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).

Drone Cop. Part I: Destroying Citizenship by Dehumanizing Police

Remember “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s landmark sci-fi thriller movie? A future monolithic corporation controls a crime-infested Detroit. It transforms a dead police officer into a cybernetic law-enforcement “unit” called RoboCop. The cyborg hero devastates urban criminality, and soon the streets are safe.[1] RoboCop is little more than an cybernetic enforcement drone; the remains of his humanity is an open question.

Well, science fiction, warts and all, sometimes gives us as good an eye on the present as on the future, even though its plot and characters may be weak or its tone juvenile. Such stories often point to the problems of the present in the guise of a technically advanced future. “Robocop” is something more than human, but he is also dehumanized by his cyber-mechanization. His modus operandi is always overpowering force of violence – a high-tech old west “shoot first and ask questions later” modality. However, in the real world cops are people too.

The death of Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, after being shot in a routine traffic stop, occurred in the context of widespread public criticism of the excessive use of force and high rate of killings by Albuquerque police in the previous decade. The Department seemed in seriously dysfunctional when a Justice Department investigation led to specific requirements for reform. Yet, the community energetically rallied around Officer Webster and his family while he lay struggling to live.

Community support grew even stronger when Officer Webster died a few days after the shooting. People came forward and lauded him as a true hero, a “guardian angel” who had gone above and beyond the official duties of his job whenever he had the opportunity to help people in need. Officer Webster, a combat veteran, evidently was widely recognized for being a true peace officer. The growing trend toward drone cops, completely isolated from the people, is the exact opposite. Officer Webster seemed an exception to the emerging rule in policing.

Today, drone bombings and missile attacks on human “targets” abroad have proliferated on the presumption that “suspicious activity” may involve terrorists in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. The adaptation of that mental model of operating in “conflict zones” to police practices by civilian “law enforcement” is well underway, although fundamentally flawed. At the same time, presidential “hit lists” must give us pause, even if the targets are overseas. In so-called “targeted killing,” – a term that conjures images of precision, likely unjustified – pretty much everyone near the target is defined as “the enemy” unless proven otherwise. So called “collateral damage” is widespread, though under-reported via re-definition. Children in Yemen are called “terrorists in training” by drone operators at their stations back in Nevada.

At what point in the militarization of domestic law enforcement do neighborhoods become “combat zones,” and to what extent, does enforcement take the place of law? And what is the result? What is the effect of local police in the U.S. adopting the combat model of operations? Clearly, it is already happening in various jurisdictions around the “homeland.”[2] We’ve seen some of the result already. The destruction of small villages in Yemen, killing innocent civilians, is analogous to the excessive use of force and indiscriminate shooting of civilians on city streets across the “homeland.”

As dangerous as drones over our cities and towns may become for aviation, no less to civil liberties and human rights, an even more dangerous “dronification” is happening to police officers themselves. They are being turned into Drone Cops. To understand what a drone cop is, consider the contrast with the traditional concept of law enforcement and the role of peace officer in communities. Traditional peace officers were members of their community tasked with assuring the safety and security of the citizenry. They knew their neighbors.

What distinguishes a drone from a manned aircraft? It is the pilot of course. Yes, on-the-ground operators do “pilot” the drones. The technology of “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) allows for two possible tasks: surveillance and targeted killing. Perhaps inadvertently, they sometimes bomb wedding parties and other innocent gatherings. This may be due to “faulty intelligence” (weak electronic information compounded by cavalier attitudes about who may be defined as an “enemy”). But it is also caused by a blurring of definitions of “enemy” vs. “civilian.” A similar blurring results as police are dehumanized and become Drone Cops, who also have come to have just two tasks: surveillance and targeting for violence too often involving killing.

The idea, for example, that any Afghan male who seems to be of an age suitable for military service is to be predefined as a “terrorist” unless subsequent to his death he is proven otherwise, is beyond Kafka in its absurdity. But it is convenient for the trigger-happy commanding officer “managing” an ad hoc conflict zone in a non-war. A similar mindset seems increasingly prevalent in urban law enforcement circles. Young men of color are routinely pre-defined as criminal without regard to circumstance or behavior. They become dehumanized “enemies.”

The death toll for civilians in the conflict zones that has been created by the questionably named “War on Terror,” keeps rising without consequence for the presidentially sanctioned killers. Some who found their own dehumanization to be intolerable have become whistle-blowers.[3] Unverified distant technical means, such as a cell phone being near a location, are used to target persons on a “kill list.” The illegality of extra-judicial assassination aside, the essence of the exercise is its indiscriminate practice of terrorizing citizens of other nations. The meaning of terror is heightened by drone strikes in far away places. What can be more terrifying than a drone attack on your village? The culture of unending war produces terrorist enemies by its own terrorist practices. Terror is also a product of the unending “war on drugs” by Drone Cops, which ultimately becomes a war on vulnerable people.
Part II of this essay will address the replacement of the human decision-maker in law enforcement with the application of technology to control populations.
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[1] Netflix description accessed at: http://dvd.netflix.com/Search?v1=RoboCop&oq=roboc&ac_posn=1
[2] A strange term, “homeland.” It is akin to the terms “fatherland” and “motherland,” which connote nationalistic ideologies, usually asserted by empires. It is interesting to note that the term came into use in the United States largely in response to the attacks of 9/11, which were the first major successful retaliatory actions by deranged Middle East adversaries who identify U.S. military presence, occupations, and actions as a threat to their societies. The blurring of the distinction between foreign combat zones and “the homeland” by the 9/11 attacks seems to have brought the term to use as attempts were made to reorganize security within the nation along the lines of military security at the edges of empire. The implications of all this for domestic law enforcement include the ease with which municipal police departments have become militarized, both in equipment and in attitudes toward the public, both of which foster an image of the public as potential “enemy combatants” and blur any distinction between citizen and criminal.
[3] Four drone-war whistle blowers told their stories of personal dehumanization and indiscriminate killing-at-a-distance on Democracy Now!, November 20, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/11/20/exclusive_air_force_whistleblowers_risk_prosecution

Good Cop, Bad Cop: You Can’t Train a Psychopath to be Compassionate, But You Can Destroy a Good Man’s Compassion

The continuing surge of news stories about highly questionable police killings of unarmed civilians, is shocking enough on its own account. The victims are mostly young black or brown men but also women and even children. It is important to keep in mind that this pattern of police violence did not start with the advent of smart-phone video or police body or dashboard cameras. A new awareness of a problem is sometimes confused with the idea that it is a new problem. Understanding that police violence is a long-standing problem is made that much more disturbing by the plethora of video evidence streaming across social media on a daily basis.

New media do not create new problems, except for problems of unprecedented exposure or changed patterns of communication. They just facilitate greater awareness of problems we had been less aware of. The line between legitimate police enforcement of the law and illegitimate police use of power has always been blurred. But now, that blurry line is getting exposed in ways never before contemplated.

I have watched countless videos of violent and near violent police-citizen encounters on social media over the past year or two. The most common element that comes through is a widespread emotional distancing of police from citizen – a distinct lack of empathy. Also, an apparent need to intimidate citizens expresses an effort to demonstrate absolute authority and control by officers. A near universal police disdain for persons of color detained on the street or in their vehicles, is routinely displayed. One of the most remarkable factors is what appears to be the unawareness by police of the impact that video exposure of their behavior may have.

Professional Pathology

As in any profession, you have good cops and you have bad cops. The good ones were good before they became cops. The bad ones may have started out bad, but others only became bad after years of disenchantment with humanity along with being socialized by their senior peers. What many critics of police do not understand is the impact over time that the experiences of being a peace officer can have on a person of good will. Years of exposure to the absurdity and depravity of some human behavior can taint an officer’s outlook on life.

That officer may increasingly come to see every citizen through the lens of all the perverse situations he may have experienced in his career. In the course of time and action, compassion is lost and cynicism is gained. The process is reinforced by interaction with fellow officers with similar experiences and some who were psychopaths from the start.[1] This is very similar to the experience of the war-fighter of an invading force who is confronted daily with situations where he has no basis for distinguishing the enemy from the civilian population and quickly learns to treat everyone as the enemy. For the police officer, of course, the experience is not nearly as intense or concentrated in time.

It is common sociological knowledge that in every profession a certain “in-group” mentality develops from the specialized work and common experience of the members of the profession. We have certainly seen this phenomenon in the medical profession, among lawyers, and even restaurateurs. The consequences for each profession are different, some much more dangerous than others. If we don’t like the patronizing attitude of a restaurant owner, or a poorly prepared meal, we simply don’t go back next time. Not so in our relations with the police officer.

Among doctors and lawyers the concepts of “patient management” and “client management” suggest an attitude where the “professional” believes his special knowledge makes him superior to the person for whom he is supposed to render his professional services. The reluctance of some doctors to fully explain the details of a medical condition or procedure may have as much to do with retaining authority as with maximizing billable hours. This is reinforced by the patronizing attitude that assumes that the patient is not smart enough to understand the arcane knowledge of the physician. Such attitudes and practices are often amplified by communication with colleagues within the profession. Some “group-think” can even rise to the level of social contagion in any profession. Social contagion in police work can easily lead to violence.

Self Selection in the Psychopathology of “Enforcement”

As shown in police body and dashboard cameras or bystander smart phone videos, the behavior of citizens subjected to police violence most often posed no threat to the officer. Well, certainly no physical threat. The sure-fire way to stimulate police aggression or even violence upon yourself is to challenge an officer’s sense of his own authority. In most cases that escalated to violence, the traffic stop was typically for something trivial. In many cases, any indicator of a lack of total subservience of the civilian to the officer is absolutely not tolerated. It becomes the basis for an escalated aggressiveness by the officer(s) followed by unjustified violence and too often, death. Even subsequent submissiveness or subservience is often not enough to satisfy the officer’s threatened sense of power, and he may just keep beating the victim until another officer pulls him off. What gives?

A student in an undergraduate sociology class I taught maybe twenty years ago reported in a classroom discussion, an observation I will never forget. I’ve mentioned this in other posts related to police. This young Black potential officer noted that in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy most of the cadets who he knew from high school, “loved to beat people up.” Even at my advanced age, I too remember the guys in high school who looked for easy targets for their violence. Most of them expressed an interest in either the military or police as career choices. The process by which violence-prone individuals are self-selected into police work remains almost entirely ignored in the recruitment of candidates for law enforcement. It is even common for recruiters to seek out the most aggressive of candidates. The administration of law enforcement across this nation, instead of rooting them out, protects violent officers from discipline, dismissal, or prosecution. A police officer, of course, must be prepared for violence, but he need not prefer it. Too many do.

That brings me to the topic of the psychopathic personality. While some disagreement exists as to the exact components of this condition, certain elements, when present, are extremely dangerous to have in a police officer. One is a total lack of empathy with other human beings, combined with a learned capacity to feign empathy. Another is the pleasure the psychopath gains by inflicting pain on others – it’s a matter of exerting total control over another living being. Serial killers are psychopaths; they exert absolute control by torturing and killing their victims without remorse. I see a similarity here with the behavior of the cop who escalates his aggression at the slightest hint of “insubordination” in the civilian he has detained, continues well beyond any modicum of reason, and sees nothing wrong in his behavior.

High Standards and Critical Functions

Some experts who have used Robert Hare’s checklist [2] to score politicians and chief executive officers of corporations for psychopathic traits have concluded that a disproportionate number of persons in authority are in fact psychopaths. The argument goes that some of the traits of the psychopath are quite useful in climbing the ladder of power in an organization, and in establishing and keeping control. Psychopaths are fixated on their own power and seek to expand it, unrestrained by any moral principles. That results in a higher proportion of psychopaths in such positions than in the general population. In a somewhat different way, police officers are in positions of authority, less so within their own organization than over an entire population. They are allotted great power and great discretion in exercising it. Since police officers carry weapons as “tools of the trade,” and psychopaths enjoy hurting people, maybe we should carefully screen candidates for police academies to eliminate psychopaths. I fear just the opposite has been happening for a long time. Unfortunately, too many rookies who start out as problem-solving peace officers, gradually lose much of their compassion and take on psychopathic behaviors.

In the company of skilled psychopaths and under conditions of high stress and occasional mortal danger, it is not so difficult for an initially good man or woman to become cynical, ruthless, and uncaring. A compassionate rookie cop can become a practicing psychopath even though he was not so in terms of his original personality. Much of such a transition to “bad cop” is perceived as a survival adaptation to terrible conditions. But in a police department, such collective behavior results from a contagion of violence. How else can we explain blatant cold-blooded murder committed with full knowledge of the fact that it is being videotaped? Many idealistic youth were trained to kill in Iraq or Afghanistan and came back quite disturbed by their experience. Those who easily took to killing were probably closer to the psychopath end of the scale. As with the high-school bully, neither should end up as police officers.
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[1] Typically, “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used to describe the same general personality disorder, a pathology characterized primarily by a ruthless desire to exert absolute control over, and inflict pain on living beings, a lack of empathy or compassion, little if any sense of right and wrong, and a learned skill in masking these traits. Psychopathy is sometimes linked with narcissism and Machiavellianism, and several other traits. See Wikipedia for Robert Hare’s diagnostic Psychopathy Checklist.
[2] An amusing, if disturbing, account of the struggle to understand psychopathy and the industry that has grown up around it, is told by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. London: Penguin Books, 2011.

Homelessness, Plutocrats, Over-population, and the Climate Crisis

The “homeless” person is part of what is perceived by the power elite as an unneeded collection of persons of no value to the system – a “surplus population.” I first ran across the concept of “surplus population” in a sociology journal article many years ago. The point was simple: a certain number of “positions” exist in society at any particular time and the number of people in society is often larger than the number of persons. The residual, or surplus population, consists of those who have no position.

It is now abundantly clear that all the production of goods and services – even including the superfluous, trivial, and just stupid products – can be accomplished using fewer and fewer workers than in the past. Overflowing suburban garages and commercial storage units demonstrate the oversupply of often meaningless products. Waste abounds. At the same time, the shrinking middle class tells the story of job shortages and a growing “surplus population.”

As the Industrial Age advanced, more and more goods could be produced per unit of labor; increased labor efficiency resulted from the application of technology to the production process. In the 1950s and 1960s, many people feared automation because it eliminated the need for many jobs. At the same time, we were told that new technologies would lead to shorter working hours, labor-saving home appliances, and more leisure time for everyone. From the 1960s on, women entered the workforce. But the expanding economy kept most workers employed.

Producing Waste and Wasting Lives

Because the economy was expanding so much, the need for workers expanded too, for awhile. Even the computer revolution absorbed more of the workforce as it expanded. Yet, many “middle-management” jobs were eliminated by the power of spreadsheets, word processors, and database management systems. The information economy expanded, but eliminated many jobs in the process. Through the 1980s and 1990s, as information control was enhanced, well-paid manufacturing jobs were lost as labor was “outsourced” to destitute low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America. Capital is mobile, labor is not. This trend was strengthened by a stream of international trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, which have increased corporate power over national economic policy. Many manufacturing jobs in the U.S. were lost. The remaining jobs were mostly retail and menial service jobs with marginal wages. Well, we all know how well that has worked out. The “American Dream” became a nightmare.

So, as the middle class contracted, Americans are left with less and less employment offering a living wage. Large numbers of people can no longer participate in the labor market while others live at or below subsistence level on minimum-wage incomes or less. Neither rents nor food are cheaper. Prices continue to rise as wages decline.

This is all well and good for the power elites who run the system, at least in the short run. More profits mean more power. For the growing numbers left out, the system seeks to either abandon them or find new ways to exploit them. They are to be 1) imprisoned for profit; 2) shot in the back by police; or 3) run out of town by any means necessary. City ordinances are commonly passed these days to make being homeless illegal! As usual, the victims are blamed.

But dark economic storm clouds are stirring on the horizon. As long as the money markets are run by the plutocrats and oligarchs for their own further enrichment, the real economy deteriorates. The economy is not run democratically for the benefit of everyone being able to make a living. The Congress represents the plutocrats, not the public. So, whoever is pushed out of the economy will be treated in these ways. The race to irreversible climate chaos continues as does the illusion that it is something about an abstract future.

The only alternative to this existential contradiction is a moral and ecological economy. And that requires locally organized movements for resistance and replacement of the mega-banks, international corporations and their political allies. These institutions have no national allegiance; they have no human allegiance. They must be overcome, not by force of arms (impossible) but by turning away and replacing corporate rule with community institutions. Otherwise, collapse.

The New Capitalism and Its Death

Unfortunately, Corporate Capitalism is the capitalism we have, and it is not about to relinquish its institutionalized greed. It is not the American Capitalism that built this industrial nation; it is a predatory capitalism that is extractive in nature and is destroying the nation. It does not merely extract the remaining resources of the planet. It also extracts monetary value from the economy to the point where instability is inevitable.

While still in control, the financial elites will never allow a hybrid economic model such as the Europeans have partially achieved, that would balance their greed with the public interest. That would not allow the obscene profits and power that it now enjoys. So, various forms of resistance are needed in concert with local ways to simply replace the “financial services” that the mega-banks fail to provide communities in their quest for phantom wealth generated from within the mega-banking system itself.

Local control can build community institutions and economies that can employ their populations instead of relegating them to ghettos and prisons. A genuine response to climate disruption would, of course, generate massive new employment. That will only be possible when we let go of our Wells Fargo, Citi Bank, and Bank of America accounts [of all kinds] and replace them with locally controlled banks with community ownership and ecologically sound policies. The new global movement of local resistance to predatory extractive capital can also direct community resources to employment in building resilience in a rapidly changing environment.

Homeless Plutocrats

Fact is, weird politics aside, overpopulation is a huge globally problematic factor in trying to curtail climate disruption as well as unemployment, underemployment, and homelessness. There will be nowhere to go for all those Bangladeshis when the seas rise a few feet and wipe out much of their farmland and homes. India is already building defenses against possible climate-forced migration. Similar scenarios are unfolding around the globe.

But the main source of the impending planetary climate crisis is the plutocracy driving global economic growth; that process also excludes more and more people from participation. Of course, it is the U.S. and other industrial nations that consume vast quantities of resources and produce vastly more CO2 per capita than the populations of “developing” nations. A key way to get population to level off and for masses not to starve is for the education and empowerment of women all over the planet to be accelerated. But none of it will much matter unless the plutocrats are driven from their comfy corporate homes and the economy is turned from extractive to ecological. There will be no place for plutocrats in a new “living earth” economy.

Meanwhile, corrupt corporate capital continues to exploit “surplus populations” in the U.S. and around the world. The “carrying capacity” of the planet has been outrun by endlessly growing numbers of people clamoring to participate in the phantom wealth of the industrial nations. Only consumption constraint of the wealthy nations can begin to bring the impact of their populations in line with the carrying capacity of the land they occupy. An unwinding of the ongoing re-distribution of ever more wealth to the very rich can allow a re-balancing between population and environment to begin. Some plutocrats may become homeless in the process.

Without major climate-chaos mitigation humanity will be depopulated alright — by resource wars, including water and food wars, mass starvation, and unprecedented social chaos. Homelessness could become the new normal. Hard, mostly political-economic, decisions lay ahead.

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.

Adolescent Cop Mentality

The flow of video evidence of police tendencies to use violence as the primary tool of their trade steadily increases. Some write this off as an artifact of technology or as individual incidents not representing the whole of law enforcement. But as I look at all those citizens’ smart-phone videos taken largely because they happened to be there and were shocked by what they saw, I see something else. I see an adolescent sense of insecurity displayed. And I see an adolescent tendency for one’s ego to be easily threatened by anything less than absolute control and in need of being protected by force.

The individual cases of “excessive use of force” vary in context, setting, and issue. But in each one, the officer seems to be triggered by any action or words that can be interpreted as a threat to his absolute authority. “Absolute” is the operative term here; the adolescent mind tends to think in absolutes. Yes, in every such case I have reviewed, the officer is male. I have yet to see an example where a female officer initiated violence upon a citizen. It is hard to not reflect upon how males are socialized in this society (and other societies as well) to express their manhood in violent ways. Even at my age, I remember the institutionalized violence of high school football. The kids are allowed to wear more protective gear now, but the violent expectations are pretty much the same.

Violent Institutions
Rarely recognized or discussed in the media is the self-selection of those with the most violent tendencies entering into police academies. I remember well the guys in high school who simply loved to get into a fight; they enjoyed any opportunity to beat someone up. I will never forget, many years later what a college student who was in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s training academy told me. He said that all the guys who had been the most violent in his high school also applied to the academy. “They loved to beat people up,” he reported. “Now they will have unlimited opportunities.” Anyone who lives in L.A. County is aware of the Sheriffs’ reputation for excessive violence.

L.A. Sheriffs Deputies are routinely assigned to work in the county jail when they first graduate from the academy. There they get to see and interact with both the worst criminals and the most vulnerable of the county’s population. This is where they learn the rules of domination and subordination. Recently, what was widely known but not publicly reported finally hit the media. A virtual conspiracy among the young deputies and their senior leadership at the jail involved routinely using excessive force on both inmates and their visitors and even falsely arresting visitors. Indictments followed, along with numerous stories in the L.A. Times.* Disgraceful as this is, such institutionalized violence is not confined to the rare rogue officer or department; it permeates American law enforcement. Something so deeply entrenched in a culture is not merely a matter of “better training.” Training is only part of the problem.

To even begin to face the problem of police violence and the tendency to single out young men of color for such treatment, we must look beyond individual incidents and training protocols. We have to face the fact that the problem is a deeply rooted cultural fact of American life and history. From the earliest days of the British colonies on this continent, the intolerance for dehumanized “others” has been evident.

Adolescent Exceptionalism
The so called “winning of the West,” idolized in Hollywood’s “Cowboys and Indians” movies, was largely a brutal history of genocidal extermination of the indigenous peoples of the land “discovered” by Europeans and occupied by force. The westward expansion merely continued the conquering of native populations, deemed sub-human and hence with no human rights. The legacy of slavery is in part one of exploitation of dehumanized “others” by elites that monopolize of the means of violence. The Other is a stranger, never quite human. The list of “N-word” equivalents continues right up to the latest “war of choice.”

The “freedom” so cherished by “gun rights” advocates also reflects historical violence against perceived sub-humans. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was negotiated so that southerners could legally form militias to hunt down escaped slaves. Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, etc., all point to a perceived inherent right to dominate “others” all over the world, excused by an imagined American “Exceptionalism.”

In a cell-phone video I just saw, some unruly whites complained of (restrained) police efforts to clear a bar where “disturbing the peace” was asserted. Their objections reflected the same cultural arrogance. The idea that “we” (white) Americans have some special status in the world that exempts us from police or other abuse is pervasive. One of the white protestors repeatedly said, “You can’t do this; we’re Americans.” As a nation we have no compunction as a nation in terrorizing villages in Yemen, Afghanistan, or elsewhere with drone strikes, night raids on homes, or bombing just about any target, etc., as long as the people there are not “Americans.”

Typically, the focus of “law enforcement” often is not on enforcing laws or catching criminals, but instead on asserting total control over targeted citizens who have little or no resources to challenge their having been abused. “Resisting an officer” in the conduct of his abuse of a citizen is the highest form of “disrespect” for the status-anxious cop. His sense of security is only fed by absolute obedience to his every unreasonable demand. Only by passive acceptance of unreasonable search, seizure, and/or battery upon the person perceived as unable to invoke costly legal recourse is obedience demonstrated.

That said, it is important to remember that police behavior does not occur in a vacuum, but is institutionally encouraged by the power elite that would prefer to ‘disappear’ the homeless and all other “surplus populations” not needed by the corporate state. More “training” is not the answer, since training is part of the problem along with recruitment for violent tendencies and indifference to necessary attributes of a PEACE Officer — compassion, problem solving, and other ways to avoid violence. Neither maturity nor deep ethics are part of the emerging police state. A new vision for law enforcement is needed now more than ever.
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* See, for example, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-los-angeles-sheriff-indictments-baca-20131209-story.html

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.

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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.