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.
_______
[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.

Incarceration Nation

The U.S. imprisons a greater portion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We also incarcerate a larger absolute number of prisoners than any other nation, even China! What does this tell us about our culture and about how “social control” is exercised in America? One thing is certain: more and more ‘infractions’ of proliferating laws, rules, and regulations are treated by jailing the transgressor.

One huge factor, of course, is the infamous “War Against Drugs,” which has been raging on since Richard Nixon was President. A whole industry has proliferated around the ostensible suppression of the illegal drug trade, with huge profits for private corporations involved (and for the drug cartels) and equally large incentives for police around the nation to arrest and charge minor drug offenders, mostly boys and men of color – who use drugs in no greater percentage than white boys safe from police in their college dorm rooms – but with no appreciable effect on the flow of drugs into our cities and towns.

Another factor is the growing militarization of police. Both military culture and military equipment and tactics have invaded our local police departments in small towns as well as in the biggest cities, along with a “war-fighter” mentality. With them flow federal funding from the ‘Drug War’ thus enabling police to support ‘tactical units’ such as SWAT teams as the premier enforcement technique, and the lessening of crisis intervention techniques in police work. High arrest rates are rewarded by donations of “surplus” military hardware. Of course, “stop and frisk” policies and the massively discriminatory pursuit of minority “offenders” in the segregated neighborhoods of poor black and brown populations, all point to the national trend toward suppressing and socially isolating the most vulnerable populations in the nation by incarceration and by excluding them from the economy by virtue of the felony records these policies generate, as well as by the inferior public education they are allowed.

This perverse institutionalized oppression is well documented in Michelle Alexander’s definitive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness. But the general trend is toward the criminalization of everyday life in an even broader way. White folks are no longer safe either. Children are now arrested for minor altercations in school. Any deviation from some institutional standard is subject to possible criminal prosecution. [see Chase Madar, “The Over Policing Of America: How Your Daily Actions Are Being Incrementally Criminalized” at http://thefreethoughtproject.com/policing-america-daily-actions-incrementally-criminalized/#H6Kh0RZkkOGUZxXT.99 for more examples.]

But the cops are victims too. American culture suffers from a fundamental flaw sociologists call “blaming the victim,” which stems from our excessive individualism and conflation of structural causes with personal consequences. It is encouraged by the corporate media, which diverts attention from corporate and institutional sources of social problems to consequent social pathology. So, authorities fail to properly vet and train police, then we blame the unprepared cops for the excessive use of force that results from inadequate selection, bad leadership and the same insufficient support we give teachers. In a recent three-part series of posts, I discuss these and related problems of police, especially in relation to the case of frequent police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Incredible Darkness of Being … a Cop.” Read them at: https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=cop&submit=Search .

Poorly educated and scarcely trained, today’s ‘warrior cops’ know little of the once-valued culture of the “peace officer.” Instead, police are self-selected for violent tendencies, improperly screened, inadequately trained, under-paid, and put out on the street to “enforce” laws they know little about, especially the constitution.

But the most disturbing of all is the gradual transformation of the nation itself into a ‘cultural prison’ of the whole, a society where creativity and compassion, opportunity and achievement, education and self-realization, are all sacrificed to economic domination and social control by the corporate state. Hard to get a grip on, this enveloping phenomenon is both subtle and widespread; its elements can, however, be seen in the pervasive reliance on force in every institutional context from employment to law, from educational testing to wage theft, and to the decline of a culture of civility and disappearance of compassion in every sphere of life.

This is no way to enter the era of the great transformation from the end of the fossil-fuel driven growth economy to a stable ecological economy, which will take the highest level of social cooperation and institutional commitment ever demanded of humanity.