Tag Archives: protests

Strategy and Clarity about the Police State and Racism, continued

This post is a follow up to my previous post, Knowledge Matters, Too: Tell the Twin Stories of Violence and Race, which introduced the dispositive role that power plays, specifically the overlapping institutions of the police state and militarism. I suggest you read that post before this post, which supplements it with additional parts.

In the main body which I subtitled “Twin Stories to Tell: Power and Racism in America,” I broadly connected the development of an authoritarian bully mentality with racist institutions of law and law enforcement. I must always be dissatisfied by an incomplete case made for an argument that I know can be rendered more sophisticated, and better supported. In this case I necessarily omitted a book’s worth of points supplemental to the argument, and specific correlations between the threads of state violence and racism. Life and death won’t wait for spelling things out as an intellectual might want. That is why I moved on quickly to nominate some tactics, not for protesting itself, but demands that stay on target—before the news cycle forgets and the opportunity is lost.

Ineffective strategy will fail, but even inefficient strategy will cost lives.

But because of those stakes and not in spite of them, in this post I’m going to expand on a few key supportive points I left underdeveloped. I am convinced that to reckon with these factors would make a profound difference to both efficiency and effectiveness.

 

Intro. In this post I pick up from questions of strategy to prevent police brutality and murder in the United States, with the discussion already framed and its purpose clear: results that save lives, and no other mission; not virtue-signaling, fund-raising, organizational prominence, community involvement, self-expression, listening and being heard, or any other cause in itself whether it seems noble or not.

I urge people to keep in mind that clever strategy often doesn’t feel right, or personally fulfilling. It doesn’t often provide an outlet to vent pent-up emotions. (I remind myself, too, because I can get as angry or disgusted as anyone can.) Effective strategy may not follow preconceptions. Pursuing it might not be popular. For example: it was counterintuitive and offensive to many that the realities of legal precedent required that ACLU lawyers should volunteer to defend the First Amendment rights of white supremacists, lest those rights be eroded for valuable protests of—among others—black civil rights activists. Historically, difficult cases on the fringe establish precedent, and the state goes after unsympathetic targets.

The strategic mind must be willing to let go of attachments and inhibitions that get in the way, and strive to be flexible. It aims above all to solve a problem, say, to cure a disease, like a doctor, who must do their job and give their medical opinion even if it isn’t liked. If sociopolitical strategy can be compared to a fight, as activists following the “revolutionary” metaphor often do, it ought to resemble the fight brought by a martial artist with calm bearing, who won’t allow emotions like anger to disrupt focus, and efficient movements.

In fact, perfect clarity about relative priorities would render devising strategy an amoral process to identify just what’s necessary to serve those goals. This was the precept for Sun Tzu‘s teaching, and to some extent Machiavelli’s. It’s possible to appreciate the lesson and apply it to serve quite different values and intentions.

What is necessary to solve a long-term problem is usually not what is already being done. Typical thinking ostensibly either produced the problem, mishandled it, misunderstood it, or distracted from it. That is why, at the risk of offense when I take some decades-old thinking to task for incessant errors, I propose checking it against other angles. Along the way, analysis from other perspectives will make it easier to identify productive tactics, that some protestors are already using (filming police thuggery). And, to see that some campaigners are on the right track with the concept of defunding police (contingent on security-role replacement adopting decentralized non-state services employed by local people, so as not to merely reboot the system).

 

Part I. Most well-intentioned responses fail to make adequate distinction between the dispositions of people in the general (national or regional) population, and the dispositions of:

  1. cops,
  2. the more powerful members of the police state behind them (prosecutors, politicians)
  3. psychopathic cops

So, many of those responses talk collectively about “America” and talk to “America.” This isn’t at all realistic. If it’s collective shorthand, it’s shorthand that has led the discourse astray, as political talk does.

Police throughout the US have, to some degree that probably varies from city to city, become more than a special-interest group, but a separately-associating group, a sub-population, with a lot of overlap between military veteran and cop families. Others grossly underestimate how far this goes. The enforcers keep their own culture, which is insular. Even the old practice of “walking the beat” (and getting to know the neighborhood and people in it) gave way to patrol cars, and nothing in common.

Cops likely hold fast to dramatically different attitudes and preconceptions about authority, themselves, obedience, soldiering, familiarity with violence, racial stereotypes, homeless people, gallows humor, and more, mutually reinforced by their unions and associations, partners, families, and drinking buddies.

The accused are not presumed innocent by cops, for example. That mindset goes even further, and presumes a “duty of the jury to convict” the accused, as though it were a jury’s job, which sounds fascist to non-authoritarians of any skin color. It’s a brotherhood that prioritizes each other, and covers for each other against citizens, by lying in court if necessary, so the state prosecutor can make cases. That’s “part of the job” for many. But it’s certainly far more than a job.

It’s debatable how much talking to the general population about racism will be ignored by this entrenched population. But that—to put it mildly—does not seem as productive or timely as undercutting their means of support and indulgence, which has so far been lavished on them by the state.

We have also to examine and account for the extent to which that separate, tribal culture and population are tolerant and protective of partial psychopaths. We cannot be certain exactly how many of the police officers who behave like thugs are psychopaths attracted to the power of the badge, or have instead been hardened to display a psychopathoid indifference toward lesser people, the ruled subjects of a thugocracy. This is only because the government doesn’t test candidates to exclude psychopathy, though it has objective and testable psychological and physiological criteria. (Known, in part, from studies in prison populations, so hardly new to the criminal justice system.)

Although not as permissive as a combat unit in a war zone, a police career must seem like a pretty good one to a psychopath—comparable to the way that a narcissist fits right into a political career, and is able to earn rewards from a lack of empathy instead of social penalties. Psychopaths are unafraid of the physical danger which might make a job on the streets unappealing. They get civic status and special legal protection, as well as opportunities to bully people in unequal power dynamics—threaten and frighten them, assault them, brutalize (and sodomize) them, if not choke them to death or shoot them and be acquitted, or never even charged.

Psychopaths are the category that best accounts for the infamous repeat offenders of police brutality complaints, because they are motivated by the adrenaline thrill of violence or abuse, and not averse to hurting others by virtue of common empathy.

Psychopaths in uniform don’t necessarily have any particular fixation (like racist ideology) on any one type of victim, just a fixation on bullying victims of opportunity. The thing is that inner-city minorities, immigrants, and the plentiful suspects of minor crimes supply those victims of opportunity with few career repercussions.

NB: Even with repercussions in place, psychopaths are dangerously impulsive, not long-term thinkers, by definition. They can never be trusted with license to use violence (if anyone could). They simply need to be excluded from power.

Further, psychopaths are not averse to transgression of well-understood social norms. They are even attracted to committing moral transgressions, such as sexual violence, because these are exciting. They should not be confused with mere contrarians attracted to devil’s advocacy, or to espousing shock opinions that cause outrage. We should consider that to propound and insist that Racism = Bad does nothing more for the psychopath than flag a transgressive thrill they may actually find inviting—and certainly won’t process as immoral, in the sense that others feel morals keenly. This is a different problem from commitment to racism as an ideological matter. It cannot be solved by confrontation or shaming, which they simply don’t respond to in the same way others do.

Based on an educated guess, I would say the danger posed by the presence of psychopaths in uniform probably exceeds the more-often discussed danger posed by white-nationalist infiltrators, although I do suspect many of those are, more-importantly, psychopaths. Psychopaths need no particular organization or belief to brutalize people; they can be, rather, enabled by these things. It might seem like splitting hairs, but it is consequential to discern these causes and origins, because police could continue to harbor psychopaths even if they shun racists—and perpetuate the problem.

And, psychopaths cannot be convinced not to be racists with moral arguments, or with punishments. They cannot be induced to stop committing violent crimes in uniform, any more than their recidivist counterparts in prison stop after they go through rehabilitation. Their neurology has permanent and recurring effects on behavior, which do not respond to psychological intervention.

 

Part II. Most well-intentioned responses are guided by lack of nuance about prejudice, bigotry, and racism. Most well-intentioned campaigns about racism are therefore diffuse and ineffectual, not on a timescale geared to emergency prevention.

The causation or enabling of violence by prejudice, bigotry, or (specifically) racism, which itself comes in numerous forms, and a range of severities of bias or hatred, is certainly a subject in itself. Evidence lends itself to endless debate over “contributing factors” by subjective viewpoints. The most salient point though, which can be made clear, concerns contrasts that are not being made between what’s universal (prejudice), or debatably-general (bigotry), and a very particular kind of racism indeed.

Combating prejudices presents an eternal challenge for vigilance and self-examination, as well as scientific doubt and questioning. I don’t mean to suggest that any one prejudice in particular (such as prejudice against black people) is natural or inherent rather than a construct of culture. That sort of claim always rests on tendentious pseudoscience and scientism, aping objective methods to justify values and beliefs, and pretend to derive them objectively. It used to be white segregationists, and now it is more likely radical black nationalists who cite pseudoscientific studies claiming that “the races”—left over from debunked eugenic and racialist theories—cannot get along. Actual science found that genetics and inherent behavior don’t break along lines of skin color.

But *forming prejudices* is natural. Human primates are rife with prejudices acquired about appearances and man-made categories, as an evolutionary product of fumbling through managing risk, and problem-solving our personal world with imperfect operational knowledge. Much of that tentative ‘knowledge’ was simply received from some source, not even personally experienced, and not actively questioned. We rely too much on group, primate-level influencer (family, friend, figurehead) cues for approval or disapproval as a means of sorting people and things, and navigating life’s many shoals. Neurotic people undergoing insecure phases might fall back on old prejudices the most, but we all use them.

As a result: We dislike or mistrust many things, hate few, and want exceedingly few if any people dead with our own hands—and few of us want the opportunity to decide, as a career choice.

No, that, we have to say, is different. When it keeps happening, that phenomenon really requires a different explanation and causal chain from vague nationwide “racism,” which includes lesser prejudices and/or bigotry, without distinction from the likes of the Klan. Particularly, when so much of the population reacts negatively to the specter of violent racism, it’s conspicuous that the prejudice, the moralism of the country takes cues against it, far more than for it. (Even sympathies and defenses from the separate population for “one of their own” seem fewer than before.)

But even if all that weren’t so—or, let’s say we discount moral outrage as insincere—it would still be a remarkable abdication of intellectual responsibility not to admit that it’s an extraordinary claim to make, and not a self-evident one at all, to draw an arrow from prejudice, or even bigotry, toward incidents of hands-on murder (by probable psychopaths)—in the ways that abstruse racial academics and college-educated activists habitually do. The formula and its logic are no less fallacious for having caught on.

It’s absurd on the face of it to convince people that re-examining whether they unconsciously hold their purse tighter when a black man walks by, or don’t hire enough qualified black employees, has something to do with kneeling on a black man’s throat for nine minutes. We’re reminded that both types of phenomena stem from a common history—but everything in human society does. This in itself doesn’t mean two things are closely connected, or cause each other. It doesn’t establish an interaction, or causative relationship.

Worse, it squanders precious time and energy to confuse the response this hopelessly during a genuine societal emergency slow-burning for decades, punctuated by avoidable deaths of real people. It no doubt appeals to us to think that the worst events already fall under our personal control, or personal development. It has thousands of well-meaning and influential people urging each other to “do the work.” Meanwhile the power of the police state ratchets event by event, not on some glacial timescale on which eroding all prejudice could be a realistic goal.

The explanatory laziness about accounting for what is happening at the hands of cops suggests to me other agendas from certain campaigners and activists besides focusing on that outstanding problem—whether they really care more for other social-justice issues and want to redirect effort there, have some axe to grind about “capitalism” or “society” in general—or else harbor guilt (so-called “white guilt”?) in search of a reason for taking blame, and therefore prefer a diffuse accusation that includes everyone. A need for mutual confession would fit with certain activists’ (and slackivists‘) preference to talk to each other, and demonstrate to sympathetic quarters, more than confront those who disagree, or do their worst, as activists in the 1960s civil rights movement did.

I can speculate, but the point is that only a precise diagnosis of the systemic problem leads to a timely solution and productive strategy. A great many activists and campaigners unfortunately do not pursue this, stopped by a premature answer: a fundamentally flawed and racist society they envision, that requires mass-penitence and soul-searching, and in effect, must protest itself. That kind of collectivism formed of vague self-image and grand abstraction is useless to real human beings on the ground—to individuals. In this case it will let more individuals get killed, when the killers could be stopped.

“America” needs to be sorted out conceptually instead of blurred, if we want to get serious about solving the problems that occur across that enormous, disparate, and populous land. As I’ve written before, a general population and its power structure are blurred as a matter of institutional interest, hiding how little they have in common behind a “common interest,” and hiding how little control most people really have behind “participation.” Dealing with that ugly secret could be every bit as messy and uncomfortable as cleaning up after a racist past, but unfortunately the work has only earnestly begun on the latter. This isn’t just work ahead of “America,” by the way; it looms over everybody.

Knowledge Matters, Too (Tell the Twin Stories of Violence and Race)

With all due respect to the intentions behind #blackouttuesday and other online hashtag campaigns, a lot of online activism is most effective at making people feel good for participating, and showing “solidarity.” It’s low in cost (of time and effort) to post a black screen on Instagram, or copy a hashtag or slogan, or even mimic activist-talk about representation or voices.

All of that appeals to both those people who want to show off their participation (virtue signaling), and people who genuinely care, and don’t want to make this about themselves, but don’t know how to do better. In a way it doesn’t matter how much we really care, or are showy moral narcissists. Results obtained can completely diverge from either intentions or emotional investment.

It’s just not enough to care about the problem—no matter how much! We have to know what we’re talking about. That is, if we really want to change things. Others can ride along and wave, in the confidence that things are changing, and they are on board. I believe that is naive; I do not believe it will be enough.

First we have to correctly identify the problem, and then, correctly identify how to solve it. There’s no more room for ignorance, or for making errors in this diagnosis. No amount of sympathy, righteous anger, or passion behind a blank black screen makes up for the fact that—it’s blank. Slogans of sympathy and solidarity are simple—too simple. Information-free, low-cost activism is just not as good as spending a bit of time on understanding

  1. the extent of the problem, and
  2. what *specifically* has to change, so that the protest isn’t vague, it has actionable demands. Abstractions and generalities aren’t enough to be practical, when specific principles, laws, organizations, and institutions are at fault, as well as individual people in official positions who can be forced out, only to be replaced.

Sharing information could be a lot more effective for making a difference than Showing We Care—but only if it’s information worth sharing. It’s better to share information, but not if it’s misinformation, or too simplistic to change anything, or just copied thoughtlessly from the usual media or activist discourses about race, hate, and division.

If this sounds a lot more difficult than low-content activism, or sharing information without learning, that’s because it is. It requires your attention. But as it seems that current events in large American cities have your attention and worry preoccupied anyway, there’s no better time.

The amount I can write in one blog post is a sketch, an impression based upon a couple of decades of interest, research, and writing as a dissident. I hope you find the context useful, especially if you have little experience with critical history and alternative political science, or grew up outside the United States. I urge you to read as far as I will write here, and then to follow up more. Look into what I’m about to say, and think for yourself, but then share it. I have no fear at all that the details of the argument can’t bear up under scrutiny, exploration by research, and open-minded thought.

In fact, disgraceful dehumanization only goes on for as long as it does in the world because people aren’t looking, really looking into why—even less than they are paying attention in-between those horrible, singular events that grab their attention, which are not singular at all.

 

Twin Stories to Tell: Power and Racism in America

A lot of people of all backgrounds are coming to understand that America has a problem with systemic racism. This is reflected in multiple practices of the injustice system. (This should be uncontroversial to those of us who are schooled in civil liberties, while possibly being a revelation to others.) Some are left over from the segregationist era, from unfair enforcement to predatory prosecution and inadequate defense, to unfair sentencing. Some are more recent, like mandatory federal sentencing for drug offenses, which have been used disproportionately to incarcerate unconnected black men. (Especially in major cities, where career-minded prosecutors—future politicians—have interests to work together with police to increase conviction numbers.)

But it’s a mistake to think that a divide over race is The Story to tell in answer to the great question, What’s Wrong With America? which is even asked quite frequently overseas.

The other story, which I predict will largely control what happens with that story, is America’s long descent into fascism and empire. America has a problem with Power.

Fascism often involves racism, and racial and/or national supremacy, but the essence of the system was, and is, the combination of the economic system called corporatism—which prioritizes certain financial interests that are well-connected to politicians and policy (like banking, arms dealing, and selling propaganda)—with authoritarianism. In powerful countries like prosperous America (as opposed to, say, fascist Austria), this was, and is, coupled with the desire for a foreign empire.

(Fascism was nothing unique or even new when Mussolini showed up with his one-party popularization of the term. In substance, he just borrowed from older ideas, like mercantilism, and radicalized them. It’s the modern version of colonial imperialism that Britain had, in which colonies were organized to serve mercantile interests which were indistinguishable from the state, like the British East India Company.)

The American descent into an authoritarian system, with its bully mentality towards stubborn individuals and populations both domestically, and worldwide, happened throughout the same period of time as institutional racism. That is, America has descended into fascism and empire ever since post- Civil War Reconstruction-era reforms and migrations mixed other people with the populations who were once enslaved or occupied.

America has become an Empire occupied and controlled by the military and (later) spy bureaucracies, ever since the government sent the Army occupying the South to take the West from natives after the Civil War, and then conquered the remnants of the Spanish Empire before WWI, and finally inherited the British Empire’s world position after WWII, followed by immense Cold War spending on the military-industrial complex. The politics of US Empire, and its worldwide bases, colonies, and alliances with proxy governments, has been dominated by the interest of funding the military, such as war-mongering, especially where it aligns with well-connected corporate interests. (Not all of the rich people in the country, the so-called 1%, most of whom actually lose relative power under a corporatist system, unless they join it.)

America has a militarism problem, which doesn’t only affect people elsewhere in the world, millions of whom have suffered or died in US wars (and sponsored interventions), all around the world, for the last century. US police occupy American cities using surplus military gear and imitate combat tactics: in SWAT teams, celebrated in Hollywood, against protests and riots, and in infamous no-knock raids, also used in war zones. Since 9-11, local cops also coordinate with the feds and “Homeland Security”—that creepy name— in ‘fusion’ command centers, like occupational forces. Even before 9-11, intelligence from spy surveillance authorized for terrorism was illegally used to bust domestic drug-dealers. Increasingly, the assets and mentalities used in the Empire abroad come home, and integrate with police. In many cases, the very same police officers that commit violent crimes against citizens, once wore a military uniform.

Miamiprotestcop2003

As the eventual result of mindsets that accept, encourage, even embrace expansive authority, America has a police-state problem, which threatens *everyone* without connections. Regionally, no doubt some of this system was assembled to enforce segregationist laws, or out of fear of colored minorities and immigrants in cities, but even that doesn’t account for so much.

Especially since 1982, the Supreme Court and other courts have upheld the doctrine and precedents of so-called “qualified immunity.” In practice this almost always shields cops from any consequences, even for the most egregious behavior, when coupled with the major influence of police unions, which have the power to bully mayors of cities like New York.

In addition, the historic rollback of Bill of Rights protections under many more court decisions—for example, gutting protections against search and seizure without warrants—negatively affected everyone (or rather anyone without the power of the State on their side). Cases and precedents have been extensively documented by civil liberties defenders and Constitutionalists of many different political subscriptions.

There’s also the incredible accretion of the size and budgets of federal agencies, such as the FBI and ATF, in the name of law and order. Almost any citizen finds themselves powerless against executive branch agencies which are uncritically called part of law enforcement or the justice system. The FBI in particular has an infamous history of surveillance and infiltration against black organizations, but also other domestic dissenters, and it’s not alone.

In short, when an unconnected person is picked on by the state, they have scarcely more recourse than a colonized person had, under laws, policies, and legal precedents that aren’t just unequally enforced, but stacked against them. Racism absolutely makes this predicament worse for black people, but it doesn’t explain why it happens to so many thousands of others, too. Critics, dissidents, activists, journalists and whistleblowers become particular targets of persecution if they call attention to abuses of power, yet a great many “minding their own business” also find themselves in harm’s way, on the wrong end of the law, or law enforcement.

That’s enough background to identify the problem(s) for one blog post. Let’s get practical about how to solve them. Let’s start to identify some actionable demands:

There have been initiatives to curb militarization of cops to support, and a bill was recently proposed to end qualified immunityDemand that politicians support that bill to end qualified immunity. Make them end that, and other legal and institutional covers for thugs and psychopaths among police. Don’t allow city, state, and national politicians—of both major parties!— to side with police unions. (Don’t vote for them anyway, if they do!)

Now more than 18,000 “law enforcement” organizations lord it over the American public, stealing their salaries from that public’s earnings, padding their budgets with literal highway robbery (“asset forfeiture” and so forth), and usually protected by “qualified immunity” when they kill.—Thomas Knapp

Demand that politicians support decentralizing cops militarized during the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Demand they stop practices like mass surveillance, and combat tactics, which are used against domestic dissent and people without connections, like black people in inner-city communities. Demand an end to perverse financial and career incentives like asset forfeiture, and rewards for padding arrests or convictions. Demand politicians stop rewarding police bureaucracies with bigger budgets, no matter what they do. (Stop voting for former prosecutors!) Demand an end to federal sentencing minimums and criminalization of drugs, which disproportionately incarcerates black men, but also put 1% of America under the penal system. Demand an end to the “drug war” entirely, which empowers and militarizes cops and feds. Demand an end to US wars abroad, which empower the US state apparatus, dehumanize those who are killed and occupied, and send the mentalities of violence manufactured in wartime (even literally, PTSD) back home.

We all have to demand these things together as human beings. Why?

Power thrives by dividing people. In conflict, scared people follow leaders; in war, they obey leaders no matter how much they hate them. People divided against each other (Black against White, Rich against Poor, Americans against Foreigners) are easier to rule.

It’s not one life at risk from the system I’ve described. It’s not one community at risk. It’s not only one race. It’s not only one class. It’s not even one country. It is everyone. We have to learn to criticize that “authority” together, not as sympathetic observers to someone else’s fight. We have to practice civil disobedience against that authority, the police state, and empire, together, as allies who recognize a mutual interest, as well as human empathy.

If we aren’t divided in our response by buying into a racial divide (or a political divide, or a national divide), we can better resist, and so become freer. If we are free, we cannot be forced down—figuratively or literally—by any old bigot or thug who has a scrap of power that grants “immunity,” or for that matter, “presidential authority.”

Realize that in a free world, the existence of bigots need not trouble the rest of us so much. We could go on with our lives, happily making racism and other bigotries more and more irrelevant by associating peacefully with each other personally and professionally, no matter what we look like or where we were born. In this unfree world, bigots with membership in systemic power or connections to systemic power have the legal or official means to bother us, and kill our friends. They used to pass race-mixing laws; they still discourage non-white immigrants. Worse, the bigots with official means still get away with murders, and protecting murderers—whether it’s on the streets of the Middle East, or on the streets of America.

That’s why the Story of Power in America and abroad, and how America deals with its conflicted problem of power, and national mythology surrounding organized violence—in a nutshell, Americans being ruled while wanting to rule the world, and celebrating it with fly-by jets, even boasting about it—will also finish telling that story of How America Deals With Race that you hear so much of in the media and in activism. One story cannot be told without the other.

 

… continued in next post…