Dr. Bradley R. Anders
Note: This blog is written in support of every police officer who is currently serving, or who has served their community, enduring what seems to be a growing distrust and resentment of a very honorable, selfless career.
I was 18 years old when rioting broke out in Los Angeles, California after a jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers for the incident involving Rodney King. Even at that age, with a somewhat defiant attitude in general, it struck me as odd that citizens were burning down their own neighborhoods in protest. The media swarmed the area and broadcast the events across the nation, but with a lack of organized social media outlets, and the internet in general, the events did not receive near the scrutiny that they would have if happened today. Nonetheless, many of the images broadcast over our television sets are etched into our minds as protestors caused millions of dollars in damage, leaving over 50 dead, thousands injured, and over 500 fires intentionally set. The interesting thing is this sort of senseless violence is not new; it has been a form of expression for years, and it is called civil unrest. While there are numerous instances where race was not at the heart of rioting it seems to creep into a significant number of riots, and there is always a common denominator: The police. As time passed, replacing the defiant attitude with a quest for answers, I sought to find out why these acts of civil unrest often resulted in significant damage to businesses, homes, and property in lower-income neighborhoods. I tried to rationalize the irrational, which is something I try to discourage people from doing while on duty, but I was able link some of the basic behaviors we all display at some point in our lives to these violent acts. The best way to characterize the…justification, for lack of a better word, takes us back to the time of Jim Crow laws and Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
With the passage of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, the Supreme Court began to offer interpretation on what constitutes equal protection and equal treatment. Most notably, for this discussion anyway, is that of the separate but equal doctrine. In 1892, a Black man (at least by Louisiana definition) by the name of Homer Plessy sat in a railcar seat reserved for Whites in violation of Louisiana state law. He was arrested and the case moved its way up the chain to the Supreme Court. The ruling, with only one dissenting vote mind you, was that segregation was constitutional but that segregation had to be equal in accommodation. Well, none of us had to be alive to know that there was nothing that resembled equality in accommodations. We have to remember that up until the 14th Amendment, Black people were only considered 3/5 that of a White person. Accommodations were deplorable and the segregation laws were enforced by the police. Rationalization, or at least explanation, of these seemingly senseless acts of violence and civil unrest are rooted in decisions such as this. If I was viewed as less than whole or somehow inferior, it would irritate me as well. The answer? Burn it down…destroy those things that represent oppression or inequality.
As a kid, I cannot count the times I destroyed material things that I perceived as negative or inferior. My mother was a fan of the Pro-Wings shoes (those of you who were around in the 80s know exactly what I’m talking about). I hated the Pro-Wings. I remember I had a pair of high-top Pro-Wings while my friends were wearing Air Jordans. I did everything I could to destroy those shoes as quickly as I could thinking that the next pair my mother bought would be something name brand (because that’s what matters, right?). It didn’t happen.
Moving forward a few years, my parents bought me my first car. Selfish, spoiled, and obviously feeling entitled, I was not happy with the car. Looking back, it was a great car, but at the time I felt slighted. A 1976 Ford Mustang fastback, pukish yellow, with the V6. As a testosterone filled teenage boy who could not even get the tires to chirp when full of pointless, aimless rage, I did my best to destroy it thinking that the next car could not be anywhere near as bad as this one. Well, to understand frustration I apply that same logic to the historic acts of civil unrest during Jim Crow. If you expect me to use a facility that is completely subpar, why not just burn it down? I know it will be rebuilt at some point and it can’t be worse than what it is now, so fire it up! I am fully aware of the apples and oranges comparison here, and I am certainly not trying to draw a comparison between such material wishes and proven oppression. I am, however, using my shoes and car as an illustration to make a point. A notable difference here is that my parents didn’t have to buy me another car or pair of shoes (well…I guess they technically had to provide me with shoes), but the government had to provide facilities and according to the Supreme Court those facilities could be separate. If these facilities were burned to the ground, new ones were on the horizon at some point. In other words, an act of civil unrest may have done nothing to accomplish a larger goal of cultural change but something beneficial may have come out of it. There was an eventual reward for the acts.
Prior to, and during the Civil Rights Era, protesting quite often turned into violent displays of civil unrest with the police right there in the mix. With an increasing media presence, the police were being portrayed as the opposition to desegregation. Activists like Gunnar Myrdal were making inflammatory statements that have echoed through time and fueled the distrust and hatred that many Black people still harbor towards police today. Addressing how the police respond to these acts of civil unrest, as quoted in Kennedy (1997), Myrdal stated that police stand “not only for civic order as defined in formal laws and regulations, but also for White Supremacy…” As this statement was made the number of Black police officers were relatively few, but that has changed since then. This belief, on the other hand, has not changed and those Black officers are now called “Uncle Toms” or characterized as pawns in the systematic oppression of Black citizens. As Sklansky (2006) noted, race in the police force does not matter: Blue is blue. This is why a Black police officer can still be held accountable for racially profiling Black motorists or pedestrians.
Fast forward to August 9, 2014: A police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, while in the line of duty, shot and killed a man. While this is unfortunate, it happens on a daily basis numerous times across the country. What is not nearly as common is the unfortunate reaction from not only citizens but government agencies and public figures. Even law enforcement officials have reacted in a way that is less than desirable, but I am jumping ahead of myself. Let’s look at the tag line in the first sentence of this paragraph: A police officer shot and killed a man…this is what matters. However, for the past three months here is what we have seen from mainstream media: “White police officer shoots unarmed Black teen.” At some point in our near future, there should be some legislation directed at holding media outlets accountable for inciting violence. Much like they did in the Rodney King incident, the media has glamorized the incident, LIED BY OMMISSION, and turned it into what can only be called a circus. As so many advocates of the constitution support our 1st Amendment rights and the freedom of the press, they systematically fail to remember that the very same constitution is at the heart of the guilty until proven innocent ideology. Media outlets have made millions by perverting the truth and accuracy of high-profile incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri. Nonetheless, the police do have a direct role in the initial incident and they have responded in an attempt to quell the violent acts of civil unrest, but this time they have been unabashedly criticized by not only the violent protestors themselves but our national and state government. In other words, our government has taken on the role of activist and turned its proverbial back on law enforcement; this is really nothing new by the way.
Acting like their destructive predecessors, the citizens of Ferguson and the St. Louis metropolitan area have engaged in a display of civil unrest. As I watch from the other side of the state, I find myself pondering the same question that was prompted some 22 years ago: Why are they destroying their own neighborhood and community? It could be argued that these citizens are still facing the same oppression that might have justified such action in the early to mid 1900’s, but if that is the case the citizens are putting too much stock into the power police officers truly have. Police are not responsible for the continued residential segregation observed in many parts of this country. Police do not have the authority or clout to systematically cause the refusal of high-paying jobs or entry into a particular university. Police do not have the power to build neighborhoods or provide extra-curricular activities and after-school programs to help low-income children, but I can attest to the fact that they try. Most importantly, police do not have an oppressive role in society, but again, I can attest to the fact that this is the perception. Here is the problem summed up in one sentence: Forcing a lawless citizen to abide by the law is going to be perceived as oppressive. That is what we do; we force compliance through a variety of sanctions. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with race as the police can profile people based on the color of car they drive, the make of the car, or even the fact that they can’t afford to replace that license plate light…it is all profiling of some sort, but the race card is what trumps all. The mere fact that the police have stopped the person for whatever reason to force that compliance can always be turned into oppression, but at the heart of almost all of these allegations is a law violation of some sort or legitimate investigative action.
During the month of October, 2014, a Missouri State Senator was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri. According to Kevin Held (2014) of USA Today,
Missouri state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed was arrested Monday night on the streets of Ferguson. Video…showed Nasheed, a Democrat who represents parts of St. Louis, being handcuffed in the middle of the street outside the Ferguson Police Department. Nasheed yelled, “No justice,” and her fellow protestors shouted back, “No peace…” (para. 2).
The article further reads that Sen. Nasheed was blocking traffic and refused to move when warned by police. Other media outlets are reporting that Nasheed was armed with a handgun while possibly intoxicated during her attempt to promote peaceful protests. Even if the last two allegations wind up as false, I cannot think of a more pathetic show of politics or a more disgusting display from a public official than this. But, here is where we go back to why this behavior will continue beyond Ferguson. We reward this behavior as a society. She will be revered much like convicted felons reintegrating back into society from prison. Yes, for those of you not in law enforcement, in many parts of urban and rural America a completed prison sentence is worn as a badge of honor.
Prior to the buffoonery exhibited by Sen. Nasheed, Gov. Jay Nixon decided to intervene in the affairs of local police after he perceived potential improprieties. In addition, the FBI decided to launch an investigation into possible civil rights violations. Why? Because it is the socially acceptable response and our government has chosen to cower to the demands of violent protestors that clearly fit the definition of terrorists. It has nothing to do with what is right or wrong but everything to do with how these government figures and organizations are perceived by a violent few who somehow have been deemed as representative of the Black community. To add insult to injury, the DOJ has encouraged police officers to stop wearing bracelets of support for the police officer involved in the shooting. As I stated previously, I can rationalize, or find explanation in, the burning of businesses, homes, and property in a statement of defiance but that rationalization has lost much of its footing as we move away from the 1900s. Separate but equal is no more, but it seems as if pockets of America are still looking for the government to rebuild that which they destroy in protest.
As I stated earlier, police are the common denominator in most of these protests, but that is not because of their interests in any particular cause; it is absolutely because they are the ones tasked with addressing the violence that is likely to ensue. Now that our federal government, state government, and even individual politicians have chosen to side with the criminal elements, the police are left stranded on an island alone. You hear very little about the support these officers are needing or receiving, and you hear even less about what is truly happening in Ferguson, Missouri. As citizens and politicians look to latch on to their 15 minutes of fame, police officers are being shot at, assaulted, and treated like common trash. Their “militarized” vehicles and weaponry are failing them much like the communities they serve, much like the trash we put on and in the hands of our soldiers fighting for us overseas. What is amazing and admirable to me is the fact that these men and women volunteered to take on this problem on both fronts. They come to work every day knowing what they are going to face is what most of us will never, nor should, experience.
Within the next few weeks, we are going to see a decision made by the Grand Jury hearing the case involving Officer Wilson. If there is anything that resembles impartiality and justice there will be no bill, but we are going to have to get ready for the fallout. What we have seen in Ferguson is more than likely just the beginning, and we have to remember that our government officials have, whether intentionally or inadvertently, condoned the behavior exhibited since this shooting. The modern day Gunnar Myrdals like the Rev. Al Sharpton will continue to fuel the literal flames behind the scenes while calling for peace in front of the cameras. I can only imagine what awaits this country when this officer is cleared of any wrongdoing, but I will suit up and stand with the rest of my brothers and sisters in blue to address it and defend his actions. One thing is for sure, what happens next rests clearly on the shoulders of those government officials who chose to waiver in the face of intimidation.
So, looking at this situation as I would look when dealing with children who did not get their way, I can understand the urge to burn it down. Yes, we, meaning the respective members of our communities and elected officials, can continue to reach back into history and dredge up the most embarrassing times we have experienced in this country and use those actions as an excuse to pillage the community today. In addition, we can continue to force the kid glove response to outright assaults on police officers for fear of how we may be perceived in the community and witness an unfathomable loss of life in our police force. We can continue all of this, or we can stand up and support what is right even when it is not perceived as popular. Bad people often get shot by the police, but in today’s world that is no reason to burn down the local Quik Trip or loot the corner liquor store. If they choose this course of action, regardless of race, then we should rethink any response that may reinforce the destructive behavior. In other words, as harsh as it sounds, let them live in the ashes of their own civil unrest.
Held, K. (2014). Missouri state senator arrested in Ferguson. USA Today. Retrieved on 10/24/2014 from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/10/20/missouri-state-senator-arrested-in-ferguson/17646651/.
Kennedy, R. (1997). Race, crime, and the law. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Sklansky, D.A. (2006). Not your father’s police department: Making sense of the new demographics of law enforcement. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 96(3), 1209-1228.