Ending Police Brutality: It’s Not That Simple

The smart phone videos of cops harassing or beating unarmed Black males have exploded on social media. Newspaper articles discuss the various difficulties involved in prosecuting police for excessive force, murder, etc. Video pundits left and right proclaim or admit that something is just not right. They acknowledge that Black parents have to train their boys to be cautious when confronted by a policeman or they will face extreme danger.

Law enforcement officials scramble to demonstrate their commitment to improving “training” and “cultural awareness.” Law professors ponder the possibilities of revamping the procedures for assembling grand juries when an officer has killed another unarmed Black child or young Black man. Politicians pontificate on how to restore the Black man’s “trust” in police and the justice system – as usual, they get the cart before the horse.

Well, none of them seem to get it. Police abuse and killings of Black men have a long history, although it is largely buried in social amnesia. The nature of the problem is quite unlike the conventional characterizations heard in the mass media. We are living in the era of denial of racism – you know, “post-racial America.” The growing protests over police brutality put the lie to that illusion. But the persistent denial makes it very hard to discuss the culturally ingrained and conceptually re-coded racism that is all around us if we just open our eyes.

Racism is still rampant in America. It is re-coded and resurrected in numerous ways. The re-coding allows many to behave in racist ways while conceptually denying any “racism” is involved because they no longer use those old racist words. The language is much more subtle. But the violence is not. People of good will and intention are being fooled by all this, and they mistake the combination of racism and just plain viciousness for a failure of training or of criminal justice process. Certainly training and process are defective. But that is only a result of the deeper problem of racism and dehumanization in American society.

We must remember that racism is a particularity of dehumanization. The young men and women of the U.S. (and every) military routinely characterize “the enemy” as sub-human. In basic training they are drilled with the admonition to kill a dehumanized other. Civilian populations of the invaded countries are difficult to distinguish from “insurgents.” This facilitates the killing, torture, and hated of whoever is found in a house in a night raid based on very flimsy “intell.” The parallel with home invasions by militarized “swat teams” in Camden, Compton, or Cleveland is distinctly disturbing. Many returning veterans who have experienced horrors of combat where civilians and resistance fighters are indistinguishable, find little opportunity for employment other than as police.

But racist police violence in the U.S. did not start with returning veterans disturbed by the extreme violence and dehumanization they experienced in combat. It began right here at home. It is endemic, not just to the police, but to the culture. The culture of racism and the culture of violence are distinct social formations, but they are also very closely linked and often combined. Relations of power and vulnerability lead to dehumanization, which leads to hatred, which leads to violence. The language of police I heard on some of those viral videos on Facebook and YouTube is exactly the language of the high school bullies we have all heard. As one student put it to me a few years ago – he was a cadet in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy – “a lot of the cadets are the guys who liked to beat people up in high school.”

Improved training will not do it; tweaking the relations between police and prosecutors will not do it; revising procedural manuals will not do it. Body cameras may stifle it but will not resolve the problem. Only changing the entire police culture from the top down and hiring as officers only recruits who can understand what “peace officer” means, can turn the tide. That is a daunting task. Whether the cities or the nation are up to it is doubtful. That it is necessary is entirely certain.

Something else is also certain. Until such a massive rebuilding of law enforcement with a new cultural core and massive replacement of officers who cannot meet a humanitarian standard, police abuse of citizens will continue. It must be done from Los Angeles to New York City, from Ferguson to Albuquerque, and across the entire nation. There is no other way.

Gaza, USA; Ferguson, Palestine: Pounding nails in Freedom’s Coffin

We’ve all heard the old saw that “to a man with only a hammer for a tool, everything looks like a nail.” Video of the escalating massive military incursion onto the streets of Ferguson, MO, reminded me of that metaphor again last week. Suddenly, U.S. mass media has awakened to the militarization of local police that has been growing since the “war on drugs” was started by President Nixon. Questions about “show-of-force” overkill are finally being raised.

The Hammer

In every profession I know of, some people learn one tool better than others and it becomes their favorite. Too often, they apply it beyond its realm of effectiveness. That failing has become the essence of the application of the weapons of warfare in the modern world. It is not surprising that this tendency is emblematic of the tragedy of errors that has unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri. But the “to a hammer, everything is a nail” syndrome reflects the fundamental failure of law enforcement across the country and the world today. That militarized law-enforcement “pattern of practice” is widely institutionalized and culturally confirmed in nearly every jurisdiction.

Several processes are at work, enticing local police departments to be attracted to the “upgrading” of their technologies of violence as part of the “toolbox” of law enforcement. Sophisticated technology has its own attraction. Tools of violence have the added attraction of great power over life and death. For police administrators, the price is attractive: it’s mostly free, and there are grants too. All the department has to do is generate sufficient drug arrests (in poor minority communities) to show their commitment to the “War on Drugs”. Right, “War.” The appeal of the image of the Warrior Cop resonates with the power image of military equipment. Violent individuals often self-select into jobs as policemen, a serious problem that departments have either ignored or encouraged. These are just some of the elements that have converted what we used to think of as “peace officers” to Warrior Cops.

Cult of Destruction

I mentioned Raul Hilberg’s, The Destruction of the European Jews, in my July 21 post, “Living in Fear of the Other.”[1] The process of destruction described by Hilberg is a gradually developing sequence of escalating brutality of action by the overwhelmingly more powerful actor in an asymmetric conflict. The oppressed class or ethnic group is systematically isolated from the basic means of living. In every case, the dominant power incrementally takes steps that further isolate, restrict, disempower, and eventually destroy the weaker population.

The social form of the process of destruction may differ, but at its core it is the same. The systematic destruction of the people of the “outdoor prison” that is Gaza, explicitly targets everyone – half are children – as “the enemy.” The process of destruction of people of color in the U.S. is more diffuse than the Israeli destruction of the people of Gaza. Overt public expressions of racism are no longer acceptable in the U.S. Many people allow themselves to be comfortable in the illusion that racism is no longer an issue. Events, however, demonstrate quite the opposite. The illusions of a “post-racial America” partially mask that. But it is just as real, though not as focused or intense, as the destruction of Gaza. In what way does the multi-agency force that now occupies Ferguson not look like a military occupation?

People as Enemy

The corporate media generally ignore incidents like that in Ferguson. Yet since Trayvon Martin’s legitimized murder by a warrior-cop wannabe, the growing number of racist killings by police, publicly exposed via witness phone-video cannot be ignored once it has gone viral. “Stand your ground” law supporters and Warrior Cops share a culture of death. As the police become increasingly militarized, their self-image grows closer to that of a combat soldier facing a racialized “Enemy” that must be destroyed. The deployment of military hardware, personal body armor and high-power weapons, encourages the Warrior Cop mentality and the excessive and unjustified use of force. The Warrior-cop mentality is combined with the underlying legacy of racism and self-selection of violent tendencies among police recruits. The consequences are all too often extremely dangerous modes of militaristic policing as population suppression. More cases of excessive force are inevitable, and they are more likely to be exposed as political and human rights are written off.

Despite the miserable and very expensive failure of the “war on drugs,” the majority of SWAT deployments (62%) have been for drug searches. [2] These home invasions often involve forced entry with a battering ram by heavily armed assault teams, resulting in serious property damage. Such violent breeches also terrify young children and elderly in the house. They are the same tactics used by U.S. assault teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such violence is used even when there is no evidence of potential resistance or violence by the targets. It is absurd overkill, designed more to exercise the prowess of the Warrior Cop and his erectile equipment than to control the mostly petty crime involved. Yet drug-war economics and the national militarist mentality lead to a desire to initiate war-like engagements with citizens treated as enemies.

Of course, the majority impacted by paramilitary police tactics are people of color living in economic prisons. Police assault teams do not break into white suburban homes or college dorms. The New Jim Crow [3] is enforced by the U.S. Warrior Cops. Though more diffused and less intense, their assaults on Americans are not all that much different from the Israeli attacks on the people of Gaza. Hatred for the feared Other spurs on the process of destruction. Militaristic police behavior is an evil hammer pounding nails in the coffin of freedom.
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[1] https://thehopefulrealist.com/2014/07/21/living-in-fear-of-the-other-the-process-of-destruction/
[2] WAR COMES HOME: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2014.
[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

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.

Chaotic Convergence

In the New Age idea of “harmonic convergence,” there are a few “power centers” around the world. Near the beautiful cliffs surrounding Sedona, AZ, for example, people are said to experience converging forces of spiritual energy. But another convergence is taking place and it has nothing to do with stunning red-rock landscapes or mystical feelings of harmony. Far from it. Instead, I have noticed an extraordinary set of outwardly unrelated indicators of increasingly chaotic societal trends in the U.S.A., cascading throughout the world. And they appear to be converging.

Random Anomalies?
A recent Homeland Security report* concluded that “sovereign citizens” are perceived as a greater threat by law enforcement than are “Islamic terrorists.” Of course, it’s hard to even find an Islamic terrorist in the U.S. – racist targeting of any Muslim aside. But the Cliven Bundies are definitely out there and growing in numbers.

The extreme individualist anti-government meme has taken hold for a growing number of people. But these folks usually don’t understand the source of the dysfunctions of the governmental they hate. Of course, their hyper-libertarian ideology itself is seriously dysfunctional. It sees all problems as inherent in government itself. But in politics the biggest problem for democracy is the widespread distortion of governmental functions by the corporate imposition of money and power.

“Stand your ground” legislation and its expression in morally unjustifiable shootings point to a growing cultural need to express personal power with violence. Bizarre “open carry” imbeciles marching into restaurants with their AR-15s appear to be expressing their twisted juvenile sense of manhood. But there is more to it than that. Instability breeds fear; fear breeds hatred; hatred finds its target, even school children.

Racist Congressmen refuse to act on anything proposed by the African-American president they find inherently illegitimate and “un-American.” They even reject his proposals that originated in Republican ideas. The obsessiveness of their loathing is quite astounding, though consistent only with rabid racism and the gut urge to bring down that “Other.” There is no “post-racial America.”

Automated programmed trading at hyper-speed by powerful financial institutions obtains market information nanoseconds ahead of ordinary traders. This allows them to make pennies a trade so fast that they skim millions of dollars from the stock market every week. What is a “free market,” really? Cheating is pervasive and tolerated in U.S. business and political culture, and markets are not free.

Cities are going bankrupt and are forced to raid their retirees’ pension funds because Koch brothers funded politicians legislate to serve their rich patrons, not the public. The people are an inconvenience. Who protects the public interest? Almost nobody with any power, actually. Corruption is rampant.

The “change we can believe in” president elected on an ‘end the wars’ platform, bombs wedding parties in Afghanistan and funerals in Yemen. His lawyers draw up secret legal opinions authorizing him to assassinate American citizens along with anyone else he deems a “threat.” His drone kills a teenage American boy visiting his grandparents in Yemen. In response to disclosures about the CIA crimes, he responds, “we tortured some folks…and it’s important for us not too feel too sanctimonious in retrospect…”
Absurd levels of secret “intelligence” spy operations capture nearly all the private communications of Americans. No particular reason or authorization is needed other than the stated institutional goal of amassing full-spectrum of information about everyone. You may “have nothing to hide,” and foolishly accept it. But spying on everyone by powerful agencies whether federal or local, has ominous implications for everyone’s political freedom. The NSA director lies to Congress and is tolerated. That alone heralds an emerging totalitarian corporate state retaining only a thin veneer of democratic formality.

The Convergence
Collectively, these ostensibly uncharacteristic and unrelated trends provide a context for understanding part of where the “sovereign citizens” paranoia comes from. They seem unconnected, though each is disturbing. But are they simply anomalies? I doubt it.

The personal, the social, the economic, and the political uncertainties we experience or observe today are real, if confusing. They are exacerbated by the recognition, sometimes subliminal, that we live in a society that is increasingly unstable and violent – a bad combination. As if that were not enough, the stability of the biosphere we are part of is itself is being placed at accelerating risk by our institutions and our way of life.

We look around and find little to justify a sense of security. Many escape into the smaller worlds of their everyday lives or stupefying mass media. We see the largest institutions, whether military, corporate, financial, or governmental, and notice the growing trend. Each is expanding its own surveillance/security programs. And in all institutional sectors, the security and secrecy measures are directed at protecting those institutions’ ability to control the population – us – in some way. Why? Because we know that as they grow more irrelevant and opposed to our needs, these institutions increasingly resort to force and violence.

Yet, those hierarchical control structures are themselves engaged in increasingly chaotic reactions to environments that they cannot control. The most powerful institutions in the world were not designed to engage conditions they never anticipated. It seems clear that we need a process of non-violent “creative destruction” to transform these institutions. But what we are getting is a growing process of destruction of humanity emanating from the institutions supposedly serving the public.
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* David Carter, et al, Understanding Law Enforcement Intelligence Processes. Report to the Office of University Programs, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (July 2014), p. 7. Accessed at: https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_UnderstandingLawEnforcementIntelligenceProcesses_July2014.pdf

What Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy can Teach Us about Racism in America

Ignorant racism occasionally bursts onto the scene in the national media because the racists involved are unaware of the social and political impact of their blatantly racist talk. Sometimes ‘honest’ racists don’t even believe they are racists and are ignorant of the nature of their racist thinking. Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has refused to pay his fees for grazing on BLM land – our land – and does not recognize the existence of the U.S. government, may fall into that category, with his seemingly unconsciously racist comments about black folks. Donald Sterling, the wealthy owner of the LA Clippers, on the other hand, was recorded making private racist comments that went viral; but only then did it become public that he had for decades practiced housing discrimination against Blacks and Latinos in his Los Angeles properties and that the NBA had tolerated it all those years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar exposed the hypocrisy of public anti-racism a day or two later in his Time Magazine opinion piece on the reaction to the Sterling exposure. Then the NBA fined Sterling $2.5 million and banned him for life.

Liberal white folks don’t like to hear racist talk, but they routinely tolerate institutionalized racism. And smart “closet” racists know how to appear “politically correct” in order to avoid the uncomfortable reactions of more sensitive people, despite their racist behavior and attitudes, which are re-coded to appear to the unsuspecting ear to refer to something other than race. Some, like Sterling, talk quite differently in private and in public settings. Magic Johnson expressed hurt and disgust with that hypocrisy in an interview after the “Sterling tapes” were revealed, having been given public ‘respect’ by Sterling before his private racism directed at Magic was revealed. Sterling embraces his racism but tries to avoid the embarrassment of its expression in public. Cliven Bundy, unused to the public limelight, appeared unaware and divulged his personal thinking unfiltered, then was made partially aware by the public reaction and tried to ‘dial it back.’

But we make a big mistake if we think we can understand racism in America by assuming that “racists” are only those people who make racist statements in public. Structural institutionalized racism is alive and well in America, and it is far more important than the naïve racism of fringe isolates like Cliven Bundy, who only recognized the damage to his image when public exposure showed him his own racism. What these different cases can teach us is that personal racism can take many forms and may have different levels of self-consciousness attached to it, but it is not the essence of contemporary racism in America.

The politically correct re-coded racists are in total denial, at least publicly. By avoiding traditionally racist language, they think they are immune to the charge of being a racist, even as they harbor feelings of superiority over the Other. They think of racism as merely a matter of proper speech. But in fact these folks are the bread and butter of institutional racism in America – an endemic system of inequality whereby the racism is built into the social and economic culture and institutional practices of society. In some respects it is as widespread as ever. Many ‘liberals’ voted for Barack Obama at least in part to demonstrate their lack of racism, which in polite company allowed them to proclaim a “post-racial” America – besides Obama emulates intellectual white social liberalism, with which he charmed them.

Closet racists re-code their racism in various ways. All the attacks on Obama as being a ‘socialist,’ a Muslim, a Kenyan, by ‘birthers,’ et al, merely excuse their closeted racist belief that a black man cannot legitimately be President of the United States of America. They do all they can to explicitly not recognize him as president. Their vision is of a White-Christian Nation, not the multi-racial, multi-ethnic society that we have become. But in a twisted way, the joke is on them. This president may be a good deal smarter than Dubya, but he is as strong a supporter of the corporate-state plutocracy as any president – in that sense, he is as ‘white’ as anyone, since it is the white male who symbolically represents the status quo anti. Remember, race is a social construct – in both biology and anthropology it has failed the test as an empirically viable concept, but it is a social reality.

America’s mostly unacknowledged status as Incarceration Nation, the system of actual apartheid embodied in the increasingly corporate prison-industrial complex, with the highest number of prisoners in the world, sustains our racism. Structural racism is a set of institutional practices that produce racist outcomes of inequality whether or not the individual actors are personally racist. As Michele Alexander has so perceptively demonstrated, a New Jim Crow system of segregation – facilitated by the sustained system of residential and educational segregation and media indifference – has emerged mostly from the drug war, which incarcerates massive numbers of mostly boys and men of color – despite equivalent rates of drug use by whites – producing in effect a new caste system stigmatizing and isolating many young blacks and browns from the economy and society.
Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy are best understood as anachronisms, although Sterling’s wealth institutionalizes his personal racism. We need not be so offended by them, for their personal pathologies are not today’s real problem of racism. They are relics of an openly racist past in which racist language was merely the cultural expression of an openly self-acknowledged oppressive system. Today’s re-configured system of racial oppression and re-coded racist language pose a greater danger by their camouflage. White liberal reactions of disgust over these relics reflect a discomfort with what may be a subliminal recognition of the continued racial caste system in their imagined “post-racial America.” Where are they when white male millionaire congressmen repeatedly engage in a strategy of degradation and obstruction that no white president has ever experienced? They blame it on “party politics,” not the re-coded racism they tolerate.