by Greg Foisie – Change-links volunteer
Over the past few years, ongoing news coverage related to instances of the murders of unarmed black youth by white men have galvanized local communities resulting in large, nationwide protests over these tragic deaths. They include the cases of an unarmed and subdued Oscar Grant killed on January 1st, 2009 by Johannes Mehserle, a white BART subway police officer in Oakland, CA; the murder of unarmed Trayvon Martin on February 26th, 2012 by George Zimmerman, a mixed Hispanic/white Neighborhood Watch captain who was stalking Martin in Martin’s father’s own neighborhood in Sanford, Florida against the direct orders of police; another murder in Florida of an unarmed Jordan Davis on November 23rd, 2012 by Michael David Dunn, a white man, when the driver of the car Davis was a passenger in refused to turn down loud music at a gas station in Jacksonville; and most recently, the unarmed Michael Brown, apparently shot to death while surrendering to Darrin Wilson, a white policeman on August 9th, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. In all instances, large public campaigns arouse supporting the families in seeking arrests and charges of murder against the perpetrators.
These are just four of possibly thousands of such murders that occur annually in the US. Nevertheless, these and other specific murders (including mass murders) have struck a chord with public sentiment, and the US public is now more aware of instances regarding excessive force, especially by law enforcement agents and agencies. However, in order to fully understand such violence and to create a new culture so that the inception of violence is greatly reduced, a much deeper perception of US society must be obtained than that produced by the concentration on prominent murders alone. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called this insight “new consciousness.” It is this new consciousness that offers the best chance for radical changes to the way life is treated and experienced in our society, not simply changing one or more aspects of its structure and their operations.
Violence can be defined as injury through deed, word, and thought. Violence is pervasive in the USA and around the world. The Forty-Ninth World Health Assembly declared violence a worldwide public health problem in the 90s. Violence pervades the content of our entertainment, much of our sports performance and its posturing, the broadcast conduct of celebrity and political personalities, our military experience, our daily news events, and even the substance of our thought processes. However, many of us who believe for the most part that our basic needs – such as safety – are met, do not acknowledge these facts.
Our police are violent. Why will only demands that our police stop being violent lead to less violent and racist policing? Because, as a society, we are violent through and through. We neglect the most fundamental needs of millions of our own impoverished citizens, promoting greed and the pursuit of decadence as worthy societal values while millions do not have the basics needed to live life decently. Our nation continues its obsession with guns, with some of its strongest voices encouraging everyone to have one or more guns (guns are designed for the primary purpose of violently and decisively ending life, or destroying or seriously injuring whatever their projectiles hit). We have a long history of stigmatizing, belittling, abusing and attacking immigrants seeking a decent life, even as our foreign policies and actions create the conditions they are trying to escape from. We continue to militarily and economically invade or cause the destabilization of scores of other sectors of society (reservations, ghettos. etc.) and other nations over the past two hundred years. Engaged in processes like these, we will not be able to effectively lessen violence and sustain justice in the application of law enforcement, or in any other single endeavor in life for that matter. We have to demand a new way of living life as a society and reject violence in all of its forms.
There are those amongst us who can admit to the violent conditions of our society while not being directly affected by it, yet we continue to accommodate this violence, supported in doing so by our insulation from it or our acculturation to it, or both. In truth, a large percentage of the American populace has been desensitized to our violent reality since the inception of our country. Most of these people unquestionably accept these sets of conditions – injury by thought, word, and deed – as either normal or inevitable. This is not true. Many societies are far less violent than our own.
The abuse of power by US law enforcement authority is not their issue alone. Police violence is a result of many factors. They include us collectively believing that violence is somehow a solution to problems, of our elected officials relying on violence and the mechanizations of violence to advance so-called justice and empowering others to do this, of us being complacent as wrong after wrong occurs and not taking a stand against them, and of us giving authority to law enforcement without judicious oversight under such conditions. “They” is “us.”
Prejudice, discrimination, and other demeaning attitudes are rationales for violence. Many of us say we do not believe in racism. We pass laws professing against its expression, as we chastise and punish public figures who are exposed demonstrating racist behavior. At the same time we refuse to accept accountability for our collective mistreatment of minorities in the past, and we simultaneously establish and actively sustain social policies that establish real-time, see-it-and-feel-it racism through entrenchment of economic, social, and cultural disparities. This situation is nothing but total denial of a classism that is racist-based.
To put the argument succinctly, we are responsible for the wrongs and shortcomings of our society. We have created our violence and racism as a society ourselves, even if our participation concentrated on our complicity towards and funding of violence. It will require many of us demanding change and working together to end the destructive violence we currently accept as inevitable. The community of Ferguson, Missouri is setting the right example by bearing witness and demanding change to end the violence in their midst. Let us all do so as well, restructuring our society towards those ends.
US law enforcement and justice systems: our ongoing racism and violence has historical, definitive, and structural foundations – Our violent cultural landscape is accompanied by the history and current events of our violent domestic and foreign policies, along with many forms of crime within our society. Without question, the issue of racism and brutality by law enforcement and other authorities has a long standing existence in our country: from the genocide of Indigenous Native American Indians, to the enslavement, torture, rape, and disenfranchisement of African Americans along with the generations of post-Civil War lynchings, to racist attacks and treatment of immigrants of all stripes, to policies which prevent our collective wealth from going where it is needed the most in our society. Violent state practices and conditions are rationalized as they go unacknowledged and untaught in meaningful ways that ascribe accountability and recompense.
How violent are we? Consider murders – an extreme form of violence – as just one example. Between 1960 to 1996 there were 666,160 murders in the US, averaging over 18,000 per year. In 2004, there were 5.5 homicides for every 100,000 persons, roughly three times as high as Canada (1.9) and six times as high as Germany (0.9). In 2010 there were 14,748 homicides in the United States, including non-negligent manslaughter. Currently the USA experiences between 10,000 and 15,000 murders annually. Despite declines since the early 90s, the US homicide rate remains among the highest in the industrialized world.
So our accommodation of violence has allowed violent practices to flourish in varying degrees. The issue of violence is rarely discussed in meaningful ways with the intent of discovering and resolving its causes. For those of us who are aware of levels of violence in our society, few of us would wish violence upon our families or on ourselves, yet we manage to entertain or tolerate this incidence of violence for others in our society. Many of us claim that we are not racist, yet vast discrepancies amongst races in US society revealed by disparate levels of impoverishment, illiteracy, crime, and incarceration reveal the truth – we live in and perpetuate a segregated, violent, racist society.
Prejudice and discrimination are at the core of sustaining violence and other unjust social conditions that effectively segregate our society, even as we attest to outlawing segregation. Sociological studies suggest that some of the factors causing and perpetuating these conditions across races include inequities in socioeconomic status, differences in environmental well-being, continual racist discrimination, and the effectiveness of the education provided different groups. Our inability to address and resolve these conditions perpetuates the disparate components of society and society’s continuation of violence.
Abundant evidence reveals the existence of this violent reality and the extent of the racism that dominates US experience. Here is one example: at the beginning of this century, over 2.2 million people were incarcerated in the USA, with millions more on probation and parole. This is the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Imprisonment – in and of itself – is an extremely injurious act. The predominant philosophy behind our systems of incarceration is not one or rehabilitation and restitution, but one of retribution and punishment. A recent survey revealed there averaged 487 prisoners per 100,000 white males, 1,261 prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males, and 3,042 prisoners per 100,000 black males. The likelihood of US males going to prison in their lifetime: 4% for whites, 16% for Hispanics, and 28% for blacks. Adding injury upon injury, recall that blacks are a minority in the US, composing only 13 percent of our population. Books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012), A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America by Ernest Drucker (2013), and Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America by Eugene Puryear (2013) detail these inequalities.
We speak of the US as if it were one country. We might be one country on paper, but in fact we are not one country. We are strongly divided and we do not exist as a single entity, even though we profess that we do. To do otherwise would place into question our rhetoric of supporting democracy, equality, liberty, justice, and freedom.
This division of people has labels. The systemic impoverishment of minority communities assures that greater instances of crime will prevail there. Like much of the rest of its society, US law enforcement has embraced the consciousness of dividing the world into “good guys,” and “bad guys,” and does not think twice of using violence to suit its own ends. From a policing perspective, it is in these poorer neighborhoods that the “bad guys” reside. Add a belief system that discounts the effect of society upon its own and you have one of the ways racism is perpetuated in the USA.
Nowhere is the issue of policing and prosecutorial misconduct more apparent than in enforcing laws and administering justice to minorities and in minority neighborhoods. A long legacy of the miscarriage of justice through police and misconduct when attending to impoverished neighborhoods has occurred in the US. Consider these many forms of abuse and misconduct: excessive force and the creation of the category of “justified homicide” to absolve law enforcement from murdering those unarmed; racial/minority profiling agenda practices such as “stop and frisk” and “driving while black;” entrapment and false arrest; selective and malicious prosecutions; intimidation during detainment and imprisonment and forced confessions; deaths while in custody; withholding of evidence, witness tampering, police perjury, and wrongful convictions; and sentencing that is both unjust and disproportionate. There are additional concerns and violations of the public trust, including pervasive, unwarranted spying (as revealed by Edward Snowden), “the use of informants, agents provocateur and covert activities involving mayhem and murder” by the FBI and CIA against dissident groups such as the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, MOVE, and elements of the peace and environmental movements; “sting” operations that actually create criminal intent and preparations where none would be otherwise (thereby scapegoating the naÔve and easily mislead as “terrorists,” and justifying budgets for the militarization and the clandestine operations of law enforcement); and police brutality such as contagious shootings and vicious, systematic beatings and torture of minorities by law enforcement personnel. The most famous example is the 1991 brutal beating of an intoxicated Rodney King in Los Angeles after a high-speed chase. A trial held a year later vindicating those officers involved precipitated the 1992 LA Riots:
After Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, a panel investigating excessive use of force by the LAPD found that officers operated under “an organizational culture that emphasizes crime control over crime prevention and that isolates the police from the communities and the people they serve.” As a result, police violence and racism stems from this culture which teaches “to command and confront, not to communicate,” the report said … police work is often viewed by those in the force as an us-versus-them war rather than a chance for community-oriented engagement and problem solving … a lack of accountability as one of the reasons why police violence persists. They acknowledge that, yes, police officers are placed in dangerous situations that at times require immediate responses. But they maintain that doesn’t excuse using more force than is needed to subdue someone, the lack of professional training that leads to such fear-based responses, or treating citizens as enemy combatants. ( https://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2010/07/when-police-shoot-unarmed-man-oscar-grant-verdict-Mehserle )
We must not forget that a person is not a criminal at birth. It is through specified violent acts that people find themselves labeled as criminals, and they are henceforth identified as such by the criminal, violent acts they committed. When law enforcement engages in deadly force and other forms of violence, more often than not it escapes being identified in this manner through the dictates of “justified homicide.” Our entire society gives itself the same carte blanche, as we incessantly undertake military invasions around the world, more often than not lying to justify our doing so.
Studies have determined that US law enforcement exhibits a culture that supports authorities engaging in major, often lethal, force when confronting people suspected of even minor crimes. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded, “most white officers (95%) do not believe police are more likely to use physical force against blacks and other minorities than against whites in similar situations. The majority of black and other minority officers (69.5%) believe persons who look like them are more likely to receive physical force from police.” This police culture perception is a reflection of our culture’s general perception. The policing culture mirrors its society’s entire mindset in dismissing its violent history as irrelevant because it already happened, its violent acts today as inevitable, prerequisite, and opportune, and the assured need for more violence tomorrow as an unquestioned truism. At governing, industrial, and popular levels, much of our society supports law enforcement in this understanding and approach. That is why murders by police continue to go unacknowledged and prosecuted, and why we spend more on law enforcement then we do on crime prevention.
In the end, if the truth be told, US society is awash with the social health problem of violence. Upon examination, murders by law enforcement and other forms of police brutality are shown to be inherently racist in nature and directly associated with the many forms of violence that compose US society and its culture. To experience real change, we must continue to bear witness against violence and injustice as the community in Ferguson, Missouri has done in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, and demand a new society and a new way of life.[note: a 14 page version of this article exists]