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The Armed Bureaucracy

“Sooner or later they end up in a cage, where (they) belong.”

This is hardly a surprise: A recent study by the Missouri attorney general’s office shows that black drivers are at least twice as likely — in some towns, much more than that — to be stopped by police as white drivers.

And a few days before the study came out, something called the Plain View Project hit the news. The project, an exhaustive, two-year analysis of social media posts by some 2,800 police officers and 700 former officers, from police departments across the country, revealed another non-surprise: a racist subculture permeates American police forces.

The researchers “found officers bashing immigrants and Muslims, promoting racist stereotypes, identifying with right-wing militia groups and, especially, glorifying police brutality,” according to the Associated Press.

Thousands of such posts — from officers’ personal Facebook pages (and thus public) — can be seen at the Plain View website. The comments, such as the one at the top of this column, are raw and unconstrained by political correctness. Other examples:

“It’s a good day for a choke hold.”

“Death to Islam.”

“If the Confederate flag is racist, then so is Black History Month.”

The implications of all this won’t go away by simply implementing stricter PC in the ranks — “Officers, you must hide your prejudices!” — but rather, they cut to the core of how we maintain and, indeed, how we define, social order. We define it militarily, which means, ipso facto, we require an enemy who has to be repressed so that “we” can feel safe.

Thus a story like this, reported by ABC News, is typical, not unusual:

“A Chicago mother is accusing Chicago police of using excessive force on her family, including her 8-year-old son, who officers allegedly handcuffed and left in the freezing rain for 40 minutes, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the Chicago Police Department.”

In March, on a day when it was 32 degrees and raining, the police awakened the family via bullhorn at 6 a.m. in order to execute a search warrant, which alleged that one of the boys living in the house was in possession of an assault rifle. The officers, wielding assault rifles themselves, marched the family, including a number of children, out of the house, where the adults and the 8-year-old boy were handcuffed and forced to stand in the rain while the police searched the house. No assault rifle was found and no one was arrested. However:

“Officers also allegedly damaged or destroyed personal property and ‘shouted profanity and insults at the family’. . . according to the lawsuit.”

And, oh yeah: the family was African-American.

The plaintiff’s attorney, summing up the military mindset driving the incident, said at a news conference: “Chicago Police officers behave as if our children of color and their trauma is collateral damage.”

The raid, in short, took place in a warzone. It was the South Side of Chicago, but it could have been Iraq.

Feel safer?

All of this adds up to a serious national need to rethink how we protect ourselves and establish social order. Right now we’re doing so with an occupying army, a product of the white man’s history of colonialism, slavery and conquest. The occupying army serves the rich and well-off — and it does so, when necessary, behind the barrel of a gun, which is the country’s ultimate symbol of authority. When the gun is out, this authority supersedes any other civil right, like freedom of speech.

And then you need to add into the mix the fact that power corrupts. Remember Ferguson, Mo., where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014 because he wasn’t walking on the sidewalk? When the U.S. Department of Justice dug more deeply into the matter, it found that “the department was targeting black residents and treating them as revenue streams for the city by striving to continually increase the money brought in through fees and fines,” according to Vanity Fair.

“‘Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority,’ the report’s authors wrote. ‘They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence.’”

Fascinatingly, a different vision of social order emerged during the protests that followed Michael Brown’s shooting. Ron Johnson, a captain in the Missouri Highway Patrol, was appointed commander of operations shortly after the Ferguson protests began and, rather than playing the usual game of militarized intimidation, reached out to the grieving and outraged community and actually marched with the protesters.

A different sort of future momentarily opened: one with a unity of understanding. The police got it; they saw the need for change, for sanity, for justice. They weren’t, my god, afraid of the protesters, freaked out by the welling crowds of people demanding change. This lasted all of two days, when the governor relieved Johnson of command.

Later, a DoJ report shredded Johnson because of his “extensive community engagement efforts. . . . As a result, he was less engaged in day-to-day, hour to-hour incident command responsibilities and instead became the public face for the police response. As a result, the full responsibilities of incident command were often not executed. This resulted in a diminished ability to spend time monitoring the changes in staffing needs, to provide direction for command, and to engage in effective communications with commanders and deployed personnel.”

Notice the military-speak! Lots of Johnson’s fellow officers were outraged and deeply critical of him. He didn’t act like the commander of an armed bureaucracy. He marched with the enemy.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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