A Teachable Moment: Criminalizing Everyone

A recent “dust-up” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, between the school district and the police department ought to be an important “teachable moment.” But the opportunity to resolve institutional overreach and get back to basics is likely being ignored.

It all started when a highly respected middle-school teacher Marcy Slaughter allegedly threw a paperback book at a misbehaving student. A fire drill had just ended before the final bell of the day rang. The teacher asked her students to remain in their seats for the moment. As you may remember, fire drills are sometimes occasions for frolicking as preadolescent students become agitated by the activity, especially a few days before the end of the school year. According to most reports, four students in Ms. Slaughter’s class decided that she had no right to hold them after the bell and began walking out of the classroom. Their teacher, in frustration with their insubordination, threw one or more – “flimsy” by another student’s description – paperback books at them.

Escalation Unbounded
One of the students complained to her mother; the mother called the police – and the media! She did not call the school. Police immediately charged Slaughter with felony child abuse and charged Principal Marc Ducharme with obstructing a report of child abuse. Neither teacher nor principal were notified of the charges, nor were they arrested. An adequate investigation was not conducted prior to the charges being filed with the support of members of the office of the District Attorney. “Heavy-handed” is a rather mild characterization of these actions. Principal Ducharme had reported the incident to his superiors at the school board, in line with district policy, as he pursued his own investigation into the event.

There is certainly enough blame to go around in this incident. The students were blatantly disobedient to their teacher. The teacher clearly overreacted. The student who complained to her mother clearly ignored her own culpability, as did her mother. The police, instead of acting like “peace officers,” took a combative stance in seeking any basis they could for filing criminal charges. In several articles and columns in the local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, the unreasonableness of the behavior of various parties was widely acknowledged. Yet the institutional implications of this incident were barely mentioned and only in terms of resolving the inconsistency between school district procedures and police criminal procedures. This incident was a symptom of a much deeper dilemma. Unfortunately, the most important aspect of this teachable moment was missed. The blame game dominates too many institutions today, at the expense of problem solving. But there is more and it touches the very fabric of the social order. Why does something like this happen?

“Higher Authority” Usurps Functional Community
Compassionate resolution of disputes reflects a civil society. That is not how things are going in Santa Fe, in the nation or in the world. Conflicts are routinely escalated rather than resolved. Appealing to “higher authority” marks social-system failure. We humans are in serious trouble. Today, ever-increasing unwarranted authoritarian power is executed with bias, injustice, and abuse. Political power is widely enforced by expensive military and police command-and-control technologies – from “stop-and-frisk” and SWAT home invasions to drone attacks. Authority is claimed at the end of the barrel of an AK-47 or by suicide bomb. In this case, a relatively minor conflict in a public institution was escalated into a criminal case when instead, a conflict resolution process should have been initiated.

It is now common for “social control” to be exercised not by any democratic process or interpersonal negotiated consensus. Instead, arbitrary “rules” of increasingly totalitarian bureaucracies are simply “enforced.” That is a failure democracy cannot tolerate. A Los Angeles police officer, who was at the same time a member of the Crips gang, once told me, “The police are just another gang, but with more power.” In the current case, a police officer inserted himself into a minor case of civil conflict and forced an interpretation of “crimes” having been committed. The prosecutor’s office enabled that overreach. To what end? As a result of the media exposure of the absurdities involved, the prosecutor eventually dropped all charges. The media moved on to other news, but never addressed the implications of the incident for civil society or democracy.

Police are no longer “peace officers.” Instead, high school bullies are self-selected, recruited and trained to treat every citizen as the enemy. The New Mexico state Law Enforcement Academy trains cadets to embrace a paramilitary “warrior cop” mentality, with a strong emphasis on unrestrained use of force. Though it may seem extreme, especially to white middle-class suburbanites who rarely have contact with police, this combative police culture is not uncommon. Nationally, typical police cadets receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours on defensive tactics, but only 8 hours learning to de-escalate tense situations.

The cult of the warrior cop is all about confrontation. While the police were not in any physical confrontation in this case of classroom disruption, their behavior was nothing but confrontational. They should not have been involved at all until and unless some actual crime had been determined to have occurred based on a thorough investigation. Instead, they exhibited aggressive overreach. Similarly, a badly behaving adolescent whines to her mother, who immediately complains to the police – and to a television station – without even contacting the school. She sought vengeful “justice,” entirely ignoring her daughter’s misbehavior, thus encouraging police overreach. Such uncivil self-righteous anger is increasingly as common in America as is excessive police action.

Civil Democracy or Police State
Some conflict is inevitable in any society. Criminalizing one side of a civil dispute does not resolve it. Widespread unnecessary police homicides of unarmed vulnerable persons are symptoms of a dying democracy, as is the rush to criminalize everyone. The “charge first, investigate later” police approach in this instance stems from the same combative police culture that has placed police in crisis across this nation. Continued police intrusion into domestic and civil affairs is as dangerous as is foolishly expecting police to solve all social problems.

Santa Fe Police Chief Garcia and District Attorney Pacheco’s mutual buck-passing upon public exposure of their excessive practices reflects stubborn but embarrassed culpability. As Milan Simonich aptly put it in his 5/18/2015 column in The Santa Fe New Mexican, this problem should have been resolved the old fashioned way: a serious sit-down parent-teacher conference in the principal’s office resulting in well-earned apologies from both sides. That would be the civil solution, and would serve to strengthen community ties. But today’s overburdened regulatory environment of education and law-enforcement limits the principal’s and even district superintendent’s authority to solve problems. This further damages the community’s ability to function effectively and thereby weakens its institutions.

When police rush to criminally charge a teacher and principal in a dispute over classroom authority, the school becomes the dangerous equivalent of a police state. Santa Fe Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd did the right thing in confronting the police chief over this. This police intrusion into the internal affairs of a civil institution reflects an intolerable totalitarian mentality. Police and prosecutor both have a whole lot to reconsider if they are to salvage any credibility for their departments. However, we must remember that this is not some rare parochial incident. Instead, the behavior of police and prosecutor is notably symptomatic of a much larger and deeper problem.

How to Arrest a Bank

Seems like an absurd question, “How do you arrest a bank?” Well, it is absurd. Someone said, “If corporations are persons, then why doesn’t Texas execute some of them?” That is another seemingly absurd, though valid, question. The answer, of course, is simple. Corporations – including banks – are not persons, nor could they be. Jails are physical structures meant to house criminal persons – living organisms of the species Homo sapiens who have violated laws.

Corporations are not living organisms; they are legal sets of formal relations between (replaceable) humans, specific relations that are sanctioned by the state chartering process. You can’t jail a relationship. If Texas wanted to execute a corporation, it could only do so by rescinding its charter and disbanding it – then it would be “dead,” i.e., it would no longer exist. Without a valid legal charter, its state-approved legal incorporation papers, a corporation does not exist. Persons are not chartered; they simply exist in nature and have some natural lifespan. Corporations, including banks, exist indefinitely until they either fail on their own or their charter is revoked. But they cannot be jailed because they are not living persons.

Managing Banksterism, or Not

In the real world, persons and corporations are clearly very different phenomena, no matter what twisted logic a jurist may come up with. The foolishness over this pseudo-issue is at the root of the deep institutional corruption that has infected our political economy. We have all but forgotten that corporations are legally chartered by state or federal authority and – theoretically – can be as easily disbanded. When some (usually small regional) banks have gotten into trouble, they have been allowed to fail. Bank assets have been seized, insured depositors paid. They may be either reorganized with infusions of cash and may be taken over by a solvent bank. The other option is to “resolve” the bank by liquidating its assets – that is, the bank is disbanded, or in Texas terms, it is executed. But some mega-banks have become so powerful that they are deemed “too big to fail.” That kind of power encourages further corruption.

You can’t physically arrest a bank, but if you are the government banking authority you can institutionally arrest its corrupt practices or, if willing, “execute” it. But the financial elite today is so powerful that it seems to “regulate its regulators.” Also, a “shadow banking” system has arisen in the form of “non-banking financial intermediaries,” that is, speculative financial institutions that fall outside the normal banking regulatory structure. These “shadow banks,” along with the giant investment banks, caused the 2008 financial crisis by their misdeeds. The greatest threat to banking and monetary systems today is the imaginary “too big to fail” status of mega-banks and shadow banks. “Too big to fail” assures that failed gigantic financial speculation will be “bailed out” by the government to avoid institutional failure. These shadow banks and mega-banks have been allowed by political authorities to rule economies. They directly threaten the viability of those same economies by their corrupt behavior.

Corrupting the Economy

Corruption used to be a personal thing. So-and-so embezzled a half-million dollars from his employer. A cop demanded tribute to ‘protect’ shop keepers from ‘the mob.’ Etc. Today, however, something much more vast and sinister is happening. Financial power elites are high-jacking entire economies, both here and abroad, by manipulating stock markets and currencies. “We the people” are paying the financial elites for “protection” from the collapse of our economy that will result from their corruption. But we get no real protection. The mega-banks and shadow banks and their executives continue to be protected from the losses their risky behavior causes. Fines and penalties to these institutions are not real punishments; they are merely passed on to shareholders. That will inevitably result in the public eventually paying for Banksterism with government bailouts.

The mega-banks, shadow banks, and the other corporations they control are so big and powerful that actions they take can yield obscene profits by secretly fixing interest rate spreads and other financial factors. Like the Ponzi schemes of sub-prime mortgage derivatives, the continued and various forms of banking corruption tolerated by government will cause the next financial crisis. When the risks of their speculation and manipulations come home to roost, it will be the society at large who will pony up the costs of keeping the economy from complete collapse. Meanwhile, the jackals of Wall Street award themselves bonuses and take vast infusions of dollars from the Federal Reserve to cover their losses. The bailouts will, just like last time, be backed by new federal debt – our debt.

Arrested Development of Justice for Banking Crime

JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland recently “pleaded guilty”* to several financial crimes involving manipulating currency markets around the world. The players even called themselves “The Cartel,” and communicated via a private chat room. Brazen young “Masters of the Universe” secretly colluded to control currency prices to trade them for huge profits. Most of the employees who committed these crimes were fired by the executives that had enabled a climate in which such behavior was condoned. The executives suffer only slight embarrassment. If it were not so insane, the biggest banks in the world “pleading guilty” would be as absurdly amusing as putting a bank in jail.

Less than a month after her Senate confirmation, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced her intention to “prosecute financial crimes.” Yet in secret negotiations, the banks were allowed “waivers” to continue doing “business as usual.” Further, the Justice Department did not indict any of the persons who carried out these schemes or the executives who encouraged them. Instead, it imposed “penalties” on the banks to “pay” for the crimes of their employees. The combined penalties, around $5.6 billion, constitute a loss for shareholders, but mean nothing to the bonus-bloated executives and are a drop in the bucket compared to their multi-billion dollar schemes.

How do you arrest a bank? It’s really a simple matter of justice. Indict and prosecute the actual criminals, including the responsible executives, and “resolve” the corporation – in effect, execute it, terminate it. Distribute its assets to more deserving institutions such as local and regional banks that serve the financial needs of the nation. Assign the losses to the perpetrators, not the public. “If a bank is ‘too big to fail,’ says Bernie Sanders it is too big to exist.” Of course, none of this is likely to happen under current political conditions. But the banking crisis is one element in the converging crises of our time, which together are preventing us from responding to the very processes that are leading to societal as well as climate collapse.
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* Michael Corkery and Ben Protess, “Rate rigging makes felons of top banks; 4 fined $5B.” The New York Times. [reprinted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, May 21, 2015, p. A-1]

Making Money, Making Time, and Making a Living

For many Americans, the time has come to reassess our relations with the economy that is being driven off the cliff by the creation and hoarding of phantom money by the very few and catastrophic burden of debt for the rest of us. The economy is controlled by the Big Banks and it has not worked for ordinary citizens. The economy of the plutocrats has kept the nation in debt. At the same time it has made it more and more difficult to make a living by simply working at a job.

This situation raises several serious questions about the nature of money itself and how it is created, managed, distributed, and used in our economy. Most of us are not schooled in the technical aspects of ‘money and banking’ or the philosophy of money, neither of which quite rises to the level of science. But we know that something is very wrong with the way money flows – mostly up – in today’s economy. Just like blood in our arteries and veins, money must circulate broadly to assure a healthy society. One might consider today’s mega-banks as aneurisms in the economy’s aorta, poised to burst.  Surgery is required.

Time is Life
Some recent criticisms of contemporary economic culture have looked at money from the larger perspective of life itself. We have all heard the cliché, “Time is money.” An alternative view is that “Time is life.” What does that mean? Well, time is all we really have in this life and what we do with that time is our life. When we complain that we “don’t have time” for things we deem important, it is because we do not make time for them. Our time is mediated by money, which controls our access to the essentials of living. [1] Thus, money controls much of our life, so political control of the money system is critical for making a living — life.

The cult of American Individualism would blame the victim of poverty for not exercising her/his “individual freedom.” But where is the individual freedom of the increasingly common fast-food or other service worker who has to work two jobs just to pay the rent? Such admonitions assume a perfect world in which anyone who works hard can achieve anything. As Barbara Ehrenreich[2] and others have demonstrated, for many Americans, hard work is simply not enough.

You can’t make time you do not have. If you have to work at minimum wage or less, it is necessary to work most waking hours to avoid homelessness. As middle-income jobs are “outsourced” to China or other super-low wage nations, the middle class shrinks because jobs with a living wage continue to disappear from the American economy. Corporate controlled international trade agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the new TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) supersede national sovereignty over environmental quality and worker rights. They are negotiated in secret because voters would not tolerate them if they knew of their terms. “When Corporations Rule the World,”[3] the people lose their basic rights along with power over their own lives and the ability to make a living.

What Christian Parenti [4] has called a “catastrophic convergence” of accelerating poverty, violence, and climate disruption is already producing chaos around the world. An impending sense that the party is over is also beginning to bring about a sea change in the image ordinary people have of their lives in relation to both the economy and the planet. Profligate consumption and waste are reaching their limits as resources have passed their peak of easy extraction. Increased costs of extraction cascade into manufacturing costs and cannot be controlled. Capital is moved to locations where labor costs can be reduced. But this results in post-industrial markets shrinking due to the loss of wages that would otherwise be used to buy products. It’s a downward spiral.

A major cultural reassessment is under way. The economy is obviously failing to serve the people. The concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the top 1% is now greater than at the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is unsustainable. Any economy is sustained by the effective circulation of money as the means for allocating time for doing work. Capital exists only to the extent that labor organizes material – the production of value. Yet, our economy has become subservient to a financial elite that increasingly “makes” phantom money [false capital] by generating more debt without economic productivity.

The fundamental purpose of money in the economy has been subverted. Corporate media attempt to maintain the illusion that multinational corporate capitalism is just that good old Adam Smith version of “small business” and “free” markets in bucolic communities. But we are closer to a corporate police state than any imagined democratic capitalism. Whether they articulate it in such economic terms, people know that the system is rigged. They also know that it is the corporate control of the economy and political system that is doing the rigging. Not only do the people have little or no chance of making a living in that rigged system, but those who do so sustain the larger problem.

A living Economy to Thwart Climate Catastrophe
So, what is to be done? When a system is rigged the only way to break out is to turn away from that system. This is being done in little ways all around the country. Most scientists know that massive programs to stop or at least slow climate chaos must be initiated at the national and international levels. But the system is rigged against that as it accelerates toward the convergence of climate, economic, and population catastrophes causing mass starvation/migration, resource wars, and social chaos. Energy production and wasteful consumption must be severely curtailed, but how?

Parenti argues that: “We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution; nor for a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of preindustrial America as some advocate…Instead, we must begin immediately transforming the energy economy. Other necessary changes can and will flow from that.” (p. 241) Parenti, like so many others who see what is needed, fails to articulate how such a massive transformation can be accomplished. He says that it “will require a relegitimation of the state’s role in the economy.” But that is precisely what the power elites will not allow – except, of course, where that role entails the massive economic subsidies the state already provides to the mega-corporations. So, he is partly right and partly wrong. He is right to say that we cannot wait, but for what? He is wrong in assuming the energy economy will be transformed from the top without revolutionary change in the structure of political power.

First, we cannot wait for the federal government to act in the public interest – it is controlled by the corporate interests tied to the fossil-fuel economy. The energy economy must be transformed immediately, but how? Even if Bernie Sanders were elected president, the hypocritical Corporate Democrats and the magical-thinking Corporate Republicans would still be in control of legislation and continue to serve their corporate masters. Second, the only action that cannot be stopped by the political-economic elites is the grass-roots action of growing numbers of people organized to change their lives to make a living without depending on the corporate consumer economy. That is both very difficult to do and the only viable path available.

Parenti is right in saying that the immediate task is specific: drastically cut carbon emissions. But that entails a myriad of even more specific tasks, which if achieved will have arisen from below, demonstrating human resilience in the face of corporate-state paralysis. So much to do, so little time.
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1 David C. Korten, Change the Story, change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.
2 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
3 David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001.
4 Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

Delusions of Democrats Continue: Denying Bernie

Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness
~ George Orwell

Vermont is a rather independent state. Its outspoken independent senator, Bernie Sanders, is the only politician I know of who has been able to attain office without prostituting himself to the powerful. His independence extends beyond party affiliation. It is not just that he is a registered independent; he is viscerally independent of party politics and corporate influence. The political class will try to silence Bernie’s challenges to the politics-as-usual of the corporate state, but how effective will they be?

Most Democrats can be described as “Corporate Democrats” since their financing comes mostly from corporate campaign contributions and is reflected in their voting. Whatever their “liberal” rhetoric, they vote primarily in the corporate economic interest. That includes their support for military adventurism around the world, cutting public investment in health, education, and viable employment and maintaining the corporate strangle-hold on the American political system. Their “liberal values” usually do not extend beyond rhetorical abstractions. Their automatic affiliation with Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency reflects the same corporate affiliations she and her husband have built and maintained over decades. It is the source of their wealth and political power. In that sense, Bernie Sanders is a consummate outsider, challenging the prevailing orthodoxy of the pseudo-liberal Democratic Party.

Killing Democracy…or Not

From the perspective of the political class, Bernie’s battle for the Democratic nomination will be a naïve uphill battle, as difficult as the agents of corporate power can make it. All the powers that be will continue to oppose him, mostly by trying to keep him out of any public debate. The corporate media will continue to ignore him as much as they can or dismiss him as a quaint crazy. He will get no support from corporate donors – indeed, he does not want any. He wants the support of the public.

When Bernie gains significant public attention, we will begin to see a new wave of “red-baiting” not unlike that of the era of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. After all, he is an independent “democratic socialist.” But the word “socialist” has lost a lot of its fear mongering power as American political structure has moved closer to total corporate control – what used to be called fascism. The “Deep State” of integrated political and economic elites [1] has reached such an extreme level of oligarchy, that Sheldon Wolin’s description of its “inverted totalitarianism” [2] is right on the mark.

But despite being an unknown to much of the population, the initial response to the announcement of his candidacy was a robust set of small donations. Regular citizens who hear what he has to say agree with most of his positions. But what Bernie stands for, the “liberal” political class gives only vague lip service to and acts in quite opposite ways. Classic liberalism is dead, but progressive ideas are not.

The decline and fall of actual political liberalism since the surge of the liberal economic reforms of the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s is well documented. [3] The “Reagan Revolution” and the blatantly racist denial of the legitimacy of Barrack Obama’s presidency by the “Congress of No” have pretty much finished the job. Obama’s prodigious rhetorical skills allowed him to fully exploit national progressive sentiments. With a moderately progressive congress, Obama might have been a liberal-centrist president. But with the extremely reactionary congress seated, he vainly attempted to appease those Radical Regressive Republicans he should have recognized as his enemies. Even Obama’s embarrassingly naïve attempts to compromise with the extreme Republicans were summarily denigrated. Bill Clinton’s destruction of welfare programs for the poor had been facilitated by corporate Democrats as well as Republicans. The corporate takeover of the Congress of the United States of America is nearly complete as Barrack Obama carries forth the Bush neo-conservative imperial agenda of endless wars and Hillary attempts to step in and continue the neo-conservative project in pseudo-liberal clothing. But then there is Bernie.

Save the Planet, Save Democracy

Bernie Sanders is one of a small number of senators who openly acknowledge the urgency of taking action to curtail climate disruption. He also takes several other blatantly “progressive” positions. While some talk obliquely about inequality having gone too far, Bernie simply states that the billionaire class has bought the political process and must be stopped.

It is not surprising that the powerful corporate media try their best to ignore Bernie Sanders in hopes that he might thereby go away. But social media may be a route for frustrated Americans to express their support for policies in the public interest instead of the special interests of the corporate state. We must wonder how much latent progressivism can be found within the Democratic political machine and might creep into the convention. Mainline Democrats don’t know what to do about Bernie. He resonates with rank and file Democrats. That is because he is an viable spokesman for the interests of the American people.

Bernie Sanders is an articulate outspoken critic of the powerful corporate, financial, and military interests that try to frame the politics of fear and the policies of the power elite as if they were in the public interest – but are not. Even if he is elected there may not be enough members of congress voting in the public interest to move the nation away from the brink of climate catastrophe and social-economic collapse. Whatever the odds, Bernie Sanders seems the last great hope for a presidency that serves the public interest. If you are worried about Bernie’s chances, consider the dangerous business-as-usual alternatives.
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1 See Bill Moyers interview with Mike Lofgren, a 28-year veteran staffer with the powerful House and Senate Budget Committees on the “invisible labyrinth of power” where “elected and unelected figures collude to protect and serve powerful vested interests. http://billmoyers.com/episode/the-deep-state-hiding-in-plain-sight/. See also, Lofgren’s book, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle class Got Shafted. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
2 Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
3 See Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class, (New York: Nation Books, 2010) for a fiery denunciation of the hypocrisy of those politicians who still call themselves “liberal” and use liberal rhetoric while representing the interests of the power elites against the interests of ordinary citizens. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009) provides detailed documentation of the decades-long campaign by the titans of industry to destroy the liberal agenda of the New Deal. They won.

The Death Dance Continues: “There is no excuse for …” But there are Reasons

The upsurge of rage over the apparent police killing of twenty-five year old African American Freddie Gray in Baltimore is emblematic of widespread public discontent with law enforcement. It is just the latest incident demonstrating the continuing chaos in the relationship of American law enforcement to the citizenry. There is little point in listing here the seemingly endless number of citizen videos documenting inept and mean spirited police aggression against citizens, especially young men of color.

Media reaction to the events in Baltimore has been predictably distorted. As with Ferguson and numerous other cities, public protest is framed primarily as potential or actual violence. The police violence that sparked the protest is given scant coverage despite clear evidence of brutality. “The authorities” fail to openly address the grievances by fully informing the people. Some teenagers begin rock throwing and other vandalism. The immediate media response is: “There is no excuse for this violence!” Young African-American female Baltimore prosecutor, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, with only four months on the job and not part of the old-boy network, is from a law enforcement family. To the surprise of many she swiftly – and bravely – handed down indictments against the six officers involved. But the problem is much larger than individual Baltimore officers.

No Excuse
Baltimore is no exception; it reflects a national pattern. Despite local variations, as more and more evidence of institutionalized police misconduct and brutal behavior across the country is exposed, the pattern becomes clearer. From this general pattern and its specific incidences can be gleaned the elements of a deep pathology of law enforcement, which is inexcusable and requires radical excision. Sadly, that pathology is not likely to be seriously addressed unless the systemic social pathology that breeds it is faced and eliminated.

The typical crisis unfolds something like this: First, an incident where police appear to have overstepped their authority and committed gratuitous violence or murder upon a citizen is caught on cell-phone video. Second, the video “goes viral” and is picked up by local or national media because of its sensationalistic elements and social-media exposure. Typically, a young (or not so young) man of color (or homeless man or other vulnerable person) is killed or maimed by police. Third, outraged citizens exercise their constitutional rights and engage in peaceful protests. Fourth, police characteristically over-react to what should be an acceptable expression of public concern and/or outrage. They define the situation as a threat to “law and order” and to their own authority. They bring in heavy military weaponry, riot gear, armored vehicles, and swat teams, as if they were confronting a foreign enemy military force. Police then force protesters into some confined area or force them to move or disperse, leading to sporadic confrontations. Fifth, some unruly teenagers throw some rocks or smash some windows, enabling the police to define the entire protest as a “riot.” The police then move in with full military force and as often as not break heads, fire rubber bullets or bean bag rounds, or launch flash-bang grenades. More often than not, it is the peaceful protesters who are injured and/or arrested. Any distinction that police may have recognized between peaceful protesters and “rioters” is quickly lost. Usually the next night, the peaceful protesters prevail upon the angry youth to remain calm or go home. Further protests are greeted by admonitions from both “the authorities” and the media that, “There is no excuse for violence!” Public pressure and media exposure by this point restrain further police aggression.

Well, there is no excuse for violence. Rampaging or rioting crowds must be controlled for the sake of public safety. Out-of-control police violence against citizens also must be controlled for the sake of public safety. There is no excuse for the media to dismiss police violence and only focus on violence that results from anger over repeated patterns of police violence on vulnerable populations or excessive use of force in crowd control.

There Are Reasons
“Everything happens for a reason.” Well, not exactly. We live in a chaotic world. Explaining everything by reference to some ‘higher purpose’ is usually unproductive or worse counter-productive, though psychologically comforting. However, events do have causes and many causes are quite complex and are best understood by looking to their history. If we fail to recognize complex causes of problems, then we are unlikely to find effective solutions. So it is with police violence and social unrest.

Police violence is not new. Nor is it unique to the U.S.A.  Anywhere authority is enforced by an armed group, violations of human rights are likely if certain controls are not in place. Law enforcement institutions must maintain a high sense of public purpose, a high level education, a strong tradition of self-discipline, and a strong humanitarian value structure. And they must be held publicly accountable whenever they misbehave. Otherwise, they will be subject to growing corruption of their proper mission: keeping the peace and catching criminals. In many places around the world, such conditions of effective law enforcement do not exist. In the U.S., we pretend to uphold such high standards, but we do not. The public purpose of law enforcement has been subverted and corrupted by a “we vs. them” mentality and an increasingly militarized framing of mission as that of the “warrior cop” defending power elites against the people.

“No justice, no peace!” That protest slogan reflects the growing frustration among vulnerable populations and many others with the continual violation of human rights by police. It also reflects the demand that this corruption of mission be eliminated. As long as law enforcement is not radically reformed, we have no reason to believe that peaceful protests against police abuses will not be exploited by those who are prone to violence – including the police.

The conditions of urban life for populations that are essentially isolated from the new economy of little opportunity are increasingly oppressive. It is unlikely that the elites of the corporate state will relinquish their control over the economy to the extent needed for the economy to actually serve the public interest. In order to make the economy reflect the needs of the people rather than the greed of the plutocracy, major changes will have to be made to re-balance power toward economic and political democracy.  Indictments are not enough; they address individual cases, not systemic change.

Without democratic politics and an economy serving the public interest, the radical reformation of law enforcement to reflect its most common motto, “to protect and to serve,” is highly unlikely. At the same time, a national culture that glorifies violence in the exercise of imperial ambitions around the world will continue to view subject populations in “the homeland” as the evil other. Our violent culture, institutional racism, self-selection of violent persons as police officers, a culture of punishment, and institutional corruption must be changed.