Reform is not Enough

The violence continues. It seems pervasive. The list is long and diverse. Cops shoot unarmed Black men in every major American city. A lone deranged Air Force veteran kills five Dallas police officers. A disturbed marine Iraq-returnee assassinates three more in Baton Rouge. Suicide bombers turn Brussels, Paris, and Bagdad upside down. A wife-beating suicide truck driver runs over and kills at least eighty-four people leaving scores more injured on Bastille Day in Nice. Fear spreads wildly. No limits, no recourse, no solution. But what is the nature of all this? What is the common thread, or is there one?

Sociology in the West began in the conservative lament over the dissolution of traditional societal relations and the growing instability of institutions in the nineteenth century. Concepts like anomie and alienation became important explanations of “deviant” behavior. “Social problems” dominated the thinking of the American sociology that emerged somewhat later than its earlier beginnings in Europe, as the U.S. industrialized.

Some attribute the earliest sociological writing to Ibn Khaldun, the North African Muslim historiographer who chronicled forms of empire and conflict in fourteenth century Arab societies. Khaldun’s theories explored transitions from sedentary life to nomadic life, and processes of social conflict, social cohesion, and group solidarity (“tribalism”). They were early precursors to modern perspectives on social organization and social change. Modern sociological understandings of these concepts now seem little improved over those of Khaldun. Do sociologists understand today’s global social chaos? Does anyone?

Today, new forms of change further disrupt social cohesion and even arouse new forms of alienated tribalism and violence. Violent reactions to the instabilities of the faltering global industrial economy are as diverse as they are extreme. The dominant endless-growth model of economics destabilizes all other forms of society (family, community, cities, towns, villages) in the ubiquitous corporate pursuit of economic profit and political power. Violence frequently accompanies social destabilization and transformation.

Economic “Progress” and the Destabilization of Everything

Social change has accelerated since the Middle Ages. The Industrial Revolution and its application of the energy of fossil fuels to economic production processes brought on even more rapid change. The traditional “commons” shared for village-scale farming were “enclosed” by powerful landlords to facilitate the earliest forms of industrial agriculture. Confiscation of resources, whether land or the prizes beneath it, has been the underlying theme of economic growth in the petro-industrial era. Dislocation, impoverishment, and migration inevitably accompany dispossession. What has changed? Everything and nothing.

The American westward expansion had a similar, though perhaps more deadly, effect on the native population as did the enclosures in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Settlers confiscated tribal lands across the Great Plains and westward for ranching and farming to feed the growing population in the former colonies to the east. Many of those “pioneers” descended from those European refugees – peasants who had been forced into cities where conditions of labor were deadly, and who paid dearly for the Atlantic crossing.

The American Revolution was never quite completed. The English mercantile class that controlled economy and polity in the British colonies in America never lost its power. It  gradually morphed into the financial and corporate elites that dominate the U.S. politics and economy today. A decline of the middle class and the explosive growth of poverty in America accompanied the resulting concentration of wealth. Post-slavery urbanization, followed by outsourcing of manufacturing and loss of well-paid jobs, impoverished the urban working class. Responses to urban poverty gradually morphed into mass incarceration as the War on Drugs. Its incentives to oppress established The New Jim Crow in U.S. cities where Black folks are as isolated from economic opportunity as ever.[1]

The colonial nations of Europe dominated the world even after their colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America achieved formal independence. The American case was unique in that its independence and abundant resources allowed it to become the dominant power of empire in the post-colonial world. The difference between colonialism and empire has been mostly a matter of the form of domination and the means to achieve it. Economic domination replaced political supervision.

The deployment of new technologies of fossil fuel driven industrial and military might assured the U.S. position as the most powerful nation in the world. Before seeking greater resources abroad, the U.S. extractive industrialists exploited vast oil, gas, iron, other minerals, and agricultural production at home. This allowed a unique development of industrial and military superiority – the real form of “American exceptionalism” amidst a stifling cultural stagnation. Once it exhausted most of those resources, the corporate state turned to the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing.

The means of domination by “the only remaining super-power” after the Cold War are many and varied, from financial to military.[2] U.S. efforts to establish an empire have focused primarily on controlling the main sources of petroleum in the Middle East. Images of the attacks on “the homeland” on September 11, 2001, symbolized resistance to tyranny for many victims of bombing campaigns, invasion and occupation. Diverse U.S. invasions and occupations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Libya have attempted to serve the energy corporations. Those ventures have produced far more terrorists than oil. Imaginary future victories continue to define current abject failures. All the while, the corporate state ignores the devastating effects on the environment.

The purpose underlying protestations of “bringing democracy” to these nations is to secure corporate control over global resources and assure continued growth of extractive capital. The “War on Terror” was in part a genuine reaction to 9-11. It was also a cover for the prosecution of diverse largely unsuccessful resource wars. The consequences of indiscriminant drone attacks, targeted killings, and counter-insurgency night-raids has been to feed new recruits to the very terrorist groups the U.S. intends to destroy. The consequent disruption of traditional and even modern forms of social cohesion has achieved an order of magnitude unimaginable by Ibn Khaldun.

Chaos and Illusions of Social Control

The leviathan of the corporate-state may seem unstoppable. Yet wars of occupation and counter-insurgency are not won. Once they fight to stalemate and widespread destruction, occupying forces abandon the resulting chaos. More enemies are created, found and targeted.

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Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Domestic attempts to suppress dissent and protest over oppressive economic conditions and police violence in “the homeland,” also produce little social order. Nor are law enforcement institutions able to control general urban violence. The ebb and flow of overall crime rates has little to do with “enforcement” practices – except for the differential police actions against the poor in prosecuting the War on Drugs. Overall crime rates have declined, but “law and order” memes dominate police thinking. Militarization of police harden “us vs. them” images of the Warrior Cop. Without revolutionary transformation of law enforcement in the U.S., the bloody stalemate will continue.

Myths abound concerning the control of urban populations in the U.S. and abroad. A standoff between more forces than are recognized is occurring. In the U.S., crass demagoguery pits police authority against minority and immigrant populations. Police and politicians conflate peaceful protest against police violence with general urban violence and terror attacks. Trump’s tropes incite nativist white tribalism, a latter-day resurgence of social cohesion in the form of a pseudo-patriotic racism not unlike fascism.

The billionaire business cheat succeeded in framing his grab for political power as an anti-establishment rebellion. That feat by the crass bully astounded establishment liberals. They underestimate the nation’s susceptibility to demagoguery. The corporate media, which will succumb to any hint of sensationalism, dutifully provided billions of dollars in free television exposure to a sociopathic narcissist billionaire. (What would have happened if Bernie had had that kind of coverage?)

Analysts remain confused. All sorts of ad hoc media explanations of diverse instances of chaos and violence fall short of plausibility. Authorities seek “terrorist” propaganda associations to explain the mass murder in Nice by a mad trucker. The mad men of Nice, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, maybe even Orlando, seemed to mix confused ideological fragments with the desire for suicide by cop. These seem more like individual pathology absorbing some political patina than organized terrorism, which is happy to exploit such pathology. Even the allegiance of the San Bernardino killers to ISIS seemed more aspirational than organizational. More is likely to come.

We seek to fight the enemies we have made, without understanding the processes by which we have made them. They are many but diverse. Through it all, images of absolute good and evil distort the social realities, allowing ignorance and fear to prevail.

Reform or Revolution

Sustaining a culture of civility provides the social cohesion that characterizes a stable social order. The failure of U.S. invaders to establish stability in Iraq resulted from eliminating the individuals and institutions that had maintained a certain level of civility. Such civility had existed, particularly between Sunni and Shiite populations, even under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The character of the occupation bred not only insurgents, but also civil strife.

The character of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in some ways parallels the occupation of Iraq. Police in the U.S. increasingly look like an occupying force. Their role has become one of “controlling the population,” not to “protect and serve” those whom many police despise. Too many police view urban populations as the enemy. The technology of smartphone, dashboard, and body-cam video, now facilitates the documentation of widespread police violence, primarily in communities of color. The evidence of hatred abounds.

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Black Folks Response to Police Killings

The Black Lives Matter movement responded directly to the disproportionate experience of police violence by Blacks and Hispanics. The constant flow of revelations of police violence by citizens’ smartphone video on social media rivals the broadcast of racist Trump tropes on the corporate mass media. However denied, dehumanized police conduct and attitudes have achieved full public exposure. Black Lives Matter is a non-violent movement publicly protesting police violence.

The characterization of Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements as advocating violence against police, crudely promotes a self-serving prejudice against all protesters. The validity of the protest is delegitimized by the bigoted claims of the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump. “Blue Lives Matter” implicitly denies police culpability in a well-documented national pattern of “excessive use of force,” while projecting that same violence onto those who peacefully protest against it.

What a civil society might otherwise sustain as indigenous law enforcement increasingly appears as a foreign occupying force. The police-versus-the-population image of law enforcement, whether held by officers, chiefs of police, or citizens, is doomed to create more chaos and violence. Minor ‘reforms’ – sensitivity training or use of force training for the violence-prone, or even more selective recruitment to weed out those with violent tendencies – will not be nearly enough.

This is where it gets even more difficult. We are witnessing the consequences of a deeply violent culture. White nativist memes deny diversity of this nation of immigrants, in service to their illusions of a “real America.” To achieve a civil society with a civil police will require a sea change in attitude and organization. No amount of piecemeal reforms will break the cycle of police violence, protest, and suppression of aggrieved populations.

The necessary seems so far from the possible. Is a revolutionary transformation of the law enforcement and justice system even possible? Illusions of American Exceptionalism prevent recognition of the obvious successes of nations like Portugal and Finland.

To root out the culture of violence and “them against us” policing will require a total transformation of police institutions and personnel. Society must pay officers much more highly and hold them to much higher standards of civility and respect for human dignity.

In the context of the corporate cult of privatization of everything, too many view police,  since they are mere public servants like teachers, as very low-level functionaries not worthy of significant pay. As I have argued elsewhere, we must recruit them carefully, pay them very well and hold them to very high standards. That includes very high standards for admission, very high standards for training, and very high standards of conduct. One case of abuse of a citizen should mean that you are out. To achieve these things would constitute revolutionary change in law enforcement, requiring revolutionary change in society. The very difficult is very necessary.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) provides an exceptionally lucid, ground-breaking, though culturally denied, account of how mass incarceration of the vulnerable populations of mostly urban communities of color has replaced slavery as the primary force oppressing Black and Brown folks in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

[2] For an astounding and enlightening account of the exploitation of potential client nations by U.S. corporate-government cooperation in the use of financial and covert power, including assassination, to dominate the economies of those nations, see John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).

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.

Death Dance: The Downward Spiral of Police-Citizen Conflict

Maybe New York Mayor De Blasio’s public statement acknowledging the problem almost everyone is aware of was the tipping point. He described having cautioned his “bi-racial” son about the dangers of interacting with a police officer in New York City. The NYPD reaction was immediate outrage and public expression of disrespect for the man with civilian authority over law enforcement. Mayors are always supposed to publicly support their police, “right or wrong.”

Well, the public light recently shined too brightly on multiple police killings of unarmed Black men and boys. The bright light of media coverage also shined on the failures of the criminal justice system to take such crimes seriously. The relationship of civilian authority over, and oversight of, police in this nation is coming under serious scrutiny. And it doesn’t look good.

Police as Political Interest Group

The role of police in society has not always been clear. Bias in favor of the powerful and persecution of the vulnerable are not new. But things are different now. The failed drug war has not failed to incarcerate large numbers of young men of color and establish a New Jim Crow.[1]  The drug war has produced a new class of economic and social outcasts. Now, most civilian police all across the nation have been ‘militarized.’ They conduct ‘drug raids’ on the homes of American “suspects,” or serve simple warrants, on the model of a military assault on a terrorist cell. Poorly trained and educated young men are enticed with powerful weaponry and other technology of war. Too many of them have had too much experience with the brutality of soldier-civilian contacts in America’s “wars of choice.” Too many are drawn to the powerful imagery of the “Warrior cop.”[2]  They see themselves as a force apart from society and its problems and they feel unfairly expected to fix things.

But more disturbing is the growing strength of the police as a political interest group. Americans too easily want to turn over civic responsibility to “the authorities.” But it gets us all in trouble. Any group or organization given too much authority will inevitably misuse it. Police are supposed to be the agent of the civilian authority of law in society, not an independent political group. That is why their militarization is a threat to the already tenuous threads of democracy we yet retain. But when an enforcement agency of civil authority becomes an interest group in itself, it becomes a direct threat to a wide range of human rights in civil society.

Disrespect for Human Life

Under conditions such as I have just described, the perceptions of persons exercising authority as law enforcement officers tend to put down the populations they are sworn to “protect and serve.” Militarization alone has that effect, easing the burden of committing violence on, or killing, other humans. The drug war and the perception of all members of vulnerable populations as the other – seen as less human, even innately ‘criminal’ – leads to a lack of human empathy.

With the exception of the elites, urban populations are generally suspected of being guilty of something. Their collective character is commonly denigrated. “Excessive force” becomes normative behavior. Until recent media coverage, it went largely unreported and unnoticed by suburban, mostly white, America. “Racial profiling,” “stop and frisk,” and high rates of police killings of unarmed young men of color, all reflect the growing disrespect for human life among some police. We do live in a society whose international policies allow extrajudicial official killings of the other around the world. The soldier’s seemingly simple freedom to kill ‘the enemy’ comes to be admired and even emulated in a culture – supported by corporate media – where violence is portrayed as the standard solution.

The Behavioral Sink

Chronic stress and unstable conditions lead to anti-social behavior, whether in rats or in humans. When highly stressful conditions produce bad behavior, the bad behavior of some stimulates bad behavior by others – it is a behavioral sink. But it’s not just overcrowding or deprived conditions that produce social pathology. Institutional corruption plays a big part, as does cultural conflict.

Today, a familiar pattern of escalating conflict expresses converging patterns of disrespect for human life that encourage violence, in both police and some citizens. Many police have little respect for the lives of young men of color – and others too. Some who protest that lack of respect show a similar disrespect for life by refusing to honor the lives of two New York City police officers and suspend their protests until after the funerals of the assassinated officers. Many officers conflate the protestors with the insane assassin. It is a behavioral sink.

Immense Need for Institutional and Cultural Reform

Primary responsibility for breaking the cycle rests with those who have the most power to do something about it. That would be “the authorities.” It won’t happen by looking to the head of a police benevolent society, who reacted to Mayor de Blasio’s unvarnished statement in the manner of a spoiled teenager. Many humane law enforcement officers are embarrassed at the kind of cold indifference to the real problem of police anti-social behavior and unjustified violence, sometimes reaching the level of lawlessness, of some fellow officers. But only when the civilian authorities in charge of the police are pressured by the public to transform police practices from the manner of gangsters to the ethical practices of true peace officers, will civil society and democracy return.

_________

1.  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
2.  Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York: Public Affairs, Perseus Books, 2013.
3.  John B. Calhoun, “Population density and social pathology”. Scientific American (1962). 206 (3): 139–148.

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.

How to Corrupt Law Enforcement

In American political culture the idea of “corruption” is both simple and suppressed. We think of the occasional individual politician or official taking a bribe to direct funds to a particular bidder or contractor. Yet we have lost sight of the essence of corruption – exploitation – and the fact that it can take many forms but always has the same basic character. Individual instances are usually part of a larger pattern.

What is Corruption?
There are, of course, various kinds of corruption found in diverse institutional settings. The scope and scale of corruption may range from personal to systemic. An individual bureaucrat may take a bribe, or a CEO may take executive actions that serve his personal interests more than those of the company that pays him for making good decisions. He may trade securities on the basis of his inside information. If so, he has corrupted the responsibilities of his position by his unethical actions.

But systemic corruption occurs when a pattern of practices involves a number of members of an organization. In a major example, J.P. Morgan Chase and other large Wall Street banks fraudulently engaged in misrepresentation of risk, falsifying ‘due diligence’ and knowingly selling ‘toxic’ securities to clients.[1]  Senators and representatives who take political donations from lobbyists and sponsor bills the lobbyist wrote, clearly corrupt the political process. But it is accepted as ‘business as usual’ in the Congress. We live in a corrupt political culture that is taken for granted by the politicians and by the corporate media that ‘reports’ on them. The corporate state is a corruption of democracy and has replaced all but its form.

In the case of law enforcement, you might remember hearing of a bygone era when an ethical challenge faced by the “cop on the beat” was simpler than we hear of today. While making his rounds an officer is offered a free cup of coffee or a meal at the local diner. The shopkeeper considers it good business to be ‘close’ with local police. This probably still happens somewhere. But that the practice is now recognized as currying favoritism. The “peace officer” was supposed to be a neutral figure, even-handedly enforcing the law. In our complex of corrupt institutional relations and practices today, law enforcement has become one of the institutional players. In the systematic corrupt pattern of practices within the nation’s political and legal institutions, law enforcement institutions have been severely corrupted.

Self Dealing
The “War on Drugs” is now pretty famous for having failed to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. Masses of vulnerable young men and women of color who use drugs at the same rate as everyone else are systematically incarcerated. The purpose of reducing drug use in society was turned into a practice of mass incarceration of selected target populations (blacks and browns). At the same time, the more powerful population segment (whites) is largely ignored. This is itself the corruption of a mission. But the practice of targeting the vulnerable for personal, departmental, or professional gain is yet a further level of corruption. Regardless of how ill-conceived, futile, and counterproductive the War on Drugs was and is, its conversion into a mechanism for profiteering by police departments and their corporate suppliers rates the highest condemnation.

This, of course, is closely related to the widespread militarization of civilian police. The more ‘drug arrests’ the more credits, loans, and funding for all sorts of power-imagineering paraphernalia. And once they get hold of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ‘Use it or lose it’ has been the policy of Department of Defense when it distributes military equipment to local police. So, why not send out a SWAT team to serve a simple warrant? What is the bottom line? Well, it is the blatant shift of purpose from (legitimately) “protecting and serving” the public to (illegitimate but accepted) institutional self-aggrandizement. Power seeking and profiteering are practiced at the expense of the public interest in real public safety.

Theft as “Civil Asset Forfeiture”
By now most of us have heard of the police confiscating large sums of money, luxury cars, even mansions, from drug dealers when they are arrested. Laws were passed to support aggressive police actions against drug dealers. The loot came to be shared with local police departments that cooperated in or conducted successful raids. While such extra-judicial practices are constitutionally questionable in themselves, the practice has taken on another level of corruption. With no judicial or other check on the confiscation of the property of citizens where arrests have occurred but not necessarily indictments or convictions, the near complete corruption of the ideals of law enforcement was assured.

The practice of confiscating property from “suspects” has spread to a variety of situations where it would be hard to justify. Yet, unconstrained police now actively look for “goodies” that can be used by the department or liquidated for cash.[2]  A “reason” for an arrest can usually be constructed. This, of course, is the ultimate corruption of law enforcement, since it is essentially the use of power to engage in legalized theft. This sort of behavior is hardly different than the shakedowns of organized crime or street gangs. “Reform” is a far too weak a word to use when trying to describe what is needed to bring back law enforcement institutions into a civil society where their job is simply to “keep the peace” and protect the public. The current conflict of institutional interests and the public interest is intolerable.

The growing privatization of the public sector has squeezed state and local government operations including law enforcement. That pressure encourages police to exploit opportunities presented by ill-conceived laws allowing unconstitutional searches and seizures. In a corrupt environment, the weak are corrupted. The weakness of police culture is palpable. Only mobilized public demand can change that.
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1. Matt Taibbi, “Meet the woman J P Morgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking.” Rolling Stone, November 6, 2014.
2. Shalla Dewan, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize.” New York Times. November 10, 2014.

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.