The nihilism in Atlanta

Police walk-offs expose the hollow narratives we tell ourselves about law enforcement

(Image credit: Illustrated | REUTERS)

To protect and to serve, huh? Sure, so long as you feel up to it and no one is criticizing you, and none of your colleagues are facing disciplinary actions (or, as the case may be, a murder charge after shooting a man in the back at a distance of 18 feet). Otherwise, though, call in sick. Not coronavirus: Just say you've caught a bad case of the blue flu, or maybe retire early with a generous pension.

What exactly took place in Atlanta on Wednesday remains somewhat unclear. Some reports indicate that beginning in the late afternoon police officers in the city took part in a walk-off in three of the city's six zones, apparently in response to the news that an officer had been charged in the killing of Rayshard Brooks. Phone calls began to go unanswered; guns were removed from police buildings. By the evening some precincts appear to have been entirely abandoned.

The notion that there was an organized walk-off was officially disputed by the Atlanta Police Department, which blamed "a higher than usual number of call outs," but seemingly confirmed by anonymous sources and a regional director of the police union. (Another union official suggested that in addition to refusing to show up for work, officers were seeking new positions or quitting the force.) Certainly Keisha Lance Bottoms, the city's mayor, seemed to be under the impression that something was going on when she appealed to her officers — whose failing morale she acknowledged — to "keep their commitments to their communities." One would hope she is in a position to know.

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The possibility of police walk-offs in Atlanta and other cities forces us to ask a fundamental question about the nature of police work itself, or at least what current officers understand it to be. Are cops city bureaucrats like any other, organized into a parody of a trade union and dubiously afforded the privilege of refusing to work unless their demands (however untenable) are met? If this is the case, they should surrender their badges and guns, to say nothing of all the G.I. Joe gear, and start writing pamphlets for their local tourism boards or crunching bus route data in Excel. If it is not, then under the present circumstances they should be regarded as a kind of paramilitary force currently in revolt against their commander. Now it's really time to send in the troops.

Neither of these possibilities can be reconciled with the story we tell ourselves about the awesome responsibility police officers have for the welfare of their fellow citizens. The cops do not in fact have any such specific duty. This is not my own view; it is what the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled in Warren v. District of Columbia, the most relevant case touching upon the question. In Warren the failure to dispatch officers to the scene of a break-in that would later lead to the knife-point robbery, kidnapping, and rape of three women was determined not to constitute negligence because "the duty to provide public services is owed to the public at large, and, absent a special relationship between the police and an individual, no specific legal duty exists." Between the logic of Warren and qualified immunity, it is not entirely clear what, legally speaking, police officers owe anyone.

Curiously, the responses to the Atlanta situation have fallen along the opposite lines one might have expected. Many of those who had been calling for the abolition or defunding of police forces demanded that the officers either report for work or resign, while the #BlueLivesMatter crowd was solidly in favor of the alleged walk-out.

What are we supposed to take away from this? That the police who are so wicked and counterproductive that it would be better if they did not exist (or at the very least altered beyond all recognition) nevertheless have some kind of abstract imperative to earn their paychecks? That they are so courageous and vital to the safety of ordinary men and women that they should be allowed to abandon their posts on a whim?

It is the latter argument that interests me more. This is because support for walk-offs seems to exist comfortably alongside something far more radical than, if seemingly at odds with, stated indifference toward the question of whether or not cops show up for work: the barely concealed desire for the "overthrow" of cities by police. Like the rioters and the antifa mobs they claim to fear but whose lawlessness they seem not so secretly to relish, what these reactionaries want is not the restoration of peace but more violence: in fact, revolution. The only difference is that they are on the side of the police. Given that they do not believe that officers have a duty to show up for work, it is hard to call this "law and order." It is nihilism.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.