Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Authoritarianism and Police Brutality Against People of Color

Police are supposed to serve the public. In a democracy, police are controlled and commanded by elected officials who ostensibly serve the public interest.

Recent events in New York City (and elsewhere) undermine those basic norms.

In the aftermath of the killing of two New York police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, by a mentally ill gunman, police union leader Patrick Lynch is leading a veritable police rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio.

New York City’s police have refused to do their jobs by engaging in an coordinated work slowdown and strike.

New York police have publicly booed and heckled Mayor de Blasio—even going so far as to turn their backs to him—as a sign of their anger and disrespect towards him.

In online forums such as Thee Rant, a site frequented by retired and active duty New York police officers, Mayor de Blasio, his family, and administration have been the targets of vicious racial slurs and threats.

New York City’s police and their spokespeople are rebelling against civilian authority for a variety of reasons.

Primarily, Mayor de Blasio’s basic observation that police brutality and racism against non-whites is a problem that must be solved, and when coupled with the nationwide protests against police thuggery in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, threatens an American police culture that views itself as an omnipotent force, one that is above the law.

New York’s police and union leaders such as Patrick Lynch are also mining the cultural mythologies that protect the police in order to create a narrative of police victimhood and vulnerability. While contrary to the empirical data which demonstrates that police work is actually a relatively safe profession (for example, police deaths are near a 50 year low) a tale of police victimhood can be combined with white racial resentment to weaken Mayor De Blasio, a Democrat, for the purpose of gaining leverage in the New York police union’s pay and contract negotiations.

In authoritarian and fascist societies, police and the military exist outside of civilian control.

Moreover, police and other like institutions often feign victimhood and vulnerability in order to gain public sympathy for the purposes of expanding their power and insulating themselves from consequences when they violate human rights.

The corrupting power of such narratives are especially great for democratic societies—such as the United States—that out of a fear of terrorism have normalized the surveillance society, engage in state sponsored torture, have surrendered to a devaluation of human life in service to the twin regimes of austerity and neoliberalism, and view the rights of the poor and people of color as contingent and not universal or inalienable.

Hope does exist: there are small acts of resistance by some members of the American people against such forces.

Unfortunately, the militarization of America’s police and the panoply of examples of police abuse and violence against the (black and brown) public in places such as Ferguson, Missouri and the videotaped choking-murder of Eric Garner, are social realities that are likely not going to be preempted or reversed in the near or mid term.

As such, foundational questions about the relationship between police brutality, thuggery, and authority remain unasked by the mass media, mainstream politicians, and other opinion leaders.

What sort of police officers would behave this way? Are they driven to this type of negative behavior by their training? Or do police have a psychological (and political) predisposition that encourages such actions?

Are police such as Darren Wilson, his brethren in Ferguson, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death while his peers watched him die, the cops that shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, or police union representatives such as Jeffrey Follmer or Patrick Lynch who excuse-make for police brutality and murder, channeling quintessentially “American” values, or are they petit-authoritarians, outliers of a sort, who self-select into police work?

These are questions that exist largely outside of the approved public discourse. They will not be explored in a deep and rigorous way by the commercial news media and the 24/7 hour news cycle.

The reasons for this are many. Primarily, the connective tissue between those questions consists of racism, classism, and how White America is largely in agreement with white on black and brown police violence as a matter of public policy.

An embrace of thuggery, violence, and meanness against people of color by the police is an act of surrender to the culture of cruelty. It also raises serious questions about American values and the shadow of racism and authoritarianism.

The corporate news media would treat those questions as some type of “unknown unknown”—a mystery that can never be solved and where all opinions are treated as equal as opposed to engaging the known findings on the subject.

Criminologists, psychologists, and other social scientists have compiled a large amount of data on the relationship between police behavior and authoritarianism. This information is readily available and highly accessible to the general public. However, it is not discussed by the corporate news media because the facts cannot be readily reconciled with the mythologies that surround (and protect) America’s police.

There have been many articles written about the political personality types of the police.

One of the most influential is the 1972 work “The Police Personality: Fact or Fiction” by Robert Balch.

There he explores several questions in an effort to crystallize the various arguments in the research on police psychology: are authoritarian personality types more likely to choose police work as a profession? Are police more or less likely to have authoritarian personality types than the general public? Does being a police officer exacerbate authoritarian impulses?

On the topic of authoritarianism and police, Balch summarized one of the main veins of thinking from the literature at that time:

a. Conventionalism: rigid adherence to conventional,
middle-class values.
b. Authoritarian Submission: submissive, uncritical
attitude toward idealized moral authorities
of the ingroup.
c. Authoritarian Aggression: tendency to be on the
.lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish
people who violate conventional values.
d. Anti-intraception: opposition to the subjective,
the imaginative, the tender-minded.
e. Superstition and Stereotypy: the belief in mystical
determinants of the individual's fate; the
disposition to think in rigid categories.
f. Power and "toughness": preoccupation with the
dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower
dimension; identification with power
figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized
attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of
strength and toughness.
g. Destructiveness and Cynicism: generalized hostility,
vilification of the human.
h. Projectivity: The disposition to believe that
wild and dangerous things go on in the world;
the projection outwards of unconscious emotional
i. Sex: Exaggerated concern with sexual "goings on."

Only superstition, apparently, has never been used to describe policemen. Otherwise the dimensions of authoritarianism seem to describe police officers very well. In fact, the typical policeman, as he is portrayed in the literature, is almost a classic example of the authoritarian personality.

As we try to reconstruct and imagine why police are much more likely to kill, abuse, and harass black and brown people, Balch highlighted the following quotes from interviews with police at that time:

If people in general are no good, then "coons" and "spics" are worse. All they like to do is drink, make love, and collect their welfare checks: "These scum aren't people; they're animals in a jungle . . . Hitler had the right idea..."

He continues his summary:

Several other traits are frequently but less consistently used to describe the typical policeman. Police officers supposedly distrust ivory-tower intellectuals and bleeding-heart humanitarians. A good policeman is a realist who learns by experience and not by reading books. He respects authority and knows how to take orders. He likes to give orders too, and he demands respect from juveniles, criminals, and minorities.

In thinking about the video recorded murder of Eric Garner, or Darren Wilson’s profoundly racist and fantastical explanation of his reasons for confronting and killing Michael Brown, this excerpt from Balch’s work is extremely disturbing:

According to Banton and Tauber, American policemen cannot rely on the authority vested in their uniform to gain compliance. Instead they feel compelled to assert their personal authority.

The citizen may take offense at the policeman's intimidating manner, and the stage is set for a violent confrontation in which each party is struggling to maintain his self-respect in the face of a perceived threat by the other. Westley adds that the lower the status of the citizen, the greater the threat he poses to the officer's uncertain self-esteem. In this context police brutality is indeed understandable.

America’s racial and social hierarchy demands that black people are subservient and deferent to white people. Although the language and logic of white privilege in this regard has “evolved” from the overt demands of black deference during Jim and Jane Crow, it still remains in the Age of Obama.

Black Americans routinely face such treatment and expectations in the form of micro aggressions, and in the context of police behavior, by “stop and frisk policies”, “shopping while black”, and racially discriminatory treatment at every level of the criminal justice system.

In the most high profile example of the White Gaze demanding black obedience, the United States’ first black president has had his legitimacy questioned by “birtherism”, subjected to racial slurs and other invective by Republicans, and also faced complaints by white conservatives that he is “uppity” and “does not know his place”.

The debate about the relationship between authoritarians as self-selecting into police work and how police culture encourages such behavior continues decades later.

However, there is a rising consensus on some aspects of the relationship where local police culture reinforces social dominance and authoritarian tendencies (as well as intolerance of the Other), those individuals who are most authoritarian are more likely to succeed in the profession, and that police are recruited from a sub-segment of the population that may be more prone to authoritarian behavior.

The racist and authoritarian behavior of police in the United States reflects a broader (white) American culture that nurtures and accepts such values.

For example, recent experiments in political psychology and public opinion research reveal that white respondents actively and knowingly support racism by the criminal justice system against black people.

These findings complement the findings by social scientists (and others) that demonstrate the power of implicit racial bias in how whites relate to African-Americans, the enduring power of symbolic racism and white racial resentment, the sense of social distance and lack of “warmth” that white Americans feel towards blacks, and the inability of whites en masse to feel sympathy or empathy for non-whites as full human beings.

A recent analysis by the Washington Post also shows how in the aftermath of Ferguson and the Eric Garner cases, white Americans are now more likely to be supportive of the police and have confidence in them to treat non-whites fairly.

Such a conclusion is madness: it requires a wholesale rewriting of the facts and a retreat to a default position where Whiteness imagines itself as innocence, and that racism is an outlier and fantasy of black and brown people.

The white paranoiac gaze is able to twist reality to such a degree that a black man being choked alive is somehow “guilty” for his own murder, and a police officer shooting an unarmed person multiple times who was surrendering to him are made “just” or “reasonable”.

Immoral and unjust acts are defended and rationalized by a learned behavior that sees all black people as dangerous and outside of the protections afforded to white Americans by the law.

In a morally just world, police cruelty would result in a decrease of support for, and faith in, the police by white folks. But, as it has done both historically and in the present, Whiteness perverts and warps White America’s ethical sensibilities and rationality.

The reality is a simple one: police brutality against black and brown Americans is the system working exactly as it was originally designed and intended.


joe manning said...

The authoritarian personality never admits a mistake, hence the supercilious victimology that NYPD is espousing. Ghetto youths are what Michelle Alexander calls the low hanging fruit that cops immediately go after. They make a big show of busting heads so as to convince the white public that they're serving and protecting, but actually their doing kabuki theater in order to distract public attention from institutional crime. The police department has a huge PR problem that gets worse with every public act of brutality.

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

The entire country has become more authoritarian since the 1990s. There was Nixon's "Law and Order" part of the Southern Strategy; the War on Drugs and the militarization of the police; then, the War on Terrorism with the further militarization of the police in terms of ideology (operators, forward bases) and equipment; the Supreme Court's decisions reducing the rights of the accused has encouraged malfeasance by the police--errors are no longer punished; and, one political party, the Republican, has become more authoritarian over time; the Christian Right, the foundation of the Republican Party, is an authoritarian religious movement; Fox News and the ubiquity of Christian television and radio broadcasting are authoritarian. One would expect, therefore, that the external forces operating on the police would make them more authoritarian and attract authoritarian personalities.

Buddy H said...

And lacking basic impulse and aggression control:

Members of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association nearly came to blows on Tuesday during a meeting of delegates in Queens. There was pushing, shoving and lots of screaming at Patrick Lynch, president of the 23,000-member union.

The in-house battle erupted over the issue of what patrol officers really need — an apology from Mayor de Blasio or better equipment and more officers to back them up on the streets.

“This is what my members want!” a cop yelled near the end of the raucous meeting. “They want more cars, better vests, more manpower!”

And then the cop — one of about 350 in attendance — took a verbal jab at Lynch, who has called on de Blasio to offer a mea culpa for his continued lack of support for police.

“They don’t want an apology,” he said.

“They asked Lynch directly: ‘What did you ask the mayor for?’ ” the source added. But Lynch provided no answers. The yelling and screaming lasted about 10 minutes before Lynch stormed out.

kokanee said...

I saw Selma today. It had white supremacist terrorism, confederate flags behind the desks, denying blacks the right to vote, police beating black protesters, black people killed with impunity, talk about authoritarianism and racism. Any of this sound familiar?

Austerity is an integral part of neoliberalism. Say company X (e.g. United Fruit) wants to do business in country Y (e.g. Guatemala). First it wants to deregulate everything like labor and environmental constraints to make more money. Next it needs to be able to bring money and goods in and out of the country with minimal taxation. In order to pay for the low taxation rates, government programs have to be scrapped and thus the austerity measures. Austerity measures then leads to authoritarianism. It's all about profit. I used to think the Ferengi characters from Star Trek were silly. Not any more...

Justin M. White said...

Don't forget to mention the largest terror double-threat in the US: SWAT teams with judicial coverage.

chauncey devega said...

What did you think of how Selma depicted Johnson? Funny thing, the Ferengi are much more honorable and principled than many humans--especially robber barron capitalists. The Ferengi rules of commerce would likely be an improvement over the immoral mess taught to MBA's and other business students today.

kokanee said...

Re: "What did you think of how Selma depicted Johnson?"

Johnson was a politician, nothing more. There is no Johnson without MLK pushing him. There is no Lincoln without Frederick Douglass pushing him.

Re: "The Ferengi rules of commerce would likely be an improvement over the
immoral mess taught to MBA's and other business students today."

LOL! Enjoy:

aprescoup said...

Hey, K,

OT, but...

Do you know how to download YouTube videos?

Char said...

Don't expect the media to engage in any critical analysis of the relationship between a meeting of police devolving into a physical altercation and their resolution of less aggressive situations through lethal force.

Buddy H said...

Amusing comment from Charles Pierce on what happened at the cops' meeting:

"I'd like to congratulate the NYPD for its restraint. Apparently, nobody at this gathering felt compelled to exercise his or her Second Amendment freedoms in settling the dispute. Things are looking up!"

SW said...

Don't forget about the obligatory coup that ousts democratically elected foreign leaders, in favor of client dictators that can be easily controlled. This is of course in reference to the ousting of Arbenz in 1954 who wanted to nationalize the millions of acres of Guatemalan soil that United Fruit had privatized.

Dan Kasteray said...

As a white man, I've had some ugly encounters with the police. But I can't even begin to imagine what would have happened to me if I was a man or woman of color or a gender queer person. It goes back to that old poem from ww2, first they came for the communists and I said nothing...

I think more white people need to be outraged at the actions of the police

kokanee said...

"Don't forget about the obligatory coup that ousts democratically elected foreign leaders..."

Absolutely! I have the bible on US interventions: Killing Hope by William Blum

Someone also gave me a copy of an article from Sun Magazine: Tricks of the Trade - Alfred McCoy on How the CIA Got Involved in Global Drug Trafficking from 2003. I'm going to scan it in and share it. It's unbelievable! Now it all makes sense.

kokanee said...

Selma gets snubbed from the Oscar nominations:
This year’s Academy Awards acting nominations – all 20 of them – went to white actors and actresses, making it the least diverse crop of Oscar nominees in 19 years,
reported The Atlantic’s David Sims. He, like many others, pointed to
the glaring absence of nominations for “Selma,” a biopic centered on
Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous march for civil rights. “We expect the
Academy Awards to ignore all kinds of great genre material,” he wrote.
“[T]he 2015 list feels all the more galling because David Oyelowo's
performance and Ava DuVernay's direction were not just extraordinarily
good, but also very Oscar-friendly.” —

Selma is a damn fine good movie with suburb performances. If you haven't seen it, Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. day...

Slavery is alive and well in...India...oh and and pretty much everywhere else too:
There Are More Slaves Today Than at Any Time in Human History

Especially for white folks (Take the test! Take the test!):
<a href=">

Yes, All White People Are Racists -- Now Let's Do Something About It</a>

kokanee said...

Here it is! Tricks of the Trade - Alfred McCoy on How the CIA Got Involved in Global Drug Trafficking by Derrick Jensen:

chauncey devega said...

We all need to be afraid...very afraid. The trick is too many of our white brothers and sisters are drunk and in bed with the idea that they too will one day be of the powerful when in fact they are the foot soldiers of power and utterly expendable.

How to wake them up?

chauncey devega said...

The comment section on the Alternet piece is a car wreck, one truly worth study.

kokanee said...

It is. It's a hard hit to take that we all have deep-seated implicit biases.

kokanee said...

From the movie Selma *again*, MLK explains that the poor whites are tricked into thinking that no matter how bad things get they will always be better (above in rank) than the negro. And that's the basis of the authoritarian mindset right there. It's not that poor conservatives see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, it's that they are not the lowest rung on the ladder.

I tried and failed to find the movie clip of that but I did find this quote from MLK:
If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the
world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings.
(Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike (Uh huh) resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; (Yes, sir) they segregated southern churches from Christianity (Yes, sir); they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; (Yes, sir) and they segregated the Negro from everything. (Yes, sir) That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty
where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood
where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality. (Yes, sir) —

David Oyelowo's Oscar worthy performances:

kokanee said...

P. S. It was shocking to see Johnson drop the n-bomb a couple of times in the movie. I think that was a fair portrayal of Johnson. Johnson's war on poverty along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 aren't indicative of any great moral servitude, just that he was a politician trying to appease the masses while still maintaining power for the ruling class. i.e. He was a politician.

Dan Kasteray said...

I was one of those people in love with the white power you describe. I woke up when I realized that bullies don't have friends and they can turn on you at any time. Each person needs to wake up in their own way but blogs like this are a great way to start waking up

SW said...

Awesome quote. His words move me every time.

SW said...

I've read all of Caro's books to date on Johnson. If you haven't I highly, highly recommend them. Caro is one of the most talented writers I've ever read.

While Johnson was indeed a master politician, I believe he did have compassion for black and brown people. While the Voting Rights Acts that he led the passage of as Senate Majority Leader were acts of amazing political will, I do believe his actions were influenced by his youth, as a poor kid growing up in the Texas Hill Country, as well as his time studying in Southwest State Teachers College where he had very intimate interactions teaching poor Mexican American kids.

I'm not saying he was perfect, absolutely far from it, nor am I saying he didn't hold racist beliefs, but I do think he was more than just an absolute master politician.

kokanee said...

Haven't read any of Caro's books. I'll put it on my list - thanks. All I know about Johnson is that he had an ability to get down and dirty and get the job done like no other.

Re: "but I do believe his actions were influenced by more than just politics."

I believe you. The movie Selma only portraits Johnson as a politician and I've developed a certain distrust of all politicians.

This brings up something that's been on my mind lately: Can you be a racist but still be a good person?