Thursday, August 14, 2014

Two Comments on Last Night In Ferguson, Missouri

Last night my wife's Twitter feed went nuts, and we ended up--like thousands of other Americans, I'm sure--opening up the laptop and watching, stunned, the images of violence coming out of Ferguson, MO. Tear gas and rubber bullets tearing into protesters, journalists arrested, vicious words. Scary, scary stuff.

So this morning I've been reading the news--about the death at the hands of police of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen-ager, about the stunning overflow of intimidating force shown by the local police department, about the thinking of the protesters and where this all might be leading. I'm no expert on any of these matters, and I'm certainly without any local knowledge--but it doesn't seem hard to me to put two and two together. Or more specifically, to put together 1) the heavy-duty military equipment readily available to local police departments, thanks to federal government give-aways (better to cheaply off-load army surplus to those involved in law enforcement than destroy it or sell it on the international market, right?), and 2) the genuine paranoia that predominantly African-American populations and communities feel when confronted with yet another ambiguous incident which ends with the police closing ranks, the law privileging the shooter, and an unarmed teen-ager dead. The result is a script which almost writes itself, isn't it? Still, my main reaction is simply, again, feeling stunned.

But there are people putting together thoughtful observations nonetheless, trying to tease out how fear, the militarization of the police, racial division, a culture of violence and distrust, and the electronic enablers of all of the above, come together. So as I did over two years ago, when Trayvon Martin was killed, here are two thoughts, from a couple of smart people. First, Alan Jacobs, focusing on how there is a frighteningly easy unreality to what many police officers apparently think is obvious when faced with civil unrest:

Because [first-shooter] computer games are so popular and are so utterly central to the experience of above all males under forty, we should probably spend more time than we do thinking about how immersion in those visual worlds shapes people’s everyday phenomenology. We do talk about this, but in limited ways, primarily in order to ask whether playing violent games makes people more violent. That’s a key question, but it needs to be broadened. Ian Bogost wants us to ask what it’s like to be a thing, but maybe we need also to ask: What is it like to be a shooter? What is it like to have your spatial, visual orientation to the world shaped by thousands of hours in shooter mode?
I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces--the "warrior cops” that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about. Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances--but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games. Consider all the forest-colored camouflage, for instance....It’s a color scheme that is completely useless on city streets--and indeed in any other environment in which any of these cops will ever work. This isn’t self-protection; it’s cosplay. It’s as close as they can come to Modern Warfare 3.

The whole display would be ludicrous--boys with toys--except the ammunition is real. The guns are loaded, even if some of them have only rubber bullets, and the tear gas truly burns. And so play-acted immersion in a dystopian future gradually yields a dystopian present. 

What is is like to be a first-person shooter? It’s awesome, dude. 

I will add at this point that a friend of mine, who works for the Navy, relates this anecdote: "The military recently had a scandal where each of the services was paying independently for research into camouflage patterns. Even the Navy got into the act; we developed a blue camouflage pattern, which is not only completely pointless but actually counterproductive, because the very last thing a sailor who has fallen into the water wants to be is invisible. The reason for all of this was termed the 'CDI factor': Chicks Dig It."

Second, Timothy Burke, who actually strongly disagrees with the way Alan chooses to focus on computer games and our violent social imaginary in contrast to the whole tangled web of feedback loops (most of which ultimately revolve around race) which have brought up to our present moment. Picking up on a recent incident where a mall cop, responding to a disturbance involving a shirtless, raving white man, targeted and maced a by-standing and entirely innocent black man who was standing nearby, he writes:

So this is just pepper spray in the face compared to being shot dead and left to lie in the street. But if we're going to get anywhere as a society with this, we have to see that the same infrastructure of violence, injustice and inequality is in play in both cases and many more. It's a mistake to focus on the individuals who shot or sprayed, to make them out to be unusual, "bad apples". Or to say, "Oh, that's inadequate training", to turn to a technocratic solution: oh, just change the training methods! This is something deeper, harder, worse.

The mall cop was facing a tense, tricky situation, but he had people all around him guiding him, telling him where the problem was coming from, telling him what peace he'd been summoned to keep. He got a call that told him what the problem was. But he couldn't--not wouldn't, really couldn't--see it. Because the problem was a shirtless white guy who'd been causing trouble for a while, and there he was next to an African-American man. So he saw what he is predetermined to see: a black threat.

We've militarized police (private and public), we've protected them from oversight, and we've built a society that for thirty years has been fed on ever-escalating fear: fear of crime (even as it drops precipitously), fear of difference (even as we become more richly diverse in our real sociologies), fear of a world that we can't control. FDR was right, but we lost that fight: fear itself is our national anthem now. So what happens when you create an army that is both fed by and shielded by fear and tell them they can do as they will, so long as they do it just to people whom history has named as scapegoats and victims, so long as they are guided by a racial unconscious?

Americans--white Americans in particular--shouldn't have to be brought so unwillingly to the understanding of what's happening now. The country's deep political DNA is fundamentally suspicious of unaccountable power, power that doesn't answer to the same law that the people have to answer to, power over citizens rather than power from citizens. But down there in the depths is another principle: that race, and blackness most of all, is the exception. Nothing of anything in all of those principles means a damn thing until that stops, until it's liberty and justice for all.

Well said, indeed.

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