Attorney General William Barr has an irrepressible impulse to lay fully bare his vicious authoritarian worldview in a series of blood-curdling speeches. His most recent episode is a small aside but deeply revealing in an otherwise anodyne speech praising police officers. Americans “have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves ― and if communities don’t give that support and respect,” he warned, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
The key word to decode this ugly little threat is the word “communities.” Barr has previously lashed out at Black Lives Matter and other criminal-justice-reform advocates, whom he called “an increasingly vocal minority that regularly attacks the police and advances a narrative that it is the police that are the bad guys rather than the criminals.” When Barr complains about “communities” that fail to respect the police, he means African-American communities.
The first thing that stands out about his threat is that, even by his own logic, Barr is advocating punishment of the innocent. After all, even if protesting police mistreatment of minorities is as wrong as Barr says, not every African-American has participated in or even supports them. And yet he prescribes a punishment for the entire community. Barr is saying police officers will — or, at least, should — deny protection to people on the basis of geography and race, whether or not they have even done anything that Barr considers wrong. This statement is, among other things, a brutal indictment of police officers to be contained within a speech allegedly dedicated to praising their character.
None of Barr’s pro-police speeches have engaged substantively with the critique that mistreatment of African-Americans by police and courts is a systematic problem, which has been the subject of much study. Radley Balko has summarized findings from across the criminal-justice system, most of which show that the fear of discriminatory treatment is well-founded. One would think that the country’s highest-ranking law enforcement figure would treat this evidence as a crisis he should work to redress. Instead, Barr dismisses all complaints as ungrateful wailings, the punishment for which is the withdrawal of all police protection.
Perhaps most notably, Barr does not apply his belief that law enforcement must not be criticized to the president he so loyally serves. Donald Trump may lavish praise on cops who enforce laws on other people, but any law enforcement agent who threatens to make Trump himself follow the law becomes the subject of withering ridicule and contempt. He’s called the agency’s director a “nut job” (among other insults), attacked the FBI as “dirty cops,” and regaled a crowd with an imagined conversation between two of them while engaged in coitus. He has described witnesses who testify against their bosses as “rats” and said it ought to be illegal.
No American president in history has radiated disrespect for law enforcement like Trump. One might think Barr’s putative concern with respect for the law might leave at least some room to chastise a president whose lifelong contempt for following the law has led to openly expressing a Mafia-like disdain for cooperating with police.
Instead, Barr has supported his boss’s efforts to discredit any investigation into his own misconduct. He has proclaimed that the FBI’s Russia investigation reflected “a gross bias.” Contrast how little evidence of bias it takes for Barr to dismiss the entire investigation into Trump as tainted, while the massive compendium of evidence of police bias against African-Americans has made no impression on him at all. The president of the United States is entitled to lash out, personally ridicule, and engage in gross obstruction against law enforcement because of bias. But any complaint against law enforcement by African-Americans is an unacceptable affront, the punishment for which must fall upon the entire community on whose behalf the complaint is made.
The Trump era has made it perfectly clear that the slogan “law and order” is not only unrelated to the rule of law, but directly at odds with each other. Law and order simply means the law serves as an instrument of control for the social majority. It is revelatory that the person most responsible for making plain the contradiction, next to the president himself, is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.