The death of Mike Brown at the hands of Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri seemed at first like merely another senseless episode in a long and painful saga – the centuries-old tradition of African-Americans suffering abuse, injury and death at the hands of those entrusted with the authority to protect and serve. However, each new incident of brutality reopens the wounds of inequality in its own uniquely painful way, and the black, eighteen year-old Brown’s shooting by the white, twenty-eight year-old Wilson touched off a national reaction of surprising potency.
With the grand jury deciding whether Wilson would be charged with a crime and sent to trial, citizens weary of unpunished police crimes geared up to make their voices heard. In Providence, Rhode Island, the protest was planned even before the grand jury’s decision was revealed. The protest would begin at 7:00 pm on November 25th, 2014, in front of Central High School.
Each person brings their own perspective – and often their own discrete cause – to protests like these. I’m no different. I am not a dedicated activist by any means, and thus my beliefs are always fluid, changing with new information and new perspectives. Without a true north for my ethical-political compass, my needle was free to swing toward local magnetic forces. I imagine I was not the only one who found the November 25th protest to be a unique opportunity for deep and sustained consideration of the beliefs one holds as a guide for their behavior and existence in civic society.
Previously, I had argued (civilly) with progressive friends about Mike Brown’s role as martyr. I found it strange that Brown had catalyzed such a long series of vehement protests when his final actions remained under such a cloud. The surveillance footage of him bullying the convenience store clerk was ugly, and the idea that he had fought with Police Officer Wilson over his gun threw an uncomfortable vagueness over the whole affair.
But not for me necessarily. I believe that Darren Wilson should go to jail for as long as Brown’s parents want him to stay there. But half-playing devil’s advocate, I argued that in order to convince white taxpayers of any necessity for change, progressives had to “pick the right horse.” By this, I meant that it would be best to rally against an act of police brutality so barbaric and unforgivable – and perpetrated on a victim so blameless – that it would have the same impact on media-consuming America as that fateful footage of the dogs and fire hoses from the Jim Crow south. After all, by picking this flawed kid as our icon, were we not opening ourselves up for the kind of victim-blaming that – although loathsome – is still incredibly effective in justifying rape, murder, mortgage fraud and any other unjust exertion of power that those in power wish to exert?
So as we arrived at Central High and began chanting for Mike Brown, I still struggled to make him into an icon that I could aggrandize. Yes, in the end Brown was killed for literally walking down the street in a way that a white police officer did not like, but the narrative was too fraught for me to really internalize. I wanted a bigger, purer idea. Police brutality in general seemed like a good one, and in that I had plenty of sign-carrying compatriots. But to what end? It’s no secret that many, many minorities generally mistrust and dislike police. However, for gigantic swaths of America – the silent majority who live in quiet, well-kept suburbs and watch Law & Order and CBS crime procedurals – police represent a pacifying force. Indeed they are a highly-trained, well-armed buffer between family-raising, middle and upper-class America and every terrifying aspect of black and Latino culture that has ever been magnified to great, ghastly proportions by the news and other media forces.
How could we possibly make them understand that something rotten is going on, and that immediate reforms are a matter of life and death? After all, minority relations at the point of a gun are actually working out pretty damn well for police departments around the country. Police enjoy such an esteemed position in the justice system that they essentially have the power to self-forgive when someone goes too far. If we lived in a country where police cars were being blown up by IEDs and gang members in poor neighborhoods were making execution videos and burying police in mass graves (it sometimes seems like must be the case, given the heavy armaments and equipment some departments have procured), metropolitan police departments might have to rethink their tactics. But since these violent reprisals are almost non-existent, the police don’t actually need to rethink anything at all.
As we marched, I wondered what would happen if I carried a sign bearing only the goateed, battered countenance of Eric Matthew Frein. Would I be arrested or physically attacked by police? Would my fellow protestors find this image too extreme and ask me to put it away?
Over-militarization of police departments is also a salient issue for protest. After all, this phenomenon belies the notion that even middle-class white people like to preserve, of police being neighborly, approachable human presences.
Picture if you will a young mother strolling downtown with her child, both of them eating ice cream and saying a quick hello to Officer Friendly, whose wife is in the mother’s yoga class. The officer is a common sight on sunny days at the neighborhood park, and sometimes the mother sees him shopping at the local food co-op after his shift. But last week the federal government sent some surplus to the police department, and when the mother and son walk past Officer Friendly this time, he is in full body armor, an automatic rifle slung across his back and a darkened riot visor covering his face. The officer says something, but it is too muffled by the helmet to be intelligible. He goes to shake the child’s hand, but the hard gauntlets pinch the little guy’s fingers and the tyke drops his ice cream and begin to cry. The mother looks close to tears as well, whether of fear or rage it is hard to say. The officer, embarrassed, pretends to take an urgent call and strides, clanking loudly, back to his Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.
This did not seem like a well-represented topic at the march. Its absence made me realize that my preoccupation with American injustice primarily lies with foreign policy. After all, who will march for those slain in Haditha? Who will chant for those burned by white phosphorus and buried under rubble at Fallujah? Will Al Sharpton travel to Yemen stand at a press conference with the bereaved, weeping grandmothers of Al-Majala?
We should also face the uncomfortable truth here: while the militarization of the police may seem ominous to some, it also represents a potentially huge PR victory for the police. Why? Because mainstream America LOVES THE TROOPS. Even erstwhile liberal voices like Jon Stewart will call out idiotic foreign policy in one moment, but give great big slobbery kisses to our brave fighting men and women in the next. Not all of us stood and applauded at the conclusion of the 2014 State of the Union Address, but like it or not, the United States Armed Forces are enjoying a run of adulation and infallibility that rivals that of Pope Francis himself. Those shining ideals of honor, sacrifice, duty, loyalty and unswerving dedication to the mission have been co-opted for decades by SWAT teams and increasingly by regular police. What matter that their enemies are not Islamic insurgents, but rather marginalized Americans? The combat, military narrative is extremely compelling to the CBS silent majority, and even surreal moments of wartime confusion do little to make average people question just how our domestic society is being incrementally remade in the era of the Global War on Terror.
On the other hand, I felt a strange contrarianism rising within myself as we left Central High and took to the streets. These are the people I agree with, right? Then why did I feel so strange about chanting their slogans, and why was I so self-conscious about whether I appeared enthusiastic enough? There were a number of attractive young women in the crowd, and I found myself eying them as I would at a bar or concert. Was I there for the right reasons? I believe in progressive causes quite strongly, but I have a fierce individualistic streak when it comes to how my reasoning informs my stance. I often find myself very reluctant to agree with people – even when I agree with them. As mentioned before, I often play devil’s advocate, ostensibly to foster a well-rounded discussion, but mostly because I find it uncomfortable to be in simple agreement over complex issues.
And yet, as the march wound through the southern neighborhoods of Providence, which are predominantly black and Latino, I realized why people throw in with revolutions. It’s not about beliefs or reform or adventure any of those other things they tell you. It’s about walking down the middle of the street, surrounded by like-minded individuals, and watching The People throw open their doors and peek from their windows as your procession approaches. “Out of your homes and into the streets” became the chant as The People emerged onto their porches and threw aside their window curtains – pajama-ed, wild-haired and house-shoed, some shy as deer, others pointing cell phone cameras, a few jubilantly raising fists and chanting along with us as we swept past. I couldn’t help but smile as the cause coalesced. These are the very people who are most vulnerable to police harassment and violence, and here we were, marching to where they sleep, to say that we care, and that we will raise our voices for their sake, to try to rein in the vicious, blue-uniformed gangs terrorizing their neighborhoods.
Eventually we wound back to the Providence Public Safety Complex (which includes the police station). One of the protest’s organizers began to speak, holding in his hand a jumbled and somewhat worn pair of American flags. A thrill ran up my leg as I realized that we had approached a dirty, sexy taboo. It took a while to get the flag lit, but once it began to burn, the nylon stench that was too noxious not to have some symbolism – perhaps a comment on the artificiality of the fabric of America, a weave mass-produced and artificial, made without care or patience, and unimpressive to a close eye or touch. I stood entranced as the flags burned, and as I did, a photographer from the Providence Journal apparently snapped my picture, ending my presidential candidacy before it could begin.
While we chanted in the parking lot outside the police station, a lone fireman silhouetted in an office window raised his fist in a gesture of solidarity. We responded, and in a moment of dramatic irony, the cross-armed skeptics in the adjacent office thought that we were waving and cheering at them.
One of my very good friends often expresses doubts about the efficacy of protest marches. He’s the one who always tells me about these things, but afterward he’ll grumble about how it felt good, but won’t accomplish any real result. When I left him at this November 25th march however, he seemed unusually impressed. Why? It probably had something to do with us blocking off I-95.
After protestors had fallen all over the parking lot – in order to have other protestors trace their chalk outlines – one of the protest organizers began to speak through a bullhorn. “We don’t have a lot of time – I don’t want to make this a long speech,” he prefaced.
“They left Mike Brown laying in the street for four-and-a-half hours! We’ve got plenty of time,” shouted a voice from the crowd.
“Let’s shut down the highway!” a third voice shouted. A visible wave went through the crowd and people began to move. The idea was accepted almost instantly (or had already been planned). I-95 was literally around the corner, and by the time my companions and I got in sight of the mighty interstate, people were already jumping the barrier and rushing down the slope for the asphalt.
My companions and I decided to join them. It was an impressive sight – the cars stretched back, held still as if in a photograph, headlights bright around the curve all the way up to Massachusetts. Later comments on the Providence Journal’s story would call us fools for inconveniencing, and therefore alienating everyone on that stretch of highway that day. But were we really after their hearts and minds? I think we just wanted to let them know that we were angry, and that Mike Brown’s funeral would not be a quiet one. We also wanted to make our local police understand that they were indeed to answer in some small way for police crimes nationwide – just as they proudly partake of the fraternal benefits, they must also face the consequences of their compatriots’ crimes.
Some insist that protest marches and rallies are just inchoate rabbles, lacking any specific plans, goals or even well-articulated viewpoints. Perhaps once upon a time charismatic, dedicated leaders would gather their brain trusts and carefully craft mission statements and key demands, but for whatever reason this is more difficult now. I could see that our protest had some moderate voices, some extremists, perhaps a few out for web and social media traffic, and quiet supporters like myself. I wonder though, what would I say, if I was selected out of the crowd to meet with the chief of police? How would I articulate reasons for the deep mistrust and hatred that so many of us feel for the boys in blue – and offer ways to ameliorate it?
1. The Death of De-escalation (or The Inevitably Fatal Indoctrination of Cop Ego)
One dangerous aspect of the police psyche is this operating principle: no offense given in a confrontation can ever be forgiven. By this I mean that when a police officer is involved in a disagreement with a member of the public, there is a certain low threshold beyond which the situation can only ratchet upward, like a pair of handcuffs, toward punishment, violence and death. If a police officer feels somehow insulted or takes contact that they deem to be “assault,” the inevitable result will be a citation, arrest, or possibly a beating or killing. No self-respecting member of a police force is disposed toward letting things go. The police training and patriarchal institutional mindset simply do not allow it. This is how so many situations go wrong, almost always for the citizen (or non-citizen, as the case may be). While I don’t have hard evidence, I am going to posit that this is a racialized phenomenon as well. There is already a deep mistrust between dark-skinned Americans and the police, and thus any notion of forgiveness or reconciliation is essentially destroyed in the moment that the officer and minority recognize each other as natural enemies.
Perhaps you learned about conflict resolution in elementary school. I did. I remember the idea was that the conflicting parties, with the help of a mediator, should try to relax, explain their feelings and motivations, and walk away from the situation unscathed. Ideally, the near combatants would leave with a better understanding of, and perhaps a new respect for the person they recently felt aggression toward. Modern policing is not structured this way. Instead there are tiers of non-lethal and lethal force, rules of engagement, and slippery, subjective definitions of self-defense.
Police should be taught to resolve conflicts peacefully. Rather than imposing strict, yet subjective interpretations of the law during confrontations (“The suspect then made a furtive movement. When we attempted to take him into custody, he resisted arrest.”) police should be trained to swallow their egos when it has the strong possibility of precluding violence or other negative consequences. There should be a measure of forgiveness inherent in their dealings, as the desperate behavior of people caught in confrontations with police often stem from instinctual panic – a last flailing as they see their freedom literally being taken away from them. Apparently the Henry Louis Gates arrest didn’t teach the nation’s police much of anything, and there will be no Beer Summit for Mike Brown.
However, promoting de-escalation is difficult in a society where confrontational, unforgiving policing is often synonymous with revenue. Many localities make big bucks from citations, court fees, trial time, paperwork and the like. The more citations and arrests a police officer can rack up, the more paid overtime they can earn, and the more money flows into the municipal coffers. Thus there is little incentive in letting the small fish go. Legal minds often warn that the justice system is becoming clogged with petty, small offenses, but this doomsaying means little to those who are on the clock during misdemeanor proceedings.
2. The Deleterious Elevation of Loyalty (or The Virtue Who Concealed His Own Hollowness)
Police and military personnel tend to talk a lot about loyalty. It is not just an ideal, but THE IDEAL – that one must always look after their brothers and sisters in uniform, above all else. This is an understandable notion, but often a poisonous one, as even moderately difficult situations can render loyalty and morality mutually exclusive. I would argue that loyalty has absolutely no value as a free-standing concept. We could talk about all kinds of reprehensible men and women – Nazi generals, Khmer Rouge leaders, Warlords, Manson acolytes – and at the end of listing their crimes we could sigh and say “Well, you can’t say they weren’t loyal.” For some reason the virtue of loyalty has a powerful psychological appeal, likely because we like the idea of people being loyal to us. The concept becomes intermingled with trust, and occupies a special place in our hearts, especially when the larger world seems cold, dishonest and threatening.
However, loyalty in the blue uniform often functions in exactly the same way it would for a street or biker gang. It’s a brotherhood, and any moral or ethical code can be quickly pushed aside if one of the brothers or sisters is in trouble. This is why the “Stop Snitchin’” rule is just as real and in effect in America’s police stations as it is in America’s high crime neighborhoods. In allowing their intradepartmental loyalty to supplant the other, less immediate loyalty – to protect and serve the public, all of the public – police departments across the country have slid toward becoming little more than well-armed, highly trained gangs, accountable only to themselves, and operating with a wildly harmful “It’s us against the criminals” mentality.
So in essence, a minority or other marginalized American who finds themselves wronged by an officer should not and cannot expect the officer’s partner, or any virtuous member of the police department to tip the scales toward justice. This essential conflict has been explored in great depth in film and television, and in most depictions, unless the conflicted cop is a particularly naïve, fresh-faced rookie, the code of loyalty will not be broken. If for some reason it is, the results is usually some sort of shootout or other deadly confrontation. Art imitates life.
This mutation of loyalty obviously needs to be addressed, but it is a damn near intractable problem. How does one enforce an outside code of ethics on a deadly organization that has been given a sanction to do whatever they deem necessary to keep order?
The Providence Police struck a quick deal with those sitting on the freeway. If everyone left quickly, there would be no arrests. However, some stubborn protestors refused to completely clear the highway and there were arrests. The sight of those men being wrestled down on the blacktop soured the mood of the protest in a way that I can barely express. One young black man had his head mashed between the freeway and his own skateboard. It felt as if blood had been sprayed into the air. Back up on the street in front of the Safety Complex, a young man allegedly pasted a flyer onto an unmarked police car. He was pointed out (perhaps by the beefy man with a conservative haircut who my friend fingered as an undercover cop) and there was a melee as the police moved to arrest him. He was cuffed, but many in the protest tried very hard to keep him from being arrested. He was placed in the very car he had allegedly defaced, but an alleged accomplice opened the other rear door, and the young man allegedly sprang out, running like a hare for freedom, borne on the wishes of the crowd that surged behind him.
In the end the young man was recaptured. It was a microcosm of everything. The police were inflexible, and thus angered the crowd. This caused an escalation, which the police were unwilling to de-escalate (the flyer was easily removed, and the alleged paster could have easily been forgiven). I left shortly after, somewhat impressed, but also very confused. Like Occupy Wall Street, the fast food protests, the Walmart strikes and any other progressive mass action in recent memory, the Mike Brown protest seemed to solve a section of a much larger puzzle. The image on the box is one which few of us can escape – a portrait of rich, powerful, greedy white men – in public office and atop giant corporations – making every important decision in America, and hoarding all of the money, power, resources and land for themselves, to be shared only with those who agree with them and do their bidding. Meanwhile, the marginalized – the working poor, the unemployed poor, the dark-skinned, The artistically inclined, the environmentally conscious, the LGBT, the black teenager lying dead in the street – stay marginalized, held in states of quiet struggle or fed to the system for their defiance by the militarized pawns of the ruling elite.
I felt very alone as I walked away from the sympathetic sea of protestors. “They can’t arrest us all” had been the rallying cry on I-95, but as I walked past the police station – admiring the visual impact of the chalk outlines – I realized that I was very vulnerable. This is an essential fact of life as a dark-skinned person in America – balancing the fear of muggers with the fear of an encounter with the police, adjusting the fear ratio based on the time of day and the neighborhood. You learn to wear your hood a certain way, not pulled all the way forward. You learn to walk with your hands outside of your pockets, to project a certain body language of nonchalance and hopefully, innocence…
Had I committed a crime? I knew in my heart that I hadn’t, but watching that flag burn had left me feeling like I had crossed an invisible line. And encounters with police are all about invisible lines, after all – hidden traps and thresholds, silent signals and unconscious mistakes. I knew that if they pulled up in a cruiser, I would be all alone, incapable of winning any argument over my actions or non-actions. My middle class background, hoity-toity education and spotless record would all be blown away. My tongue would turn to wood, my nerves would make me look furtive and weird, and I would become another suspect to them, one whose skin resonates directly with the police socio-racial lobe – the part of the brain that controls the trigger finger. They would have impunity to take me away, and if I “resisted,” that action could very well ruin my career and finances, all because of an ill-timed but completely human desire to preserve my freedom and dignity.
Or the confrontation could end in my shooting. The officer would be suspended with pay then return to a desk job until things blew over. Meanwhile, I would be dead, like Mike Brown, or Amadou Diallo, or Sean Bell, or Eric Garner, or Kendrec McDade, or Tyisha Miller, or Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., or Manuel Loggins Jr., or Akai Gurley, or Ousmane Zongo, or John Crawford III, or Derek Williams, or Allen Daniel Hicks Sr., or Fred Hampton, or Timothy Stansbury Jr., or Orlando Barlow, or Aaron Campbell, or Victor Steen, or Rekia Boyd, or Ronald Madison, or James Brissette, or Henry Glover, or Oscar Grant…