Law, Order, and Social Suicide

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Law, Order, and Social Suicide

Minneapolis police officers block the entrance to the 4th Precinct during the fifth night of demonstrations following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark in November. (Photo: Tony Webster/flickr/cc)

Want a ringside seat for the war on crime? Go to killedbypolice.net. A few hours ago (as I write this), the site had listed 1,191 police killings in the U.S. this year. I just looked again.

The total is up one.

This, about killing number 1,192, is from the Fresno Bee, which the site links to:

“Authorities have identified the woman fatally shot by a deputy early Tuesday as a 50-year-old military veteran.

“According to Merced County Sheriff’s Sgt. Delray Shelton, Siolosega Velega-Nuufolau was shot after waving a kitchen knife ‘in a threatening and aggressive manner’ at the deputy.

“Authorities were called to the scene in the 29000 block of Del Sol Court (in Santa Nella, Calif.) by a neighbor, who reported that Velega-Nuufolau was in the neighbor’s driveway, screaming for someone to call 911 at about 12:30 a.m. It is not clear why she wanted authorities called.”

Mentally disturbed woman with a knife, police officer fires, another one dead — and it just happened, reaching public attention while I was shuffling papers in my office, ambling downstairs for coffee. Something about this feels so raw, so . . . personal. Indeed, as personal as a heartbeat. And the “wrong” that I felt pulsing as I read about the shooting — and, justified or unjustified, police killings have been happening this year at the rate of almost three a day — had nothing to do with procedure or legality: whether the shooting was “justified.” The wrong felt so much bigger. We deal with social dysfunction by discharging bullets into it, over and over and over.

We’re killing ourselves.

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This is the outcome of a punishment-based conception of social order. And because it’s mixed with racism and classism, the toxicity is compounded exponentially.

We live under the illusion that social order is sustained by law . . . I mean, ahem, The Law, a collection of rules allegedly grounded in some godlike moral sensibility located in state and national legislatures and enforced — lethally, if necessary — by a system of justice almost completely conceived as a mechanism to dole out punishment for disobedience. Not only are many of the rules that have attained, over the years, the moral stature of Law unbelievably stupid — “whites only” restrooms, drinking fountains and lunch counters come to mind — even the sensible laws, against, for instance, robbery and murder, are permeated with exceptions that protect the socially powerful.

Human society is not a linear mechanism held together by the enforcement — bang, bang, bang — of rules, but an organism as complex and paradoxical as life itself.

This is why the national discussion about police killings, which has finally gotten underway, must occur in a state of open, up-reaching consciousness too often missing from most media accounts. Questions of order, safety and security need to be addressed in a context bigger than the flawed system allegedly responsible for their maintenance.

We — meaning the police, meaning all of us — don’t maintain order so much as create it, day by day, moment by moment. How do we disarm this creation process and realign it with healing, growth and love, indeed, with the evolution of who we are?

Consider:

“Within two seconds of the car’s arrival, Officer Loehmann shot Tamir in the abdomen from point-blank range, raising doubts that he could have warned the boy three times to raise his hands, as the police later claimed. And when Tamir’s 14-year-old sister came running up minutes later, the officers, who are white, tackled her to the ground and put her in handcuffs, intensifying later public outrage about the boy’s death. When his distraught mother arrived, the officers also threatened to arrest her unless she calmed down, the mother, Samaria Rice, said.”

This is from a recent article by Dani McClain in The Nation, revisiting the shooting a year ago of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, in the wake of the news that no charges will be brought against the officers involved.

The outrage I feel as I read this is only peripherally about the behavior of individual officers and the justice I want is by no means limited to their criminal convictions. Their actions occur so clearly in a context that is national in scope: Our police are warriors. That’s how they’re trained and that’s how they think of themselves.

For instance, a Wall Street Journal article from last summer notes: “The majority of cadets at the nation’s 648 law-enforcement academies in 2006 were trained at academies with a military-style regimen, which included paramilitary drills and intense physical demands. . . .

“So-called soft skills have gotten less attention. Police recruits spend eight hours on de-escalation training, compared with 58 hours on firearms and 49 hours on defensive tactics, according to a 2015 survey of 281 law-enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based police research and policy organization.”

Here’s the thing. While the concept of the warrior, or soldier, is glory-saturated, and while the physical and emotional intensity of the training is enormous, and while the macho appeal of being a warrior is understandable, the focal point of this training is the existence of The Enemy and how to defeat it — which primarily means how to kill it. And as many people have pointed out, training to kill The Enemy involves deliberately dehumanizing the population in question. This is why war always involves horrific moral backlash.

And this is the nature of militarized policing, which is the opposite of community policing. The cops are warriors, and when they enter the zone of the enemy — when they see themselves as belonging to an occupying army rather than to the community they’re “protecting” — they are likely to dehumanize those they encounter, especially if the encounter is antagonistic.

Thus in Tamir Rice’s shooting, the officers were clearly acting like they were in a war zone, surrounded by The Enemy. The boy with the pellet gun is quickly taken out. A teenage girl, screaming in shock and grief, is tackled and cuffed. The dead boy’s mother is warned that if she doesn’t calm down, she’ll be arrested.

This is worse than two officers acting illegally. This is two officers doing their jobs. And the system they serve has exonerated them.

By the way, at killedbypolice.net, the death toll has gone up to 1,194.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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