How and why certain events in politics and culture coalesce into a critical mass is always an interesting thing to ponder. Sometimes it can happen when all hope has been lost.
In chaos theory, there’s the enigmatic image of the butterfly in the Amazon whose wing fluttering cascades into a hurricane in the northern hemisphere. How to explain the instantaneous shifting swings and swoops of swarming birds and schools of minnows? In politics, some like to cite the downfall of the Soviet empire: seemingly eternal and invulnerable one day, gone the next. I’m wondering: Are we seeing an example of such mysterious critical mass now in the sudden focus on excessive police behavior in America?
Police and prosecutorial misconduct is hardly a new phenomenon. But it seems to be getting worse as the crime rate goes down. I can’t recall anything like the wide-spread and continuing citizen and media reaction following the events in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Cleveland, Ohio. (We humans seem to like to arrange things in threes, which may be aesthetically and politically the most satisfying clumping of events.)
Ferguson set things off due to the excessive number of gunshots used by an inexperienced cop to kill an unarmed 18-year-old Black male. The town is an example of white leadership over a predominantly Black population, a condition following a demographic shift. Right-wing, knee-jerk defenders of police fell in line and put the cop on a pedestal and defended the prosecutor whose slick grand jury manipulation deflected any accountability for police misconduct.
Soon, as if written in a script to accentuate the police misconduct in Ferguson, a Staten Island prosecutor guided a grand jury to let off without even a shaming finger shake a pack of cops who strangled a 43-year-old, unarmed Black male for selling “loosies” or untaxed, individual cigarettes to feed his family. It was like Jean Valjean and that famous loaf of bread. And it was all on videotape, precluding the officers from making a waistband plea to the court — as in, “He seemed to be reaching into his waistband.” Once the obese man was subdued and dying, incredibly, police officers — first responders! — are seen standing over the body like they were waiting for the donut truck.
The video was so damning the right-wing police defense league broke apart. Bill O’Reilly, Charles Krauthammer, Rand Paul and others went soft. Something was terribly wrong here. The big family man was an American entrepreneur and the cops were working for The Taxman! How could this happen in America?
Finally, there was the rank absurdity of a Cleveland cop caught on video arriving on the scene in a fast squad car. He leaps out of the car and within two seconds unloads his service revolver on a 12-year-old Black boy who had been brandishing a fake gun. Yes, in retrospect, this was not very smart of the child. But was it any stupider than the Cleveland Police Department that had hired the man as a cop. This was a man who had been fired by a previous employer who dumped him because he was emotionally unbalanced and a terrible shot on the pistol range. They concluded he was “incompetent” to be a police officer. Cleveland’s PD is now under US Justice Department oversight. We’ll have to wait and see what happens to the Cleveland killer cop. Given the political climate, he may be festooned with garlands of stink weed and sacrificed to the media gods.
As for the three Black males, none of them qualified as saints or were without reasons to criticize their behavior. They were just human. The point is, their pride and their egos — their lives! — were not respected by police officers whose pride and egos are recognized ad nauseum. Cops are legally armed and paid to protect the citizens of their community. These males were all citizens. Somehow things have gotten so skewed in this country that a cop’s ego is sacrosanct and allowed to run free under the influence of fear and adrenaline. Cop narcissism can be comic to witness, but it can also be lethal when seriously challenged. As many have pointed out, prosecutors rely on cops first and foremost and are not inclined to find fault with them. When it comes to police or prosecutorial misconduct, it’s a match made in Hell.
People seem to have reached a sense of “enough!” The police and prosecutorial reform movement has nothing to do with good cops and good prosecutors, which are no doubt the majority. Mayor Bill DiBlasio of New York eloquently spoke of warning his own bi-racial son about dealing with the New York police. A New York City police union spokesman accused the mayor of “throwing New York cops under the bus.” But race is not the main point, here, something this police union spokesman’s remarks should make clear. The point is to throw under the bus cops who should be thrown under the bus for the good of the community. The question I like to ask my union friends is: Why at a time of right-wing ascendance when unions are on the ropes are police unions the most successful unions everywhere? Think about it.
Over the years, many activists and commentators (including this one) have tried to make the case there’s a disturbing national problem growing inside our police departments. It has been fueled by the disastrous Drug War and the fears that followed on the 9/11 attacks. As Mayor DiBlasio suggested, there’s the vestiges of “centuries” of racial violence and prejudice deep-seated in the culture. Add to that the human fallout of economic success and failure — the class bugaboo — and you have a toxic stew.
This needs to be asked: What exactly does the bottom-up policing concept of “broken windows” (ie. coming down hard on low-level “quality of life” crimes) really mean? One thing it means is hitting hard the most vulnerable among us, the poor. Juxtapose that with the policing reality of “too big to fail” which gives a pass to those in the executive suites. Big and seemingly lovable Eric Garner selling loosies is the poster boy for the outrage this skewed national priority has become. One would have to be determinedly cold-blooded, even fascistic, to refuse to see the pile-on of cops that killed Garner as outrageous. It’s important to recognize what was captured in that video would be outrageous even if Garner had not been killed.
Cracks in the system are appearing, not least the one rooted in the high cost of our criminal justice and penal system. I work with incarcerated veterans, and there are signs in Pennsylvania’s capital of a new openness to reform based significantly on the money issue. The system is vulnerable, and citizen crowbars need to be applied to these cracks, chipping and wiggled them open further so the moral issues can seep in and further break down the governmental concrete.
It would be good to see the vigorous demonstrations continue and shift into other cultural and political realms — like electoral politics. Nothing is going to change without real heat under the cooking pot. History has tragically shown that in America little change happens until there’s at least a threat of violence and destruction. Michael Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, has apologized for screaming over and over “Burn the bitch down!” in front of the Ferguson Police Department headquarters following the grand jury verdict. As inexcusable as his remarks were, they were understandable as a cry-from-the-heart in a moment of weakness. For the Ferguson PD and St. Louis prosecutor to go after him would be piling another citizen-indicted “crime” to the ones already perpetrated by Officer Darren Wilson and Prosecutor Robert McCulloch.
Let’s hope the Obama administration has the backbone to follow up on its pronouncements. National government intervention based on the Bill Of Rights has important precedent in American life.
There’s the need to dismantle the dysfunctional Drug War and to design workable programs to seriously address the demand side of the problem. Police department addiction to forfeiture of assets in drug raids is a major corrupting influence. According to Ted Best in Politics & Crime: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order, these and other features of the Drug War established in the mid-1980s were notably driven hard by Senator Joe Biden to help the Democrats get back in the game after being trounced by Ronald Reagan. The vice president should atone for this and work to dismantle the mess he helped set upon America.
Returning our local police departments to their communities and cutting them loose from the surplus weaponry from our unnecessary wars would also be a good thing for America. All this trend has done is help mentally turn cops into a militaristic occupying force that sees their fellow citizens as potential enemies to be beaten down at the first sign of questioning their authority. It is a self-fulfilling tragic circle.
There’s also an intimate, psychological issue that should be addressed. As an experienced police detective recently emphasized on MSNBC, if a white male has a particular fear of Black males (something few macho white men would ever admit to), then he should not be a police officer prowling in a Black neighborhood.
Finally, cops love to stress how dangerous their job is. And it certainly can be that. But that’s the job they signed up for, what they are paid by their communities to do. If cops want citizens to give them the respect they feel they deserve for the risks they take, then they need to accept those risks and not resent citizens for them. To paraphrase the quaint old maxim my conservative dad liked to cite, “It’s better that 10 cops get shot than one innocent civilian be shot.”
These days, among the cop elite, it seems the other way around.
Late Breaking News: Shot Dead With Bag of Burgers
As this went to press, a story out of Phoenix added to the list of white cops killing unarmed Black males. On Tuesday, an unnamed white Phoenix cop said to be alerted by “an anonymous tip,” stopped a 34-year-old Black male named Rumain Brisbon as he parked his Cadillac SUV. What is that in your hand, the cop wanted to know. Brisbon apparently ignored the cop and proceeded into his apartment with a bag of McDonalds food for his family. A tussle ensued that ended up inside Brisbon’s apartment with two women and two kids watching. Locked in struggle, the cop said he felt something in Brisbon’s pocket (was it a gun?), leading him to shoot Brisbane dead in front of his family. Brisbon had a bottle of pills in his pocket. He did drive a Cadillac SUV and have a police record; a bag of marijuana and a gun were found in his car — parked out on the street.