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.

Adolescent Cop Mentality

The flow of video evidence of police tendencies to use violence as the primary tool of their trade steadily increases. Some write this off as an artifact of technology or as individual incidents not representing the whole of law enforcement. But as I look at all those citizens’ smart-phone videos taken largely because they happened to be there and were shocked by what they saw, I see something else. I see an adolescent sense of insecurity displayed. And I see an adolescent tendency for one’s ego to be easily threatened by anything less than absolute control and in need of being protected by force.

The individual cases of “excessive use of force” vary in context, setting, and issue. But in each one, the officer seems to be triggered by any action or words that can be interpreted as a threat to his absolute authority. “Absolute” is the operative term here; the adolescent mind tends to think in absolutes. Yes, in every such case I have reviewed, the officer is male. I have yet to see an example where a female officer initiated violence upon a citizen. It is hard to not reflect upon how males are socialized in this society (and other societies as well) to express their manhood in violent ways. Even at my age, I remember the institutionalized violence of high school football. The kids are allowed to wear more protective gear now, but the violent expectations are pretty much the same.

Violent Institutions
Rarely recognized or discussed in the media is the self-selection of those with the most violent tendencies entering into police academies. I remember well the guys in high school who simply loved to get into a fight; they enjoyed any opportunity to beat someone up. I will never forget, many years later what a college student who was in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s training academy told me. He said that all the guys who had been the most violent in his high school also applied to the academy. “They loved to beat people up,” he reported. “Now they will have unlimited opportunities.” Anyone who lives in L.A. County is aware of the Sheriffs’ reputation for excessive violence.

L.A. Sheriffs Deputies are routinely assigned to work in the county jail when they first graduate from the academy. There they get to see and interact with both the worst criminals and the most vulnerable of the county’s population. This is where they learn the rules of domination and subordination. Recently, what was widely known but not publicly reported finally hit the media. A virtual conspiracy among the young deputies and their senior leadership at the jail involved routinely using excessive force on both inmates and their visitors and even falsely arresting visitors. Indictments followed, along with numerous stories in the L.A. Times.* Disgraceful as this is, such institutionalized violence is not confined to the rare rogue officer or department; it permeates American law enforcement. Something so deeply entrenched in a culture is not merely a matter of “better training.” Training is only part of the problem.

To even begin to face the problem of police violence and the tendency to single out young men of color for such treatment, we must look beyond individual incidents and training protocols. We have to face the fact that the problem is a deeply rooted cultural fact of American life and history. From the earliest days of the British colonies on this continent, the intolerance for dehumanized “others” has been evident.

Adolescent Exceptionalism
The so called “winning of the West,” idolized in Hollywood’s “Cowboys and Indians” movies, was largely a brutal history of genocidal extermination of the indigenous peoples of the land “discovered” by Europeans and occupied by force. The westward expansion merely continued the conquering of native populations, deemed sub-human and hence with no human rights. The legacy of slavery is in part one of exploitation of dehumanized “others” by elites that monopolize of the means of violence. The Other is a stranger, never quite human. The list of “N-word” equivalents continues right up to the latest “war of choice.”

The “freedom” so cherished by “gun rights” advocates also reflects historical violence against perceived sub-humans. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was negotiated so that southerners could legally form militias to hunt down escaped slaves. Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, etc., all point to a perceived inherent right to dominate “others” all over the world, excused by an imagined American “Exceptionalism.”

In a cell-phone video I just saw, some unruly whites complained of (restrained) police efforts to clear a bar where “disturbing the peace” was asserted. Their objections reflected the same cultural arrogance. The idea that “we” (white) Americans have some special status in the world that exempts us from police or other abuse is pervasive. One of the white protestors repeatedly said, “You can’t do this; we’re Americans.” As a nation we have no compunction as a nation in terrorizing villages in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere with drone strikes, night raids on homes, or bombing just about any target, etc., as long as the people there are not “Americans.”

Typically, the focus of “law enforcement” often is not on enforcing laws or catching criminals, but instead on asserting total control over targeted citizens who have little or no resources to challenge their having been abused. “Resisting an officer” in the conduct of his abuse of a citizen is the highest form of “disrespect” for the status-anxious cop. His sense of security is only fed by absolute obedience to his every unreasonable demand. Only by passive acceptance of unreasonable search, seizure, and/or battery upon the person perceived as unable to invoke costly legal recourse is obedience demonstrated.

That said, it is important to remember that police behavior does not occur in a vacuum, but is institutionally encouraged by the power elite that would prefer to ‘disappear’ the homeless and all other “surplus populations” not needed by the corporate state. More “training” is not the answer, since training is part of the problem along with recruitment for violent tendencies and indifference to necessary attributes of a PEACE Officer — compassion, problem solving, and other ways to avoid violence. Neither maturity nor deep ethics are part of the emerging police state. A new vision for law enforcement is needed now more than ever.
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* See, for example, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-los-angeles-sheriff-indictments-baca-20131209-story.html

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.