Ending Police Brutality: It’s Not That Simple

The smart phone videos of cops harassing or beating unarmed Black males have exploded on social media. Newspaper articles discuss the various difficulties involved in prosecuting police for excessive force, murder, etc. Video pundits left and right proclaim or admit that something is just not right. They acknowledge that Black parents have to train their boys to be cautious when confronted by a policeman or they will face extreme danger.

Law enforcement officials scramble to demonstrate their commitment to improving “training” and “cultural awareness.” Law professors ponder the possibilities of revamping the procedures for assembling grand juries when an officer has killed another unarmed Black child or young Black man. Politicians pontificate on how to restore the Black man’s “trust” in police and the justice system – as usual, they get the cart before the horse.

Well, none of them seem to get it. Police abuse and killings of Black men have a long history, although it is largely buried in social amnesia. The nature of the problem is quite unlike the conventional characterizations heard in the mass media. We are living in the era of denial of racism – you know, “post-racial America.” The growing protests over police brutality put the lie to that illusion. But the persistent denial makes it very hard to discuss the culturally ingrained and conceptually re-coded racism that is all around us if we just open our eyes.

Racism is still rampant in America. It is re-coded and resurrected in numerous ways. The re-coding allows many to behave in racist ways while conceptually denying any “racism” is involved because they no longer use those old racist words. The language is much more subtle. But the violence is not. People of good will and intention are being fooled by all this, and they mistake the combination of racism and just plain viciousness for a failure of training or of criminal justice process. Certainly training and process are defective. But that is only a result of the deeper problem of racism and dehumanization in American society.

We must remember that racism is a particularity of dehumanization. The young men and women of the U.S. (and every) military routinely characterize “the enemy” as sub-human. In basic training they are drilled with the admonition to kill a dehumanized other. Civilian populations of the invaded countries are difficult to distinguish from “insurgents.” This facilitates the killing, torture, and hated of whoever is found in a house in a night raid based on very flimsy “intell.” The parallel with home invasions by militarized “swat teams” in Camden, Compton, or Cleveland is distinctly disturbing. Many returning veterans who have experienced horrors of combat where civilians and resistance fighters are indistinguishable, find little opportunity for employment other than as police.

But racist police violence in the U.S. did not start with returning veterans disturbed by the extreme violence and dehumanization they experienced in combat. It began right here at home. It is endemic, not just to the police, but to the culture. The culture of racism and the culture of violence are distinct social formations, but they are also very closely linked and often combined. Relations of power and vulnerability lead to dehumanization, which leads to hatred, which leads to violence. The language of police I heard on some of those viral videos on Facebook and YouTube is exactly the language of the high school bullies we have all heard. As one student put it to me a few years ago – he was a cadet in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy – “a lot of the cadets are the guys who liked to beat people up in high school.”

Improved training will not do it; tweaking the relations between police and prosecutors will not do it; revising procedural manuals will not do it. Body cameras may stifle it but will not resolve the problem. Only changing the entire police culture from the top down and hiring as officers only recruits who can understand what “peace officer” means, can turn the tide. That is a daunting task. Whether the cities or the nation are up to it is doubtful. That it is necessary is entirely certain.

Something else is also certain. Until such a massive rebuilding of law enforcement with a new cultural core and massive replacement of officers who cannot meet a humanitarian standard, police abuse of citizens will continue. It must be done from Los Angeles to New York City, from Ferguson to Albuquerque, and across the entire nation. There is no other way.

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.

Preemptive Response to Prejudged Emergency

Do you remember “preventive detention? It was the idea of arresting people on the assumption that they might commit some crime, even though they have not yet done so. The concept never got a lot of public support, since it was such a blatantly unconstitutional approach to law enforcement. That is not to say, however, that it has not been put into practice informally in some places.

But now we see a new twist on the underlying idea of controlling expected bad behavior in a population. Yes, it’s Ferguson, Missouri again. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency ad mobilized the National Guard, as a “precaution” in case “unrest” or violence might break out in Ferguson. One must ask, how do you respond to an emergency before it happens?

The action was taken in anticipation of public anger if the grand jury fails to indict officer Darren Wilson. Yet the governor’s precipitous act is quite consistent with previous police actions there. The entire episode over the past three plus months since Officer Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown to death, has been characterized by institutional overkill.

The initial peaceful protests in Ferguson were met with a highly militarized show of Robo-cop style brute force. The result, not surprisingly, was increased anger, resentment, and tension. Despite organizers’ efforts to keep it non-violent, some vandalism occurred. It only takes a few rocks thrown to trigger a massive police over-reaction, treating all protestors as illegitimate. But what is clear is that the white power structure in not only Ferguson but Saint Luis County is simply prejudiced. Its actions have been and are based in traditional – if publicly unspoken – racist imaginaries about a presumptive “lawlessness” of the black population. Under the circumstances, that population has remained remarkably restrained. Not so the militarized law enforcement institutions or their leadership.

The preemptive declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Nixon is, by its very presumptions, bigoted. It prejudges the character of the mostly black population of Ferguson and implicitly labels “those people” as “lawless.” The actions of the various police agencies, prosecutors, etc., from local to state, reflect a “them vs. us” mentality in which “they” have to be controlled by force. Lip service is given to the people’s right to freedom of speech while police entrap protestors in physical space where no such right can be exercised. And, of course, the old “outside agitators” meme is also invoked.

The indifference of the mostly white Ferguson police and politicians, and the county and state ‘authorities,’ to the current and historical grievances of black citizens is flagrant. Unrelenting authoritative obliviousness to the reasons for popular anger has fed the understandable public frustration with the handling of the case from the start. That indifference, glossed over with feigned respect for human rights, continues as the major factor in the approach of law enforcement to the black population of St. Louis county.

Similar attitudes among ‘authorities’ can be found all across this nation. They are expressed in different ways and cause diverse local crises when specific instances of police abuse of citizens capture sufficient media attention. Death at the hands of police is commonplace in communities of color in this country.

A complex of converging factors seems to be accelerating both the number of instances and the awareness of the public. What might have been only a story a few years ago is now captured on smart-phone video by passers by. Self-selection of violent personalities into police work and indifference or support for aggression by leadership perpetuate the hostile separation of police from citizen. Problems of community relations are seen as needing a “show of force” as in the absurd twisting of the idea of emergency by Governor Nixon.

Unfortunately, it is all part of a larger process of the pitting of the institutions that protect the interests of the power elites against the people of this country. Police are no longer there to ‘keep the peace’ or ‘serve and protect’ the people. Their mission is to control the population to insure the order imposed by a institutional power structure behind a thin veil of ‘democracy.’ If there were any sense of community or democracy in the state of Missouri, the governor would have been meeting with civic groups in and around Ferguson over the past three months seeking to reach a level of cooperation that could resolve the grievances of the citizens of that town. If “the‘authorities” were integral to communities, the gunning down of an unarmed teenager by a police officer would have triggered an immediate investigation by a civilian review body to both establish the facts and determine how such a tragedy could be prevented in the future.

Quite the opposite has happened. Police and politicians bungled and overreacted at every step. They all dodged and covered. The people were enclosed, to protest in as much isolation from media coverage as possible. Neither indictment nor its absence will have much of any bearing on the ability of the power structure to address its failed relationship to the citizenry that is its only real justification for existence.

Public Renaissance: What Ebola, Ferguson, and Finance Can Tell Us

Public concern over the possible spread of the Ebola virus epidemic from West Africa to the U.S. is growing. While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is taking various precautions, the situation is nevertheless of sufficient complexity to warrant concern. The outrage over the police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown continues as a grand jury takes its time mulling over evidence. The Wall Street pundits on CNBC and the corporate economists claim the economy is turning around, yet most people are having trouble feeling it. What do these seemingly disparate events have in common?

It’s really quite simple. Each of these situations represents a larger problem that pervades our society. Ever since the Reagan presidency, well, ever since the economic reforms following the Great Depression, the power elites have tried to wrest economic and political control from the citizenry. The push to privatize public functions has succeeded in reducing the public interest in social and economic conditions to an afterthought. Importantly, these are only three examples among many. The corporate controlled political culture has carefully failed to recognize the public interest as a legitimate concern for citizens. Meanwhile, the cult of “free market” extractive economics has raised the specter of private greed to a nearly religious status.

Privatizing Public Health
The interest in public health as a concern for the entire society is almost universally recognized bymost nations, even those unable to provide adequate health resources. Universal healthcare is found in nearly every ‘advanced’ industrial nation, except in the U.S.A. With far lower costs, Europeans produce far better health outcomes for their citizens than we do and nobody is excluded. On many indicators of health and well being, we are down toward the bottom of the rankings. Further, in the interest of privatizing every public function imaginable, our politicians have been cutting budgets for the CDC and other public health institutions. But wait, there’s more.

Since the entire U.S. medical sector is organized around private profit for doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and the pharmaceutical industry, only drugs deemed able to garner very high prices are developed. Flu vaccines are widely available in the U.S., since they are promoted by every medical institution and drugstore in the nation, subsidized by the federal government and profitable for Big Pharma. Ebola has been around for years. Some effort was made to develop a vaccine, but it was abandoned; little profit was projected. Public policy has not been driven by the public interest.

Jim Crow Law Enforcement
Ferguson is a symptom of a national failure to shape law enforcement policy in the public interest. Similar situations abound nationwide. Several trends converge to implement a destructive pattern resulting in what is best described as Incarceration Nation. The New Jim Crow, as aptly described by Michele Alexander, has created a caste of economically exiled men of color. The so-called war on drugs has been a war on young people of color prosecuted by increasingly militarized police targeting vulnerable neighborhoods.

Police no longer serve the public interest; they serve their interests in gaining funding and military equipment useful only for controlling an enemy population. The citizen is the new enemy and the police are the occupying force, as SWAT teams even serve minor warrants by heavily armed home invasion – innocents die. The bifurcation of police and public is palpable. Only a massive reorganization of police from top administration to recruitment, education, training and strict accountability of officers can come to serve the public good.

The Banksters and the Booty
The history of money is a mystery to most Americans. So is its current incarnation. But the essence of money is its function as a public medium of exchange. In societies where money is/was issued by the government to facilitate exchange of goods and services, economies have operated with stable prices and little taxation. Where money creation has been handed over to privately held central banks, governments have gone deeper into debt and taxes have grown to pay this arbitrary public debt.

The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 put the U.S. on the path of a debt-based money system. Instead of issuing money for public purposes, the government still borrows money from the central bank it authorized to issue money. There are many other absurdities in the U.S. debt-driven economy, but the basic problem is the same. A fundamental public function – issuing and managing the money supply for the nation – was given to a privately held central bank, which extracts booty in the form of interest and fees for the money it is allowed to create from nothing in its electronic accounts. Only public banks will manage money to serve the public interest.

Public Institutions for the Public Interest
Health, law enforcement, and the economic policies, among others, are three core elements of society that are inherently public functions. Their ‘privatization’ incurs extra costs and destabilizes the economy. In each of these areas, and others, we need public control over decisions in order to serve the public good. Until these important functions are returned to the people and their government, the plundering of the commons will continue.

After Indictment: Justice is not Enough

News coverage in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri have died down now. But in the aftermath, little else has been said in the national media about the underlying problem of police in America. Ferguson’s city council responded to protests with some mild reforms such as limiting the proportion of city revenue supplied by traffic fines.

It appears that the grand jury may be out for some time. Demands for social justice focus mainly on whether the officer who killed Mr. Brown will be charged and prosecuted for murder or some lesser variant thereof, or not at all. But Ferguson, if it is anything, is a small scale case in point of what is wrong with law enforcement in the U.S.A.

A common theme reflected in all the societal crises is the American penchant for violent “solutions” to almost anything viewed as problematic for “American Exceptionalism.” As the system approaches collapse, elite reactions invariably incorporate some form of force. Sure, law enforcement has a long history of defending property and power against freedom and opportunity, even when police were closer to the citizenry. But today, the militarization of police coincides with the unprecedented concentration of power in the 1% of the 1%.

The role of “law enforcement” is increasingly suspect. In an earlier post, “Incarceration Nation,” [1] I referred to “The New Jim Crow” system that plagues young men of color today. Michelle Alexander, in her book by that title [2], powerfully demonstrated how the drug-war supported police operations in poor neighborhoods produces a new stigmatized American caste of color. The central player driving the incarceration of most young men of color is law enforcement. The agencies that profit from arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of vulnerable populations, perpetrate the social crime of institutionalized racist forced social isolation.

But the problem of law enforcement runs much deeper than institutionalized racist practices – as if that were not enough. Since Ferguson, countless incidents of routine police brutality, even against whites, have surfaced in both social media and local newscasts. True to their reputation harking back to Rodney King’s beating 20 years ago, officers of the Foothill Division of the LAPD recently were caught on video exercising their aggression. They slammed a small nurse down on the pavement after stopping her for using her cell phone while driving. Gratuitous violence at best.

Even while under Justice Department investigation for questionable patterns of use-of-force practices, such dysfunctional departments continue to be issued military weapons and battle equipment. Police departments are hiring veterans of combat with “insurgent” enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan who look like the general population. These veterans’ unacknowledged post traumatic stress disorder is often left untreated. But it is exactly the condition that we should not want in a “peace officer” in a domestic city.

None of the leading indicators of the relationship between police and citizens is comforting. None of the administrative “leadership” of the departments whose brutal practices have come to light, gives one a feeling of civic security from police abuse. Many officers are self-selected by their penchant for violence; their employers condone and encourage their aggressiveness and tolerate their violence. Swat teams are often the first response to the most innocuous situations. Crisis intervention officers are underutilized. The Los Angeles Police Department alone has settled countless lawsuits for millions of dollars. The incidents of police violence and deadly shootings in Albuquerque have not subsided since the department came under Justice Department scrutiny. The list is too long – it encompasses the whole nation.

None of this will change significantly without a total ‘makeover’ of the culture of law enforcement in the U.S.A., and of our expectations too. The escalation of violence to assert total control is the norm. Any hint of ‘disrespect’ or ‘failure to obey’ is met with aggression and/or violence. An LAPD cop who was also a member of the Crips gang once told me that the police are really just another gang; if you don’t look at them that way you cannot understand them. Civil society cannot be sustained if “peace” is enforced instead of enacted.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, [3] analyzes the economic, social, and political crises that have resulted in global warming. The climate crisis both reflects deep societal failures and presents a comprehensive opportunity to solve the societal crisis and climate crisis simultaneously. As the old fossil-fueled industrial order struggles to survive, “law enforcement” has become little more than the enforcer for the oligarchy, which increasingly fears the citizenry. After all, only the people can stop them now.  The Peoples Climate March drew 400,000.

Global warming is the direct planetary consequence of the most fundamental failures of industrial capital’s domination of society in the last two centuries. The trajectory of the industrial era has many elements, including state monopoly of force. Paradoxically, it also offers a vital opportunity/necessity to solve the core problem. That is because the transformative actions necessary to mitigate climate disruption are exactly those required to address the destructive trends that have destabilized both society and the biosphere. Increasingly, the expanded political and economic powers of the surging oligarchy are  defended by force. This just demonstrates the inherent weakness of the failing system. Only the people’s rising recognition of imminent ecological and societal collapse and willingness to act to transform society and its relation to the environment will enable humanity to ‘reset’ the world.
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1 https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=incarceration+nation&submit=Search
2 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
3 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Victims, Protesters, Bully Boys, and Looters: On Missing the Point

What is the point in viewing and attempting to understand the events in Ferguson, Missouri, over the past few weeks? Is it about: 1) another unjustified killing of a black youth by a police officer; 2) an unruly teenager whose behavior escalated a situation that led to his death; 3) a history of bad relations between police and people of Ferguson; 4) rights of peaceful protestors violated by being treated as an enemy by militarized police; 5) some vandals and looters taking advantage of a “civil disturbance” to do damage and steal; or 6) the unsustainable failure of American cities to operate highly trained and disciplined police forces to “protect and serve” all the citizens in response to a diversity of threats?

A case could be made for each point as a valid concern for either police or citizens or both. Of course, what appears to be the evidence so far would suggest ranking some issues over others.

Perspective
Everyone has a point of view. Our attention is usually directed by the perspective we bring to a situation. Point of view can be more powerful than evidence in directing our attention; it can shape the meaning of evidence. And our attention is drawn more to what angers us most than to what doesn’t. And then there’s the problem of what evidence we become aware of and how it is presented.

So it’s not surprising that some who see images and hear talking heads on television differentially focus on 1) whether Michael Brown’s killing by police was justified; 2) the broad public outrage expressed in peaceful protests; 3) the massively militaristic police over-reaction to the citizens of Ferguson peacefully exercising their first amendment rights to protest; or 4) the occasional bottle-throwing, window breaking or looting of a few stores by the “criminal element” or by “outside agitators.” But, all things considered, where should the public’s attention be focused and which of these phenomena should have been “presented” by the media as representing the essence of the situation?

The civil unrest in Ferguson Missouri was not simply about the unjustified police shooting and death of the young black man, Michael Brown. That was not the first instance of public perception of discriminatory or overly aggressive police behavior in the Saint Louis County municipalities. The shooting precipitated popular outrage in that context. The protests were clearly a response of outrage to “the last straw” of indignity felt by the black population of Ferguson. This killing and the insensitive institutional bungling and absurdly excessive show of force that followed eradicated any vestige of the public’s tolerance for police abuse, incompetence, and corruption. The black citizens of Ferguson had experienced decades of an ongoing pattern of a variety of abusive practices by law enforcement. My perspective: A police shooting of an unarmed person is never justified; but you have to look at the history and pattern of practices to understand the situation.

The Big Picture
The national media coverage reflects a modest recognition that the problem is more widespread than one small town. That small suburb of Saint Louis quickly became the symbol of that recognition. Subsequent reflections as to the wisdom of inundating local police departments with military equipment were the first I’d heard in the national media. Later analyses revealed similar patterns of mostly white police departments in mostly black towns and cities across the nation. Stories of similarly questionable police violence proliferate.

We hear a lot about bullying these days, in school, the work place, and on the streets of our cities. Aggression and violence seem to be increasingly dominant forms of self-expression. While they decry such behavior among children and adults, politicians usually support it among police. Police are trained, usually inadequately, to assert control and act with authority. That’s fine up to a point. But if no element of compassion is found, then trouble is more likely – female officers usually elicit more cooperation. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Police, who is black, was appointed commander of the multi-jurisdictional force that descended upon Ferguson. Born and raised there, his sense of empathic authority was immediately accepted by residents as a legitimate. But the massive military occupation stimulated a “criminal element” thought to be mostly from out of town, to begin breaking store windows and throwing bottles at police.

Getting the Point
It was not until after the massive military incursion that any word of vandalism or looting was heard. The initial citizen protests were pointedly peaceful. The fact that the military armed response from multiple jurisdictions was so incredibly extravagant, smacked of buffoonery, but nobody was laughing. The anger over the killing was matched by outrage over the militarized response by “authorities” to a peaceful protest exercising the right to speech. It is when tensions are highest that vandals and looters arrive on the scene.

And so it was in Ferguson. From the point of view of peaceful protestors, vandals and looters are spoilers who were distracting attention from their protest and their town. Some even stood guard at storefronts to protect them from the rowdies. Too many police were hyper vigilant, which is a problem in itself, especially considering their generally weak training. They conflated vandals with the legitimate protestors and lumped all together as a “criminal element.” Many police and most racists do not believe that people of color have the right to protest authority – it disturbs their sense of “law and order” – mostly order.

I was not surprised when a cop pointed an assault rifle at protesters and threatened to kill them if they didn’t move back. No, we do not live in a “post-racial” society. The obsession of many cops with whether a ‘subject’ of their interest is “failing to obey” reflects a sense that “law and order” override any concern for social justice. They see citizens as subordinates – except the rich and famous.

Should we be angry at looters? Sure, but they are a always a factor when a chaotic situation arises, whether hurricane, earthquake, or political crisis involving street protests; they are simply not the essential element of the “Ferguson syndrome.” Then what is? The complete breakdown of trust between citizens and police in communities of color in the U.S. is the essence of the societal crisis that Ferguson represents. Neither arrest and conviction of vandals and looters, nor the achievement of justice in the case of Michael Ferguson, will resolve the deeper issue or solve the underlying problem of police in America. To think otherwise is to miss the point.

Gaza, USA; Ferguson, Palestine: Pounding nails in Freedom’s Coffin

We’ve all heard the old saw that “to a man with only a hammer for a tool, everything looks like a nail.” Video of the escalating massive military incursion onto the streets of Ferguson, MO, reminded me of that metaphor again last week. Suddenly, U.S. mass media has awakened to the militarization of local police that has been growing since the “war on drugs” was started by President Nixon. Questions about “show-of-force” overkill are finally being raised.

The Hammer

In every profession I know of, some people learn one tool better than others and it becomes their favorite. Too often, they apply it beyond its realm of effectiveness. That failing has become the essence of the application of the weapons of warfare in the modern world. It is not surprising that this tendency is emblematic of the tragedy of errors that has unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri. But the “to a hammer, everything is a nail” syndrome reflects the fundamental failure of law enforcement across the country and the world today. That militarized law-enforcement “pattern of practice” is widely institutionalized and culturally confirmed in nearly every jurisdiction.

Several processes are at work, enticing local police departments to be attracted to the “upgrading” of their technologies of violence as part of the “toolbox” of law enforcement. Sophisticated technology has its own attraction. Tools of violence have the added attraction of great power over life and death. For police administrators, the price is attractive: it’s mostly free, and there are grants too. All the department has to do is generate sufficient drug arrests (in poor minority communities) to show their commitment to the “War on Drugs”. Right, “War.” The appeal of the image of the Warrior Cop resonates with the power image of military equipment. Violent individuals often self-select into jobs as policemen, a serious problem that departments have either ignored or encouraged. These are just some of the elements that have converted what we used to think of as “peace officers” to Warrior Cops.

Cult of Destruction

I mentioned Raul Hilberg’s, The Destruction of the European Jews, in my July 21 post, “Living in Fear of the Other.”[1] The process of destruction described by Hilberg is a gradually developing sequence of escalating brutality of action by the overwhelmingly more powerful actor in an asymmetric conflict. The oppressed class or ethnic group is systematically isolated from the basic means of living. In every case, the dominant power incrementally takes steps that further isolate, restrict, disempower, and eventually destroy the weaker population.

The social form of the process of destruction may differ, but at its core it is the same. The systematic destruction of the people of the “outdoor prison” that is Gaza, explicitly targets everyone – half are children – as “the enemy.” The process of destruction of people of color in the U.S. is more diffuse than the Israeli destruction of the people of Gaza. Overt public expressions of racism are no longer acceptable in the U.S. Many people allow themselves to be comfortable in the illusion that racism is no longer an issue. Events, however, demonstrate quite the opposite. The illusions of a “post-racial America” partially mask that. But it is just as real, though not as focused or intense, as the destruction of Gaza. In what way does the multi-agency force that now occupies Ferguson not look like a military occupation?

People as Enemy

The corporate media generally ignore incidents like that in Ferguson. Yet since Trayvon Martin’s legitimized murder by a warrior-cop wannabe, the growing number of racist killings by police, publicly exposed via witness phone-video cannot be ignored once it has gone viral. “Stand your ground” law supporters and Warrior Cops share a culture of death. As the police become increasingly militarized, their self-image grows closer to that of a combat soldier facing a racialized “Enemy” that must be destroyed. The deployment of military hardware, personal body armor and high-power weapons, encourages the Warrior Cop mentality and the excessive and unjustified use of force. The Warrior-cop mentality is combined with the underlying legacy of racism and self-selection of violent tendencies among police recruits. The consequences are all too often extremely dangerous modes of militaristic policing as population suppression. More cases of excessive force are inevitable, and they are more likely to be exposed as political and human rights are written off.

Despite the miserable and very expensive failure of the “war on drugs,” the majority of SWAT deployments (62%) have been for drug searches. [2] These home invasions often involve forced entry with a battering ram by heavily armed assault teams, resulting in serious property damage. Such violent breeches also terrify young children and elderly in the house. They are the same tactics used by U.S. assault teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such violence is used even when there is no evidence of potential resistance or violence by the targets. It is absurd overkill, designed more to exercise the prowess of the Warrior Cop and his erectile equipment than to control the mostly petty crime involved. Yet drug-war economics and the national militarist mentality lead to a desire to initiate war-like engagements with citizens treated as enemies.

Of course, the majority impacted by paramilitary police tactics are people of color living in economic prisons. Police assault teams do not break into white suburban homes or college dorms. The New Jim Crow [3] is enforced by the U.S. Warrior Cops. Though more diffused and less intense, their assaults on Americans are not all that much different from the Israeli attacks on the people of Gaza. Hatred for the feared Other spurs on the process of destruction. Militaristic police behavior is an evil hammer pounding nails in the coffin of freedom.
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[1] https://thehopefulrealist.com/2014/07/21/living-in-fear-of-the-other-the-process-of-destruction/
[2] WAR COMES HOME: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2014.
[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.