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.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part III

The economics profession provides the ideology, the corporations fund the politicians and their lobbyists write the legislation, the congress formalizes the legal cover and the stacked courts confirm it, the Federal Reserve provides the “fractional reserve” lending authority, and the Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” direct capital to drive the endless-growth economy that is killing the planet.  The military, of course, assures that the dwindling planetary resources flow to the growth machine and the increasingly militarized police act as an occupying force to “manage” the population.

Where can we find the hope in all this harsh institutionalized reality that is already exceeding the limits of the biosphere?  Hope lies where it always has: in the people.  When we examine the examples of revolutionary change in history, one fact becomes clear.  All successful revolutions (aside from those overthrowing in invading or occupying armies) have been non-violent movements of the people against oppressive regimes of one sort or another.  Popular resistance is a powerful force.  Real power results from the consent of the governed; that is what frightened the financial and political elites so much about the Occupy Movement.  When that consent is withdrawn, elites tremble.

Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall surveyed a wide range of movements of popular resistance to oppressive regimes in the last 100 years in their book, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, and found that a variety of non-violent sanctions – from strikes and boycotts to civil disobedience, street demonstrations, and non-cooperation – exercised by ordinary people, can separate ruling elites from their sources of power to end oppression.  Each case was different – from Gandhi’s movement of non-cooperation in India in the 1920’s to Poland’s Solidarity movement in the 1980’s, from Russia in 1905 (before the Bolsheviks) to Argentina in the 1970’s and Chile in the 1980’s to Burma today – but wherever popular resistance bloomed, it could not be stopped.

Today, our problem is the same but also different.  What Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism” in his book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, has quietly and incrementally overturned democratic institutions in the U.S., resulting in a elite-managed façade of corrupted democratic formalities that gloss over a pervasive corporate plutocracy.

What does all this mean for a citizen movement to transform the economy to achieve ecological justice, a stable biosphere, and the triumph of human values over economic growth serving corporate power?  Because all national institutions are now under unified totalistic control of the economic/political elite, serious change can only come from the bottom up – from the people ourselves.  Both collective acts of resistance and re-organization of economic activity in communities are necessary.

Close all your accounts with the Big Banks; open accounts only with local banks and member-owned credit unions.  Start employee-owned businesses.  Dump Comcast and join or start a cooperative member-owned Internet association at half the cost.  Divest your investments from fossil fuel corporations and military contractors.  Organize local opposition to water-table destroying oil/gas fracking.  Organize your community to establish publicly owned municipal community solar/wind driven electricity and local-regional smart grids.  Start community gardens and food coops.  Buy local, especially food, and avoid any “food”-product with more than five ingredients.  Pay a little more for locally grown organics and buy less plastic junk – the costs and benefits will balance out.  Organize to pressure city, county, and state governments to embark on seriously carbon-neutral energy programs.  The list can be extended by dozens of actions people can  take where we live.

We must change the way we live by taking individual and collective action in conflict with and in resistance to the very consumer culture we have internalized since World War II, but must now purge from our sense of ourselves.  We must again communicate with family and neighbors about steps we can take together to stem the tide of ecological catastrophe.  The new culture for a carbon-neutral world will look very different as we shape it, but will be fulfilling in ways the alienated consumerism we have been deceived into thinking is the mark of “success,” can never be.  And when you consider all those people who are just not paying attention, remember Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted words:  “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The inattentive will eventually recognize hope in a new reality forming.  The possible is not necessarily the probable.  That is up to us.  Only our individual commitments and collective actions will make it so.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  ~  Mahatma Gandhi

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part II

The reality we face in the coming decades involves three integrated crises: 1) the consolidation of the corporate state driven by the debt-based endless corporate-growth economy, which increasingly damages populations by isolating them from economic resources and destroys the environment we all need, in service to short-term profit and political power; 2) accelerating resource depletion which makes the conventional economic model of debt-based economic growth and expanding populations unsustainable; and 3) accelerating climate disruption caused by unrelenting carbon emissions resulting from (1) and (2).  Unlimited economic growth is an illusion that is ultimately self-terminating.  Our current path poses the utmost threat ever to human survival, making it the greatest imaginable challenge to an outlook of hopeful realism.  If you recognize the existential threat facing us, how can you not be a hopeless pessimist?  If you deny the existential threat facing us, you must be a foolish optimist.  Both those options are useless.

Any solution requires both hope and realism.  We must face necessary massive transformations in the ways we live on the planet if hope is to be sustained.  We must sustain a huge dose of hope in order to take the drastic challenging actions necessary for survival.  Most discussions that recognize the threat look for solutions that assume continuing on some “green” path of the consumer culture we have come to view as “normal.”  That will not work.  However, the Great Transformation that is now inevitable – though its outcome is unpredictable – need not require a Luddite approach that would simply destroy manufacturing technology.  Instead, we must recognize that human technology has gone off in a direction of “creative destruction” and must be re-directed and transformed into a new human-scale enterprise.  But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.  It is not hard to come up with a list of imperative economic and technological changes, all of which involve freeing ourselves from fossil-fuel dependency.  Here are just a few major items for such a list:

  • Convert electricity production from coal and gas to wind and solar.
  • Convert the hugely wasteful long-distance electricity transmission grid to interconnected local-community solar/wind electrical smart grids.
  • Reduce much of capital-intensive production to labor-intensive production.
  • Convert transportation from petroleum based to electricity based propulsion.
  • Break up the Big Banks; re-institute the Glass-Steagall wall between commercial banking and investment (casino) banking, and while were at it, have the Federal Reserve re-sell all those casino junk bonds back to the Big Banks at the price paid; that will re-direct the Bad Debt back to where it belongs; then resolve those bloated unnecessary institutions and let those gamblers take the losses they earned.
  • Establish State and local banks as public institutions in service to public needs.
  • Limit international trade to products and materials that are not capable of being produced in the receiving nation; convert all shipping to non-fossil-fuel propulsion systems.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Obviously, this list could be extended considerably, and much detail would have to be worked out.  But you get the idea: massive transformation of international, national, and local-regional economies in line with the energy requirements of stabilizing the biosphere to achieve stable local and planetary ecological systems.  Well, that was easy.  But wait.  How can these things be accomplished?  Conventional political processes are controlled by the very corporations that continue to resist such changes in order to grab as much short-term profits as they can before being forced to change.  But if we wait for the force of nature to stop the insanity, then it will be too late to stop the acceleration of climate disruption beyond the limits of human habitation on the planet.  Many corporations see the climate writing on the wall, but they are compelled by their own internal logic to grab all they can before the end of the era of endless growth.

The only answer left is popular resistance, and that is a long shot because the popular culture is largely controlled by the corporate media that promotes only its own short-term interests, and we will have to change the way we live rather quickly to make enough difference.  Yet, people are not nearly as stupid as politicians and CEOs think they are.  We know we are in crisis, but most just don’t know what to do personally and most still believe that we can somehow have a “green” economy and still consume all that stuff the corporations are selling us.  The most important result of the Occupy Movement – and the Arab Spring as well, for that matter – is that it really scared the political-economic power elites.  Occupy has dispersed, but many local actions based on similar principles are occurring.  History shows that the power of numbers can overcome the power of elites.  No guarantees; we have so much to do and so little time.  In Part III of this essay I will discuss the sources of hope in this sea of harsh reality.