A recent paper by University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson offers some insight into the police’s behavior. She conducted dozens of hours of interviews about guns with 79 police chiefs in three states — Michigan, California, and Arizona — to try to better understand the way police see armed civilians.
Carlson found that police leaders tended to see armed civilians as allies, maybe even informal deputies — provided they fit a set of racially coded descriptors.
“Police chiefs articulated a position of gun populism based on a presumption of racial respectability,” Carlson writes. “‘Good guys with guns’ were marked off as responsible in ways that reflected white, middle-class respectability.”
This helps us understand what happened in Wisconsin as not a bug in the code of American policing, but a feature. There’s a reason anti-police violence protesters have been met with crackdowns, while armed anti-lockdown protesters could menace the Michigan Capitol without incident.
Police — who are heavily white, heavily male, and overwhelmingly conservative politically — see guns as a scourge when they’re in the wrong hands. But the “wrong hands” tend to be Black and brown ones. When respectable-seeming white people arm themselves, police welcome their intervention — even, or perhaps especially, in a tense situation where the potential for escalation to violence is really high.
– Zach Beauchamp in Why police encouraged a teenager with a gun to patrol Kenosha’s streets