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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Who Will Protect the Protectors?

"What bullsh*t, Liam.  If your lot really thought they [i.e., the police] were part of the "99%", you'd be doing something to protect them, too,"  Sorcha Nic Congail

Well, it has to be admitted that my cousin Sorcha has a point.  A powerful point.  Not the sort of thing that I would have been inclined to explore on my own unbidden.  But that's what friends are for, I guess.  To prod you along some paths you would never have even considered, left to your own devices.

Here's where the hole ugly mess began:

Photo, allegedly of the dog Parrot moments before being shot to death by police

I received a copy of this photo last weekend from an FB friend and as a dog lover was immediately horrified.  As a kid I grew up with dogs--lots of dogs.  Probably the best, most loving and loyal animals on earth.  I'd long ago come to see dogs as man's natural companion and most trusted comrade.  My nerves just could not handle the image of a so-called "law enforcement officer" crushing the spine of a beloved family pet.  I blanched at the nightmare of a child discovering this photo haunt the web, eternally memorializing the brutal killing of his best friend--the best friend that would have done anything to protect him, but whom he himself was powerless to help in his hour of need.

The accompanying text was spare.  It described this officer backing a frightened family pet named Parrot into a corner, pouncing on the hapless creature and applying the full weight of his body to the animal's back before it was corralled to a concrete pen where another officer executed the creature at point blank range with his service revolver.

In the context of a stream of videos and text updates on the various Occupy protests throughout the company, I assumed (though was not told) that a protester had brought the animal along, either not wanting to subject the poor beast to the intolerable neglect and lonliness that his/her long absence would create, or maybe even as some stype of service animal like a seeing eye dog.  This time the cops had gone too far, I thought.

Scott Olsen, victim of police violence
I know--this was a sick, sick notion.  The whole world had seen a participant of Occupy Oakland, 24 year-old, 2-tour Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen shot in the face by overzealous police in California.  You may well say, "What kind of pervert are you, Liam, that you care more about a mere DOG than a human being?!" 

I don't blame you or disagree with you necessarily.  That is essentially true; my reaction was indeed a reflection of the bizarre, inverted distinctions I maintain in my various relationships with humans and animals.

Like I said, I grew up considering dogs to be my closest, most loyal friends.  My father was an expert at picking family pets.  My mother nicknamed Dad "St. Francis" because of the uncanny rapport he had with all sorts of animals.  He really did radiate an almsot supernatural calm among them that could lead to the most anamolous sights you're ever likely to see outside of a Pixar(tm) animation.  At one point he had somehow trained our two Labrador Retrievers to calmly (if inquisitively) accept the unfettered prescence of a parakeet hopping about the living room floor.  Believe it or not, those dogs NEVER molested the bird.

And this is precisely where the pardoxes enter the story of the photo above.  Three paradoxes, really.

First Paradox
The first is the explanation or rationalization for my relatively greater horror at the abuse of the dog as compared to the human being.  It was my experience--and I believe the experience of many if not most Americans--that they are taught to bifurcate their relationships with animals and human beings in a sick way that ultimately does justice to neither.  I reasoned, based on more than a little personal experience, that American society teaches us, in a way very, very few others do, that animals are acceptable repositories of our altruistic impulses of kindness, loving and warmth in a way another human being never could be.

Only makes sense, after all.  We urbanites literally infantalize our domestic animals in a way that would be utterly unthinkable in societies where the animals still performed working roles, as the "Dog Whisperer" Caesar Millan discusses frequently in his book "Be the Pack Leader".  Outside of some chichi enclaves within the gated communities of Mexico's elite, I doubt you will see many dogs forced haplessly into silly halloween costumes as you regularly do in the U.S.

Humans, on the other hand, are dangerous.  They are our competitors for resources, social prestige and mates.  In the current "Ayn Rand"-ian dystopia, where social incentives are paradoxically structured to encourge the destruction and elimination of these competitors, our personal "integrity" is best pursued through a policy of indifference or even outright hostility to our fellow humans.  Much better to relegate our "vulnerabilities" like the need for affiliation and unconditional acceptance to the narrow confines of the canine world--where they can't be effectively manipulated against us.

Sick.  Sick sick sick.  A sad and heartless realpolitik calculation, but nonethelss useful in accomplishing its stated aims.  A regretable feature of the rhetorical landscape which could, provided the story got enough press, represent a significant flashpoint in the slow and dangerous alienation between protesters and the law enforcement officers who ironically are being just as brutalized by the current economic and political regime as anyone else.  I've been torn between the fear of just such a development and the hope that it might yet be avoided for some time, ever since the massive rallies in March protesting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's unprecedented and undemocratic power grab.

Second Paradox 
As further discussion of the photo with my cousin Sorcha revealed, I had jumped the gun a bit. While the investigation of the incident is still pending, there is considerably more controversy surrounding the true factual course of events than was aparent from my initial, ham-fisted reaction.  For starters, this thing happened outside a D.C. area street festival--it had nothing at all to do with Occupy Wall Street or any of the spin off protests.   It may still turn out to be a case of tragic policing excess, but it will take more than a single incomplete and out-of-context FB blurb to reach that conclusion definitively.

Had I not enjoyed the benefit of Sorcha pouring a bit of cold water onto the whole affair, I would have been sorely tempted to write, without reflection or hesitation, a scathing, probably melodramatic account of the affair which not only would have led to precisely the sort of counterproductive alienation between protesters and police that I had feared, but maybe unjustly tarnished the reputation of that officer. 

Again, this realization is NOT by way of exhonorating the man unconditionally, but simply an honest recognition of the fact that the precise sequence of events are not yet an established part of the public record.  Whatever else that man may have been that day, perhaps nasty overbearing bully, crew-cutted thug, overzealous, undertrained or frightened incompetent, he is also a human being and an American citizen with the right to due process, just like the protesters.  Glossing over or denying that central fact doesn't exactly up our own value as tribunes of the people or enlightened human beings; in fact, it would only cheapen us.

Third Paradox
The third and perhaps greatest paradox of all here is the fact that I, perhaps more than most people, should have been aware of all the above from the git-go.  I come from a law enforcement family.  My father, brother and several cousins are current or former police officers.  Most also have served some time in the military, which is relevant, as in a very important sense (and I mean this in a non-pejorative way), police departments ARE quasi-military organizations--just like the Marine Corps service of Oakland victim of police brutality, Scott Olsen.

While I myself clearly am not, was never, and never will be a candidate for membership any police department, I do have ample experience with their institutional biases, and the way they impact the psychology and behavior of individual members.  By inclination and the course of my own education I personally am given to reflection and philosophical inquiry, but I understand that police officers are not. 

That's not some casually flippant stereotype.  It's a constantly reinforced observation grounded in bedrock fact.  A fact that any honest person with even the most tangental relationship to long-term military or law enforcement personnel will admit uncontroversially. 

I will spare you the litany of minor examples illustrating the point, the continual and desultory verbal sparring endemic to relationships of fathers and sons with irreconcilably different worldviews.  Partially because they're still painful, partially because they're still boring, but mostly because you almost certainly have much more vivid examples in your personal memory banks.  The point I'm making is NOT that police are by nature vicious brutes, but that their culture doesn't foster very deep psychological reflection.

The primary reason police officers are so psychologically one-dimensional should not be controversial either.  We demand that they be so.

We demand that police do the unreasonable.  We demand that they apply the force of law to the most disruptive elements of society.  The thieves, conmen, pimps and murderers.  And we demand that they do so every day, unfailingly without question and completely by the books.  By the very books that their erstwhile adversaries utterly despise.  All without hesitation or complaint.

The stress that their social role places on them must not be trivialized.  It's not enough to rattle off some lame-*ss bullsh*t about them "volunteering for the job", etc., etc., or otherwise bringing this upon themselves.  That would be just as backward as the sad cries of the "53%" who insist on blaming the current economic collapse on the very victims of banksters' reckless speculation.  That would not only risk alienating already hard-to-reach constituencies within the "99%", but is fundamentally opposed to the revolutionarily inclusive and truly populist spirit of the Occupy movement.

As a society we cannot afford to abandon them to the lack of leadership and public indifference they have stoically suffered for decades.  The cost is already too high.  It's a well known fact that law enforcement officers, just like military personnel, suffer from our society's highest levels of marital breakup, alcoholism, and, ironically or not, general run-ins with the law.  Just this past week comes from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ("MJS") an expose of how this trend is reflected within the ranks of its own police department (e.g., domestic violence rates approximately four times higher than the average among society as a whole).

As that MJS article makes clear, a significant factor in this epidemic is the unwillingness on the part of department "leadership" to tackle these problems head-on, preferring instead to sweep them under the rug.  The problem clearly is NOT that the officers themselves are irredeemable bullies or fascists--one officer highlighted was the recipient in 2010 of a meritorious service award for enduring personal danger to protect a crowd gathered to demonstrate on behalf of immigration rights.  The problem is the we, as a society, flatly demand that officers expose themselves to danger and abuse in many novel or even entirely unprecedented situations without proper leadership. 

For starters, let's consider the anamolous situation of police officers being assigned to crowd control duty before a large political demonstration, a la Occupy.  Law enforcement's raison d'etre is clearly to forcefully interdict willful illegal activities that impose an unacceptable harm to society or an individual's rights, harms which cannot be effectively remediated subsequently, like bodily injury or gross destruction of property.  Ironically, that is precisely what movements like Occupy hope to accomplish in the political arena--interdict the continual plunder of the commonwealth and its traditions of open democracy by careless, incompetent and indifferent elites.

But of course that's not how the narrative that is typically offered by our society's so-called "leaders".  They constantly put forth, undeviatingly and unquestioned, the rationalization that the presence of the police officers is to prevent inevitable criminal abuses which will be committed by the protesters.  Even if the "authorities" are relatively successful in portraying themselves as ideologically neutral and uninterested in the protest's outcome, they hand us the old chestnut that large crowds of unhappy, dissastisfied citizens will inevitably resort to physical violence if not forcefully confronted with a quasi-military force.

Should we--and by mean ALLof us, police officers especially--just buy into that?  How does that make sense?  In what way does it help to de-escalate potential violent confrontation by introducing an armed element?  An armed element whose existential justification is to identify and confront law breakers, who are ironically sitting warm and comfortable in the elegant skyscraper palaces behind them, rather than the peaceful citizens arrayed before them.  Isn't this, in fact, almost exactly what a cynical bastard would prescribe if he were asked for a formula to sew self-destructive chaos?

I don't buy that for a second.  And to tell the truth, I'm kind of indifferent as to whether this massive failure on the part of police departments' leadership is a function of active malice within their ranks or the wider political establishment.  I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor, the philosophical tenet that, "One should not ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence."  At this juncture, I'm much more interested in solutions than I am in assigning blame.

What to Do?
Well, what DO we do?  It's a pretty enormous vacuum of leadership that needs to be filled here.  And my intuition tells me that it will not be acceptable under current conditions, on anyone's part, to encourage or allow police to simply refuse deployment to these crowd control assignments.  There is simply no way in Hell that any politician hoping to be re-elected, or any law enforcement officer worthy of the name, would allow himself to abandon the proposition, phony and half-baked as it is, that these "public safety" duties can be unilaterally abandoned.  Such a course of action, in the current environment, would inevitably cause enormous personal crises of identity in sincere public servants, if not immediate and complete exclusion from their institutions.

And maybe that's where a non-orthodox and non-linear, "Occupy"-inspired approach could be the game changer.  Maybe the point isn't simply to jump to a conclusion and impose a short-sighted, draconian "solution" like the failed leadership we're trying to brush aside.  Maybe the actual point is to "go inclusive"--treat law enforcement just like the 99% we're always claiming they are.  Maybe we should be aware of their specific concerns and make a powerful statement to support them in a very real way.

Here's how I propose to do so:  Model legislation requiring do-nothing politicians to take responsibility for the mess they force police into.  If candy-*ss empty suits won't provide cops with the leadership that they need, maybe the thinkers and visionaries of the Occupy Wall Street movement can help the cops grow it on there own.  My ideal bill would contain some version of all the following elements:

1.  Requirement that all officers assigned to crowd control duty be vetted by a specially designated panel of subject matter experts and elected representatives.

2.  Provide minimum standards and sufficient and competent training in the performance of crowd control duties utilizing the least amount of physical confrontation and coercion as possible.

3.  The stated goal of reducing burdensome legal defense and settlement costs associated with violent confrontation between police and citizens, in a manner consistent with the responsible stewardship over public funds.

4.  The obligations of the oversight panel must be expressly include ALL of the following:
     a.  Ensure the public's constitutional right to effective free expression and political participation, AND
     b.  Minimize the potential for serious violent conflict often exacerbated by the presence of arms, AND
     c.  Protect the physical and mental well-being of officers by asking them to participate in such
         controversial and difficult assignments only when they have received appropriate training and guidance

5.  Allow officers to categorically opt-in or opt-out of participation in the controversial crowd control duties, subject to attainment of minimum training and vetting standards as described above, so that they may determine for themselves whether their participation, in their unique circumstances, would cause undue stress.

6.  Requirement that the department set aside sufficient funds, personnel and time for officers to implement this law in order to avoid the additional unncessary stress of unfunded mandates would place upon them.  It seems pretty logical to me that the most equitable method of funding these provisions would be a direct levy on the institutions that are increasingly the focus of public protest--large banks and other financial institutions.  Given the multi-state and even multi-national character, it might be wise to pursue some type of shared funding arrangements accross multiple jurisdictions.

So How Hopeful Am I that Such a Thing Would Be Enacted?
Not very.  Not in the near future, anyhow.  It's no secret that municipalities accross the board are being raped by Republicans' continued calls for defunding.  We can't even fund our most fundamental services needs, like bus routes, primary school education, or for that matter elementary law enforcement, much less realistically hope for such an ambitious redefinition of their missions.

Maybe there's someone or some people out there with the vision and experience to take this thing to some actually implementable stage in the foreseeable future.  It's worth a shot.

But in my mind that's not even the main point.  The point should be to move the needle in the right direction, get a constructive debate going about just what the appropriate law enforcement response should be to massive displays of citizen disaffection. 

And that debate has to start with us.  The police can't do it on their own.  For starters, it's not legal or even conceptually proper for an armed, quasi-military force to interject itself in political movements.  Just as importantly, the well-founded institutional bias against deep philosophical engagement doesn't really prepare them to play a very constructive direct role in such thorny abstract issues.  That should be our job.  We.  Us.  The people who supposedly give a sh*t about the whole 99%.