because they were culturally rigid. On the contrary, it seemed like they were sensitive to the idea that such emotional displays presented potential burdens on others. And so, they refrained.

Another thing I noticed about Sweden was the relationship between the government and its citizens. Most of us know about the country’s superior social safety net and it may or may not be surprising that we drove all over that country for a week and never saw even one police officer. But there was something else that was practically impossible for me to imagine.

I would eventually see it all over the country, but I first noticed it as we were driving through Uppsala, a small city near Stockholm. Like so much of Sweden, Uppsala is a picturesque place. The city itself is home to the biggest cathedral in Scandinavia and a sparklingly beautiful river straight out of a fairy tale. But what stuck out the most was a street sign.

In Sweden, if you speed through certain areas, a traffic camera will catch you in the act and mail you a ticket. Pretty normal, nothing surprising, but something they had that I’d never seen before was a warning sign. About a hundred yards before the camera there was a publicly funded, government-installed sign warning all drivers that there was a speed trap ahead. It was like the government warning the citizens about the government. I couldn’t believe it.

After we got home, I remember telling folks about that sign. Everyone had the same question: Is it because the cameras were fake?

No. The cameras weren’t fake. It’s just that the country of Sweden is actually concerned with the safety of its citizens. Slowing down in those places saved lives and that was the point. It wasn’t interested in tricking its citizens or punishing them or financially abusing them for the sake of revenue. The Swedish government is just interested in protecting the lives of its drivers and pedestrians. That’s it.

For many of us in the United States it seems impossible to imagine a relationship with our government that isn’t adversarial. In America, it feels almost natural for our lawmakers to compromise our values, leaders to undermine our interests, police to kill us. But it’s not natural, it’s just a design.

This design resulted in the killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, lying about him having a gun, and calling his killer a hero. This design resulted police killing Ma’Khia Bryant just before the verdict came down for George Floyd’s killer. This design results in nearly half of republicans openly saying that Floyd’s killer shouldn’t have been convicted. The fact that six killings by police happened within 24 hours of that conviction is also a result of this design.

It’s a brutal, destructive, unsustainable design, but we are only as committed to it as we choose.

We must choose something else before it’s too late.

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1 thought on “An adversarial police state isn’t necessary…but it’s by design”

  1. By design ? The backbone of the very founding of the United States involves racism. A recent book by the historian, Robert G. Parkinson as posted on the William and Mary’s Omohundro Institute website is a provocative read .

    “In his celebrated account of the origins of American unity, John Adams described July 1776 as the moment when thirteen clocks managed to strike at the same time. So how did these American colonies overcome long odds to create a durable union capable of declaring independence from Britain? In this powerful new history of the fifteen tense months that culminated in the Declaration of Independence, Robert G. Parkinson provides a troubling answer: racial fear.

    Tracing the circulation of information in the colonial news systems that linked patriot leaders and average colonists, Parkinson reveals how the system’s participants constructed a compelling drama featuring virtuous men who suddenly found themselves threatened by ruthless Indians and defiant slaves acting on behalf of the king. Parkinson argues that patriot leaders used racial prejudices to persuade Americans to declare independence. Between the Revolutionary War’s start at Lexington and the Declaration, they broadcast any news they could find about Native Americans, enslaved Blacks, and Hessian mercenaries working with their British enemies. American independence thus owed less to the love of liberty than to the exploitation of colonial fears about race. Thirteen Clocks offers an accessible history of the Revolution that uncovers the uncomfortable origins of the republic even as it speaks to our own moment.

    Both Thirteen Clocks and The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016, reprinted 2019) are published by the Omohundro Institute with our partner the University of North Carolina Press.

    Robert G. Parkinson is associate professor of history at Binghamton University.”

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