When Power Speaks to Truth: The New Authoritarian State Exposed in Ferguson, Missouri

The admonition, “Speak truth to power” is heard when outrage at injustice leads folks to seek resolution by articulating righteous truth in the face of evil. It is usually an institutionalized evil against which truth is invoked. That is because the power referenced is usually that of some overbearing bureaucracy or unfair action by someone who has enough power to get away with murder.

We should not overly personalize the unjust killing of Michael Brown as an evil simply emanating from just one person, Officer Darren Wilson. That mistake would miss the much larger evil of a culture that routinely dehumanizes and demonizes young Black and Brown men. That culture tolerates and enables the mass incarceration and indiscriminant police killings of youth of color. The rest of us pay little if any attention to the massive injustices of the drug war and the militarization of police. In the U.S., police kill citizens in huge numbers compared to every other industrial nation. We must ask why.

I listened to and watching numerous news, social media, and official channels of communication related to the police killing of Michael Brown and its social and institutional aftermath. Then it dawned on me. This is all about Power speaking to Truth! I could go on extensively describing how this discourse of domination was propagated throughout the so-called “public media” as filtered by the corporatist editorial framework. But then, I wondered what a real conversation between Mr. Power and Mr. Truth might be like. Here’s what I imagined:

Truth: Shooting an unarmed teenager surrendering from a considerable distance is inexcusable and criminal.
Power: Officer Darren Wilson was doing his job, just like he described when interviewed on TV by George Stephanopoulos.
Truth: Who speaks for Michael Brown?
Power: Prosecutor Robert McCulloch followed established procedures in assigning the case to the grand jury. The grand jury reviewed all the evidence brought to it by the prosecutor and found no basis for returning an indictment.
Truth: Out of 162,000 cases brought to grand juries in recent years, the record shows that in only 11 cases did the grand jury fail to return an indictment. That is because it’s not supposed to be a trial; it’s supposed to be a presentation of the case against the accused, for the grand jury to determine if there’s enough evidence for a trial. That’s not what happened in this case.
Power: Mr. McCulloch presented all the available evidence to the grand jury; it was up to them to determine whether an indictment was warranted.
Truth: But the prosecutor acted like a defense lawyer for Officer Wilson. His job was to present the case against Wilson so the grand jury could determine if there was enough evidence to indict him; he failed to do his duty to bring a case to the grand jury; he did just the opposite. He used his considerable power over the grand jury process to assure that an indictment was not returned.
Power: From the beginning, the authorities have responded to threats to law and order with measured force, maintaining the social order and insuring safety of the citizens of Ferguson.
Truth: At every step, the “authorities” expressed and exercised deep disrespect and contempt for the lives of Black folks. First, they left Michael lying in the street for four and a half hours.
Power: The police had to do their forensic investigation and not disturb any evidence.
Truth: Then they released a video of a man shoplifting some cigars and claimed it was Michael Brown, right at the same time they announced that Officer Wilson would not be arrested for killing Brown. That’s blatant character assassination after physical murder treated as necessary force, in order to distract from the fact that the police refused to arrest one of their own.
Power: The police had to release the video; it was public information and was requested by the press.
Truth: They still haven’t been able to identify any press people who actually requested that video. The “authorities” reacted to the peaceful protests of the citizens of Ferguson with massive force, using military equipment and tactics and aggressively forcing peaceful protestors off the streets threatening to shoot them, with total disregard for their humanity and the fact that they were attempting to exercise their first amendment rights to political speech.
Power: The protesters were disrupting public order and were a threat to the peace that law enforcement is sworn to protect. Violence was committed against property. There is no need for massive mobilization of all sorts of people in the streets of Ferguson. It just draws outside agitators. The incident was being investigated and the process should have been honored.
Truth: The processes that the power elites of Ferguson, Saint Luis County, and similar “authorities” across the nation have used in suppressing the rights of citizens in the name of “order” are little more than a new version of “Jim Crow” laws that oppressed Black folks before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Power: These outbursts by political movements disrupt the economies of communities like Ferguson and damage race relations in our new “post racial” society.
Truth: Just because an African American was elected president does not erase the rampant racism that persists in America. Recoded racism takes many forms. But the worst is the widespread assault on Black populations across the country by law enforcement.  Governor Nixon’s preemptive declaration of a state of emergency and mobilization of the National Guard was essentially a degradation ritual.  Whether the degraded treatment of people of color is by “stop and frisk” or the selective targeting in the drug war, or by dozens of other techniques, makes little difference. The oppression of the sectors of the population who have been most isolated from economic and social opportunities by an extractive economy of elite privilege continues unabated.

Of course, such a conversation could go on indefinitely. But it would not be resolved. Why?  Because we live in a system of oppression and a culture of denial.  Only when the values of compassion, justice, and community are restored and the authority of the people over our institutions is reestablished, will the growing insanity of ‘the system’ be overcome.

Images of American Violence: What Sense Do They Make?

I watched the entire dash-cam video over and over again. The South Carolina State Trooper shot a young black man when he reached for his drivers license as directed. Many major news outlets played it. Maybe that is because it wasn’t a gruesome bloody scene and the victim fell beyond the dash-cam range upon being shot. Yet it was certainly dramatic. But the audio helped me get a sense of the flow of the aftermath. It was an unusual video in that the viewer could clearly see the sequence of events in relation to hearing what was said. That did not make it any less incomprehensible, without placing it in the larger social context. Watch it and you will see what I mean.

Clearly, the victim believed himself to be following the orders of the officer. After patting his back pocket, he reached into his car for the license. Clearly the officer appeared to be reacting to what he defined as a threat, firing his weapon four times. But from the viewpoint of the camera, no threat was apparent. It is only when we explore the definitions of the situation at play that we can make sense of what happened.

Interpreting Police Violence

All inferences of racism aside – I have no way of knowing the extent that the white trooper may have harbored racist images of young black males – the officer’s actions spoke volumes about his expectations. So did his words. The apologetic victim kept asking why he had been shot as he lay on the asphalt off camera. Obviously, the officer defined the young man’s action of reaching into the car as an existential threat, which drove him to draw and fire four times. The officer tried to explain that “you dove head-first back into the car” causing him to shoot. A word of advice: if you are ever stopped by the police, whoever you are, wherever you are, never make any quick movement.

To be brief, even in the disturbing implications of this video, it illustrates several important factors at play in police-citizen interactions. Until these factors are understood, little progress will be made in police-civilian relations in Ferguson, L.A., Albuquerque, Chicago, New York, or anywhere else in America.

First, most police officers are poorly trained. Second, it is a dangerous job. While many police officers get through their entire career without firing a shot at another human being, those who do fire their weapons are trained to shoot to kill. But even those who are a good shot at the range miss the majority of their shots in the heat of the moment. Yet, on the street an officer never knows whether a sudden move or a quick turn might involve a weapon. So, the NRA wants to arm everyone!

Third, most civilians fear the police (even when they respect them) because we all know they have the physical and institutional power to kill us. We are aware that in most bad shootings the officer escapes any serious consequences, while the consequences for us can be fatal.

Fourth, we all expect the police “to protect and to serve,” but we pay little or no attention to the fact that they are poorly trained, most are hardly educated, and many are self-selected into law enforcement because they like to beat on people. In the academies, such as they are, an attitude of rigid authoritarianism is encouraged. Now we have added to the macho ethos the new image of the “Warrior Cop” and all the military weapons and hardware that encourage the attitudes that lead to perceiving all civilians as ‘the enemy.’

Police in Civil Society

As I have argued in some previous posts, a truly civilian police force composed of actual Peace Officers, can only happen if our communities force the standards to be raised to the highest levels and the officers to be paid very well if they meet those standards. If they do not, they should be removed from the force after a two or three year probation period. A college degree in the appropriate field, such as sociology, psychology, or criminal justice, should be required. Extensive training to at least first-degree black belt in a martial art is a must. Aikido, for example, was developed to subdue an assailant, not to injure or kill him. How many people have been shot when a properly trained officer could have easily subdued them? Far too many. An apprenticeship with ‘master cops’ with proven expertise and attitude of service should be instituted.  Only with the development of a strong culture of service can the culture of violence be diverted.

But none of these standards will mean much at all if a police department is not led by highly dedicated public servants who view the police as committed to serving the people. That is not currently the case in most police departments today. It may seem odd to compare the crisis of policing in America to the climate crisis or to the economic crisis. But each is a fundamental predicament ignored by the political and economic elites that make the key decisions in this nation and benefit from the status quo. In all three cases, the change we should believe in will never happen unless the people make it happen. Occupy Wall Street and the fossil-fuel divestment movements have begun to demonstrate that it can be done, as have other historical movements. The entrenched interests in each of these sectors can be overcome by the power of numbers.