Law & Order's Legacy of Structural Racism

Law & Order's Legacy of Structural Racism

"Law & Order" is not simply a catchphrase.

It's a brand of white authoritarianism that's been used to great affect in the past, and harkens back to the same eras that MAGA does. Lets take a look at that historical context, shall we? It's specifically been used to silence dissent and calls for civil rights, so using it against largely peaceful protests now is not much different. Back then though, there was a crime wave of historic proportions going on (that's never been fully resolved).

"Law and Order" was a rebranding effort to tie protests to unrelated crime and shut down the American people's willingness to listen to each other. Roughly half of our current voter population was around for this, so using this phrase is poking their buttons pretty hard, like a childhood theme song that won't leave your head.

But let's start with the basics. Protest is fundamental to who we are, as a country. That's why the right to assemble and speak is guaranteed in our very first amendment.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Protests were designed to be a part of our nation; to keep us accountable for being the nation we claim to be. Since we have every right to protest, and ample good reason (that racists don’t want to out themselves by directly addressing), the protests can only be opposed indirectly by branding them as not protests at all, but violent rioting and terrorism.

While “doing it wrong” has long been used to justify not listening to the grievances of fellow residents, there’s something additional going on here. By branding the protests as dangerous lawlessness, Trump’s campaign is positioning him to take the opposite stance (to something that isn’t actually happening) and be heir to the authoritarian stance of “law and order”.

If you think this smacks of fascism, you’re not wrong,
but it’s more than that to the generations that preceded Millennials and Gen Z.

Utilized with great success by Nixon and echoed with similar success by Reagan, “law and order” messaging hitched anxieties over cultural change and a crime wave to their campaigns, and rode those anxieties to the White House. Anxieties over change persist today, but the crime wave is long gone. We're actually looking at the lowest levels of crime in 50 years. So what's a conservative reactionary to to do with historically low levels of crime? Ignore them!

In an effort to harness those same forces, Trump and his conservative base are creating a narrative of crime where there isn't one, and they're making it out of the (fully just) civil unrest and disobedience. That is why Trump, his administration and his supporters are making mobs out of marches, violence out of graffiti and calls for anarchy out of calls for justice.

Past “Law and Order” politics created the criminalization of Blackness that resulted in the cycles that we are fighting today. As the Black Codes that had been adapted into Jim Crow Laws were increasingly struck down under closer examination, new policies were crafted to have similar effect, but without clearly race-based wording.

Racist election propoganda from 1968, featuring a white lady liberty, titled "Lilly Law" directing a Black Man labeled "Obay D. Order" to travel off-page. The tropes are clear. White women representing, (but not actually possessing) legal power, white person in control of a Black person's actions or location, and a Black man labeled with obedience. These are the "Make America Great Again" of the 60s.

These policies were created with the knowledge that they would disproportionately affect Black people and suppress their potential, exactly as those previous policies had. By making these policies ostensibly about “crime” or “drugs”, then their only remaining obstacle was the fact that their policies were not good at addressing those things.

  • Johnson started these policies with War on Crime in 1964,
  • followed by Nixon’s War on Drugs in 1969,
  • which was extended in the 80s by Reagan and capped with mandatory minimum sentencing.

In 1994, former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman revealed the truth about the war on drugs.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

It’s gaslighting, plain and simple. And our nation bought it, and believed it for over 25 years, even after Watergate. Many of them still believe it.

Now, as then, protestors are being associated with violence so that they can be disrupted, harrassed, arrested and vilified on the evening news.

As with regular gaslighting, knowing that it’s what’s happening is the most important. And as with regular gaslighting, keeping the focus on facts, on the results of the policies, police and federal officers, instead of the excuses used to put them in place, can help stay on track.

If we play our cards right, not only can we deflect another “Law & Order” regime, but we might even be able to dismantle the poisonous policies from our past that have created so much suffering.



Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning

“Trump’s Phrase “Law and Order” is Racist” by Steve Jones

"Trump Is Reviving the Disgraceful Legacy of ‘Law-and-Order’ Politics"
By Ed Kilgore

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