Fast-Draw Morality: Stalled in a State of Endless Embattlement
“So you want to disarm cops LOL yeah that’s an intelligent thing to do the gang bangers would love that surely they will unilaterally disarm too.”
I’m used to semi-anonymous sarcasm by now, like this Huffington Post comment beneath a recent column I wrote on the militarization of the police and the possibility of disarmament, and I have no interest in “fighting it out” with the guy. But there it is, perfectly preserved: an impulse homage to Big Fear, wrapped in unexamined certainty. This is fast-draw morality, made in Hollywood.
I take this moment to highlight it because it’s so typical and, for that reason, the first line of defense of the status quo of violence: this instant acceptance of the idea that our enemies are continually stalking the perimeter of our lives, waiting to invade, to commandeer our way of life the moment we lower our weapons.
This instant reaction to any questioning of the use of armed force to maintain safety and “peace” not only shuts down the discussion but hides all the consequences of violent self-defense, including the creation of the very enemies we fear (e.g., the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the hemorrhaging of sanctioned, official violence backwards into our own lives.
Violent force and temporary dominance of a situation may occasionally serve a larger end, but the permanent maintenance of this mindset has us stalled in a state of endless embattlement, both at home and abroad. Fear has us locked into a bad story: that violent dominance over our enemies is our only hope. In actuality, our only hope is embracing a larger story: that all humanity, and all of life, is connected. Finding that connection is often what requires courage.
What if policing, for instance, were more about finding that connection than exerting authority? In point of fact, I’m sure that it is. However, as police departments across the country militarize and, in the process, disengage emotionally and spiritually from the communities they protect—acting like armies of occupation rather than humble servants of the common good — incidents of unnecessary violence escalate, widening the gulf between police and the public. Factor in the nation’s endemic racism and even the simplest, most harmless situations often spiral completely out of control.
And in the era of the cellphone video, we now have ringside seats to such incidents. In an altercation that occurred last January in St. Paul, Minn., the video of which recently became public, Chris Lollie, who is African-American, was approached by a police officer as he was sitting in a seemingly public space in a downtown skyway, waiting for his children to get out of daycare. The officer, who had been called by a local merchant, asked Lollie for his ID. He refused to cooperate, claiming he had a perfect right to sit in a public space and wait for his children.
What happened next was absurd—of course. An incredibly minor matter went haywire, as both parties insisted on their right to do what they were doing. The police officer wanted her questions—who are you? what are you doing here?—answered. Lollie refused. At one point, as the officer started to explain why there was a problem, he interrupted her: “The problem is I’m black, that’s the problem. No, it really is, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Two more officers eventually joined in, grabbed hold of the man and, when he defended himself, tasered him. As this was going on, the daycare class let out and Lollie’s 4-year-old daughter saw the whole thing. Lollie was arrested, charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstruction of a legal process. In July, all the charges were dismissed. The officer who initially confronted him has since left the force.
I highlight this incident not to judge either party in the altercation but, rather, to note the futility of maintaining even superficial order with us-vs.-them tactics. The situation degenerated into a gang confrontation in a high-school cafeteria, as both sides felt disrespected and refused to back down — or, more relevantly, refused to access a better strategy for handling things. The police in particular, as professional keepers of the peace, should have done so. To that end, this video would make an excellent training film in what not to do.
Lasting peace cannot be built on an us-vs.-them foundation, even—or especially—when it’s backed up by armed force.
“So you want to disarm cops LOL . . .” etc., etc. Advocates of nonviolence and human dignity push on through the empty sarcasm. It helps to know we’re not alone. Two years ago, the BBC News Magazine published an extraordinary article by Jon Kelly about the unarmed police of the UK. Two female police constables in Manchester had just been killed in the line of duty and a number of people began wondering if more officers shouldn’t be armed. (In 2012, about 5 percent of the officers in England and Wales were authorized to use firearms.)
Remarkably, the call for arming the police did not come from within the ranks. “But one thing is clear. When asked, police officers say overwhelmingly that they wish to remain unarmed,” Kelly wrote.
He quoted Peter Fahy, the Greater Manchester chief constable: “We are passionate that the British style of policing is routinely unarmed policing. Sadly we know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean, sadly, that police officers do not end up getting shot.”
Kelly added that “arming the force would, say opponents, undermine the principle of policing by consent—the notion that the force owes its primary duty to the public, rather than to the state, as in other countries.”
Policing by public consent! Every community should have such a relationship with its peacekeepers, armed or otherwise.