It’s Officer Slam’s World, We Just Live In It
Whenever I watch footage, real or fictional, of people subjected to brutality, I can’t help but put myself in the victim’s place as I wonder what I would do in the same situation. I like to think I’d put up a fight, but ultimately I find myself succumbing to a feeling of helplessness much like drowning, an inability to come up for air or to overcome my oppressor, until my own humanity, like that of the victim’s, has been beaten out of me. It’s a sympathetic reaction to seeing a human being treated by another human being like a piece of meat. It’s one thing to be confronted with the absence of humanity in a fellow human being, but when such inhumane and brutal treatment is inflicted by those in whom we give our trust, such as a parent or authority figure who turns on the defenseless with the full force of their power, we have no choice but to react with horror.
As anyone with a teenager knows only too well, they can be exasperatingly obstinate creatures, but for the life of me, I can’t think of any justification for the brute force Richland County Officer Senior Deputy Ben Fields used to deal with a female student who refused to give up her cell phone or leave the classroom. The officer otherwise known by the students of Spring Valley High School as “Officer Slam” clearly lost his shit, and the force he used was all out of proportion to what the situation required. His actions become all the more indefensible upon learning that the young girl had recently been orphaned after losing her mother and placed in foster care. Even the teacher who called for police intervention in the first place stands mute and powerless to stop a situation that has suddenly, without warning, gone out of control. It took a fellow student, Niya Kenny, to decide enough was enough, and as she stood up to protest what was happening, she shouted the words that could serve as a 21st call to arms: “Record! Record!” She, too, got arrested for her troubles, but not before several students took out their cell phones and filmed the video footage that blew the story up to national proportions and got Officer Fields shitcanned.
It’s understandable for anyone watching this video to hear echoes of Cartman from South Park: “Respect my authoritah!” Fields’ nickname had already rendered him a cartoon character, but the damage he and other adult authority figures inflict on children, or that police officers have been shown to inflict on non-violent and unarmed citizens, is hardly a laughing matter. The Spring Valley High School incident, along with many others popping up in the news almost daily, conjures up worrying implications that a vaunted institution like law enforcement has begun to turn against the citizenry it was established to protect and serve. We citizens are caught up in a battle of dueling narratives that only serves to increase the anxiety we feel upon hearing story after story of police brutality. On the one hand, the police decry an increasingly dangerous world with a citizenry grown ever more antagonistic and aggressive toward them. On the other, citizens have been demanding, particularly through movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and Campaign Zero, that those officers acting inappropriately or using excessive force be held accountable for their actions. Because an institution such as law enforcement tends to be a product of the patriarchy or the Powers That Be (PTB), one can easily see how in the face of community opposition and protest their response is typically to protect the institution at all costs through an unwavering and unquestioning defense of its agents. The historical lesson that the PTB fails to take into account and will, therefore, be doomed to repeat is that such rigid stances (“That’s our story and we’re sticking to it”), stonewalling and brute enforcement of the laws only alienates the public by increasing their distrust of the institution, which inevitably blows back on them.
Respect for institutions and their authority serves a valuable function for society. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt uses Moral Foundation Theory to explain our fealty to authority as one of five moral foundations (in addition to care, fairness, loyalty and sanctity) humans use to guide their lives and interactions with others. Haidt points out that one of authority’s roles in society is to educate citizens along a certain path (one deemed worthy by the patriarchy, naturally), as well as to maintain peace and order. This respect for authority is drilled into us from childhood, no doubt stemming from the biblical commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Those caught deviating from this preordained path will be punished, we’re told. Such an inculcation becomes a danger to society, however, when we give ourselves blindly to authority, and it becomes downright lethal when we allow those in positions of authority to violate the trust bestowed upon them by the citizenry.
An expression of this blind, unquestioning obedience comes from no less of a conservative authority figure than Bristol Palin herself, in her comments on the Spring Valley incident:
I can’t believe this, when are we going to look at what KIDS are doing wrong? Instead of instantly blaming police and higher authority? I know my son would leave a classroom if he was told to, so why didn’t this student? Do parents teach their kids now to question authority? That they must be the victim? I don’t know the full situation – none of us do, but this just makes me sick. When will parents take full responsibility for their kids, teach them not to act like punks, and listen to AUTHORITY – no matter what their race is.
Yeah, Ms. Palin and Sean Hannity both need to be disabused of their institutional bias convincing them that things would be just hunky-dory if all citizens just submitted whenever they are stopped by the police. Try telling that to an African-American from an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood who has absorbed the generational lesson that any encounter with the police can be a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” situation, one in which they are far more likely to end up dead or in prison. If faced with that kind of a choice, what would you do?
We aspire, or at least talk a big game, about treating others as we would ourselves, and yet our fallible nature means that we will all fall short of this ideal at one time or another. That’s life and being human. When we fall, we pick ourselves up and try to do better, make amends, if necessary, whenever we have harmed someone else in the act. By extension, we accept that there will be “bad apples” in any profession, but we human beings can be a forgiving lot when we see a person experiencing true remorse for their actions and genuine atonement for their sins. What is far more difficult to abide is when an individual who’s done wrong hides behind the institution to escape accountability, or worse, the institution itself covers up for the individual. We saw evidence of this when Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said, as a variation of the patriarch’s favorite “children should be seen and not heard” rule, “We must not lose sight that this whole incident was started by this student. She is responsible for initiating this action. Some responsibility falls on her.” This blaming the victim, or in any way suggesting this young woman “made” Officer Fields do what he did, is so third grade that one wonders when the real grown-ups will come forward. We can take some comfort that Officer Fields was summarily dismissed, but Sheriff Lott’s adherence to the “official story” that law enforcement can do no wrong leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths. At the very least, one can read the tea leaves in his remarks that very little will change in the way law enforcement handles its business in Richland County.
Haidt writes, “When people within a hierarchical order act in ways that negate or subvert that order, we feel it instantly, even if we ourselves have not been directly harmed.” He goes on to say, “If authority is in part about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station.” In other words, all lives do, indeed, matter, but one way of addressing this violation of trust and imbalance of power in law enforcement is to acknowledge and speak out about the harm we are currently witnessing and feeling against members of the African-American and other underserved communities. That would, in fact, be acting out of the care and fairness moral foundations. Of course, when we attempt to hold institutions and their patriarchies accountable for their actions, we can expect to be, and have been, met with an equal or greater force, because the first order of business for an institution, once established, is to fight tooth and nail to preserve itself, even if that self-preservation comes at the expense of its agents or the people it is meant to serve. What we must never forget is that because these institutions were made by people, it follows that they can be unmade by people and replaced with something more reflective of our humanity and our better natures.
Deference to the patriarchy is nothing new for the South. In fact, it and the emphasis on the authority moral foundation, which extends all the way to God Almighty himself, is in our DNA. In his cultural commentary, The Mind of the South, a book still as relevant today as when it was written 75 years ago, W. J. Cash describes the origins and thinking of this group of enlightened leaders and benefactors. These men, whom Cash calls at various times planters (first plantation, then factory, owners), captains and the “Men at the Center,” have stood at the center of social order, largely deciding amongst themselves the direction in which the money spigots will flow, and dictating the laws, religious practices and culture of their communities. The “common white,” according to Cash, “fell into the habit of honoring [the Man at the Center] as primus inter pares, of deferring to his knowledge and judgment, of consulting him on every occasion, and of looking to him for leadership and opinion – and, above all, for opinion in politics.” Even if the common white felt subjugated or constricted by these captains, he was at least assured of a status above the Negro. Not satisfied with earthly riches, the Southern patriarchs took their elevated station to be no less than a blessing from God himself. Their status was proof that they were chosen people in God’s eyes and unquestioningly deserving of their wealth, even if it was generated off the backs of slaves and common whites. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The authority moral foundation is thus used to subjugate its people to an extent that well exceeds the need for order and control in society. Not only do the negro and common white have no right to question the patriarchs’ divine providence, particularly when some of that providence might trickle down to them (if only trickle-down economics was a real thing), but their lower station was affirmation “that every man was, in economics at any rate, absolutely responsible for himself, and that whatever he got in this world was exactly what he deserved.” Cash goes on to write a passage that perfectly sums up why some cling so tightly to blind faith in authority, or attribute to it more merit than it deserves:
Repeatedly I myself heard more or less definitely expressed in North Carolina at the time the conviction that God had called one man to be rich and master, another to be poor and servant, and that men did well to accept what had been given them, instead of trusting to their own strength and stirring up strife. Perhaps there was injustice by weak human standards, but there was a justifying reason at last why all things should be as they were.
Those of us in NC should bear this in mind the next time our legislature spouts its cockamamie bullshit about how their so-called authority justifies their draconian budget cuts to desperately needed government services, not least of which is education. Generation after generation, they hold up the legends of their patriarchal elders as examples, as well as their own supposedly rough-hewn upbringing (in which they walked 7 miles in the snow to school without a decent pair of shoes), as they repeat the same tired old fairy tales, “We must cut unemployment benefits because it only makes people lazy, which is the reason they’re out of work in the first place. It is an affront to our sense of order, decency and work ethic to have people cashing unemployment checks so they can sit on their asses and drink beer.”
Believe me, I share the outrage and anger of those who dare protest the dramatic cuts to education and other services, but I can’t help but think how little good this does when these self-deluded fools, assuming our fathers’ places, believe they know what’s best for us and tout the Lord’s blessings as irrefutable proof of their righteousness in inflicting such damage. You don’t think they know damn well people are not happy? And yet they still say “bring it on” to the protesters, even threatening them with arrest, which is what happened to many of the Moral Monday protestors at our state capitol. After all, why should they care when they’re acting out of tough love and doing this for our own good? In writing about an earlier time in the South’s history, Cash could be describing our situation today: “Tolerance, in sum, was pretty well extinguished all along the line, and conformity made a nearly universal law. Criticism, analysis, detachment, all those activities and attitudes so necessary to the healthy development of any civilization, every one of them took on the aspect of high and aggravated treason.”
Clearly, law enforcement is but one institution is straining under its “protect and serve” mandate. For decades, if not longer, many communities have felt neither protected nor served by them. This imbalance of power has now reached its tipping point. Citizens have lately been turning the tables and, through videos shot on cell phones, have reflected law enforcement’s brutality back at them. Meanwhile, the police departments and their unions, as expected, are fighting harder than ever to defend their own, even in light of seemingly clear-cut photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony. It’s plain to see that the lengths they will go to defend the worst among them have little to do with defendant or victim, but they have everything to do with the institution itself. According to a logic dictated by fear, the police departments and their unions figure that if they allow an unruly mob to take down one of their own – and in their view that’s what protestors are, after all, just thugs and ne’er do wells looking for trouble – the institution is weakened and all of a sudden it’s, in the brilliant words of Dr. Peter Venkman, “human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” “Respect my authoritah!” could very well be the last whimper of a dying institution and its patriarchy who have yet to realize they’ve lost the faith and consent of their constituents. This recalcitrance and refusal to examine itself, to hold itself and its agents accountable by admitting wrongdoing and changing its culture and practices, will ultimately be its ruin, at the cost of mutual trust, cooperation, beneficial order and control in our society, if something doesn’t change.
Just as history is written by the victors, the PTB shapes our institutions according to its own image by framing the narrative and creating its “official story.” In an eye-opening essay recently posted on Huffington Post, University of California-Berkley sociologist Jerome Karabel puts law enforcement’s official narrative in an interesting perspective. First, it’s always a shock to see statistics of how violent our culture in the US is in comparison to other countries. Karabel cites sources estimating there to be more than 1,100 cop killings in the US each year, or one every 8 hours. This is a nearly impossible number to arrive at, however, and is likely low, because, unlike other industrial countries, the reporting of police shootings is largely voluntary and not standardized. Still, this number is staggering when you compare it to Germany’s 7 deaths by police shootings in 2012, England’s 1 for both 2013 and 2014, and Japan’s 0. We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the Ferguson Effect, which serves the official story by claiming that erosion of trust in the police inspired by movements such as #BlackLivesMatter causes increased crime or violence toward police. However, Karabel shows that the deaths of police officers – a “longstanding American tradition,” he wryly notes – is at a historic low at an average of 56 per year, on top of a .02% decrease in the violent crime rate overall, as reported by the FBI. Not surprisingly, gun violence appears to follow gun ownership. Police in states with a higher rate of gun ownership are three times more likely to be shot. This correlation is a no-brainer for anyone with sense, and yet gun advocates perversely argue that this is why we need more guns!
Like arriving at true numbers of police killings and shootings, it’s virtually impossible to get to the real story behind the official one because the PTB will only allow access to information that confirms the official story while obscuring or discrediting the information that challenges it, including attacks on the messengers, as we’ve seen with the police unions’ boycott of Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming movie due to his presence at a protest in NYC. W. J. Cash himself wrote his book under a cloud of fear of repercussions from the PTB, and it has been speculated that such fear exacerbated the depression that led to his suicide within months of its publication. In The Mind of the South he cites another example of Clarence Cason, a journalism professor in Alabama, who committed suicide out of fear of the reaction to his “fiercely hostile attitude” toward the South in his book 90° in the Shade, which was published a few days after his death.
Personally, I have the utmost respect for, as well as a healthy fear of, the police as an institution, and I have no doubt that the role they play in society is not only vitally important but that we also expect them to do an incredibly dangerous job for which they sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice. I should also add that in this post-recession time of societal upheaval they are not the only institution crumbling under the weight of its discredited authority and failure to address the needs of its constituents, as the recent problems with public education demonstrate. (It doesn’t help that the PTB often talk out of both sides of their mouth, undermining institutions by denying them funding as they continue to prop them up.) Still, it’s not terribly difficult to see how, if you have gone through training that not only is woefully short and inadequate with a disproportionate emphasis on firearm training, but also, as Karabel points out, drills home at every opportunity that “cops live in a hostile world,” “complacency kills,” and “hesitation is fatal,” then everything and everyone starts to look like a suspect or target. When you throw into the mix such lucrative free market incentives as quotas and civil asset forfeitures that pad a police department’s bottom line, then it’s understandable how stop-and-frisk and racial profiling become standard practice for arrest-happy officers and their chiefs – and how pissed off and pumped up with adrenaline they become whenever someone challenges their authority, even if it’s to ask politely why they’ve been stopped in the first place.
The institution discredits itself and undermines its own authority when it circles the wagons around its accused and denies accountability to the public by handling its own misconduct investigations or providing the protections of its unions. Karabel cites a study by the Washington Post that shows of the thousands of police killings over the last decade, only 54 officers were ever charged, and of those 54 only 11 were convicted. One wonders if the PTB protecting these officers follow their reasoning to its logical conclusion: if you kill and/or jail such a large proportion of society, eventually there won’t be any society left! We’ll be back to the days of frontier and vigilante justice, one where the norm is to shoot first and ask questions later.
Unlike many politicians holding office today, I’m one who believes the institution of government has a critical role to play in a democratic society, so I don’t advocate anything like anarchy, nor do I think the matter’s black and white: either we give our blind allegiance to authority or all hell will break loose. Leave that kind of fire and brimstone to the preachers. I do, however, think a certain amount of peaceful (and respectful) civil disobedience and protests are in order to hold the institution’s feet to the fire. Karabel’s article demonstrates how such protests managed to turn the tide on such an abominable, but once socially acceptable, practice of lynching earlier in our history, and we are seeing very positive signs of change, albeit at a glacier’s pace, through the #BlackLivesMatter and Campaign Zero movements, as well as non-police-related movements such as Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street. Most recently, we have seen racial protests cause the ouster of the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri, where already the PTB is waging a counter-attack of discrediting those involved, including the black student body president. The PTB should have a strong enough grasp of history to understand that if you deny the will of the people and violate their sense of common decency for long enough, then, like plants pushing through concrete or asphalt, their tendrils will shoot up through the societal soil even stronger and in greater numbers than before. This leaves the PTB at a considerable disadvantage, because, unfortunately for them, if the only tool they have is a hammer (or brute force), then everything and everyone tends to look like a nail, whereas the people have many more tools at their disposal.
There’s no question we have a vacuum of leadership right now, one that sucks in from the mud of society all the crazy bottom-feeders to fill the leadership void, or at least pretend to be leaders on TV at the behest of their paymasters. Even if we had the highest caliber of leadership, it won’t do any good if they do not have the trust of their constituents – ALL their constituents – by demonstrating transparency, accountability and integrity. This is one scenario where Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” credo makes sense, but only when the verification part has teeth and applies equally to everyone. The patriarchy assumes that the prosecution of one of their own reveals a chink in the armor that can be exploited to cause further damage and erosion to the institution. I prefer to believe that strength can be found in weakness. Institutions, not unlike human beings, can make themselves stronger by establishing practices where they examine themselves, open themselves to feedback from their constituents and address their weaknesses honestly, including procedures for dealing decisively with its bad apples. But that is only possible when institutions derive their authority from the bottom-up, rather than the PTB’s preferred command and control management style.
One can dream, right? That is what makes us human, after all, the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in our minds at the same time: what is and what could be. Every moment presents a choice in which we either act out of our baser instincts or summon our better natures. It seems our culture encourages us more and more to act on our animal natures – fear, fight, fuck (if you’re a member of the Duggar family) and, above all, shop, shop, shop – because politically and economically such anti-intellectualism serves the immediate and transactional ends of the patriarchy by putting money in their pocket or reinforcing their social status. As Jonathan Haidt writes, “Human authority, then, is not just raw power backed by the threat of force. Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice.” Instead of appealing to his better nature (and police procedures that discourages the use of force when there is no clear and present danger to himself or others), Officer Fields gave in to his own animal nature and turned into Officer Slam, and though he became one of the few police officers to lose his job as a result, his termination didn’t come without the Sheriff’s Department making excuses for him and itself by discrediting the victim.
What we need are institutions that are capable not only of appealing to our better natures and guiding us toward the creation of a better society, but that also have the integrity to withstand and even benefit from the scrutiny of the public, who, as the taxpayers that sustain its existence, are its true stakeholders, if you will. By the same token of grace and respect that we demand from them, we shouldn’t be too quick to damn or dismiss the PTB, not when we made them who they are by what we, the citizens, acquiesced to them. If this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, it’s only because we are so far removed from such core democratic principles as checks and balances through either a blind obedience to an institution’s authority or acquiescence to its brute force. Surely this is a better ideal and better reflection of our humanity than a society that is increasingly devolving into “every man for himself,” one that creates winners and losers that are largely and arbitrarily determined by the gene pool and zip code you are born in. It is in our power to reclaim that authority at any time if we didn’t view legitimate challenges and concerns as acts of treason, or worse, killing our fathers. Julius Caesar said:
When weapons flash, no pious sentiment,
Though you confront your fathers, must you feel;
No, slash their venerable faces with steel.
Lest we forget, the framers confronted these fears and anxieties of going against its elders head-on, and they did what was necessary in order to create a government that was, along with its institutions, reflective of our humanity and answered the appeal to our better natures for the sake of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all. An institution we can hold up as a mirror to ourselves is, therefore, one that accepts our fallibility as well as our ability to redeem ourselves, and one that assumes authority not from single, self-appointed individuals beyond the reach of accountability but rather the collective authority, wisdom and compassion of its people.