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.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part III: Ecological Transformation

An ecological society will require some basic changes in the way we live. Most analyses of climate change are about disruptions leading to untenable future conditions. Specific reductions in carbon emissions will require transformation of economic infrastructure, which is rarely discussed.

To stabilize global temperature, return to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is necessary. That goal might be achieved if a tipping point is not reached before we take major actions. We are already at about 400. Several indicators suggest such a tipping point is near, where positive feedback loops will amplify already accelerating trends, even if we drastically cut emissions. Warming melts tundra releasing methane, causing more warming, etc. Calling for “further research” excuses intolerable inaction. We must act now based on what we know now.

Carbon Control
It is impossible to list all major contributors to carbon pollution in a blog post. But here are some major categories of carbon polluting infrastructure we need to get under control.

● The Built Environment. More carbon emissions come from fossil fuel burned to heat, cool, and supply electricity to homes, apartments, commercial buildings, and factories, than any other source.

Transportation. Cars, trains, boats, and planes consume huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy and emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Energy Production. We burn a lot of carbon fuels in the process of extracting the raw materials from which those fuels are refined. Power plants emit 40% of U.S. carbon pollution. Fracking, the latest technology for extracting oil and gas, is itself a major methane polluter and consumes huge amounts of water and fuel. Tar-sands extraction and processing is another big one. That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline is so dangerous.

Electronics Everywhere. Little thought is given to the immense amount of electricity used to run electronic equipment. ‘Phantom load’ from computers, music electronics, and appliances in standby mode accounts for about ten percent of the electricity usage in households. “The Cloud,” consists of many competing computer “server farms” the Internet giants use to store and process data of all kinds. Let’s not forget the giant telecom corporations. The NSA and other surveillance operations consume massive amounts of electrical energy, mostly from fossil fuels.

The Military. The various branches of the armed forces consume more fossil-fuel energy than any other economic sector. Not surprising. Always contemplating future threats to its viability, the DoD has been pursuing research on alternative propulsion systems and energy sources for a number of years.

These diverse economic sectors involve infrastructure powered by fossil-fuels. Each requires different changes to achieve carbon-neutrality. Priorities must be set and ‘least-impact’ parameters established to make reasonable decisions for each of these sectors. Who is doing that?

Conversion of Economic Infrastructure
All infrastructure conversion requires technology, materials, and labor. Reducing carbon emissions from buildings is labor intensive, which translates into lots of jobs. Most talk of energy efficient buildings is about new construction. But existing buildings produce most of the energy wasted. So investing in retrofitting existing buildings with energy conserving technology will best upgrade this sector of infrastructure.

Conversion to electric cars seems inevitable. But it requires infrastructure – mostly solar-powered charging stations to allow commuters to use their cheap second-generation Teslas. International trade involves massive amounts of mostly diesel fuel consumption. Advanced designs for solar and wind driven ships are now proven. But new ship building takes time. Meanwhile, the false economies of corporate “free trade” must be restrained. The free movement of capital to exploit cheap immobile labor must be curtailed so that local labor can be employed to serve local needs.

If the environmental and social costs of fracking were taxed, the practice would come to a screeching halt. It poisons local water resources, spews lots of methane into the atmosphere, and accelerates global warming. A carbon tax reflecting the real costs would put an end to fracking and accelerate solar power installations and adoption of electric cars.

The Cloud” provides no better data storage than increasingly cheap local storage, which by comparison minimizes electricity use. It should be abandoned for most computing purposes. “Phantom load” is easily controlled by inserting ‘smart’ power bars between the source and all those electronic gadgets and appliances.

The best way to reduce military energy consumption is to stop all the futile wars of choice, eliminating a major source of terrorism as well as the huge environmental costs of war. Cancel absurd super-weapon projects. The vast savings could be converted to useful activity, like converting to an ecological economy.

These are only a few of the economic conversions that are necessary to bring carbon emissions under control while converting to an ecologically viable economic infrastructure and employing millions of citizens.

Necessary Social Mobilization
Here’s the rub. The large scale infrastructure conversions required to realistically control carbon pollution to minimize climate chaos are huge. Yet, national and international institutions remain moribund. Their response to the climate crisis consists mainly of false promises and finger pointing. A major social mobilization is necessary and must be from the bottom up.

Direct action is needed now to mitigate climate disruption and dampen its most extreme effects. Only engaged citizens can take such immediate action. Awareness is surging. Clear mechanisms for meaningful effective action must be made a matter of public knowledge. Bill McKibben and 350.org have made divestment from fossil-fuel industries the centerpiece of direct climate action. Move your money to local credit unions and banks. Drastically slash corporate consumerism — what do you really need and from what local source can you get it? Take advantage of federal and state tax rebates for solar installations while they’re still available. Be creative. Momentum follows action. Join others. Act.