Friday, July 27, 2012

On the Transfer of Moral Authority

Police take aim in Anaheim

Maybe I'm coming to this realization late, but it seems to me that after the incidents in Aurora and Anaheim, the institutions that once held moral authority in this country -- be they governmental or private sector -- have finally lost any moral authority they may once have been able to claim.

The Aurora Incident showed how essentially inert the police forces are in the face of mass slaughter by our very own and very exceptional "crazed gunmen." According to reports, police responded "within seconds" to 911 calls from the scene of the carnage at the movie theater as their police station was only two blocks away. But by the time they got there, the gunfire had stopped and the shooter was calmly sitting in his car awaiting arrest. More than 70 people were dead or wounded, however, so some sort of triage set up was necessary. What the police had to do with that though, no one has quite said.

Other institutional failures included that of the University of Colorado, which apparently had just turned the shooter loose for not doing well on his midterms. Clearly, despite the fact that the young man in question was trying to communicate with them through letters (that went 'unprocessed'), the University in its Majesty had neither time nor interest in this poor fellow whose academic decline, perhaps emotional and psychological decline as well, simply hadn't been noticed in the Press of Events all Great Universities prioritize.

It's similar in its own way to the administrative disinterest in the emotional/psychological decline of the boys who shot up Columbine High back in the day. That Incident was said to have been precipitated by intense and prolonged bullying that the school administrators tolerated or even encouraged as a means to keep the students in line. It was revealed after the Columbine Incident that many schools actively recruited student bullies to act as capos over the rest of the student body and rewarded them with a)impunity for their actions; b)various perks and privileges that other students did not have. Their role was to terrorize the rest of the student body into compliance with administrative demands.


Sounds like Anaheim police on the rampage.

Now I should point out that when I write about police misconduct and police brutality I am not condemning all police (however, there is a caveat, and I'll get to that.)  In fact, I've known plenty of officers, I've had to call on police in various instances of burglary and so forth, and I recently had a brief encounter in Kingman, AZ, when a police cruiser raced up to me while I was pumping gas, an officer jumped out with his hand on his gun (or was it his Taser, not sure right now) and started demanding this and that, including knowing whether I had anyone else in the van... (he later explained they'd just received a report of someone being held at gunpoint by someone in an "orange-ish van," and mine was close enough to the description they had that he felt it best to check it out, guns at the ready...)

Almost every police officer I've encountered (except one, who was clearly out of his league, but that's another story) has behaved in a professional and dignified manner. But I'm white, and now that I'm also old enough to sport a Santa beard, I'm hardly perceived as a "threat" by the Law Enforcement Community. Even when I was younger and more radical appearing, police encounters were not particularly difficult for me. And, too, they were rare.

For people of color, particularly brown and black men and adolescent boys, it's long been a different story. Not only do they encounter the police far more frequently than white folk, they are "suspect" simply because of their age, race and appearance. In other words, the entire category of black and brown men is considered by police to be a priori suspect of something.

That seems to have been the police modus operandi in Anaheim that led to the shooting death of Manny Diaz, and the next day to the shooting death of Joel Matthew Acevedo. And the same attitude seem to have led to the repeated indiscriminate firing of "less lethal" munitions into crowds protesting the police homicides of young men in their neighborhoods.

If you are black or brown, particularly if you are male, you are suspected of a crime. Period. And as a suspect you have no rights the police are obliged to respect, not even a right to life, let alone liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

According to witnesses, Manny Diaz was shot twice by police, both times in the back, once in the butt, and once in the back of the head. It was almost a classic "double tap." In other words, he was executed on the spot. The reason? He ran. The police say he was with a "suspicious" group standing by a car on the street when a police patrol car approached and officers demanded... well, we don't know, as the young men being approached all ran in various directions. According to police, Manny Diaz was seen "throwing objects" onto roofs of nearby apartment buildings as he ran. (That's quite a physical feat, but we'll leave it at that for the moment.) The police officer pursuing him finally trapped him in a fenced side yard of an apartment complex; the iron bar fence was high and essentially unscalable. What then transpired is unknown. The police union claims that The Suspect turned toward the officer and "reached for something in his waistband," and I will lay good money, that is the exact language that will appear in the report that will be issued in due time on the Incident. Of course anyone who has followed these Incidents for any length of time knows that in the routines surrounding these police shootings of Suspects, the justification is frequently "reaching for something in his waistband."

Further "justification" is garnered by the claim that the Suspect was a "gang member." In Anaheim, this has been elaborated with the claim that Manny Diaz was a "documented gang member." As was  -- it is claimed -- Joel Matthew Acevedo. So far, they haven't pointed to the prison record of either man or their drug use, but they will. It almost always goes this way in the case of police shootings. No matter what actually happened, the reports will always focus on reaching for something in waistbands, gangs, drugs and previous prison time. As if this justifies what amounts to summary execution in the streets.

While I don't condemn all police for the actions of these killer cops, the entire force loses moral authority through consistent actions to rationalize or cover up the killings and beatings and harassment of people primarily of color who become the victims of the police, and to dismiss the concerns of the communities that are so profoundly affected by these actions.

In Anaheim, the police, like their dog, were simply out of control. They went on a rampage -- a police riot if you will -- killing two and injuring many (one count I saw was over a hundred), many of whom were women and children. This went on for days as community members continued to protest and denounce police actions in the streets of Anaheim.

And then it stopped.

Manny Diaz's mother appeared at the courthouse after filing a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit, and she appealed for an end to the violence -- by police and by the crowd of protesters. The police chief and the mayor had been threatening the community with continued police violence, much as a warden might, if they continued protesting. But the protests continued, indeed had increased over the days since the first killing.

Manny Diaz's mother appealed to the better angels of the community -- including those of the police if they had any -- and the protests stopped. From appearances, the police did not stop harassing the community, but they stopped killing for now and they stopped firing their "less lethal" rounds, stopped roaming the streets with dogs as well.

Manny Diaz's mother had far more moral authority in this situation than any Anaheim institution.

Indeed, that's what's been happening all over as the pervasive institutional failure has been revealed, from the failure of the Catholic Church -- my how they flail these days! -- to the extraordinary moral collapse of police forces all over the country following their violent destruction of dozens of Occupy encampments, and their continued violence against Occupy and other protests.

Clearly, there's an existential issue involved for "authority" as a concept in the abstract and in the real world. If the only way our civic and private institutions can hold on to authority is through force and suppression/control of protest -- which is what's been happening -- then there is no moral grounding for any respect for authority. Without moral grounding, authority loses power, and the more suppression and violence there is in trying to enforce its authority, the more completely its moral authority evaporates.

In Aurora, the police and other authority were essentially bystanders as the horrible drama unfolded at the movie theater.

In Anaheim, the police and the civic policies they were carrying out were the precipitating cause of the collapse of their own moral authority. That collapse mirrored similar collapses of police and civic/administrative authority at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and spectacularly in the city of Oakland. To a somewhat lesser degree, it has also happened in the cities of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. It's happening right now in San Francisco through grotesque spectacles involving the mayor, the board of supervisors, the sheriff, his wife and so forth that we needn't deal with here.

I asked in a previous post, "What are we coming to?" And this is it. As the moral authority of civil society collapses along with its institutions including the police, we are left outraged and bewildered, but also we are left on our own to figure out some sort of path forward.

In previous times, this collapse of moral authority would have been considered the prelude to revolution -- think ancien regime leading up to the storming of the Bastille and the March of the Fishwives. But we have our own examples leading up to 1776 as well, not to mention what the collapse of moral authority in Russia that actually began the day of Nicolas II's coronation when hundreds were killed at the public festivities arranged in his honor.

But now, I suspect we're well past the prelude phase and fully into the Revolutionary phase. In other words, the Revolution is taking place, and we are in the midst of it, but it is not like any Revolution of the past, so what's happening doesn't fully register as a Revolution-in-Progress. We see it instead as "difficulty." Yes, it is that, certainly. But the key to understanding the Revolutionary context is the continuing -- I would say accelerating -- collapse of moral authority that we could say began with Congress when it chose to impeach the President in 1996, continued with the judicial coup of 2000 that installed Bush the Lesser in the presidency in 2001 -- which led to disasters on an unprecedented and monumental scale, from the attack on the World Trade Center to the incredibly ill-advised wars of aggression to the drowning of New Orleans to the economic collapse of 2007/8.

The election of Obama was supposed to be something of a Redemption after all that misery, but it has turned out to be anything but that,or perhaps a "Lesser Redemption" than was called for.

And so we see the collapse all around us of the moral authority of institutions and especially of the moral authority of the police. I'm convinced that Obama was put on the Presidential Throne for the specific purpose of "managing the masses" as the predators and plunderers go after every shred of public  good and public wealth there is, and so far, he has performed up to expectations if not beyond. But he's performing to the expectations of the Ruling Class, not the expectations of the People, and that has consequences that our blind, deaf and dumb rulers seem incapable of knowing.

Yesterday, there was a pretty insightful story of how our government really operates over at dKos. Some of us have long been aware of how much government, particularly in Washington, has become an insular palace culture (I've been writing about it for years, and have some experience at the local, state and federal levels myself), but this is perhaps the clearest description I've seen of it in years. It is a palace culture, and it is cut off from the plaints of the People, and it is deteriorating from a moral perspective.

I've long advocated paying close attention to what is really going on and strategizing from that basis rather than pretending that some formula is going to be satisfactory as we muddle through this increasingly difficult period.

Understanding how the government actually functions at every level is part of it.

Understanding that there has been a fundamental shift of moral authority is an increasingly important part as well.

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