The tragic and yet unexplained death of Freddie Gray while in custody of the Baltimore Police has once again brought the issue of police violence and misconduct to the forefront of the news cycle. The Freddie Gray matter followed a pattern that has become all too familiar in the U.S. A young man from a minority community is arrested for trivial, or in the case of Gray non-existent offenses, has a brief interaction with the police and inexplicably suffers a resulting death. Anger in the community, largely resulting from generations of poverty, despair and violence at the hands of police acting as an occupying force, boils over into civil unrest that by and large displaces the original police misconduct as the focal point of the media's attention.
The Baltimore protesters were quickly labeled as "thugs" and "criminals" by various media sources. President Obama took a similar tact when he said, "My understanding is you've got some of the same organizers now going back into these communities to try to clean up in the aftermath of a handful of protesters, a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place."
Regardless of how one wishes to characterize the protesters, many of those commenting on the events in Baltimore attempted to create a false dichotomy in which legitimate criticism of the murder of a suspect while in police custody was somehow akin to supporting rioters and looters. Under this Manichean view, you either support the police who are the purported representatives of order, or you favor the protesters who have been characterized as anarchists, thugs and criminals.
Media personalities attempting to offer a more nuanced view have been roundly criticized. CNN's Brooke Baldwin cited in her reporting the fact that many police officers are veterans of U.S. conflicts abroad who view those in the communities they serve as hostile insurgents.
While speaking with Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Baldwin recalled a conversation with a Baltimore City councilman about police officers not living in the communities they purportedly represent when she said that, "I love our nation's veterans, but some of them are coming back from war, they don't know the communities, and they're ready to do battle."
Baldwin's observation was immediately met with outrage and she quickly backtracked with an on-air apology. "I absolutely misspoke," Baldwin said on CNN the following morning. "I inartfully chose my words, 100%. And I wholeheartedly retract what I said. I have the utmost respect for the men and women in uniform. To all of you, I owe you a tremendous apology."
Writer David Masciotra claims that Americans "worship" military members and police officers. He goes on to say that the kneejerk use of the term "hero" to describe such persons "betrays a frightening cultural streak of nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism."
Masciotra further explains,"Put a man in uniform, preferably a white man, give him a gun, and Americans will worship him. It is a particularly childish trait, of a childlike culture, that insists on anointing all active military members and police officers as 'heroes.'"
As Masciotra points out, it has somehow been decided that we are going to label all police officers as "heroes" and meet with open derision anyone who dares to suggest otherwise. Never mind the inconvenient fact that it is statistically more dangerous to be logger or a fisherman than it is to be police officer. If someone dons a badge, we make them into a god in uniform.
Much of the knee-jerk worship of the police comes from allegedly conservative sources who routinely criticize a variety of public servants ranging from teachers to public health officials.. Yet criticism of the police results in the inevitable name calling and labeling of critics as "libs," "cop haters" and "criminals." The conservative ideals of limited government, freedom from government oppression and guarantees of liberty and due process suffer immediate defenestration when they come in conflict with what has become reflexive police worship.