Saturday, August 13, 2011

When Police Are the Anarchists

When in grad school, I taught an SAT prep class to keep afloat financially. I remember going over some of Greek and Latin roots of words to help my students (mostly Korean, nonnative speakers) get better access to meanings. Drifting away from the pure rote memorization the program demanded, I instigated a discussion about "anarchy" -- a word that literally means "without a chief or head" but has also come to mean tumultuous disorder. Why, I asked them, does the absence of a ruling authority immediately convert into a picture of violent chaos? And what constituency was behind the drive to fuse the literal meaning (no leader) and the figurative meaning (orgiastic riot)?

If I were willing to lose that job, I would have sermonized about contradictions on the political right. They have a libertarian streak that says with less government, citizens would actually be more virtuous. Hence, businesses and property owners should be free to engage in any contractual activity they like (besides, of course, same-sex marriage contracts). However, at the same time, they support "tough on crime" policies against people whom they pre-emptively define out of the category of citizens. Those people, apparently--those poor people, the ones that are immigrants, or don't speak English, or those criminals who don't wear business suits--are inherently immoral.Ω  The story goes that the police are the only protection from the anarchy that these people aim--every moment of their lives--to impose. Therefore, the absence of police automatically means that chaos and disorder are rampant.

I find myself thinking of these slides (from libertarian to authoritarian styles, from the absence of a leader to the absence of social cohesion) with the guilty verdict handed down in the case of New Orleans officers convicted of shooting six citizens (and killing two) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I remember being furious with the stories that were coming out--not only from the 24-hour speculation channels but also from "old media" like the august New York Times: babies being raped in the Superdome, a gang of 400 armed black people crossing a bridge to loot, deranged black people shooting at military helicopters.

Anyone who has reflected on being targeted by police knew immediately that all of this was sheer nonsense.  We didn't need the later articles retracting the reports. The reason? We never believed black people (the poor ones who haven't made it into the middle class) are so savage that the instant the police presence is suspended they'd do every manner of evil--hell, improvise new types of evil like it was a jazz solo or a freestyle rap. We were smarter than that. But, unfortunately, law and order/tough on crime talk has been so effective that even people in targeted groups repeat it. When the police cat is away, the negroes unleash anarchy.

•People displaced by the storm provided some of the sensationalized stories. Perhaps they thought heightening the amount of danger they were in would get them help. After all, the hurricane and flood were not enough to arouse many people's charity for those people.

• Police Superintendent Edwin Compass offered "babies getting raped" on Oprah. To be clear, he's black. But his skin color helps prove my point about the success of "law and order" talk. Being black doesn't make one immune from parroting that discourse. In fact, he might have felt he had to master it to rise in the ranks of the police department. By being so fully indoctrinated in police thinking, he is as fluent in "those people are animals" as anyone else and clearly believed that a "thin blue line" separated good law-abiding folks from near-animals waiting to be uncaged.

• Tiger Woods said (I'll never forget this and he's unlikely to ask for forgiveness for it):
"It's just unbelievable. Not only the devastation, but how people are behaving, with the shootings and now with the gang rapes and the gang violence and shooting at helicopters who are trying to help people out, trying to rescue people, I just don't understand that whole concept. You figure if anything, they would all come together and try to help one another out, but they are doing the exact opposite. From that standpoint, I just can't see how the community is doing that to themselves."
Doing that to themselves?!?!  Two words on the broken levee ("the devastation") and then sentence upon sentence of paranoid fantasies of Negroes Gone Wild: Hurricane Edition?!?! Better, I think, for Mr. Woods to have remained silent.

How much of those nightmares turned out to be true in the light of day? Well, no 7-year old was found raped and with her throat slit--much less a whole group of babies.† And considering that the National guard was sent to New Orleans with guns before water or medical supplies arrived, how would a citizen know whether a helicopter was being sent to help them or kill them? If you thought the latter, you had good reason and may well have shot at a plane.  Or maybe the shot was fired in an attempt to get attention to be rescued--or even arrested. The accommodations in prison beat dying of thirst on your roof, I'm sure.

The point is that the presumption that it must have been lawless, looting, gang-raping, gang-banging insanity is the least likely explanation. After all, these were people who had no food, no water, no medication. They were unsure of where their loved ones were and if they were alive, unsure of whether or not they would have homes to go back to. What person, in the midst of that, decides to rape a baby--much less participate in a gang-rape of a baby? Can you imagine the unfortunate victims of any of the tsunamis being described this way? Or the tornados that ripped through the Midwest this year? I can't. Those New Orleans blacks must be super-negroes, because even without food and water, they can still commit unimaginably, heinous crimes. So why send food and water?

And that conclusion, dear readers, is the reason for this whole law and order/tough on crime mantra. It's not meant for unique cases like Katrina. It is meant to paint a general portrait of a certain segment of the population in effect at all times. It doesn't need proof. It already predicts this behavior because it knows those people.

So, let's be clear: Katrina didn't unleash black anarchy, it unleashed the authoritarian imagination--the same imagination that confuses the absence of an uninhibited police force with an anti-social paradise for crime. (More on the "liberal media's" participation in paranoid racial fantasies below...)

The allegedly liberal New York Times played as much a role in perpetuating the nightmare image of unleashed black ghouls as any. Now they are trying to dance around it, when they should have hung their heads in shame and vowed to do better. In an article of August 5, 2011, Campbell Robertson refers to
the initial widely held belief that the authorities were trying to control elements of a citizenry run rampant.... In the years since, that narrative has been qualified. While some people did turn to crime and violence, it has become apparent that some of the bloodshed and chaos was brought about by members of the long-troubled Police Department.
I thought he was going to say that the narrative had been "qualified" by retracting the proliferating statements of black bestial behavior. Nope. Standing by those. Just adding that the police from a corrupt department participated, too. So, now the portrait is not that black New Orleanians are animals, but that both the citizens and law enforcement are lawless.

Robertson seems to have exculpated one crucial player in this game: the NYT itself. The Times has helped propagate the longstanding "tough on crime" rhetoric that informed the officers' actions. The paper has a habit of repeating unfounded beliefs about black people's inherent antisocial criminality, beliefs that embolden bad police to detain and execute those people and encourage the rest of the population to condone it.

As just one example, recall their coverage of Henry Louis Gates' arrest for back-talking an officer who accused him of trespassing in his own home. One headline read: "As Officers Face Heated Words, Tactics Vary" (July 25, 2009). The article offers the hard-news nugget that some officers arrest mouthy citizens and some don't. But it never investigates beyond what the officers told them. It never asks: What are citizens' constitutional rights? What do the state statutes say is permissible police behavior? What is official police procedure in each locale? Skipping over these questions and just reporting on what police do tends to suggest that whatever an individual officer decides is acceptable. The police become authoritative interpreters of the very laws that are supposed to restrain them from abusing citizens. I could give other examples, but I will leave it to readers to use their memories and be on the lookout for such stories in the future.

This deference to police on all matters relating to those people is evidence that the NYT participates regularly in the tough on crime talk and helps create the environment where police can act with carte blanche and the majority of the population will condone it--even people in criminalized groups (who may think "they don't mean me, they mean those other dangerous dark folks").

Well, miracle of miracles, the murderous officers in New Orleans were convicted. Perhaps it was the fact that they shot a mentally disabled man in the back. Or, perhaps it was that not all of their victims died. In one dramatic moment, a victim was unable to raise her right hand to testify, because the officers shot it off.

In truth, I would like to find out the composition of the jury in this case. White judges and juries have a terrible record of convicting police, even in the most clear-cut cases of police failing to follow regulations, instigating or exacerbating violence, and executing citizens without trial. Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant: these are just the big male names since the 90s. There are more whose names I can't recall, or never knew.ß

The prevailing mentality has been that antisocial violence is latent in those people and so every police act is just, because police are the only barrier against that uncontainable violence. So the government sent the National Guard into Louisiana with guns instead of water and medicine. It's a low-down, dirty, rotten shame is what it is. And the NYT is not the neutral news outlet, impartially reporting on criminal behavior or police misconduct. They are, rather, a crucial transmitter of law and order rhetoric. Perhaps they don't do it in an overt and consistent a way as Fox News devotees would like, but it is difficult to say they have a thoroughgoing "liberal bias." Indeed, the Murdoch outlets and the so-called liberal media are strange bedfellows on one matter: they see the same face in their nightmares about anarchy.

A quick plug: the real specialist on anarchy in my circle is Andrew Cornell. His book from the Institute for Anarchist Studies surely has a fuller explanation of anarchist politics than I can offer.

Ω Perhaps those of libertarian bent distinguish between businessmen (who need no government presence) and poor people (who need constant surveillance and containment) by differentiating  massive thievery from petty theft. As the title character of Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones puts it (and please forgive the dialect): "Dere's little stealin'..., and dere's big stealin'...  For de little stealin' dey gits you in jail soon or late.  For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks." I'm also reminded of the difference between slow violence and immediate violence. Immediate violence is direct: Person A shoots person B. Slow violence is more a part of the structure of society, the way a society does business. The effects of slow violence (as the name implies) take longer to see. Cuts to school lunches or prenatal care tend not to result in immediate death, but they contribute to a terrible quality of life and often end immediate violence--committed by or against the injured party.

† I am not foolish enough to say that the failure to find a child that was raped means that none was. However, it is safe to say that if any child was raped, that was not the result of the absence of police. Child rape, unfortunately, happens every day--flood or no flood, police presence or none, prayer in schools or none.

 ß It should go without saying, but I am not in any way suggesting that all police officers are always wrong. Many have a wonderful ability to de-escalate violent situations. Others, who should not be in the profession, allow some combination of fear and egotism to inflame situations that might have been resolved without murder. Have you ever noticed that some of the police who are involved in this disproportionate violence have military backgrounds? Or that it is almost unheard of for a female officer to engage in one of these incidents of literal overkill? Male officers who confuse protecting and serving citizens with their own macho fantasies of war should not be shielded by their fellow officers, the government, newsmedia, or citizenry. They should be removed in favor of officers who can keep their eye on the job (protecting and serving) instead of changing the focus to ensuring that citizens show them the proper deference.

As a teacher at all levels from elementary to college, I have had my share of disrespectful students. Some got loud. Some defied my instructions. One got in my face. But I have generally avoided battles with them. After all, I have all the power. I am older, smarter, employed--with no criminal record. So why would I shift gears to a physical confrontation where they are more comfortable and risk all that? The best police officers, like the best teachers and parents, are secure in their authority and don't have to overplay it. It is there; it is limitless. So there is no need to overcompensate for some slight--whether that slight is sullen or slow compliance or a snide remark. Have these officers never dealt with teenagers? Perhaps every officer should have to be stationed in a high school first, and if they can manage to do that job without resorting to violence, then they can graduate to working the streets.


  1. This blog complements a sharp examination of identical ways of talking about racial subordinates in England: .

  2. Look at you, with the fancy footnotes. Has somebody been copying and pasting from the alt key websites?

    I dug this entire article, but I would like to hear your take on the looting. I thought the Katrina was mishandled and I'm not for blaming the victims for however they acted. But with that being said, I saw the video footage of folk robbing electronics when they probably should have been robbing produce. I'm not making an indictment, jus curious on your take.

    Also, while I did enjoy the blog, the content in the footnotes is blog worthy alone. Very good stuff that echoes many of my sentiments about corruption and hypocrisy in government.

  3. Nah, BG, just experimenting with the alt key and seeing what kind of options come up. I'm one of those fools who doesn't always read instructions.

    As for looting, I am of two minds. I object to people destroying the homes and businesses of their neighbors. However, I feel about poor looting the way I feel about black homophobia. There is a disproportionate focus on that particular type of looting, while our news organizations are *incapable* of talking about, say, Enron, the S&L scandal, the subprime crisis, or anything of the sort as looting.

    It's like the way our juries are, by and large, incapable of convicting police for their violence against citizens but are merciless when it comes to alleged violence against police. I'm not one to throw around Biblical quotes, but this is a clear case of "remove the plank from your own eye before you try to remove the speck from mine." And, I guess I should add, for the BBC, that I have never participated in a riot.

    I also feel that advertising is designed to make people feel worthless if they don't have commodity x or y. Looting proves that advertising succeeds not only with people who have some money, but also with people who don't.

    I remember reading articles in the NYT about why you can't raise taxes on those who make over $250K per year. The defense is that, in NY state, that's really middle class. Because those people *have* to be able to go on ski vacations and drive Land Rovers in order to save face among their neighbors. I do think some of thought behind looting is, "Hell, if other people can steal from the society by paying *no* taxes and have no regard for my welfare, then so can I." Some forms of stealing are visible as such and others are not. I think that a society that had an open and level playing field would probably have less looting, because there wouldn't be a sense that the only time I can get mine is when the gatekeepers of OPP ain't around. And, yes, I went back to Naughty by Nature to make a point about capitalism and police.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. * Just a quick addition, we could legitimately call S&L or Lehman Bros looting, using the same logic used to describe people in a riot situation. When there are no police, these citizens loot. When the economic police (regulators) are taken away, banks and businesses loot. It's just one kind is citizens scurrying in and out of buildings with something tangible in their hands. The other kind happens remotely. No one runs out of a bank with a big bag with a dollar sign on it.

    I'll have to get on corporate ownership of the major media and the increased reluctance to do investigative reporting on the upper echelon another time.