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.

Incarceration Nation

The U.S. imprisons a greater portion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We also incarcerate a larger absolute number of prisoners than any other nation, even China! What does this tell us about our culture and about how “social control” is exercised in America? One thing is certain: more and more ‘infractions’ of proliferating laws, rules, and regulations are treated by jailing the transgressor.

One huge factor, of course, is the infamous “War Against Drugs,” which has been raging on since Richard Nixon was President. A whole industry has proliferated around the ostensible suppression of the illegal drug trade, with huge profits for private corporations involved (and for the drug cartels) and equally large incentives for police around the nation to arrest and charge minor drug offenders, mostly boys and men of color – who use drugs in no greater percentage than white boys safe from police in their college dorm rooms – but with no appreciable effect on the flow of drugs into our cities and towns.

Another factor is the growing militarization of police. Both military culture and military equipment and tactics have invaded our local police departments in small towns as well as in the biggest cities, along with a “war-fighter” mentality. With them flow federal funding from the ‘Drug War’ thus enabling police to support ‘tactical units’ such as SWAT teams as the premier enforcement technique, and the lessening of crisis intervention techniques in police work. High arrest rates are rewarded by donations of “surplus” military hardware. Of course, “stop and frisk” policies and the massively discriminatory pursuit of minority “offenders” in the segregated neighborhoods of poor black and brown populations, all point to the national trend toward suppressing and socially isolating the most vulnerable populations in the nation by incarceration and by excluding them from the economy by virtue of the felony records these policies generate, as well as by the inferior public education they are allowed.

This perverse institutionalized oppression is well documented in Michelle Alexander’s definitive book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color blindness. But the general trend is toward the criminalization of everyday life in an even broader way. White folks are no longer safe either. Children are now arrested for minor altercations in school. Any deviation from some institutional standard is subject to possible criminal prosecution. [see Chase Madar, “The Over Policing Of America: How Your Daily Actions Are Being Incrementally Criminalized” at http://thefreethoughtproject.com/policing-america-daily-actions-incrementally-criminalized/#H6Kh0RZkkOGUZxXT.99 for more examples.]

But the cops are victims too. American culture suffers from a fundamental flaw sociologists call “blaming the victim,” which stems from our excessive individualism and conflation of structural causes with personal consequences. It is encouraged by the corporate media, which diverts attention from corporate and institutional sources of social problems to consequent social pathology. So, authorities fail to properly vet and train police, then we blame the unprepared cops for the excessive use of force that results from inadequate selection, bad leadership and the same insufficient support we give teachers. In a recent three-part series of posts, I discuss these and related problems of police, especially in relation to the case of frequent police shootings in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Incredible Darkness of Being … a Cop.” Read them at: https://thehopefulrealist.com/?s=cop&submit=Search .

Poorly educated and scarcely trained, today’s ‘warrior cops’ know little of the once-valued culture of the “peace officer.” Instead, police are self-selected for violent tendencies, improperly screened, inadequately trained, under-paid, and put out on the street to “enforce” laws they know little about, especially the constitution.

But the most disturbing of all is the gradual transformation of the nation itself into a ‘cultural prison’ of the whole, a society where creativity and compassion, opportunity and achievement, education and self-realization, are all sacrificed to economic domination and social control by the corporate state. Hard to get a grip on, this enveloping phenomenon is both subtle and widespread; its elements can, however, be seen in the pervasive reliance on force in every institutional context from employment to law, from educational testing to wage theft, and to the decline of a culture of civility and disappearance of compassion in every sphere of life.

This is no way to enter the era of the great transformation from the end of the fossil-fuel driven growth economy to a stable ecological economy, which will take the highest level of social cooperation and institutional commitment ever demanded of humanity.

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.