Commentary: Allowing some to control others subverts civil rights

By Rahim Kurwa / Chicago Grandstand

Everywhere you look people seem to be losing their rights. Texas Senate Bill 8, which its lawmakers passed last year, was perhaps the most shocking example of this anti-rights wave. It’s one of the toughest restrictions on abortion rights in the United States, banning abortions after six weeks, before many know they’re pregnant, and its effects are already being felt across the state.

But it is all the more alarming for its unique method of application.

Rather than being enforced by the state government, which would be a flagrant violation of Roe v. Wade, the law gives Texas residents the right to sue those who aid or assist in an abortion. Although this “vigilante” provision is described as a way around the Roe precedent, another way of looking at it is as a new form of social citizenship in America.

The vigilante provision of SB 8 is not just about finding a new way to curtail women’s rights, but also about creating new rights, or a higher category of citizenship, for men. This new status is achieved by the act of policing.

Seen in this light, SB 8 is taking place alongside a plethora of public policies that use policing as a vehicle for a new kind of citizenship status.

In Florida, the governor signed House Bill 1557, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It primarily restricts speech and educational content on LGBTQ issues. But it also contains a provision similar to Texas’ SB 8: it allows parents to file complaints against schools based on their educational content. This gives these parents a new set of powers that elevates them from those who are unwilling or unable to use these powers. It hardly needs mentioning that in SB 8 and HB 1557 the people who will use these powers will be those who oppose abortion and those who oppose LGBTQ educational content, which isn’t exactly a sample representative of American society.

But this phenomenon of giving some people police powers and elevating their status above that of others is neither new this year nor confined to these states.

Across the country, local municipalities have passed Crime-Free and Nuisance-Free Housing Ordinances that allow neighbors to monitor and file complaints about other people in their communities. Take Faribault, Minnesota, as an example. After an influx of Somali immigrants, the city passed Crime-Free and Nuisance-Free Housing Ordinances that allowed its residents to monitor and control their neighbors. A black woman and her family have been evicted after her white neighbours, one of whom told her to “go back where you came from”, summoned police to her home 82 times. They did not call to report criminal activity, but rather to complain about barbecues, birthday parties and children playing on the trampoline; things that people take for granted as part of suburban life.

The same pattern occurred in California, Illinois and Ohio. It is also recognizable in incidents of white people calling the police on black citizens barbecuing in the park, sitting on a bench, watching birds, etc. Incident after incident, often filmed, these individuals seem to realize that they can arm the police against their fellow citizens, and then consciously carry out this action. They don’t have to call the police, and in many cases they seem aware that their calls are frivolous. That they call anyway shows that policing is not only a matter of law but also of status.

Someone who can engage in policing is recognizably different and, in this context, elevated above, someone who is a policeman or who neither can engage in policing or rely on the police. The act of surveilling another person – whether pregnant, a teacher or a neighbor – produces and communicates a subordinate status to the policeman while simultaneously producing and confirming his own superior status. It’s the other side of the new wave of laws targeting abortion and education across the country.

If the civil rights era represented a time when those whom the law made formally at least symbolically subordinated caught up with the rights of those at the top, the decades that followed were marked by constant efforts by the American right to erode these legal assets.

But to focus only on how the law has weakened the citizenship of others is to miss how it has produced new forms of status and citizenship. Policing is a way to reassert status hierarchies that have been threatened in recent decades of social change.

It is a dangerous dynamic that will lead to a more civilized, less free society.

Rahim Kurwa is an assistant professor of criminology, law, and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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