My guest today is author and award-winning journalist, Steven Rosenfeld. He covers national political issues for AlterNet. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Steven!
JB: Your recent piece is 8 Horrible Truths About Police Brutality and Racism in America Laid Bare by Ferguson. The grand jury hearing is over. They refused to indict Darren Wilson. Isn't it time to move on? If not, why not?
SR: Well, it's not time to move on if you care about the deep connection between institutional racism and abusive policing in America, and that really is just the tip of the iceberg of issues that are raised by the explosion in Ferguson. The big question, of course, is what can be done to remake this matrix of oppressive values and practices from the inside out. That is what is sorely lacking in the response by political leadership that have the power to start that process. I am sure that many people in Ferguson and the St. Louis region would like everything to just settle down, get back to humdrum life, and close this chapter. But these issues are bigger than that. Ferguson is a microcosm of too many wider trends across America. The civil rights community knows the stakes, knows the remedies, and knows that real solutions have not been forthcoming--starting with the review of the policing practices that are unnecessarily aggressive, confrontational, based on profiling, etc., and lack community-based oversight: i.e., democratic-based checks and balances.
JB: There's lots to discuss. Where to begin? President Obama just came out with some directives on the subject. What did he say and is it allsimply window dressing?
SR: Well, it would be nice to have some confidence that what Obama is trying to do would be more than superficial--window dressing, as you say--but I'm not very confident. The problem is not just cops dressing like they're in Afghanistan when they are breaking up a protest at a suburban mall or city hall. Obama is looking at the pipeline that funnels used military gear to local police. Maybe he'll shut that down, and that's a start, because it means cops will have to use less aggressive tactics in all but the most extreme settings. But the deeper problem is the police have been trained to treat the American public as the enemy. That includes all the racial profiling, the use of SWAT teams for drug raids, the tear-gassing, bludgeoning and barricading of protesters (and bystanders), and then mass arrests.
After the August protests broke out in Ferguson, the nation's leading African-American civil rights groups issued a joint statement (I wrote about it recently) saying what could be done to fix the culture of abusive policing. It's not just getting rid of military surplus weapons. It's taking a look at training, police procedures, operations, the record of when and where deadly force is used--and evaluating what could be done differently, and changing their rules of engagement. Part of it is creating that public record, which lots of departments don't want to do. Part of it is discussing that record in open forums where elected political leaders set the policy, which lots of departments don't want to do. Part of it is creating local police commissions filled with local citizens with real oversight powers, which lots of departments don't want to do.
So, there's the excessive weaponry and the abusive culture. Obama might just reel in some of the weaponry. On the culture piece, I'm really skeptical. Just this morning I did a piece where Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund explained how one of the co-chairs of Obama's police reform commission literally has the blood of scores of protesters on his hands. Why? He was Washington's police chief and brutally cracked down on protesters at two major World Bank/IMF demonstrations, in 2000 and 2002, and at a later Iraq War demonstration. The IMF protests led to the city paying $22 million in settlements. Then this guy, Charles Ramsey, leaves DC to become the top cop in Philly. And now he's going to be the leader in demilitarizing America's police departments. There's a basis to be skeptical.
JB: Based on what you just said, the police don't seem very eager to embrace the older, less adversarial ways. Or the suggestions made by civil rights groups. And Ramsey, with his bloody past, certainly isn't going to inspire people of color and other concerned citizens. The opposite, in fact. He's proof of same old, same old. So, where does that leave us?
SR: Where it leaves us is the protests over these systemic abuses must continue. And that's risky business, because very little will change without a court order or legislation that cannot be stopped. Now, maybe Obama picked Ramsey because you need a tough guy to tell the other cops to put down their excessive weapons. But that seems like a risky strategy to me--even if it's even has elements of political pragmatism to it.
Where does it leave us? I don't know. I was speaking to a distant relative over Thanksgiving who said he knew the St. Louis prosecutor very well. He said no jury in St. Louis was ever going to convict a cop who claimed to shoot in self-defense. He went further and said that it would have been unethical for the St. Louis prosecutor to indict anyone if he knew that he couldn't get a conviction. He said the police are trained to shoot to stop threats, not wound people they are threatened by. All of those assertions are very disturbing if you think about them. But together they do reveal the mindset of the police and system--and show what's standing in the way of all the seemingly reasonable solutions so many people hope for.
JB: It used to be that a middle-class, suburban non-minority person could comfort him/herself with the idea that this mayhem was all happening far away and that there must be a lot more to it, that poor communities are somehow bringing this upon themselves. But, after watching the police in various cities - think Occupy - respond to peaceful citizens with unnecessary force and even brutality, I wonder. Is anyone really safe from this condition and frame of mind? Poor blacks have become the canaries in the mineshaft. I fondly remember the NYPD during 9/11 and looking at subsequent behavior, I think to myself, can they possibly be the same guys? It feels like a lifetime ago. The boundaries came tumbling down along with the twin towers. Police, firefighters, locals and people who responded in the aftermath: New York City was united, stricken but sharing the pain. Now, communities are increasingly divided, two separate and very distinct camps with less and less in common. And one of them is heavily armed and not shy about using their firepower. Can this metamorphosis have taken less than 15 years? It's shocking. And scary. What happened?
SR: I think those of us -- who are of a certain age -- can honestly say that we saw all this unfold before our very eyes. Of course, the spark was the 9/11/2001 attacks. It unleashed a cultural tidal wave of war fever in military circles, never-ending threats recited on network TV, and other militarized responses that swamped the culture, erased any concept of a 'peace dividend' and the like. And we're still living with those reverberations today. We saw how the military-industrial complex re-invented itself, found renewed purpose, siphoned billions and billions for new arms, and part of that has been the growth of the new data-centric national security state, exposed by whistleblowers like Snowden.
The problem with the cops is that too many of them behave like domestic policing is a subset of the war on terrorism. Now I don't know how many Iraq-Afghanistan vets get jobs on local police forces, but I do know that many companies that were military contractors in the war theatre were also hired by local police departments here, acquired free or cheap military surplus gear, and trained to be suspicious of citizens and overreact if provoked. And the legal system gives the benefit of the doubt to police, who can say they were threatened on the job and therefore had to shoot. Case dismissed. So its a negative feedback loop that keeps spiraling.
JB: What a loop, indeed! How do we get off this merry-go round?
SR: I don't know how we get off this merry go round. The only success I can point to is the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund sued the District of Columbia after it brutally cracked down on protesters in 2000, 2002 and 2003. They achieved something there. I know that two-dozen civil rights groups issued a list of institutional reforms after the August protests in Ferguson, reforms that would make a difference if implemented. It's not as if the solutions are not known or not out there. The impediment seems to be the willingness to want to change and make that change happen.