FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On The Worship of Authority

by KEVIN CARSON

On Monday, January 13, two Fullerton, California police officers charged with the beating death of Kelly Thomas were acquitted, and the prosecutor announced his decision not to press charges against a third officer involved. Millions who had been following the story met the verdict with incredulity: How could anyone who watched that horrific video of Thomas pinned down and brutally beaten with fists and batons, begging for his life and calling out for his father, have possibly returned any verdict but guilty?

The answer lies in a famous psychological experiment — the Milgram Experiment — conducted in 1961. This experiment, conducted when the Nuremberg trials were still a recent memory, led subjects to believe they were torturing a fellow subject in the next room (who in fact was a confederate pretending to be a volunteer, and suffered no actual pain) with increasingly powerful electric shocks. Reassured by scientists in white coats that they would assume all responsibility, and urged to continue, subjects continued to (so far as they knew) inflict more and more painful shocks on their fellow subjects, even as the screams became louder and then went silent. In short, these people were willing to inflict pain on strangers who were begging for mercy, to the point of unconsciousness and possible death, based on the assurances of “responsible authority figures,” so long as the victim was framed as an outsider.

Developmental psychologists tell us that children are initially socialized to view political authority as an extension of their parents’ authority. The president is first viewed as a sort of Mommy or Daddy, with all Americans as the family. Gradually actors like Congress, the courts, and so forth enter the picture — at first understood as simply “helpers” to the President, and only later as constitutional checks to presidential authority. But the aura of parental authority persists, on a subliminal level, even then.

This continuing aura of authority stimulates a tendency to give political leaders the benefit of the doubt when they start wars (“they must be privy to information that we’re not”) and to view formal systems of authority as things that exist by popular consent in order to address common problems (“the government is just all of us”). Nowhere is this ingrained tendency more evident than in the view of police officers inculcated in small children. “The policeman is your friend.” “If you’re ever in trouble or need help, call a policeman.” “They must have been doing something wrong, or they wouldn’t have been arrested.”

But this is simply untrue. Perhaps in years past, police were mostly benign presences in neighborhoods or small towns where local residents had long known both each other and the officer on the beat (although even here things might not seem so benign to vagrants or members of racial minorities). But today a major portion of officers on metropolitan police forces of any size are people who self-selected police work based on authoritarian personalities and a desire to brutalize others; another portion are encultured into brutality after they join the force, and most of those who don’t fall into either of the first two categories learn to honor the blue code of silence when they witness brutality by others in their “band of brothers.”

What happened to Thomas is standard police operating procedure in most jurisdictions: Continue to brutalize someone who’s been rendered physically incapable of resistance — other than involuntary spasms from unbearable agony — while continuing to yell “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” Local police forces are sordid empires of criminality based on planted evidence, entrapment, coerced testimony, “civil forfeiture” racketeering with stolen property and dogs trained to falsely alert on command. Thanks to the gravy train of federal military surplus hardware and military cross-training, police forces are militarized to the point that SWAT teams are used to serve routine search or arrest warrants — battering down doors, shooting pets, ransacking houses and terror families in the dead of night just like Soviet or Nazi-era secret police. Police forces increasingly view civilians as an occupied enemy population to be awed with random shows of force.

Until most people abandon their state-inculcated respect for uniformed authority, and their willingness to treat officially defined outsiders as the “other,” the Rodney King and Kelly Thomas verdicts — and uncounted such verdicts yet unnamed — will continue.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

More articles by:
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
Stephanie Van Hook
The Time for Silence is Over
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto’s Bathhouse Raids: Racialized, Queer Solidarity and Police Violence
June 27, 2016
Robin Hahnel
Brexit: Establishment Freak Out
James Bradley
Omar’s Motive
Gregory Wilpert – Michael Hudson
How Western Military Interventions Shaped the Brexit Vote
Leonard Peltier
41 Years Since Jumping Bull (But 500 Years of Trauma)
Rev. William Alberts
Orlando: the Latest Victim of Radicalizing American Imperialism
Patrick Cockburn
Brexiteers Have Much in Common With Arab Spring Protesters
Franklin Lamb
How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra
John Grant
Omar Mateen: The Answers are All Around Us
Dean Baker
In the Wake of Brexit Will the EU Finally Turn Away From Austerity?
Ralph Nader
The IRS and the Self-Minimization of Congressman Jason Chaffetz
Johan Galtung
Goodbye UK, Goodbye Great Britain: What Next?
Martha Pskowski
Detained in Dilley: Deportation and Asylum in Texas
Binoy Kampmark
Headaches of Empire: Brexit’s Effect on the United States
Dave Lindorff
Honest Election System Needed to Defeat Ruling Elite
Louisa Willcox
Delisting Grizzly Bears to Save the Endangered Species Act?
Jason Holland
The Tragedy of Nothing
Jeffrey St. Clair
Revolution Reconsidered: a Fragment (Guest Starring Bernard Sanders in the Role of Robespierre)
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Jeffrey St. Clair
Lines Written on the Occasion of Bernie Sanders’ Announcement of His Intention to Vote for Hillary Clinton
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail