Update: if this is “too long; didn’t read”, then just skip to the bottom and sign those two petitions. There is literally no good reason not to.
Oh boy. Settle in, ’cause this is gonna be a long one.
I’m assuming y’all know the background to this: after an unarmed black teenager was shot to death by a police officer in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protestors took to the streets. The police force responded with riot gear, dogs, tanks, tear-gas, rubber-bullets and general belligerent jackassery (to put it politely). If you’d like to learn more, I would recommend checking out #Ferguson on twitter. There’s also a pretty thorough and up-to-date account here (though it may take a while to load. Like I said, thorough). I would avoid major news networks, for reasons you’ll soon understand if you don’t already. And, as always, it’s generally not a good idea to get all your news from any one source anyway.
Truth, Lies, and Narrative
The complicated nature of our society is scary. One of the many comfort blankets we have to deal with this is narrative. We like our stories. By and large, the narratives we consume tend towards the straightforward. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. All tied up in a bow. When it comes to fiction, this is fine. It’s harmless. Problem is, we take this approach with the rest of our world, too. And that’s where it gets troublesome.
Putting aside the already unsettling facts of bias and ratings and advertising: news shows have a runtime, they have formats. Newspapers have column inches and constraints. Reality has to get squeezed down and processed into something digestible. You’re never gonna see/read a report which ends with “Man, who knows? I certainly don’t”. All this is to say: the mainstream media (ugh, sorry about using that phrase, but it’s accurate) is going to be selling you the following narrative this week, before it just, kinda, disappears off the radar:
Ferguson. Rioters and/or protestors were treated with aggression by a militarized police force. Captain Ronald Johnson, a knight in shining armour, steps in and saves the day with common sense and compassion. The people of Ferguson are made whole again. The credits roll. The curtains close. The lights come up. Fin.
Victory for the people, right? Not really, no. No doubt, this is the simplest story to tell, but I don’t find there to be a whole lot of satisfaction in fixing something which shouldn’t have broken in the first place. I mean, let’s say I go to your place of work and punch you in the junk, unprovoked. Your co-worker then throws me out of the building. Victory for you, yeah? No. Hard to find satisfaction in that with outrage coursing through your veins.
We Almost Didn’t Know
Now, I try my best to avoid hyperbole and sweeping statements, but this next bit is super-important: the only reason the police stopped acting like bullying thugs was because they were caught doing so. The way things were going, the police escalated and antagonized at almost every possible opportunity. They tried as hard as they could to keep reporters out, and to censor the reporters who were there. They even pulled the ole’ “it’s illegal to film a police officer” shtick (fun fact: totes legal in a public place, look it up!). There was effectively, a media blackout. Who knows what further atrocities might have been committed if word hadn’t gotten out, if the police had been in sole control of the narrative.
Curiously, as this happened, “top stories” and “most recent” stories on Facebook showed nothing about Ferguson at all. Apparently, none of the ~300 people on my Facebook were talking about it, despite my twitter feed (~60 people) being 99% #Ferguson. Whether that’s a strange-quirk of Facebook’s news filtering algorithm or deliberate censorship, who knows. It’s beside the point. The important thing is that there was enough of a presence on twitter that the news got out and the police were under scrutiny. Take a moment to think about this. An almost entirely effective media blackout was achieved by just shutting down the surrounding airspace and waving some badges around. (Oh! And arresting and detaining two reporters without charge or any evidence of having detained them. Bonus fun fact: they were detained because they were leaving a McDonalds too slowly. I’m lovin’ it. Oh! Also also: police deliberately aimed teargas at reporters and then took down the reporters’ lights and aimed the camera at the ground when they backed away from the tear-gas).
Anyway, if it weren’t for twitter, it’s entirely likely that we’d eventually hear reports that a couple of “violent rioters” had been shot and killed while “attacking” police, and that, let’s say, three dozen people had sustained injuries while “resisting arrest”. You know, the kind of mealy-mouthed bullshit we should never have become complacent about in the first place. Just another sad, bullshit story perpetuating the image of out-of-control scary black people who just always seem to love “rioting” and causing “civil unrest”. You can’t help but wonder how much shit government organizations got away with pre-internet, can you?
“Us” Versus “Them”
Aaaaanyhoo, as if all this wasn’t bad enough, it’s worth admitting something about the police: while I have no doubt that policing attracts certain gun-toting-cowboy personality types whose dicks get hard at the thought of authority, and a great many people who are pretty openly racist, we all know that’s a very small fraction of police. I’m sure 90-something percent of police officers joined because they wanted to uphold the law, to protect and serve, that they genuinely have universal ideals that they believe in. I honestly believe that. But that makes it scarier though, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just say “cops hate black people” and be done with it? But that crass generalization is not too different from the systematic racism we oppose. Truth is, you give people uniforms and an identity bigger than themselves, and even the most well-meaning person can get caught up in that machine.
You ever hear about the Stanford prison experiment? Researchers arbitrarily divided test subjects into guards, and prisoners, and placed them in a mocked-up prison setting. After 6 days, the experiment had to be abandoned because things, to put it mildly, had gotten out of hand. The experiment had intended to show how social background lead to behavioural choices, but accidentally showed that an arbitrary hierarchy of authority was all it took for people to take on the roles of abusers/abusees. Look it up. While you’re at it, check out the Milgram experiment. Anyway, putting it simply:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. ~ John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton
A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. ~ Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black
It’s not just that though. There’s so much stupidity generated by an “us vs. them” attitude. The events of this week can run the gamut from “rioters vs. police” to “protesters vs. pigs”. It’s bullshit. And it’s avoidable. Dan Harmon once said:
There are two kinds of people in this world. There are the people that will have you think that there are two kinds of people in this world, and there are the ‘good’ people. There is no good, there is no evil, there is just a war going on between the people that want you to think there’s a war going on and the people that know there doesn’t have to be one.
In Ferguson, police didn’t know how to handle protestors, and almost every police action served the purpose of attempting to perpetuate the image of rioters vs. peacekeepers. They did this by getting rid of reporters and hiding behind masks, behind dogs, behind tanks. Behind authority. It’s pretty damn transparent that they hoped things would escalate so that they’d have an excuse to resort to violence and wrap things up with a simple story (protestors got violent, police respond in kind, end of story, go back to sleep, America). Either that, or they genuinely thought that adopting an aggressive threatening stance and pointing guns at unarmed protestors would be a great way to bring a protest to a satisfactory conclusion for both sides. I know institutions behave with collective stupidity, but none are that stupid. No. They hid behind their authority. Why? Because it’s easy, because it’s the status quo, because they’re not used to any other kinds of solution, and because it’s always been a strategy that benefits the police. Pretty similar to the idea of the banality of evil.
Not so much evil, just stupid and lazy.
Accountability. When you think about that, it’s easy to understand why police hiding behind their authority, and abusing that authority, makes people angry and resentful. It explains why some people find it so easy to call them “pigs”. A lack of accountability perpetuates the image of police as a single body, or a hivemind that protects its constituent parts at all costs. How can any person respect a police force that is not held up to the same standards as its citizens? How the hell can a person feel safe or reassured that there’s a fair and level playing field? When a citizen has an interaction with a police officer, the default position is that the police officer is in the right. There’s a code-of-honour. Cops will always protect other cops. If it’s your word against theirs, they win every time. I’m willing to bet that over 99% of the news stories you’ve seen/read which declare that a suspect “became aggressive” or “resisted arrest” or some other vague-terminology, back-peddling, Orwellian-Newspeak BULLSHIT, had no evidence for that except the words of police officers.
And here, 1500 words later, we finally arrive at a tiny sliver of shining hope:
There is a solution to this. There is a way to stop this happening. Not only that, but I think it will also provide a partial solution to a great many other race-related issues. (Note: I am well aware that racism is not this easy to solve, and that it’s complicated and all solutions are partial.)
Have police that wear forward-facing, body-mounted cameras. With audio.
If a citizen has an encounter with a police officer, we will be able to see what the citizen sees. It shouldn’t be a live-feed, but it should be saved and documented. If ever there is a “my word against your word” thing, that video can be consulted. Objective and accountable. It’s amazing we haven’t demanded it before. And there’s no reason not to. After all, someone who insists that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about” should be willing to put their money where their mouth is, right?
I also made the bold claim that it would go some way towards solving other issues, not just “who do we believe about this encounter?”. Here’s cause and effect:
More police accountability means less police brutality. It means less profiling. That leads to a less disproportionate number of black people being brought before a court. It means less black people in prison. It means statistics about prison populations are less biased. Public perception changes.
Less police misconduct means less protests that are antagonized into violence. It means better public relations between citizens and police. It means a healthier perception and trust of police, and it means a healthier perception, and less fear, of black people. It probably means more, in intersecting chains of cause and effect I haven’t even considered. But it definitely means a lot less institutionalized and systemic racism in law enforcement.
Third Act Problems
There’s a saying when people are writing, that equally applies to society’s narrative:
If there’s a problem with your third act, then the problem is with your first two acts.
We are seeing that happening right now. After almost a week no doubt spent getting their stories straight, and working out how to spin it in their favour, and working out some damage control, Ferguson police have just released the name of the police officer who murdered Michael Brown. They’ve also released their side of the story. I’m not gonna go into too much detail because I don’t know what details to believe, and I don’t want this to sound all “wake up sheeple, conspiracies etc” but there’s a lot of details that don’t line up. Namely, they’re now telling us that he was responsible for an unarmed robbery of a convenience store (surveillance footage shows a man who appears to be Michael Brown leaving without paying, and pushing a clerk out of his way. Or, as the fucknuggets at Fox are calling it, “strong-arming”, hooray for bullshit Newspeak). But the officer who shot him apparently didn’t know this at the time. There’s also weird conflicting reports from the police about the timeline of the event.
The details are beside the point (well, they’re obviously not, but I mean, from the perspective of this particular paragraph). The point is that this shit is confusing and we don’t know who to believe, and even the authorities in charge can’t get their story straight. Resolution looks unlikely, and what will likely happen, as so often does, is the police officer who murdered him will be suspended with pay for awhile, or maybe transferred to a different law enforcement job. What I’m sure of is that he will face no criminal charges. It’s the police’s word against the word of witnesses. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a third-act problem.
In this particular case, it’s a lost cause. We can’t fix the third act here. Come on, we’ve seen it a thousand times before. Stop me when this sounds familiar: “we deeply regret”, “unfortunate mistake”, “we will be reviewing measures”, “public opinion is important to us”, blah blah blah, vague neutral-language bullshit which time and time again has changed nothing. This story is fucked, sorry.
But there are other stories which have yet to happen. Their third act can still be saved. Have the police wear cameras. Simple. That’s it. It won’t solve everything, of course it won’t, but holy shit will it make a difference. Check out the effects that body-worn cameras had in a study in Rialto, California. Yowza. We shoulda done this years ago. Especially considering that our phone calls and internet usage are easily monitored. That there are surveillance cameras almost everywhere you look. A level playing-field is really not too much to ask for.
A Simple Request
So. There are two petitions that I know of that are advocating this:
First one only needs 50,000 more signatures, and is registered on the official White House petition site.
This second one is looking for 800,000 more signatures, but is more thorough, laying out 5 sensible, reasonable policy changes (including forward-facing body-mounted cameras) that would make a huge difference.
I am sure that there are more petitions in existence. If you see one, sign it and share it. You have nothing to lose by doing so, and if they actually enact this, then people stand to regain civil liberties and civil rights that are being repeatedly denied.
Oh, one last thing. I know it’s just a petition. I have a feeling that if/when these petitions get enough signatures, the initial response will be mealy-mouthed bullshit, or a flaccid compromise. If that happens, start another petition. Organize peaceful protests. Do whatever you can to spread the word and make people aware of this. To make this change happen. Because what happened in Ferguson should never happen again. Do not take no for an answer. Accountability and respect go hand-in-hand, and we need both.
Peace (with any luck) out.