After Indictment: Justice is not Enough

News coverage in the aftermath of the police killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri have died down now. But in the aftermath, little else has been said in the national media about the underlying problem of police in America. Ferguson’s city council responded to protests with some mild reforms such as limiting the proportion of city revenue supplied by traffic fines.

It appears that the grand jury may be out for some time. Demands for social justice focus mainly on whether the officer who killed Mr. Brown will be charged and prosecuted for murder or some lesser variant thereof, or not at all. But Ferguson, if it is anything, is a small scale case in point of what is wrong with law enforcement in the U.S.A.

A common theme reflected in all the societal crises is the American penchant for violent “solutions” to almost anything viewed as problematic for “American Exceptionalism.” As the system approaches collapse, elite reactions invariably incorporate some form of force. Sure, law enforcement has a long history of defending property and power against freedom and opportunity, even when police were closer to the citizenry. But today, the militarization of police coincides with the unprecedented concentration of power in the 1% of the 1%.

The role of “law enforcement” is increasingly suspect. In an earlier post, “Incarceration Nation,” [1] I referred to “The New Jim Crow” system that plagues young men of color today. Michelle Alexander, in her book by that title [2], powerfully demonstrated how the drug-war supported police operations in poor neighborhoods produces a new stigmatized American caste of color. The central player driving the incarceration of most young men of color is law enforcement. The agencies that profit from arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of vulnerable populations, perpetrate the social crime of institutionalized racist forced social isolation.

But the problem of law enforcement runs much deeper than institutionalized racist practices – as if that were not enough. Since Ferguson, countless incidents of routine police brutality, even against whites, have surfaced in both social media and local newscasts. True to their reputation harking back to Rodney King’s beating 20 years ago, officers of the Foothill Division of the LAPD recently were caught on video exercising their aggression. They slammed a small nurse down on the pavement after stopping her for using her cell phone while driving. Gratuitous violence at best.

Even while under Justice Department investigation for questionable patterns of use-of-force practices, such dysfunctional departments continue to be issued military weapons and battle equipment. Police departments are hiring veterans of combat with “insurgent” enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan who look like the general population. These veterans’ unacknowledged post traumatic stress disorder is often left untreated. But it is exactly the condition that we should not want in a “peace officer” in a domestic city.

None of the leading indicators of the relationship between police and citizens is comforting. None of the administrative “leadership” of the departments whose brutal practices have come to light, gives one a feeling of civic security from police abuse. Many officers are self-selected by their penchant for violence; their employers condone and encourage their aggressiveness and tolerate their violence. Swat teams are often the first response to the most innocuous situations. Crisis intervention officers are underutilized. The Los Angeles Police Department alone has settled countless lawsuits for millions of dollars. The incidents of police violence and deadly shootings in Albuquerque have not subsided since the department came under Justice Department scrutiny. The list is too long – it encompasses the whole nation.

None of this will change significantly without a total ‘makeover’ of the culture of law enforcement in the U.S.A., and of our expectations too. The escalation of violence to assert total control is the norm. Any hint of ‘disrespect’ or ‘failure to obey’ is met with aggression and/or violence. An LAPD cop who was also a member of the Crips gang once told me that the police are really just another gang; if you don’t look at them that way you cannot understand them. Civil society cannot be sustained if “peace” is enforced instead of enacted.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, [3] analyzes the economic, social, and political crises that have resulted in global warming. The climate crisis both reflects deep societal failures and presents a comprehensive opportunity to solve the societal crisis and climate crisis simultaneously. As the old fossil-fueled industrial order struggles to survive, “law enforcement” has become little more than the enforcer for the oligarchy, which increasingly fears the citizenry. After all, only the people can stop them now.  The Peoples Climate March drew 400,000.

Global warming is the direct planetary consequence of the most fundamental failures of industrial capital’s domination of society in the last two centuries. The trajectory of the industrial era has many elements, including state monopoly of force. Paradoxically, it also offers a vital opportunity/necessity to solve the core problem. That is because the transformative actions necessary to mitigate climate disruption are exactly those required to address the destructive trends that have destabilized both society and the biosphere. Increasingly, the expanded political and economic powers of the surging oligarchy are  defended by force. This just demonstrates the inherent weakness of the failing system. Only the people’s rising recognition of imminent ecological and societal collapse and willingness to act to transform society and its relation to the environment will enable humanity to ‘reset’ the world.
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1 https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=incarceration+nation&submit=Search
2 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
3 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

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.

The Incredible Darkness of Being…Confronted by a Racist Cop

The recent police killing of a young black male which has gained national media attention is in most ways not unique. We never hear of most of them. What distinguished Michael Brown’s murder and generated so much outrage was the fact that it was so clearly a “killing of choice,” not of necessity. It’s not easy being a cop in America today. But it’s a lot harder being confronted by one if you are a young black male.

The events following the killing brought an explosion of direct public attention in the mass media and social media to the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. Why? Because, those events are emblematic of a widespread pattern of official violence that a growing number of us now recognize. Many who had believed in the illusion of a “post-racial America,” have gradually come to realize that it is quite integral to the American Culture of Violence.

Gaza, USA
The militarization of local police in the U.S. seems nearly complete. Most small towns all across the country have been armed and equipped with “surplus” weapons and equipment. These are the guns, uniforms, armored personnel carriers, etc., used by the military in “combat zones” around the world. They are changing the personal identities of officers. What does this mean to a black teenager in his own home town? It means fear.  In the Bantustans of Apartheid there was fear, but the African population was needed by the post-colonial rulers for their work in the mines, etc. In Palestine, the prisoners of Gaza (and in the West bank) are defined by Israeli authorities (but not by all Israelis) as entirely without legitimacy as a people. They are the feared/hated Other. The Other is the Enemy. What’s the difference here?

The fear any young black male experiences when confronted by an “officer of the law” has very little to do with his behavior. It has everything to do with DWB – “driving while black,” or walking while black, or in a mall shopping while black – or, as often as not, any of the above while Latino. Bottom line: if you are a youth of color you are guilty until proven innocent. The rest of us? Well, we are merely suspects. It would take a lot of pages to recount the many encounters of indignity my college students of color (male and female) endured at shopping malls in southern California. In attempting to shop at major department stores they were followed around and harassed by security personnel, assumed to be criminals. Same result for driving in area suburbs – where some of them lived!

In Gaza, Palestine, it’s really the same problem only more intense and concentrated in one densely populated area many have called an “outdoor prison.” The people are surrounded and cut off from economic viability by secured physical borders. Many American towns and neighborhoods are also cut off from economic viability. But their isolation is not by fences with armed guards. They are isolated by social and economic barriers that have much the same effect. And their populations are defined as the Enemy Others by the growing numbers of warrior cops.

A 2011 press release announced that St. Louis Police Chief Timothy Fitch would attend anti-terrorist training with Israeli Defense Force and Israeli National Police. His regional “Terrorism Early Warning (TEW) Group” emphasizes “the protection of critical infrastructures,” but does not mention protecting the people. Outfitted like a special forces operator, the Warrior Cop builds a self-image as Final Authority, over the death of The Other, the Enemy – which is ultimately the people. This, of course, blends in with legacy American Racism self-selected into police departments for totalitarian control of ‘restless’ populations. Whites ought to be afraid too, but not nearly so much as peoples of color — unless they are poor, of course. It’s Gaza, U.S.A. in Ferguson and elsewhere.

The Process of Destruction
Part of the dehumanization of The Other involves demonization. The mental outlook of the Warrior Cop and of too many other Americans could be paraphrased thus: “All Palestinians are Terrorists.” “All young Black/Brown males are criminals.” “All Muslims are Al Qaeda terrorists.” Etc., etc., etc. The terrorist meme and the criminal meme are convenient mechanisms for propagating the process of destruction of a people.  “The New Jim Crow” system of mass incarceration of young people of color creates a caste of demonized isolates and a process of their social destruction.

How could the media discussion turn so easily to speculate on the character of Michael Brown in subtle terms of whether he “deserved to die”? A video was conveniently released by the police chief of someone who looked like Michael Brown, shoplifting at a convenience store. Any such prior event has nothing whatsoever to do with his murder. In fact, a police officer shot Michael Brown to death on a street in Ferguson without any evidence of a cause to do so. The video release was an obvious and blatant attempt to divert attention away from the perpetrator and to demonize the victim who he had destroyed.

An entire book could be written, and probably will, to fully analyze the sequence of “after-incident” police misconduct in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown. Silence about the officer involved. Deploying full military forces, including snipers atop armored vehicles was their absurd attempt to suppress an entirely legitimate peaceful protest.  that would be farce if it were not so tragic.

Whatever Michael Brown may or may not have done or have been later suspected of doing is entirely irrelevant to his killing. The police even admitted that the officer-shooter did not know of any connection of Mr. Brown to the convenience store incident. The old scam of ‘blaming the victim’ is alive and well. But then, young black males are routinely demonized anyway.

Until this nation gets a grip on its imperious racist present, and caring people stand up to the totalitarian trend, the process of destruction will continue.  For now, it appears that the social blindness of “law enforcement” institutions prevails.  Their assumption is that the appropriate response to increasing tension and anger is to call in ever more chaotic demonstrations of force  But as Michael Brown’s mother so wisely argued, only justice can establish peace.  And justice is not achieved by suppressing dissent; it is achieved by addressing the grievances of the people.