In Ferguson, an unarmed black teenager was killed by police. In reaction, thousands took to the streets in protest. However, rather than attempting to listen, the heavily militarized police immediately made a show of force with armored vehicles, assault rifles, riot gear, and tear gas. People tweeted photos and videos more reminiscent of scenes from Baghdad or Fallujah than of a little Midwestern suburb in America.
Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired into the crowd of peaceful protestors. Multiple reporters were assaulted and arrested. One cop was caught on video screaming “Bring it, all you f---ing animals! Bring it!” Another appeared to be indiscriminately pointing his rifle in people’s faces and yelling “I will f---ing kill you!”
This raises the question: Is what we saw night after night in Ferguson simply a matter of a few “bad apple” cops, a local isolated problem? Or is it indicative of a wider attitude of the police in relation to the use of violence and force? Is it an anomaly, or is this what police in fact consider normal and right? In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, a 17-year veteran of the LAPD gives us what he believes to be good advice from the perspective of a cop:
“If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me ... and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. ”
In one sense he is of course right. If a guy has a gun at your head you should definitely not argue, and just do what he says. But one is led to ask how this reasoning is substantially different from saying to a child, “Honey, when dad is drunk and gets mad, don’t talk back, just be real quiet.” That’s probably sound advice, too, but it begs the question: Is this the world we want to live in? Is that as good as we can do?
The police are quick to argue that their use of force is justified, but the real question is not whether something can be justified, but whether it is in fact good. For decades teachers beat children in schools. This was similarly justified, arguing that it was the only way to maintain order in the classroom. Now that the majority of states have passed laws against corporal punishment of children in school, teachers have found other much more effective ways of creating an atmosphere of respect and order without the use of violence. We seem to have learned that lesson with our kids, the lesson that what we once thought was violence “for your own good” was in fact damaging and counter-productive. We seem to have yet to learn that lesson with “good” violence when it comes to the police or guns.
When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Take away that hammer and you begin to discover that there are a whole lot of tools in the toolbox that are better suited to the task at hand. Looking at Ferguson, it’s easy to observe that the result of a militarized police force was not securing peace and safety. On the contrary, the violent and antagonistic actions of the police in fact acted to escalate and worsen the situation there -- and understandably so: When people feel threatened or violated, our natural human response is one of anger. Our impulse is to retaliate. Neuroscientists refer to this as a limbic reaction. In contrast to this, when the police instead have shown empathy and respect, the results have been strikingly different: The mood radically shifted from hostility to peace.
It’s not that hard, given some training in de-escalation strategies, not to mention the use of basic people skills and respect. But while there have been some notable exceptions, looking at the actions of the police in Ferguson as a whole it seems readily apparent that the average police officer is sorely undereducated in these vital skills.
As if to underscore the point, just a few days after the shooting of Michael Brown, and only a few miles from Ferguson, 23-year-old Kajieme Powell was gunned down by police. As a cell phone video released by St Louis police shows, the officers opened fire less than 20 seconds after their arrival, shooting Powell nine times. In a press conference following the shooting, St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson defended their actions, saying:
"The officers did what I think you or I would do, they protected their life in that situation."
The police released the video in the name of “transparency” and also because, as a police union representative put it, they believed the video was "exculpatory."
However, upon viewing the video, many see it as anything but exculpatory. There is no indication that anyone felt threatened by Powell prior to the arrival of the police. He does not charge the officers, but instead walks towards them, his arms at his side.
True, he does ignore their instructions to stop. True, he does say “shoot me” to them, and it is also true that he was armed—albeit with a steak knife. However, watching the video, many have found themselves asking: Was there really no other viable response other than to immediately open fire on this rather obviously mentally unbalanced young man?
Before opening her private praxis as a psychotherapist, my wife worked with institutionalized mental patients. There were times when a patient would get ahold of a weapon, such as a pair of scissors, and threaten the staff and patients. However, because of laws passed which focused on protecting patients rights and dignity, the days of strapping mentally ill patients to a gurney or pumping them full of sedatives and throwing them in a rubber room are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and were non-existent where she worked. So the staff learned other ways to keep safe and deescalate volatile situations. Given that, I have to ask: If my tiny wife can handle an angry 6-foot paranoid schizophrenic man, shouldn’t cops be able to learn to do the same?
The deeper problem is that the police seem to think that there is no problem, that their actions that so many of us view as unnecessarily aggressive and violent are in fact reasonable and right – whether that means shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of peaceful protestors or gunning down anyone they perceive as a potential threat. As Ezra Klein writes:
“It is easy to criticize. It is easy to watch a cell phone video and think of all the ways it could have gone differently ... It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.
But there is still something wrong with that video. There is something wrong that the video seems obviously exculpatory to the police and obviously damning to so many who watch it.
The dispute over the facts in the Michael Brown case offers the hope that there is a right answer — that Wilson either did clearly the right thing or clearly the wrong thing. The video of the Powell case delivers a harder reality: what the police believe to be the right thing and what the people they serve believe to be the right thing may be very different.”
The police’s persistent unjust and violent treatment of press and protestors in Ferguson shines a spotlight on a side of the police that most whites have never seen, but which reflects and amplifies a side of the police that African Americans frequently encounter. As Ryan Herring writes in Sojourners, “For the majority of black people, the police do not represent protection or safety, rather they are a menacing force that terrorize those they are supposed to serve ... To be young and black in the United States means to live under constant pressure, something most non-black American citizens know nothing about.”
It can be comforting to think that the police protect us from the “bad guys,” unless of course you are profiled as that “bad guy.” This is otherizing, and it’s effect is to dehumanize. As the angry outbursts of the Ferguson cops reveal, the other is seen as an “animal” to suppress and control, rather than an individual with rights and value. That’s what Jesus meant when he said “As you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me” (Mt 25:40). The way we treat those we value the least — the ones we fear and demonize and scapegoat, the ones we condemn, the ones we lock up and write off — that’s the way we treat God.
Violence is most dangerous when it masquerades as good. In the past people sought to justify violence against children, claiming it was “for their own good.” Today we hear the argument from law enforcement that their use of violence is for our own protection. However, as we are increasingly seeing, the actual result is that we are all less safe. Violence has long been our country’s national savior. It’s time we recognized it for the empty idol that it really is. It’s time we found better ways of dealing with our problems. Rather than finding reasons to justify violence, we need to be looking for better and more effective means for addressing problems. We have lots of hammers. It’s time we learned to use the many other tools at our disposal.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross. He is a featured blogger for the Huffington Post, Red Letter Christians, and writes regularly at his website theRebelGod.com. A longtime voice in the post-conservative evangelical movement, Derek’s focus is on wrestling with questions of faith and doubt, violence in the Bible, relational theology, and understanding the cross from the perspective of grace and restorative justice.
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