“When police come out and take a stand and wear and have equipment that makes it feel like somehow the people who are protesting are assumed to be the bad guys, I don’t think it helps take the tension out of the situation. I think it puts more tension in it.”
-Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), NPR Interview, 15 August 2014
Fifty years ago this summer, students from all over the United States traveled to the Jim Crow South to face down police and established government forces that were trying to quell the rights and privileges, few that there were, of the Blacks who comprised much, if not most, of the community in the South. They were trained in the tactics of non-violent protest, practiced taking beatings, prepared for and correctly anticipated the violent reaction that uniformed officers of the law would rain down upon them. The disappearance and eventual evidence of the murder of three young members of this protest movement is often credited as being the primary catalyst for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably the last time that legislation in this country increased the rights and equality of the people of the United States.
Like the murders during Freedom Summer, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was hardly the first time that an unarmed Black man was gunned down by uniformed officers of the law in an American city. I was living in the Bay Area when the BART police shot a man in handcuffs on New Year’s Day, an event now memorialized in the fantastic film Fruitvale Station. My home city of Albuquerque has been inundated by shootings of unarmed men by police, culminating in protests throughout the spring and even an attempted citizen’s arrest of the police chief. But like Freedom Summer’s murders, the events in Ferguson in the last week may serve as a catalyst for a reckoning long overdue in contemporary America. The question is certainly not limited to one of race, though race plays a key role. And it is not, in my opinion, limited to police, though police play a key role. The question, as I see it, is whether America will persist in being a culture of might-makes-right, where putting on a uniform of an established gun-wielding force in the United States gives one the privilege to do whatever one wants with impunity, or whether we will take a step back from this ledge of uniformed despotism and acknowledge that people are people, on equal footing, and that not wearing a uniform, much less being of a racial minority without a uniform, does not constitute being a “bad guy”.
What jarred me about Senator McCaskill’s quotation at the top of this piece when I heard it on NPR was not what has jarred so many people about the events of Ferguson, namely that the police have come out in full military regalia, thrown tear gas, shot at protestors, and are using military surplus gear. What jarred me is that she was describing our military operations in other countries as situations where other people are “assumed to be the bad guys”. This should be obvious, of course, if I think about how military operations work, but the fact is that the people of Kabul and Baghdad, let alone more far-flung remote towns in Afghanistan and Iraq, have faced what Ferguson is facing on a daily basis. When we see Ferguson on TV, we relate naturally to the people of Missouri and are horrified, but when we see Fallujah on TV, we relate to the American soldiers doing the perpetrating. We cling to this notion that somehow the people of Fallujah would greet these same standoffish fully uniformed agents of death as “liberators” or at least friends with a helping hand (like all the National Guard propaganda tells us), even though the evidence is overwhelming that this is the most fearsome, intimidating, and unfriendly stance that one set of humans could take toward another. Advancing on people or cities in riot gear with guns drawn somehow does not convince the targeted group that you are their friends. And yet failure to comply with their wishes and demands is met with violence and the underlying assumption that this violence is somehow “deserved” because compliance was offered as an option.
This is actually basically the definition of a Police State. Or, if you prefer, the state that Voldemort would construct as he attempts to during the brief moments he believes that Harry Potter is actually dead in the final book in the series. “Now is the time to declare yourself,” he says in the movie version. “Come forward and join us. Or die.” And you can see in the faces of the remaining defenders of Hogwarts the kind of defeated resignation they’re adopting, the exhaustion and fear that confronts this choice. Neville Longbottom offers a rousing speech about how Harry Potter is just one martyr among many and doesn’t signal the defeat of the movement, but we never get to see how that message would sink in without Harry’s apparent and immediate resurrection. Now we can look at this as an obvious metaphor because the dark hooded cloaks of the Death Eaters (and, well, the name Death Eaters) invert or understanding of order and what is right, demonstrating clearly that the Death Eaters are like Nazis, or that allegedly rare combination of power and wrongness. But what if Voldemort’s troops were dressed as American police officers? American military? Are the principles espoused actually that different?
Oh yes, yes, we have a Constitution and “rule of law” and sham elections and all that. But enforcement is kind of required to make any of that meaningful. After all, the Jim Crow South was a democracy. For that matter, so was Nazi Germany, at least for a while. Democracies carefully crafted to keep the less desirable parts of society on the bottom, just as modern America is. Does it really matter if disinterest and apathy or outright blocking are the means of prevention? We have plenty of both built into our current democratic structures. And when the choice of party is between one corporate sell-out and another, it really doesn’t matter whether you can vote at all. What matters, as in any might-makes-right society, is who carries the guns and who can get away with using them without consequence. And if you have a uniform on, that’s you. You can shoot unarmed people and wait for the “internal investigation” to clear you of wrongdoing, with all files sealed for another half-century until the next Freedom Summer. You can commit atrocities in foreign countries knowing that your nation has refused to submit to international law and treaties purely so they can keep you and your commanding officers out of The Hague. All for the love of power, the supremacy of this country, and the “safety” of its citizens. But not all of its citizens, of course. Not the poor, not the minorities, not the undesirables. Just the ones with the money and power to buy protection and expect their privileged lifestyle to continue at the expense of everyone else.
In his now-famous short essay “Just Asking“, David Foster Wallace examined the frightening implications of a country six years after September 11th, less than a year before he would take his own life on September 12, 2008. His conclusive sentences are explosively powerful and necessary for any serious American to consider at this juncture:
Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?
The safety that the police and military of this country allegedly protect is completely illusory. No one had to fear for their lives or safety because Michael Brown was on the streets of Ferguson, any more than Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass-destruction were pointed at American cities. But both, like all declared enemies of the United States, were met with overwhelming force, as is the hallmark of a might-makes-right demonstration. Brown was not shot once in the leg to prevent him from harming officers. He was shot six times, including once in the head, which killed him immediately. How is it that we’ve come to live in a state where we think the citizenry is safer for having police officers shoot to kill unarmed individuals? Why is the training that people should be shot so many times?
The only answer to these questions is that we live in a society that still believes, fervently, in good guys and bad guys, just like Senator McCaskill said. Her issue wasn’t with this characterization of the world or even our society, but with lumping peaceful protestors in with the bad guys. And just as the Death Eaters wear black cloaks and look dark and menacing, our society has institutionally trained us to associate Black with fear, death, and antagonism. Local news and campus police reports barrage us with the message that young Black men are coming for our stuff, our health, our lives, our precious safety. And thus it is little wonder that the people who are told they are Right to put on the uniform of the Good Guys are all too willing to gun down the Bad Guys when they are abroad in the land.
In Mississippi in 1964, it was the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan, all white and all that implies, that the people put on and told themselves they were the good guys. And I am not saying that all police officers and military members of the United States might as well be in the KKK. But I am saying that the process of putting on a uniform to absolve you of your sins, transform you into a white knight, and hide your identity, is eerily similar. If it were up to the Ferguson Police Department, they still would not have released the name of Michael Brown’s shooter. Just like in the sixties, many of the police in Ferguson were hiding their badge numbers to avoid responsibility during recent crackdowns.
And people behave badly when they don’t think they’re going to be held accountable. We don’t need to rehash another sixties throwback, the Stanford Prison Experiment, to make this clear. When people act with the authority of their superior state, when they are agents of an institution rather than human people, they will do unspeakable things in the name of whatever order has imbued them with that apparent authority. And the results are terrifying and on display.
But the problem is that we attribute rationality to the side with the uniform and chaotic irrationality to anyone who stands in their way. This hearkens back to the ongoing discussion of reasons that I brought up in my last post. Anyone who is an “enemy of the state” must have no reason whatsoever for their actions because we are Right and they are Wrong. But of course people do have reasons, even for committing crimes (if in fact they are committing crimes, which most of the minorities gunned down by police of late have not been). They have reasons and we need to examine those and think about them and make changes based on what is really going on.
There are two conversations that I think we need to have in the wake of Ferguson:
1. Why do we live in a society where people feel so unsafe?
America, as a society, enjoys more material wealth and access than pretty much anywhere, ever. This is grossly unequally distributed for no particularly good reasons beyond greed and the laziness/selfishness of those at the top. Strangely, dangling incredible wealth and power in front of a bunch of people denied it for arbitrary reasons will upset those people. We have also constructed this society entirely on the basis of wealth and power meaning everything in the society and being the only determinants of a person’s value and worth, to themselves and others. On top of this, the requirement of having wealth extends to people literally having no food to eat and no roof over their head if they fail to accumulate it. The collective pressure this creates on people arbitrarily denied and/or placed at the bottom is overwhelming.
On top of this, we have gargantuan corporate interests designed to play on fear and rake money away from the wealthy and powerful by capitalizing, literally, on this fear. We have a security industry that is absolutely ballooning right now, not just in home security, but in private security forces everywhere that put on their own little corporate uniform and go intimidate their respective “bad guys” wherever they may crop up. We have a prison-industrial complex demanding a requisite number of bad guys (the ones who survive their shootings) to lock away and guard and intimidate for a requisite number of years, with more prisons to build to keep them away. America imprisons 44% more people than China, despite having 25% of the population and 0% of its Police State reputation, at least in our own eyes. Those numbers don’t look stark enough. We have 144% of China’s prisoners and China has 400% of our population. One quarter of the world’s prisoners are imprisoned in this country, but we have only 5% of the world’s population.
And part of our fear can probably be attributed to the good old institutional conservatism that comes with perceiving you have more to lose than you do to gain. It is precisely our wealth and power and privilege that makes us so afraid and makes us want to shoot and lock up anyone who would take our stuff, because who wouldn’t want our stuff, because we’re so great? So not only do the few people who would commit crimes probably have good sound structural reasons for doing so, defying the myth of “dangerous people” who would just commit crimes regardless, but our sense of fear is grossly inflated in comparison to the threat and danger that’s out there. But we keep passing harsher laws with harsher sentences to assuage our sense of burgeoning fear, but it’s really just feeding the insatiable monster of corporate fear and imprisonment that is making some of the highest profits in the land.
The distinction, by the way, between fear of safety from domestic crime and that from international terrorism, really starts to break down here. The only key distinction is that there is so much less of a threat from international terrorism and thus that threat is even more obviously grossly exaggerated. But the entire dynamic between people profiting off inflating our fears and us paying corporations for the illusion of safety pretty much works for both, right down to the overt racism of who we’re trained to fear and there being actual reasons for whatever limited threat there might be, etc.
2. Why does race continue to be the way people in this country, especially in authority, sort other people?
I know there’s a lot that sociologists or anthropologists might say here about this being innate to who we are and “hard-wired” into our fabric as people, but if we’re going to go there, rape and murder and urinating in the woods are equally deeply ingrained and yet we aspire to stop doing those things too. The whole point of society and human progress is to overcome the barbarity of human nature, so don’t tell me we can’t beat this one.
Race isn’t even real. It’s a racist white person’s view of how people look, which is how we can get “Asian” as a race representing the most diverse and largest continent in the world as a whole, but “Hispanic” is a race of white people that look a little darker than the other white people. So why does this busted sorting mechanism still hold so much thrall over how our authorities behave?
I don’t have a lot of answers for fixing this one, but I do know it pervades all institutions and, ultimately, all individuals. As individuals, I think we need to stop utilizing race as a descriptor in as many situations as we can, stop talking about it like it’s real except where we need to (as in identifying racism). Even things that are supposedly empowering, like talking about the “Black experience”, serve to make race more real and especially to make sweeping stereotypes and generalizations which are the root of racism in the first place. I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t discuss all aspects of prejudice and racism and problem that we can identify, but I think we need to get away from using this as a sort criterion in places where we can. And I know there are people who will think this is my White Privilege talking and that Whites can afford to not talk about race, but others can’t, but I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m saying that we should stop talking about other people primarily by their race. If it is helpful to you to identify with a race and talk about that experience in terms of that, fine. But other people shouldn’t be putting that on you and should stop as much as possible.
Part of the problem is that people, especially police, use race as their first sort criterion. And lots of people do it in casual conversation about people as well, though far more in New Jersey than they did in the Bay Area, I’ve noticed. And once you start describing someone by race first, even if it’s just as a way of separating them in a crowd, then all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes and garbage follow. And you’re not thinking about that person as an individual, but as a group. And not a group with actual characteristics, but literally a racists’ grouping of that group and everything that entails. And this makes things worse. Quadruply so when it’s in the context of reporting crimes or possible suspects of same.
And this gets into the institutional issues. And this is a really thorny problem. I think it would be better, holistically, if the SAT didn’t ask people their racial information. That said, doing so is considered the only way to catch institutional racism within the SAT. Most places where racial data is collected in the United States are using that to try to track issues of racism and racial inequality. But that process itself engenders more institutional racism. It is helpful to know that Black and Latino citizens are far more likely to be unemployed in our economy than Whites. However, this data itself is creating racist assumptions and understandings in our collective understanding of these artificial groups. And this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle throughout our institutions. Which is exactly how Ferguson can be happening fifty years after Freedom Summer and Freedom Summer happened one-hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
We need to track racial data to know that minorities are convicted and imprisoned at a vastly higher rate than Whites and this is likely because of racism. But this same data tells us that minorities commit far more crimes and thus justifies racial profiling in Police Departments all over the country, which creates Ferguson. And the only thing that I can identify for sure in all this is that talking about race like it’s real and not like it’s a social construct primarily used to justify racism is a big part of the problem.
Which is not to say that people can’t still identify with the parts of themselves that matter to them and their actual experience. Please don’t misunderstand me. It might be very important to a person we label as Black that they are of African descent and that their ancestors were slaves who were freed and all sorts of other things that we currently identify with the “Black experience”. But the race is just a way of saying “White people think you’re Black”. Which is helpful in discussing racism, which is perceptual, but not helpful in discussing the individual’s identity, which may have a long history of national origin and culture that they choose to embrace or not.
I think that element of choice is part of what’s essential. No one chooses race. And no one chooses their ancestry, either, but one can choose what’s important to their identity about it.
This becomes clearer, I think, when looking at mistaken racial identity. My debate team that I just coached had all sorts of people whose racial identity was wrongly identified all the time. A Dominican who was always perceived to be Black, Indians who were always seen as Hispanic, and so on. And in this, when people are looking at race, you are not your actual identity. You are your perceived identity, because that’s all race is, how someone looks. Functionally, those people were their mistaken race. And in a debate league, they may have time to correct the misunderstanding and identify their actual background. But in a dark alley facing police, no amount of clarification is going to do any good. They are what they are perceived to be and if the police are racist, by training or persuasion, then that’s that.
Even if you disagree with me vehemently and think that race as it is constructed can some day be a force for good, I think we can agree that a conversation about revamping how race is dealt with and seen in this country is necessary. And while I am uncertain as to the precise prescription for fixing this issue, I know it starts with that.
In the meantime, the buses of protesters will continue to roll toward Missouri as they did fifty years ago toward Mississippi. And Obama and the one Black police officer they can find to read prepared statements will continue to blame the protesters for causing a ruckus and being upset about the state of things, continue to advocate for law and order. But as long as law and order means putting on a uniform and believing you are a Good Guy out there to hunt down Bad Guys, then this kind of awfulness is going to continue. Only people dealing with people, flaws and all, working together, can solve this crisis. Hiding behind a uniform, an institution, a set of beliefs about your superiority, is only going to lead to more deaths.