As we reported yesterday, a number of people were arrested after trying to burn American flags in protest. More than a dozen people were arrested and two officers received minor injuries. However, this situation works as a kind of metaphor for everything wrong with policing in America.
For starters, burning the American flag is speech protected by the First Amendment and, for that reason alone, it is imperative that such displays be allowed to go on unmolested. What those protesters were doing was, in principle and in practice, not an illegal act. Yet, nonetheless, these protesters were sieged by hundreds of police.
Of course, none of the protesters were arrested for burning the flag, thus their right to free speech was not “technically” infringed. Rather, they were arrested on a trumped-up charge of “inciting violence.” Now, the act that supposedly incited the violence was the burning of the flag, a legal act. Thus, anyone incited to violence by this would in fact be the people who are breaking the law.
Of course, to the red-white-and-blue patriots in this great republic of ours, what the police did was wholly justified. Many, including some commenters on this site, object to the idea of burning the flag, content that “real Americans’ rights” were violated to protect a mere symbol.
This event is essentially a case study in everything wrong with modern law enforcement. Police acted in a manner contrary to what the law states, but because a significant portion of Americans believe that the law being violated doesn’t really apply to them, they celebrate it.
Let’s pretend that rather than burning the flag, the protesters wanted to honor fallen police officers or U.S. military veterans with a mock eternal flame display. Now, imagine how you would feel if hundreds of law enforcement officers stormed that protest, and locked them up for inciting a group of anti-war or Black Lives Matter to “violence.”
If you’re being honest, you’d be outraged. Because when the speech that is being silenced is “good speech” people understand why it should be protected. Yet, the First Amendment does not exist to protect the ideas that the majority of Americans find acceptable, it’s unacceptable speech that needs to be protected. Should what’s “acceptable” now ever become “unacceptable,” the precedent to silence that expression has been firmly set here.
Thus what should be a gross violation of peoples’ rights are dismissed as necessary in a moral sense and become commonplace.
This is the problem with policing in America. When officers overstep their authority and violate the rights of Americans, specifically the 4th-8th Amendments, Americans dismiss it because they see the other person–non-compliant, talking back, struggling–as deserving the treatment they get. That’s not how rights work.
The question one needs to ask him- or herself is not “how do we fix this?” or even “is this a problem?”, but rather “what sort of country do we want to be?”
Is the United States a place where individual rights matter, and those in power must be subject to the same laws as the rest of us? Or are we a country where the rights of some are worth more than the rights of others, and the most important thing we can do is keep the agents of the government protected and safe?
Share your thoughts and reactions in the comments below.