Take a Knee for Me

It is not easy for America to sort it all out when police openly commit widespread racial profiling of Black lives and gratuitous violence on Black bodies, and so many white folks fail to object to the fact or even acknowledge it.

It is not easy for America to sort it all out when the president of the nation ignores the evil inherent violent demonstrations by neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and xenophobes, and equates them with the peaceful protesters and defenders against of their hate.

It is not easy for America to sort it all out when the president attacks NFL players moved by the oppression of their brothers and sisters to express openly their concerns in a peaceful symbolic way in the only public forum they have. (I could shout from my rooftop, but nearly no one would hear – it is, after all, about being heard.)

It is not easy for America to sort it all out when the president demands that team owners fire any player who exercises his first amendment rights with a peaceful gesture in a public setting. No such scorn is expressed for racist Nazi violence.

It is not easy for America to sort it all out when old imaginary rights of owners to dictate all behavior of their employees, including political expression, dominate political discourse while images of master and slave still permeate the air, and their confederate symbols grace the public square.

It is not easy for America to sort it all out while racism, misogyny, and myriad rituals of denigration and degradation emanate from the nation’s highest office, in a White House built by slave labor and occupied by oligarchs.

It is not easy for America to sort it all out when we have to face barbarity, brutality, dehumanization and destitution of our citizens and so many others, so that the super-rich political donors can demand big tax breaks from their lackeys in a plutocratic congress.

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Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones, take a knee before the national anthem before NFL game, 9-25-2017 in Arizona.

Grace Galore (in a Facebook post) put it this way:

I would take a knee for the police brutality and racial profiling my father, uncles and brothers have faced.

I would take a knee for the mass deportation during the Great Repatriation of California during the Great Depression that my ancestors faced to make room for white labor in California.

I would also take a knee for the cancerous pesticides dumped on our farm laborers everyday to keep wages down and your food prices too.

I would take a knee to stand against the golden calf that is a song or flag or emblem, not impenetrable or holy.

I would take a knee for the hypocrisy of our system to keep the low, lower, under the facade of patriotism.

I would take a knee for this country, which is much better than all the privileged and blind “sons of bitches” who venerate a song over humanity and righteousness.

I am America. Take a knee for me…

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.

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.