The thing is, the United States of America is a young country. One that has grown and prospered in such an explosive and exponential fashion that it has even shaped much of world culture. We are like adolescents, having changed so much, change has become second nature to us. And yet, perhaps because of a prevailing reverence for the perspective of youth, the status quo feels as if it has always been.
How in the world did people live without indoor plumbing, electricity, telephones, automobiles, air travel, television, traffic signals, movies, computers and the Internet? How? Did people really do that? You're kidding!? (Even I phrase the question as such, when in fact, people do live without these things. Many, many people in this world live without these things.)
Change in older societies feels as if it came at a slower pace. There seems to have been time to appreciate the process of change, to reflect and from that vantage point, to hunger for an envisioned future and to strive toward it. The opposite approach surrounds us now. We react. Some like to say that we are proactive, but proactivity requires reflection and long-term planning. Neither of these two behaviors is particularly popular in American society today.
In America today, we feel that our current societal structures are what have always been. Always a bank, a gas station, and a liquor store on every corner. Always chain grocery stores. Always fast food. Always a bipartisan political system, always impotent and corrupt unions, always the rule of money over all other considerations. And, always local police departments.
The Western genre on the big screen and The Andy Griffin Show and The Rifleman on the small screen are examples of a mythology that has taken hold in the American psyche. Law enforcers are quick on the draw and powerful fighters. Thank you, John Wayne. Law enforcers are insightful members of the community who help to nurture the young, and guide the misguided; be they indigent or abusers of wives, or alcohol. Thank you, Andy Griffin. It is these two postures, in their mythological iterations that we think of when we see the oft-used expression on the sides of police cars, "to protect and serve."
As a young child on the Southside of Chicago at a time when children actually were told to "go outside and play," I was taught that the police were there if I needed help. Lessons that held true by the examples of experience: telling a policeman that I was lost, resulted in his taking me home (not to a police station); or, the time that I lost my bus fare and the policeman took me to the bus and asked the driver to let me ride anyway. With the advent of my teen years, the lessons were modified with the caveat, "If the police ever stop you, you tell them to take you to jail and call your mother." Again, examples of experience supported the lesson: coming from a neighborhood party once in violation of the public curfew (Chicago once had a curfew for unescorted, underage children), when the policemen ordered me to get in the police car and then offered me a choice of going to jail or going to an implied party with them, I said simply, "Take me to jail and call my mother." Their reply: "Get out!" To this day I wonder about that encounter. It taught me to be wary of the police. And this was decades before the police came to routinely harass teenagers. Decades before young, unarmed lives seeped onto the sidewalk from police bullets.
To be clear, I think that teenagers need supervision, and for some that supervision will only come from the police. But, there is a huge difference between guiding and oppressing. The police are charged with discerning the difference between the cockiness of youth and the intent to commit a crime. It's a hell of a job.
We expect law enforcement to protect us from the worse instincts of the worst of the society. They experience behaviors that we desensitize ourselves against on reality TV. Only, they could easily be maimed or lose their lives instead of watching the credits roll. Yet, we are surprised when public policies encourage police officers to become indistinguishable from criminals.
The heroes of the mythological American West, shot first and asked questions later. Those infested with the “master” ethos by American slavery policies celebrated the ability to subjugate, dehumanize and kill any one who was different from themselves, but especially African-Americans. Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of "law and order,” a natural progression from these earlier attitudes — not an evolution, just more of the same in modern guise. Regardless of attempts at political correctness through sensitivity training and programs for police liaisons in schools, give the cop on the street military weapons and you awaken their collective subconscious of power and authority through force and the threat of violence.
Local police departments no more need military arms and equipment than citizens need automatic weapons with massive ammunition clips. Given such weapons, they will be used. Ask the people of Philadelphia, Massachusetts who, on May 13, 1985, were witness to a police bombing of a residential row house owned and occupied by MOVE. MOVE was a group of separatists, indistinguishable from contemporary militia groups except that they were urban and they were African-American. Eleven people lost their lives and 60+ homes, a full city block, were destroyed by the resulting fire. Would these losses have occurred if the order had not been given to “let the fire burn,” rather than control and extinguish it?
Would any of it have occurred if police had not had the ability to bomb their own community and, thus enabling the callous detachment necessary to war, let people, including 5 children, die amidst the destruction?
The police are not at war with their communities. But, for those of limited means and for people of color, it is very difficult to trust this fact.
We are in the midst of another transition in American society. It is one of those changes that effects all areas of life. It is one that demands vigilance on the part of American citizens, and it demands intelligent and active response. If that response is to be within the bounds of American democracy, we will need to end the militarization of American police departments.
One question keeps haunting me: Why did this trend ever begin in the first place? Whatever happened to the National Guard? Shouldn’t excess military arms and equipment have gone to states’ National Guard units? And then, there is the question of how we are managing to have such surplus in the first place!? Perhaps in order to gain insight an examination of the munitions industry is required. Stay tuned.