We should use political violence (preemptive and generalized violence against a class of likely aggressors) against police. That’s what some libertarians have been saying for years. I continue to reject this idea but I have to give these folks their due – it worked in New York City.
A gunman’s assassination of two NYC police officers while they sat in their cruiser on December 20 has led to chaos in the NYC government. Almost immediately:
- citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent;
- summonses for low-level offenses dropped by 94 percent;
- parking violations were down by 92 percent;
- drug arrests by the NY Police Department (NYPD) Organized Crime Control Bureau plummeted 84 percent;
- cops received orders to only work in pairs and not even take breaks alone;
- police union officials told fellow officers to not make arrests “unless absolutely necessary” – thus calling into question the legitimacy of their normal arresting habits – and claimed they were on wartime footing;
- cops from across the country traveled to NYC to attend the funeral, evidence of the wide psychological impact of the assassinations;
- infighting between the NYPD and the NYC mayor escalated, damaging the effectiveness of the NYC government.
The Drop in Arrests
The overall drop in arrests, at 66 percent, in the week following the assassinations is nothing short of jaw-dropping. How is it that the NYPD could effectively go on strike and yet the city is not tearing itself apart?
One reason may be that the general public is also horrified by the violence and people are behaving themselves better out of deference to the cops. Another is that people are on better behavior because they are afraid of overreaction on the part of paranoid police. Every cop out there may be ready to issue beatings and bullets for even the lowliest of infractions (as if they weren’t already).
But I think the reality is actually that most of these arrests are for penny-ante, mostly-victimless crimes. They’re about making NYC a more pleasant place to live and visit for tourists and those who are well-off. The crimes people were being cited and caged for represent no real threat to the peace. Those minor infractions are also about filling the coffers of the NYC government revenue machine through fines and fees.
John Robb’s first rule of open source warfare is to break networks. This lone gunman inadvertently did that by leading the NYPD and the mayor into greater confrontation, so much so that the cops turned their backs en masse on their boss, the mayor, in a public gathering that made headlines.
What’s more, the gunman did this without any conscious attempt to maximize such damage and with the meager investment of a pistol, ammunition and transportation to NYC. Who knows how much the executions and their aftermath have cost the city of New York and police across the nation, but the return on investment (ROI) for this execution must be high.
If the gunman spent $2,000 to carry this attack out, and the cost in financial outlays, loss of government revenue (due to reduced ticketing), police peace of mind and other intangibles is $20 million, that’s a 10,000 percent ROI.
A Libertarian Analysis
In the short term, libertarians may feel the urge to cheer the gunman. But you shouldn’t. Executing members of a group for the perceived crimes of the whole, or of certain members of the group, is rank collectivism. It stinks. Libertarianism is individualism. Collectivism is the opposite of our philosophy.
This kind of collectivist anti-cop vigilantism could easily get out of hand. Careless, suicidal vigilantes could shoot innocent bystanders. Paranoid cops could overreact even more than they already do and kill even more people than they already do. Then what? Civil war on the streets? Nobody wants that.
Dangerous Precedent for Public Order
Even in a libertarian society, stateless or not, you need law and order. People need to know that those who break the rules will be stopped and made to pay for their destructive actions. Without that, society doesn’t work. The lawless cause more disturbances and the lawful look for other solutions or other places to go.
Random murders and police going on strike or engaging in work slowdowns is a recipe for societal breakdown. Libertarians are wise to condemn both equally, while demanding the continued reduction in harassment of people accused of committing victimless crimes.
What about in a Stateless Society?
In a stateless libertarian society, there are multiple police, or private defense, agencies in operation in a city the size of New York. If an employee of one agency is assassinated, it’s likely that employees of all of the agencies would engage in acts of solidarity with the fallen employee.
But it’s unlikely that all of the agencies would go on strike, at least not all at the same time. Unlike the NYPD, which is centrally controlled by its commissioner and the mayor above him, private defense agencies are each independent and free from coercive outside control. Different agencies would likely make different decisions on the question of whether to strike or not.
It’s possible that all of the individual employees of all of these agencies would be members of the same union, or a tight group of unions. That union could go on strike and force a work stoppage or slowdown similar to what is taking place in NYC. But, in a stateless society, the private defense agencies could just as easily fire or furlough their current employees and hire new ones who recognized the need to keep working, or just needed the work. These new ones could be experienced security agents from out of town or recently-retired former employees.
The NYPD doesn’t enjoy that kind of flexibility. It is owned and controlled by the local government, the same entity that promulgates the laws that make it difficult, if not impossible to fire government employees for striking. Even without these troublesome laws, politicians dare not act definitively against a striking police union because the cops, their friends, family and supporters will vote against them in an upcoming election. Private defense agencies don’t have that concern, though they would have to worry about losing customers who disapproved of their mass firing or furloughing of their employees.
It’s also likely that there would not be just one, massive police union, or tightly-coordinated group of unions. With multiple private defense agencies, the need for a unified negotiating position would likely be reduced.
The bottom line is that a legal police monopoly – the NYPD – makes the residents of NYC more vulnerable to crime. This one organization can go on strike, or a slowdown, and it threatens the security of the entire city because there is no competition to pick up the slack – that competition is legally banned. In a stateless society, however, if one private defense agency shuts down, there is a strong incentive for the others to ramp up their operations, in order to collect the customers of the agency that shut down.
This analysis doesn’t even take into account the fact that competitive private defense agencies will not enjoy de facto immunity from accountability for their crimes. Without that special privilege, bad cops will be held accountable for their actions. Societal rage against bad cops will be assuaged by removing this special protection and the motivation for collectivist vigilantism against cops will be removed.
Lessons for Libertarians
The aftermath of the assassinations is a clear sign that assassination is an effective tool, at least in the short term, in the fight to control police abuse. Police activity is down, cops are scared and the cops and mayor are at war. I take no pleasure in saying that because it appears to validate the strategy of fellow libertarian activist Christopher Cantwell – not one of my favorite people.
Given that cops across the country have shown themselves, time and time again, to be unaccountable killers, it makes no sense to take this kind of abuse lying down. It’s only reasonable to take steps to protect oneself from police abuse and fraud. I choose the nonviolent route because I am certain that the violent one will backfire. Already, family and friends of cops are organizing in support of police officers across the country. Violence is a polarizing tactic that you don’t come back from.
But I believe in organization. If folks are going to advocate for political violence against police, then at least get the damned thing organized so it has a chance of success. Assassination Politics is essential reading in this area. In fact, an assassination marketplace already exists behind Tor on the Darknet.
So, if people like Cantwell are serious about killing cops, why don’t they actively promote assassination marketplaces? Why don’t they create more marketplaces, add more targets and run marketing campaigns for them? Why the gratuitous chatter and the lack of sustained efforts toward their stated goal?
It’s likely that at least a small amount of targeted violence will be required to take down governments, so that a more liberty-centric order can supplant them. If we accept that, as distasteful as it is, then assassination marketplaces become attractive. Unlike a traditional war, assassination marketplaces don’t require that you kill tens of thousands of cops, politicians and soldiers. In order for assassination marketplaces to end the age of the state, only a few targeted individuals need be killed. For the rest, active and well-funded threats may be sufficient to intimidate aggressors into remaining peaceful while an organized resistance takes voluntary civil institutions to the next level.
This idea of keeping cops in check by placing bounties on their heads is nothing new. Pablo Escobar used it in Medellín to great effect. The IRA used it in Ireland. States are masters at this tactic, both against accused criminals and against insurgencies, such as Alvaro Uribe’s bounties on FARC members in Colombia in the last decade. It works.
If the libertarian communities can ever get our collective acts together, someday we may be negotiating with police unions. We will want them to stop enforcing victimless crimes and to cooperate with the liberalization of their sector by accepting competition – the end to their monopoly. When negotiating with armed and dangerous paramilitary forces, it’s wise to operate from a position of strength. Assassination markets are one vector for gaining that kind of negotiating position. We would be wise to explore our options in that area.
Violence is distasteful. But death and ignominious caging are worse. Libertarians have to be realistic. We can never secure our desired libertarian future from a position of weakness and disorganization. If we’re unable or unwilling to organize for nonviolent action, then we will have to organize for violent action. The alternative to either of these options, a wait-and-see, hemming-hawing, pacifistic apathy, is even more repugnant than violence.
A Personal Note
It’s tasteless to rejoice in the death of other people, no matter the evil of their actions while alive. Every human life is precious, even those spent in misguided pursuits like being a US Marshal, a congressperson, bureaucrat or a NYC cop because any of those lives can be redeemed at any moment and put to great use. See, for example, retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Lewis.
I am sympathetic to the families of the assassinated officers. No one wants to lose a loved one like that. No one wants to die like that, without even a chance to defend themselves. But such feelings must never get in the way of speaking the truth.
Photo by Al Jazeera