Friday, August 15, 2014

Good Cop/Bad Cop? Ferguson, State Violence, and Pax Americana

  As I write this some calm is returning to Ferguson, Missouri.  The State Troopers of the Highway Patrol were given jurisdiction and an Africa-American commander walked with the protestors.   This is a good thing.  The contrast is stark, almost too stark.  The trope of “Good Cop, Bad Cop” comes to mind.  The show of force and coercive power of the state had been shown, now the state can show its understanding and its tolerant side.  This is perhaps cynical.

  I don’t know what it’s like in Missouri, but when living in California, the California Highway Patrol were the police one would rather deal with if one had to deal with the police (at least if you were White and alternative).   City and county police, or sheriffs quite another story.

   Even after such a measured show of police presence, all the same  issues of state violence and coercion and race are still very much alive. I wonder will this needed measured and peaceful response by police give space for us to reflect, speak and ask the deeper questions, and make the needful observations?   I’m not so sure.  I think many whites will look and see the actions of Ferguson  Saint Louis County police’s response as the exception, and see the Highway Patrol response as what police are all about.  The Highway Patrol of Missouri enacted the White expectation of police and the coercive and violent power of the state and its agents.  The police are the good guys, sometimes you get a bad apple but the issue isn't with police or policing itself.

  As some have pointed out, many people (white people?) are suddenly aware of the militarization of police and shocked by police brutality.  I was dismayed by the killing of Michael Brown (and the other Black men who have been killed by police in the last few weeks) and the ensuing police response, but not shocked.  While, it is a good thing that the state chose to pull back from its violence and tactics of coercion and force, this act brings things back into equilibrium.  I’m not sure equilibrium is the place of change and transformation.  Rather, what it brings is the possibility of scapegoating individual police officers and possibly the entire police force of Ferguson Missouri for patterns of behavior that are systemic and not individual and personal. 

   If as we say Racism isn't about individual attitudes alone:  Such that in some sense I can be a racist without necessarily harboring conscious antagonistic feelings against a black person.  If so then even if the police officer who shot Michael Brown, has racists attitudes and feelings, his actions aren't solely the consequence of those personal attitudes.  As an agent of the state and the system of policing his actions are part and parcel of that system.   We (Whites, especially, possibly only Whites) need to admit that the system we trust and look to for solutions is Racist, whether or not the individual personal actors within in it are racist.  Ferguson isn't an isolated incident. 

  Though, I believe there is a danger even if we link the various incidents of racial profiling (the singling out, the targeting, and the killing of African-American men, not to mention mass-incarceration), but see these as merely the aberrant acts of individual actors or police departments.  The danger is that we won’t be critical enough of the system of state coercive power itself, and its role in maintaining a racist and classist system.  If we fail to make the systemic connection, we will be content with simply going after the individuals or individual departments that in exercising their coercive and violent mandate, egregiously violate peoples civil liberties and rights.  This piecemeal approach tends to only bring justice after the fact of injustice, it does not address the minor ways this coercive power is used to maintain the system and its order.

  In Chicago I see this system at work every day. I see it as I and my neighbors watch carefully the presence of the police in our neighborhood.  Why when I come upon police questioning and apprehending individuals, usually people of color, usually young African American men.  I slow down I watch.  I seek to catch the eye of at least one police officer.  Interestingly enough if I’m wearing my clerical collar, I may get a “Father”, and while they are aware of my gaze the stance often softens (I hope this raises all sorts of questions for the reader).  But if I look more alternative Punk and goth, my gaze is met with hostility and aggressiveness, and I'm usually told to move along, if I’ve managed the courage to actually stop and watch. I admit I haven't had the courage to test what would happen if I didn't do as instructed. I know as White that if I do as instructed I can avoid incident. I also, know this is a privilege of being White.  Generally, even in my collar I don't have much more courage than to simply walk a little slower and watch the whole time as I'm passing the incident.  Though, even as a White clergyman(gender is also at work here) I see that my watchful gaze isn't welcome.

    While I think important the above remark and observation is too limited.

   Although, overwhelming, the parallels and visual resonances with what we see on Youtube and television, and read about on Twitter from other parts of the world, aren’t coincidental. (though I can't help but see most of the comparisons as racist themselves, since the comparison seems to be drawn to reinforce the idea that this only happens elsewhere and not here in America).  This coincidence isn't because of some conspiracy theory, but because the system at work in Ferguson is at work in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and the Ukraine.  It’s not always the same actors, nor the same people controlling the events, but what we see in all of this is our trust in violent and coercive power some of it “legitimate” (i.e. A recognized Nation-State, by the U.N and the United States) some of it “illegitimate” (whom we call “terrorists”).

   As I see it, Ferguson can allow us to see the interrelatedness of Racism, Classism, coercive (necessary) power of the State, and the crumbling Pax Americana.  Or we can accept the trope of good cop/bad cop, and believe if the State just charges and prosecutes the right individuals justice will have prevailed. And then we can all go back to business as usual.  In either case I will continue to watch with suspicion police in action, which is literally the least I can do.

Thanks to an acquaintance of mine for reminding me of this song and video: Sound of da police by KRS-one.