Monday, September 19, 2016

Kaepernick Versus the Police Unions

(stock photo)

Among far too many people the faith in law and fairness takes a distant second to a faith in force and power, when the chips are down. We saw this immediately after the events of 9/11. Before the fires were out the Congress was hard at work building a new “patriot act,” which overturned formerly accepted civil protections. Waterboarding, an interrogation tactic which had been ruled a kind of torture by international agreements since at least World War II, was suddenly accepted by top police and intelligence agencies if the threat was deemed too serious to worry about the legal niceties. By the end of 2003 or 2004 we were seeing the photos from Abu Graib prison in Iraq. CIA interrogators who argued that tactics like water-boarding yielded lies were pretty much ignored.

For decades in this country many police agencies have apparently believed that extreme force was justified when their authority was questioned by minority citizens. Questioning authority might mean a person running from a traffic stop for a broken tail light, or simply a person objecting to being stopped with vehemence. If a minority citizen was foolish enough to be impaired or mentally unstable, they might be killed on the spot even if they had no weapon, or if they were brandishing a knife at a distance. On too many occasions, citizens of color have been shot and killed because a particular policeman has been on a kind of “hair trigger,” expecting the worst kind of trouble as soon as the encounter with the citizen began. The child with the pellet gun in Cleveland comes to mind, and the man shopping in an Ohio Walmart and carrying a plastic toy rifle he was intending to purchase for his son. Meanwhile, white citizens in similar situations tend to be “talked down,” often never charged with anything. It's passing strange.

It is too many instances like John Crawford's killing at Walmart, or the mysterious death of Freddie Gray, which have led people like Colin Kaepernick to kneel when the National Anthem is played at games, or the flag displayed. The protest, which does no more that remind all of us that the flag actually stands for the best American values, has spread because the patent injustices keep coming, week after week, in the headlines. A lot of people think about it and find they agree with Mr. Kaepernick. Kneeling, by the way, is pretty respectful. No one is burning the flag, as they did during Vietnam for similar reasons. Now police unions are threatening to remove police protections from teams who join in the protests. This threat, while it may give immediate pleasure to people who do not want to hear anything from the downtrodden but “yessir,” is almost elegantly misguided.

If you think about it in the abstract, it is the removal of expected police behavior which underlies almost all the questionable actions of police against minorities. Everyone expects police to be restrained, since they hold the power of life and death. This expectation is overturned when a policeman rolls up and blasts a 12-year-old within literally seconds of their arrival. When such actions are then justified by grand juries, there is an overall loss of something we all expect. The police, after all, work for all of us.

If a particular force is needed at a particular football game, removing such force because someone on the field did something some of the policemen don't like (and actually don't understand) is arbitrary and in it's own way another example of the same thing being protested against in the first place. You'd think the police unions would get this. What they are suggesting instead is that since police have life and death power, they should be feared and whatever they might do in a particular circumstance must be accepted without question. Force and power, in other words, win out over fairness and justice.

This is fundamentally a racist or fascistic position. It's not what we want our civil servants to assert. Since Mr. Trump is asserting pretty much the same idea, it's also perhaps a dangerous harbinger of what life in the United States might well become under a Trump regime. When he talks about “getting tough,” what he means is ending legal niceties. The groups we fear for whatever reason will be targeted for rough justice. A naturalized Afgani-American is now a suspect in the New Jersey bombings over the weekend. Trump immediately suggests that all such Afgani-Americans should expect a knock in the night. This is a return to a dark world the United States is working to leave behind. If police unions endorse such a world they had best study up on how these things worked in the Soviet Union and East Germany. You don't have to be ethnic to become a suspect, you just have to be subject to an anonymous whisper campaign. Perhaps Kafka's The Trial would make for good weekend reading, before the boys in blue tune in the NFL.

In the 1950s here in the US our government denied J. Robert Oppenheimer a security clearance. It can happen here. It did, in fact, happen here. Tony Stewart says Kaepernick is an "idiot." Perhaps that's reassuring, in the sense that it illustrates the obliviousness of white privilege which connected white men usually exemplify. Mr. Stewart was generously given the benefits of many doubts a couple of years back. He probably didn't even notice. John Crawford: not even one.

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