Almost everyone would agree that the world is a dangerous place these days. Technically, the U.S. has never fought a war on its own soil. Nevertheless, expanding the West and the capture of parts of Mexico were executed on the lands of others, as was the original establishment of the thirteen colonies of New England, all of which were then converted to “our soil.” We frequently observe outbreaks of violence and overthrow of governments elsewhere around the world. The U.S. often intervenes in those far away places, but always claims to be “spreading democracy” and protecting U.S. “interests,” or, more commonly these days, fighting a “war on terrorism.”
Our government projects the image of a worldwide policeman, “keeping the peace,” while secretly practicing torture and conducting presidentially sanctioned extrajudicial remote assassinations via drones. If it were not for occasional whistle blowers, we would never know. No nation has ever invaded the U.S., but we have invaded many. Yet, despite denials, our nation seems to increasingly engage in violence around the world and revere aggression as a matter of national and personal pride. Violence has been deeply rooted in the American culture since its beginning and continues to be reflected in everyday life as well as the mass media and its images of vanquishing “the bad guys.”
Domestically, there has never been such a surge of mistrust between the people and the institutions of law enforcement and justice as exists today. That mistrust has grown in parallel with the militarization of police forces and the legal favoritism toward the most powerful interests in the nation.. “Law enforcement” has become increasingly isolated from the people, as it moves ever closer to becoming the armed force of the power elite.
Our perception of violence has changed. Who now goes hitch hiking on the highways of American without fear? Indeed, who would pick up a hitch-hiker without fear? The mood of the country has changed since the 1950s. Crime rates have declined in recent years, but with no less fear of violence. What gives? Well, we know that a lot more guns are out there and we are acutely aware of the growing number of mass shootings at public locations such as schools and shopping malls. And, there are those rare but shocking shootings of police during ostensibly routine traffic stops. Despite lower crime rates, it is not unreasonable for police officers to fear the unexpected. So, we want them to be prepared for unforeseen danger. The old story of everyday police experience still holds – long periods of boredom occasionally but rarely punctuated by the adrenaline surge of a life-and-death crisis. Nevertheless, these days something is different.
During the Great Depression, the infamous bandits, Bonnie and Clyde, were the epitome of criminality but they were also cultural icons of rebellion in the eyes of the public just as the chaos of the times was surging and a sense of national instability had grown widespread. But Bonnie and Clyde’s status as criminal superstars arose from the creation of legend by the newspapers as much as from their actual exploits. They provided an entertaining distraction from the uncertainties of everyday life and the hardship of the times. But they were the exception. Fear of violence in the general population was not as widespread as fear of hunger, and fear of the general population was not prevalent among police, who were still considered, for the most part, “peace officers.”
Today we have fear of the growing instability of both economy and climate, in addition to the international political instabilities exacerbated by the “war on terror,” and all their ramifications for everyday life. We also fear the growing failures of political institutions to address the crises of economy, climate and domestic politics, as well as a vague but growing fear of violence. These fears extend even beyond the level of technical knowledge of economics, climate science, or crime – they pervade the public consciousness and the media whether fully understood or not. Vehement denial of societal problems stems from ignorant fear as well as from acceptance of propaganda.
All of this frames the growing concern about police violence, which parallels the constant stream of news of questionable killings of mostly men of color, but not always. The most recent shooting death of a mentally unstable homeless man, James Boyd, by Albuquerque Police on the outskirts of the city, coalesced those concerns because it was so clearly seen as unjustified when the video recorded by the police themselves went viral. The department was already under investigation by the Department of Justice for its excessive number of police shootings and deaths in recent years for a department of its size. This tragic case provides a window of opportunity to examine changes in the role of police in our cities and how those changes may affect the future of violence in America. Part II of this essay will examine the illusions and facts of police action and training in this disturbing context.