Weekend Reading

The job of any investigator is to figure out who’s lying. NYPD officers lied constantly, but complainants lied all the time too. They denied behavior that justified police action, claimed beatings so severe that the mere fact of their living to tell the tale was evidence against them. But there is a fundamental difference between a lying civilian and a lying police officer. When cops lie, they are part of a system of language that is integral to the state’s monopoly on violence. I quickly came to realize that many officer interviews followed one of a handful of scripts, with troves of phrases to express and explain suspicion (“high-crime area,” “furtive movements,” “erratic behavior”), to justify an escalation of force (the “demeanor” of a “defendant” was “agitated,” “belligerent,” or “highly uncooperative;” people “resisted” by “flailing” their arms), and to establish probable cause for an arrest (“small objects” were “exchanged for U.S. currency” in a “hand-to-hand transaction”).

In cases without objective evidence like medical records or video, it was easier for investigators to accept an officer’s account of an incident because the cop’s language was far more likely to be consistent. Civilians were asked to provide multiple statements throughout an investigation (on the phone and in person), and inconsistencies between those statements were often used to discredit their claims. Meanwhile, cops were prepared immediately before their interviews by union attorneys, who remained present during the statement lest officers stray too far from the official line. If language is a weapon, cops were equipped with firepower and the training to use it, just as they were with actual guns. Meanwhile ­complainants—civilians whose circumstances put them in frequent contact with police—have been denied mastery of the official language.

Today, the Chinese working class is fighting. More than thirty years into the Communist Party’s project of market reform, China is undeniably the epicenter of global labor unrest. While there are no official statistics, it is certain that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of strikes take place each year. All of them are wildcat strikes – there is no such thing as a legal strike in China. So on a typical day anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen strikes are likely taking place.

In the American system, no political party can durably exist without the ability to win at least half the vote in a meaningful number of elections, yet almost by definition, no truly radical program can ever quickly gain such broad assent.

In the mid nineteenth century, a faction of abolitionists understood this dilemma. Figures such as Charles Sumner, Salmon P. Chase, Joshua Giddings, and John P. Hale, rejecting the heavily prefigurative and antipolitical style of activism practiced by William Lloyd Garrison and his followers, saw that a strategic approach to abolition was required, one in which the “cause of the slave” would be harnessed to a wider set of appeals.

At each stage of their project, from the Liberty Party to the Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party, progressively broader coalitions were formed around an emerging ideology of free labor that merged antislavery principles with the economic interests of ordinary Northern whites.


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