By Aswathy Koonampilly
One of the most defining features of the modern social contract is the state’s monopoly over violence. Yet this concept was challenged last month in two separate high-profile cases where police officers were held accountable for their actions. To make sure that these instances are indication of a change in state accountability rather than rare actions taken to placate the public, it would be necessary to challenge the unrestricted concept of state monopoly.
State monopoly over violenc
The concept of state monopoly over violence was introduced by Max Weber, a sociologist, who credited the modern state with successfully appropriating “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The phrase “legitimate” indicates that state violence is sanctioned by the law of the land while any non-state actor is penalised for violence. But lately, there has been criticism against the concept. This state right has been increasingly tied to the state’s responsibility towards its citizens. If a state is focusing more on maintaining the entrenched status quo rather than having the people’s best interests in its heart, can such a state be trusted to have monopoly over violence without any accountability?
The 20th century has witnessed violence on a mass scale aimed at citizens by their own governments. After the genocidal violence of the Second World War, the doctrine of absolute sovereign immunity was questioned. But this criticism was generally for mass-scale violence such as crimes against humanity.
In the 21st century, the concept of the state monopoly on violence should again be reconfigured to question state actions against individuals. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement talks about police violence against black people in individual instances. But as these actions had been against individual members rather than mass actions carried out at one go, they have till now slipped underneath the radar.
The concept of state monopoly over violence is majorly domestic in its scope as in the international arena, all states are theoretically equal and state violence has been severely curtailed since the Second World War. Thus, it has generally manifested in the policing of the state’s citizens, the major vehicle of which has been the state’s police force.
Marxist have called the police a tool for maintaining bourgeoisie control over the means of production by suppressing the proletariat. Some of the earliest modern institutions of policing were slave patrols and the earliest instances of police brutality has been against workers on strike, in the US. Thus, the police emulate the values present in society.
Due to socio-economic historical trends, African-origin citizens in the West have generally been viewed as second-class citizens. Their poverty has been linked to preponderance to criminality and eugenic theories emanating from the colonial period associate a black man’s endurance and strength to that of a brute animal. This racial bias seeps into the various institutions of society, such as the police.
As the state is moulded by the morals of the society that constitutes it, its monopoly over violence might materialize these biases. This becomes extremely dangerous as the biased violence gets legitimised and its enforcers are not held accountable due to the legal sanctioning of their role.
The two cases
On 25th June, Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison for the murder of George Floyd. Last year in May, Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes to arrest him on the suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd repeatedly said that he can’t breathe and even went motionless. The death has been ruled as asphyxia leading to a cardiac arrest. The murder led to a series of nationwide protests against police brutality and a lack of accountability.
On 29th June, Benjamin Monk was sentenced to 8 years in prison on charges of manslaughter of former footballer, Dalian Atkinson. In August 2016, the police responded to a call after Atkinson threatened to kill his family members due to a debilitated mental state. He was not only tasered three times but also kicked in the head, leading to his cardiac arrest and subsequent death. Some legal experts and campaigners have called these actions excessive use of force. The UK chapter of BLM, in a statement, said that the “disproportionate use [of tasers] against black people” was “indicative of police institutional racism.”
These two incidents highlight some common themes. The police officers used excessive force probably because of their presumptions about how much black men can endure and carried out such actions expecting a lack of accountability. Chauvin has a history of using excessive force, for which he was not disciplined.
The point was not that these two men were model citizens. The argument is that in our modern legal system, no state representative should be allowed to decide the fate of a citizen without due process.
Role of the witness and the public
In 1938, Berry Lawson, a black waiter was killed at his place of employment by three police officers. Attempts to coerce and fake witnesses led to the initial ruling of the case as being a fatal accident. It was only after actual eyewitnesses stepped forward that the officers were charged with manslaughter, yet the offenders were released less than a year later.
In the present era of accessible videography, it has become easier to find indisputable evidence. In 1992, Rodney King was beaten up by four police officers after a drunk-driving high-speed chase. The incident was filmed by a civilian and sent to media houses. Despite charges of excessive force, the officers were later acquitted, thus sparking the 1992 LA riots. Subsequent trials sentenced two of the officers to serve life terms.
Similarly, many have linked the Chauvin conviction to the video taken by Darnella Frazier who recorded George Floyd’s death on her smartphone. Her video acted as a compelling piece of evidence, something which cannot be faked nor coerced after entering cyberspace.
Many cases also become very public in essence. The publicised cases of Bentley, Evans, and Ellis turned the public sentiment in disfavour of capital punishment in the UK, leading to its abolishment. When Rodney King’s assaulters were let go, it took a city-wide riot for charges to brought up again. Sometimes judges have to take into account the effects of their rulings on public wellbeing. The verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial was watched by about 23 million people and the jury probably had last year’s protests in mind when they made their judgement. This signals the important roles that witnesses and the public play in holding violators accountable.
Beyond the role of the general public, change will also need to come within state structures and how the state legitimises its control. State monopoly over violence cannot exist without accountability as the enforcers of this authority are flawed beings rather than some abstract entity.
Chauvin is the first white police officer in Minnesota to be convicted of murdering a black man and Monk is the first British officer in 35 years to be charged with manslaughter while on duty. Though there is little precedent to the two cases discussed above, hopefully, they are symptoms of a change in public sentiment towards the rights and the role of the police in society.
“Defund the police” is a very idealistic dream but the way forward might begin with questioning the concept that legitimises these forms of violence and with reforms to hold violators accountable.
Aswathy Koonampilly is a recent postgraduate in international relations.