“I think it’s also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes. So they’ve driven cigarettes underground… But then some politician also had to direct the police to say, ‘Hey, we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.'”–Rand Paul on the Eric Garner case

[If, for some strange reason, you are not familiar with the case of Eric Garner, the New Yorker who died after police used a choke hold to restrain him because he was resisting arrest, you may read about it here.]

I must tell you from the outset, Rand Paul is not my homeboy. I can’t say I have strong feelings about Rand Paul either way. Does he sometimes make libertarianism look ridiculous? Well, most libertarians do that. But I don’t think he’s particularly ridiculous in this case. Some people think his above statement was an absurd point to make, given that a man was killed. Someone dies, and you blame taxes? Sure, it sounds stupid when you say it that way. But I think it is an astute point, especially in light of Eric Garner’s last words, addressed to the police officers who were arresting him for the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes:

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. […] I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please. Please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

Garner was certainly breaking the law. The police had the authority to arrest him. Technically, he didn’t have the “right” to resist. Regardless of whether or not he was right to resist arrest, why were the police arresting him? Because he was selling untaxed cigarettes, quelle horreur. And why was he resisting? Because the cops had a history of hassling him (which cops have a tendency to do to people who are breaking laws), and he’d reached his breaking point. “It stops today.” If you’re going to call Rand Paul’s comments ridiculous, then Garner’s resistance was also ridiculous, by that standard. You might argue that it shouldn’t matter, given that we’re dealing with a question of excessive force by the police, but actually, it does kind of matter.

The police have fairly wide latitude when it comes to handling crime suspects, for the sake of maintaining public order. If you can’t use force, even deadly force, with an arrestee, you’re not going to be able to detain dangerous criminals. Even if a suspect doesn’t appear dangerous initially, the cops can’t predict if or when he (or she) will become dangerous. Police officers put themselves in danger when they try to apprehend and arrest people. They do it every day. They deal with the worst elements of society every day. They have a proctologist’s view of the world. It’s no wonder they tend to take a hostile stand toward the public at large. If they didn’t, probably more of them would be killed than already are every year.

I myself have mixed feelings toward the police. I understand the difficulty of their position, and I appreciate that there are people willing to risk their lives to keep the community safe. On the other hand, we are trusting these people with a crapload of power–and people with a crapload of power can’t always be trusted not to abuse it. It’s a double-edged sword! (Or something like that.) I’ve had perhaps more than my share of encounters with police officers, and no, I’m not talking about traffic tickets. They were not pleasant. (Except for maybe that K-9 officer I met at the boys’ cub scout camp.) When a cop thinks you’ve committed a crime, they approach you as they would any law-breaking scumbag. They do their best to intimidate you. Some of them are probably just jerks. (I can think of at least one incident from my personal experience that would support that hypothesis.) But I can’t ignore the fact that police officers always have to be prepared to deal with violent offenders, and being prepared also makes you a big meanie.

With all that said, here’s the point: The more things that are illegal, the more crimes will be committed. That’s just arithmetic, kids. The more crimes there are, the more people are going to be put in dangerous situations because the potential for violence is inherent in nearly every police-citizen interaction. There are people who are authorized to deprive you of your liberty, at least temporarily, and then there’s you, not particularly keen on having your liberty curtailed. Are you going to resist? Not unless you want to get hurt, I guess. Are there any circumstances under which you might resist, and risk getting hurt? How oppressive does the government have to be before you start resisting? “It stops today.”

The average law-abiding citizen doesn’t think much about the power the police wield because they don’t expect to be subject to it. And if you’re generally law-abiding and belong to a racially and economically privileged demographic, you probably won’t be (aside from the occasional traffic ticket). But the more things that are illegal, the more crimes will be committed. The more crime, the more police intervention, and the more police intervention, the more potential for violence–and the more potential for the police to overreact and to abuse their power. And the more potential for tragic misunderstandings and accidents, which do happen. So shouldn’t it stand to reason that in addition to police officers being properly trained and following the rules and not being racists and so forth, we should minimize the number of situations where a police officer has to intervene?

Cigarettes are bad for you, which I guess is why we tax them so heavily–or rather, why politicians can get away with taxing them so heavily. Never mind that cigarette taxes fall disproportionately on poor people and minorities. I mean, we’re talking about people’s health here! But Rand Paul is right–the high taxes have created a black market for cigarettes, which means they’ve created more crime. More crime–even non-violent crime–means more victims of police malfeasance. I know I keep saying it, but it keeps being true. There was no reason–that I can see–why the situation with Eric Garner should have escalated as quickly as it did. But I also think there’s no reason that a mother should be put in jail for letting her nine-year-old play at the park by herself. I’m kind of an anarchist, I guess.

Racism may have been a factor in Eric Garner’s arrest. I’m not a mind-reader, so I won’t speculate on how much the police officers in question had against black people. What I do know is that we give police officers a lot of leeway to use force on suspects because we don’t want them holding back when force is really needed; that gives a lot of cover to police officers who use excessive force. Is it possible to restrict their use of force without jeopardizing public safety? Well, I hope so, because putting a chokehold on a dude selling cigarettes is just nuts. But what do you do with someone who’s resisting arrest, even if what they’re getting arrested for is kind of trivial in the grand scheme of things? At what point are you permitted to use more forceful means of restraint? If it’s better to let them go than to risk hurting them, what’s the point of the law in the first place?

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