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.

What Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy can Teach Us about Racism in America

Ignorant racism occasionally bursts onto the scene in the national media because the racists involved are unaware of the social and political impact of their blatantly racist talk. Sometimes ‘honest’ racists don’t even believe they are racists and are ignorant of the nature of their racist thinking. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay his fees for grazing on BLM land – our land – and does not recognize the existence of the U.S. government, may fall into that category, with his seemingly unconsciously racist comments about black folks. Donald Sterling, the wealthy owner of the LA Clippers, on the other hand, was recorded making private racist comments that went viral; but only then did it become public that he had for decades practiced housing discrimination against Blacks and Latinos in his Los Angeles properties and that the NBA had tolerated it all those years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar exposed the hypocrisy of public anti-racism a day or two later in his Time Magazine opinion piece on the reaction to the Sterling exposure. Then the NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life.

Liberal white folks don’t like to hear racist talk, but they routinely tolerate institutionalized racism. And smart “closet” racists know how to appear “politically correct” in order to avoid the uncomfortable reactions of more sensitive people, despite their racist behavior and attitudes, which are re-coded to appear to the unsuspecting ear to refer to something other than race. Some, like Sterling, talk quite differently in private and in public settings. Magic Johnson expressed hurt and disgust with that hypocrisy in an interview after the “Sterling tapes” were revealed, having been given public ‘respect’ by Sterling before his private racism directed at Magic was revealed. Sterling embraces his racism but tries to avoid the embarrassment of its expression in public. Cliven Bundy, unused to the public limelight, appeared unaware and divulged his personal thinking unfiltered, then was made partially aware by the public reaction and tried to ‘dial it back.’

But we make a big mistake if we think we can understand racism in America by assuming that “racists” are only those people who make racist statements in public. Structural institutionalized racism is alive and well in America, and it is far more important than the naïve racism of fringe isolates like Cliven Bundy, who only recognized the damage to his image when public exposure showed him his own racism. What these different cases can teach us is that personal racism can take many forms and may have different levels of self-consciousness attached to it, but it is not the essence of contemporary racism in America.

The politically correct re-coded racists are in total denial, at least publicly. By avoiding traditionally racist language, they think they are immune to the charge of being a racist, even as they harbor feelings of superiority over the Other. They think of racism as merely a matter of proper speech. But in fact these folks are the bread and butter of institutional racism in America – an endemic system of inequality whereby the racism is built into the social and economic culture and institutional practices of society. In some respects it is as widespread as ever. Many ‘liberals’ voted for Barack Obama at least in part to demonstrate their lack of racism, which in polite company allowed them to proclaim a “post-racial” America – besides Obama emulates intellectual white social liberalism, with which he charmed them.

Closet racists re-code their racism in various ways. All the attacks on Obama as being a ‘socialist,’ a Muslim, a Kenyan, by ‘birthers,’ et al, merely excuse their closeted racist belief that a black man cannot legitimately be President of the United States of America. They do all they can to explicitly not recognize him as president. Their vision is of a White-Christian Nation, not the multi-racial, multi-ethnic society that we have become. But in a twisted way, the joke is on them. This president may be a good deal smarter than Dubya, but he is as strong a supporter of the corporate-state plutocracy as any president – in that sense, he is as ‘white’ as anyone, since it is the white male who symbolically represents the status quo anti. Remember, race is a social construct – in both biology and anthropology it has failed the test as an empirically viable concept, but it is a social reality.

America’s mostly unacknowledged status as Incarceration Nation, the system of actual apartheid embodied in the increasingly corporate prison-industrial complex, with the highest number of prisoners in the world, sustains our racism. Structural racism is a set of institutional practices that produce racist outcomes of inequality whether or not the individual actors are personally racist. As Michele Alexander has so perceptively demonstrated, a New Jim Crow system of segregation – facilitated by the sustained system of residential and educational segregation and media indifference – has emerged mostly from the drug war, which incarcerates massive numbers of mostly boys and men of color – despite equivalent rates of drug use by whites – producing in effect a new caste system stigmatizing and isolating many young blacks and browns from the economy and society.
Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are best understood as anachronisms, although Sterling’s wealth institutionalizes his personal racism. We need not be so offended by them, for their personal pathologies are not today’s real problem of racism. They are relics of an openly racist past in which racist language was merely the cultural expression of an openly self-acknowledged oppressive system. Today’s re-configured system of racial oppression and re-coded racist language pose a greater danger by their camouflage. White liberal reactions of disgust over these relics reflect a discomfort with what may be a subliminal recognition of the continued racial caste system in their imagined “post-racial America.” Where are they when white male millionaire congressmen repeatedly engage in a strategy of degradation and obstruction that no white president has ever experienced? They blame it on “party politics,” not the re-coded racism they tolerate.