Archive: May, 2020
Reform the Police
Why do we have police?
Seriously. I'm asking. Because right now it looks like they're part of the problem.
This weekend's protests against the kind of casual police violence and brutal behavior that we've all become somehow accustomed to were hijacked. By anarchists, by agitator plants, by right-wing chaos agents, by people who just look for any excuse to break stuff and loot. But also by the police.
Thank god for pocket cameras and the internet. Those technological marvels allowed us to see and hear so many examples of police departments doubling down on the offenses that prompted people to protest them in the first place. Police firing gas and projectiles at bystanders, some while standing on their own front porch. Police shoving, kicking, and bludgeoning protesters. Police using their vehicles and horses to assault people. Police pepper-spraying people, targeting reporters with tear gas, and generally behaving like government-sanctioned thugs.
The reports from some towns where police joined the protests are heartening, I don't want to overlook those. But even here, in my city of Seattle that has what is supposed to be one of the more enlightened police forces among large American cities, the cops were out last night to "restore order" and in so doing escalated things to violence and pepper-sprayed and manhandled crowds indiscriminately, with more unprovoked violence today.
So I ask again, why do we have police? What's their purpose? What should be their purpose?
Obviously, we need some sort of public safety agency. We are, in theory anyway, a culture based upon law and a social contract that requires those laws to be enforced somehow. Those laws are sometimes flawed—horribly so in too many cases—but makeup and details of the laws in general are a different matter than how the police operate. If the police are simply there to enforce the laws, then why are they permitted to break said laws?
I'm a straight white guy that has never had any sort of serious run-in with the police. When I got pulled over by traffic cop for the ridiculous offense of driving below the speed limit on an empty freeway late at night, I didn't fear for my safety. I have never even been in the vicinity when a cop has drawn a weapon. My personal experiences are not difficult in this manner. Nevertheless, I no longer trust the police even to the degree I did before this week, which was not as much as you might think, because I have to be suspicious of their tendency to use violence as a first resort in any given circumstance.
The history of how police forces came to be is not pretty. Police forces were formed to shield the wealthy from the rabble, to be a power arm of slaveholders, to be protectors of property. Theoretically, the rationale for police has evolved over time to "protect and serve" the public interest generally, to be agents of the law in broader terms as a way to keep people safe as well as to prevent theft and vandalism and the like. Yet, what we saw last night, what has happened many times before during civil unrest—this is, after all, the anniversary of the Tulsa massacre—was police forces in cities across the nation violently and indiscriminately clearing streets and otherwise wreaking their own havoc to protect property. Few if any police appeared to be doing anything to protect people, to promote public safety, to even apprehend criminals.
"But the police needed to restore order!" you might say. Well, (a) that regular order includes the sort of thing that prompted the protests in the first place, so there's that; (b) was that really the way to clam things down, by escalating to the point of chaos?
I get it, things can get a little crazy when the looters and vandals get involved. Those agitators used the protest crowds as cover for their criminality. But that wasn't the sequence of events in some cases, in some cases the police were the cause of craziness, provoking the start of something where those looters and vandals could have the cover they needed. Once that sort of chaos is happening, I don't know what alternative I'd suggest for handling it. But let's not actually create the chaos first, OK?
Police culture is steeped in violence. Police are trained to assume any interaction with a civilian can become deadly. Nuance is not a concern. Perhaps more importantly, police are likewise trained to revere and protect each other regardless of circumstance. Just look at the scene in Minneapolis that sparked this mess: One officer did the actual murdering of George Floyd, several others aided and abetted, and one looked on without taking any action. One might assume that the onlooker wasn't on board with murdering Mr. Floyd, but did he act to stop or in any way oppose his fellow policeman's behavior? Why not? If he witnessed a civilian doing anything remotely like that he would likely have been all over it, but this was a fellow cop, so he did nothing. (Yes, that's a supposition, I'm giving the guy the benefit of the doubt when he may have, in fact, been just as cruel and indifferent to snuffing out a black person's life.)
The purpose of the police force needs to be clarified. The tactics of the police force need to be focused away from the "force" part. The people that join the police need to be vetted to a far greater degree. And the police need to be policed, and a reformed police culture should welcome such oversight instead of resent it. Cops are not above the law. Individual cops who are out there making things worse for everyone should not be cops, and decent cops should be all in favor of weeding the bad cops out and keeping violent white-supremacist types and power-drunk asshats from becoming cops in the first place.
My reaction when seeing a police officer in even the most routine of circumstances is not reassurance or safety, it's apprehension and suspicion. I'm less apprehensive if the officer is black, but not a lot. Because I know police are violent. I know they will assume even the most trivial interaction can be a reason to use force. I know they are armed with lethal weaponry, and even if they opt for a taser instead of a pistol—not harmless, incidentally—they can be assumed to "subdue first, ask questions later."
The police need to change. Society needs to change them.1 Comment
Worse Before Better: Are We There Yet?
I don't even know where to start. This is probably gonna be a rambly, stream-of-consciousness post. Probably with swearing.
I mean, this has been one hell of a week. Monumental eruptions of anger. Astonishing levels of idiocy in government. Institutional racism in full view. One hell of a week.
On the other hand, this is, you know, just another week in these United States.
Especially these United States as it has existed these last three and a half years, especially as that subset of history has existed in the last three and a half months. But still, in the macro sense, you know, just another week. A policeman murdered a black citizen for dubious or no reasons? Ain't that America.
The environment that's allowed the string of killings of black folks by police recently has been stoked by our current so-called president and his minions and the larger Republican party, yes. It must be pointed out that President VonClownstick exacerbated the permissiveness around police brutality, especially when those being brutalized are black, repeatedly and without remorse. He is culpable. But he didn't start it. This is hundreds of years old.
And we as human beings in human society have gotten better, yes, but we've yet to get over this shit. And it's beyond frustrating. It has been a progression, sure; things were better in 1900 than 1850, better yet in 1950, better yet in 1970, better yet in 2010. Not so much improvement between 2016 and 2020, what with racist fuck klanhat setting the tone from the White House, but overall, long-view, better. But it's still too damn slow, and that's a long time for injustices to fester.
George Floyd was murdered by a cop for a variety of very bad reasons that mostly revolve around power and insecurity. Brionna Taylor was killed by cops who didn't think it necessary to do the basics of policework before busting in to the wrong home in search of someone who'd already been apprehended and just shooting whoever was there if whoever was there had dark skin. Michael Dean was murdered by a cop apparently just for driving while black and the cop felt like it. Eric Reason was murdered by an off-duty cop over a parking space. I could go on. And on and on and on and on and on and on some more, take a breath and keep going on and on for a good long while.
So, yeah, people are mad. Protests are good and proper. The violence I'm not on board with, but I get it. (Some of it, anyway—from some of the footage I've seen I have to wonder if there isn't a faction represented that just likes to break things for whatever excuse is handy, but burning down that Minneapolis cop's precinct, with that police department's history? I get it, yeah.) Shit's gotta change and oftentimes change needs a push.
I grew up on Star Trek (obviously) and have always subscribed to the ideals put forth there, believed us to be a people that could achieve a future free of the stupidity and machismo we're confronted with all the time today. When I was a kid, one of my favorite episodes was "A Taste of Armageddon," in which two worlds have been fighting a war for centuries and have sanitized the process so completely that the populaces just accept it as the way things are and perpetuate the clean, deadly carnage decade after decade after decade. Captain Kirk and the crew are declared casualties in their war and, in order to escape, they destroy the apparatus that allows the war's cleanliness; this forces the world leaders to realize that war is a thing to be avoided and that making peace is a real option. Kirk has a mini-monologue at the end of that script that I've always loved—arguing with a planetary leader who insists people have a killer instinct that rules them, he says: "All right, it's instinctive. We're human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But the instinct can be fought. We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes! Knowing that we won't kill today." (Just one of many bits of Gene L. Coon dialogue that reached me as an impressionable youngling, delivered with just the right level of Shatnerian melodrama. And no, I didn't have to look it up.)
Police departments can learn from this. I'm not saying police can know on any given day whether or not they'll be in a life-or-death situation that might call for deadly force, but I am saying that in all other circumstances, they can choose not to wield it. Pull over someone for speeding? You can choose not to draw your gun as you first approach the car, you can choose not to fire your gun at an unarmed person. Trying to apprehend a suspect in the middle of the night in an apartment you've just busted down the door of? You can choose not to start shooting unprovoked. Stop someone for allegedly forging a $20 check? You can choose not to crush his windpipe in order to feel like a big bad powerful asshole.
Law enforcement, along with American society at large, took a nasty turn after 9/11. The US went all in on machismo in the GWB years to our profound detriment, and while we came back from it a little bit after W slunked off to Texas to learn watercolors, we're in much worse shape now with public policy based on grievance and selfishness and the way of I-get-mine-and-fuck-you as a governing principle.
Even Star Trek knew that in order to get to its relatively idyllic future things would have to get worse first. Bad enough to kick our collective asses out of a complacency that lets us keep on settling for tiny two-steps-forward-one-step-back progressions. I hope the single four-year term of President VonClownstick is as bad as we need to get, 'cause this is plenty scary enough.
Wake the fuck up, America.1 Comment