Posts Tagged ‘police action’

“The point is that the police – contrary to public opinion – are not merely an administrative function of law enforcement; rather, the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterizes the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else. According to the ancient Roman custom, nobody could for any reason come between the consul, who was endowed with imperium, and the lictor closest to him, who carried the sacrificial ax (which was used to perform capital punishment). This contiguity is not coincidental. If the sovereign, in fact, is the one who marks the point of indistinction between violence and right by proclaiming the state of exception and suspending the validity of the law, the police are always operating within a similar state of exception. The rationales of "public order” and “security” on which the police have to decide on a case-by-case basis define an area of indistinction between violence and right that is exactly symmetrical to that of sovereignty. Benjamin rightly noted that:

The assertion that the ends of police violence are always identical or even connected to those of general law is entirely untrue. Rather, the “law” of the police really marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain.

Hence the display of weapons that characterizes the police in all eras. What is important here is not so much the threat to those who infringe on the right, but rather the display of that sovereign violence to which the bodily proximity between consul and lictor was witness. The display, in fact, happens in the most peaceful of public places and, in particular, during official ceremonies.

This embarrassing contiguity between sovereignty and police function is expressed in the intangible sacredness that, according to the ancient codes, the figure of the sovereign and the figure of the executioner have in common. This contiguity has never been so self-evident as it was on the occasion of a fortuitous encounter that took place on July 14, 1418: as we are told by a chronicler, the Duke of Burgundy had just entered Paris as a conqueror at the head of his troops when, on the street, he came across the executioner Coqueluche, who had been working very – hard for him during those days.
According to the story, the executioner, who was covered in blood, approached the sovereign and, while reaching for his hand, shouted: “Man beau frere!”

The entrance of the concept of sovereignty in the figure of the police, therefore, is not at all reassuring. This is proven by a fact that still surprises historians of the ‘Third Reich, namely, that the extermination of the Jews was conceived from the beginning to the end exclusively as a police operation. It is well known that not a single document has ever been found that recognizes the genocide as a decision made by a sovereign organ: the only document we have, in this regard, is the record of a conference that was held on January 20, 1942, at the Grosser Wannsee, and that gathered middle-level and lower-level police officers. Among them, only the name of Adolf Eichmann – head of division B-4 of the Fourth Section of the Gestapo – is noticeable. The extermination of the Jews could he so methodical and deadly only because it was conceived and carried out as a police operation; but, conversely, it is precisely because the genocide was a “police operation” that today it appears, in the eyes of civilized humanity, all the more barbaric and ignominious.

Furthermore, the investiture of the sovereign as policeman has another corollary: it makes it necessary to criminalize the adversary. Schmitt has shown how, according to European public law, the principle par in parenz non habet iurisdictionenz eliminated the possibility that sovereigns of enemy states could be judged as criminals. The declaration of war did not use to imply the suspension of either this principle or the conventions that guaranteed that a war against an enemy who was granted equal dignity would take place according to precise regulations (one of which was the sharp distinction between the army and the civilian population). What we have witnessed with our own eyes from the end of World War I onward is instead a process by which the enemy is first of all excluded from civil humanity and branded as a criminal; only in a second moment does it become possible and licit to eliminate the enemy by a “police operation.” Such an operation is not obliged to respect any juridical rule and can thus make no distinctions between the civilian population and soldiers, as well as between the people and their criminal sovereign, thereby returning to the most archaic conditions of belligerence. 

Sovereignty’s gradual slide toward the darkest areas of police law, however, has at least one positive aspect that is worthy of mention here. What the heads of state, who rushed to criminalize the enemy with such zeal, have not yet realized is that this criminalization can at any moment be turned against them. There is no head of state on Earth today who, in this sense, is not virtually a criminal. Today, those who should happen to wear the sad redingote of sovereignty know that they may be treated as criminals one day by their colleagues. And certainly we will not be the ones to pity them. The sovereigns who willingly agreed to present themselves as cops or executioners, in fact, now show in the end their original proximity to the criminal.”

– Giorgio Agamben, “Sovereign Police,” in Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics.  Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Theory out of Bounds Vol. 20. University of Minnesota Press, 2000. pp. 104-106.

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Scenes from the Bayonne refinery strike, July 1915. Bain News Service photographs, Library of Congress.  

“Initially about 1200 workers walked out, including 900 coopers, when their demands for increased pay and tolerable working conditions were ignored. The company retaliated by calling in the Bayonne police force through the Mayor of Bayonne, New Jersey, Pierre P. Garven, who was simultaneously on Standard Oil’s payroll as an attorney.  A riot on July 20, 1915 involving the strikers, police and “several hundred women” shut down the Standard Oil plant, and caused the shooting death of 19-year-old striker John Sterancsak. Plant general manager George B. Gifford ordered 250 men from the professional strikebreaker Pearl Bergoff.  

The following day a mob attacked the Tidewater refinery in an attempt to set it on fire. After several days of lawlessness, significant arson damage, at least five strikers killed altogether, and at least five more seriously wounded, Sheriff Eugene Francis Kinkead and federal labor mediators restored order after James Fairman Fielder, the Governor of New Jersey refused to call out the New Jersey National Guard. The General Superintendent of the Tidewater facility and 32 guards were arrested on a charge of inciting to riot. A total of 130 plant guards would be arrested. Saloons were closed. Local officials also arrested the Industrial Workers of the World agitator Frank Tannenbaum, who had tried to insert himself as a spokesperson for the strikers, and banned the sale of the socialist newspaper, the New York Call. On the 28th, the workers warily returned on promises of increased pay and the institution of an eight-hour day, promises which appear to have been kept by September.”  

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“Gardiens de la paix,” La Patrie, August 8, 1952.  Page 13.  Full page recruitment advertisement for the Canadian Army, “member of the army of the United Nations,” explicitly comparing the training of a recruit to that of the police officer – just as the police protect the peace when “it is troubled in your neighbourhood” the army protects the peace of the “free world against all aggression.” The Korean War as police action, as seen in recruitment literature.

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