“MURDERS IN THE STREET: DE-ESCALATING THE VIOLENCE”
I feel obliged to write about the 2 black American men and 8 police officers who were killed in Baton Rouge, St. Anthony and Dallas within the last two weeks, murders that have catalyzed some Americans to protest in the streets and caused others to sit in apprehension, shocked by the violence and paralyzed with fear.
As the Kerner Report published in 1968 had it all those many years ago, America is a land divided in two, black and white, with the deck stacked and maintained against black Americans by intrinsically racist institutions, included among which are their local police departments. Little has changed, to judge by the shootings by police and the cries for law and order and for a “strong man” to enforce them.
The police, of course, are front and center here, whose job is to maintain on the ground the status quo preferred by America’s de facto ruling class, the folks I call the one-percenters. Which happens to be one of the horns of the dilemma police officers find themselves caught up in as soon as they take the job, as soon as they step onto the street in a blue uniform. Most of them took the job not to be agents of the ruling class but to help the community. Ask any cop and he or she will tell you that. They never bargained for what they got: they were neither informed of nor trained to address this contradiction. So, under stress, in situations of perceived danger, they reflexively opt for the default position for which they have been trained, act first to protect themselves and, presumably, the community they’ve sworn to protect.
Unfortunately, employed as they are in organizations steeped in white supremacist cultural beliefs, i.e., that all black men are actual or potential criminals, police officers’ default action in confrontations with black men appears to be to shoot first and ask questions later. According to The Washington Post’s real-time data base which it has maintained since 2015, black Americans are shot and killed by the police at a rate 2.5x that of white Americans, with the rate for unarmed black Americans shot and killed 5x that of whites. On the audio portion of the video taken by Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, depicting what happened immediately before and after he was shot by a St. Anthony police officer on July 6, one could hear the fear in the police officer’s voice as he was asking Mr. Castile for his ID. As Ms. Reynolds calmly reminded the officer after he shot Castile, it was he who had asked Mr. Castile to reach into his back pocket for his ID. The officer’s reflexive, default action, apparently fearful that Mr. Castile was reaching for the gun he had informed the officer he had, was to shoot. This is eerily reminiscent of what happened in New York City in 1999 when three NYPD plainclothes cops accosted Amadou Diallo, a 23 year old immigrant from Guinea in west Africa, requested his ID and shot him 19 times when he reached around into his back pocket and pulled out … his wallet. Another dead black man, this time in a suburb of Minneapolis, with fearful consequences in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
I’m not going to launch at this point into an examination of institutional racism or a diatribe about racist police officers. I’m more interested in humanizing cops rather than stereotyping them, and I’d like to offer some training suggestions, totally at odds with the culture of a paramilitary organization, which might sound to some if not many a little too social worky. But, after all, I am a social worker, one who has dealt many times with life and death situations and employed interventions to ease the stress of the intensive case managers (ICMS) I directed for nearly 20 years. Our intent was to reduce the likelihood of harm to them and to their clients. Basically, we would talk, in teams of approximately 10 case managers and supervisors on a weekly basis. Case managers would be given the opportunity to talk about the people they were working with and planned to visit in their homes, many of whom were suicidal or had attempted suicide in the past, and many of whom lived in New York City’s roughest neighborhoods. We would all participate, give the ICMs a chance to get their apprehensions off their chests, and proceed to devise individual plans for the ICMs to utilize. The principal topic of the discussions was invariably the safety of the ICM, her/his client and the community, with the objective a productive visit with the client. Case managers would continue to communicate with one another for help and support during the course of the week; could call on their supervisors or on me at any time for guidance, to request that another ICM be sent to help them or that the supervisors and I join them during their home visits.
Standard operating procedures when I was active in the field, which usually worked quite well and helped keep morale and ICM effectiveness high; many of which, due to the bureaucratization or, better said, computerization, of public mental health, have since fallen into disuse among mental health workers, but remain potentially quite useful to anyone involved in interactions with the public, particularly in conflictual and dangerous circumstances.
I’d like to think it would be useful, particularly in these times, for police officers and their sergeants to engage in similar discussions before and after each shift – not touchy-feely in nature, but discussions that view fear of what might happen on the street as a natural part of the job and as a barrier, if not managed, to good police work, whose objective first and foremost is to keep everyone safe. Police officers are assuredly taught techniques of de-escalation while training to become cops; but, in high-risk situations, the amygdala and adrenalin kick in and it’s either fight or flight. Since cops are embedded in a paramilitary culture, their default reaction is to fight, or, as the Dallas police officers did, rush towards the sound of gunfire. Which makes sense in the situation the Dallas cops found themselves in, under attack from a gunman, but requires a measured and more thoughtful response in a one-on-one or even a crowd confrontation. Such purposeful de-escalation is difficult to carry out in the face of anger or resistance, and so requires careful training, re-visited over and over again. The post-shift de-briefing I’m suggesting could serve that purpose — officers coming off their shifts could discuss what worked for them and what didn’t, with the first serving as a template for effective police work that others can learn from and the latter presented as an opportunity for collective problem solving and as support for the officers who had a rough day.
I hope someone with some clout in a police department somewhere in this country is reading this and would like to test some of these ideas out. Otherwise, I’m afraid, what I just wrote paints a nice picture, but has little chance of being enacted in a modern-day, big-city police environment due, once again, to increasing bureaucratization: precinct-level problem-solving might threaten the department’s hierarchical, top-down structure; to objections by the rank-and-file officers’ union: if an officer admits a mistake, he could be subjected to disciplinary action; and to the macho culture of a paramilitary organization: to admit to fear is to expose your vulnerability and weaknesses. And, of course, the white supremacist core of all major American institutions: that can only be undone in city and local police departments once all law enforcement agencies, Federal and state, discard their notion of black American men as comprising a stand-alone criminal class. I am skeptical that the criminal reform agenda being bruited about will reach that far. U.S. police chiefs and their departments have circled the wagons.
Given the foregoing, officers might have to do what they and anybody who works in a strict top-down organization usually does, talk discreetly among themselves. Social media, particularly via membership-only and private group pages, might prove to be to useful vehicles if they allow the member cops to be open with one another and are not used solely to allow cops to gripe about their bosses. My nephew, a good, committed cop in Denver, and his Denver police comrades use their social media platforms to buck one another up. A good idea, certainly, but one that does not go far enough to relieve the unremitting tension that afflicts them and their families. He’s talked of daily death threats ‘phoned into his precinct, of cars swerving as if to hit him and his partner when they’re on the streets, and of constantly looking over his shoulder. Would that all this would end soon. Hence my thinking that if he and his fellow cops had police department-sanctioned options for reducing stress, the likelihood of tension-/fear-related shootings by police might be reduced.
And what of the two shooters, black-American males, who killed 8 cops and wounded 12 others in a ten-day period? Michael Johnson killed 5 cops and wounded 9 others in Dallas on July 7 while they were protecting marchers protesting the fatal shooting by police of Mr. Castile and the July 5 shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. After a tense standoff with Dallas police, Johnson was himself killed by a remote-controlled bomb. The other shooter, Gavin Long, killed 3 police officers and wounded 3 others in Baton Rouge on July 17 in retaliation for the shootings of Castile and Sterling when they responded to a 911 call regarding a man with a rifle, i.e., Long himself. He was killed by the police after a brief shootout. The 5 Dallas police officers who were killed were Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Johnson and Patrick Zamarrido; the 3 Baton Rouge officers included Montrell Jackson, Matthew Gerau and Brad Garafola.
After viewing on video the shooting of Sterling by two Baton Rouge police officers and the television footage of Baton Rouge riot police charging Baton Rouge protesters with armored vehicles, one might be reminded of the biblical verse from Galatians, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Yet, unlike what Trump and Giuliani who are busy channeling Richard Nixon’s Law and Order persona and policies would have us believe, the two black shooters are in no way representative of the black American community. To the contrary, it must appear to black Americans that the shooters came on the public scene as if on cue, fueling the fears of white Americans and the efforts of those like Trump and Giuliani to block any efforts by black Americans to pursue social and economic justice and to end the seemingly unending and arbitrary killing of black men by white cops. Black Lives Matter contrary to white supremacist propaganda, is not promoting the shooting of white police officers or white Americans. It’s an organization comprised of social justice activists who are advancing the notion that black lives are as valuable as white or any other lives and who are obliged to maintain a certain organizational discipline to achieve that goal. It seems apparent to me that BLM members are acutely aware that violence directed at cops would be self-destructive. I remember advising my nephew in Denver that it’s unaffiliated black men, loners, who are the powder kegs.
To me, the shooters more closely match the classic profile of the white mass murderers, the rampage killers, who, for the most part, have been solitary, alienated individuals with no close social connections, full of rage and more likely to act out that rage against others rather than against themselves. In the end, like all rampage killers, they are representative in the extreme of an alienating society that readily sets adrift those who are unable or unfit to contribute materially to it. In this instance, these two men are representative of a VA system that has failed to help those veterans who come home from our unending wars the most damaged; of a Federal government and a Congress that pay for weapons of war but deny adequate funding to care for those who fight them and come home physically and psychically wounded as a consequence; and, finally of a public so distanced, so disconnected from our wars and our veterans that we have allowed this to happen.
In his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Understanding (2016), Sebastian Junger describes the nature and depth of these disconnections with great understanding. He is the Academy award-winning co-producer of Restrepo (2010), a documentary that depicts the experiences of a group of soldiers posted to a remote mountain area in Afghanistan and explores the intense bonding that occurs between them as they seek to support one another and survive in a thoroughly hostile environment. Junger uses Restrepo as his starting point and describes the sense of loss that the soldiers who fought there experienced once they returned home: they came home changed by their war; felt themselves unwelcome and unwanted in a world they found strange and unknowable; found no one willing to extend a welcome or a helping hand. Offered only the innocuous “Thank you for your service” by strangers, they found themselves alone, unable to sustain relationships with wives and family and friends, unable to find gainful employment, without their tribe and unable to find or make or join a new one. Remember, 22 veterans of all our wars dating from Viet Nam kill themselves daily; 1 Iraq or Afghanistan vet kills herself or himself daily.
Junger’s message is that many if not most Americans find themselves in the same fix. The data shows a dramatic surge in suicides by middle aged white American men and women largely attributable to the loss of their tribes, often their workplaces after they were laid off, and family and friends after they grew despondent and isolated. From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among white Americans aged 35-64 increased by 28% and for those aged 55-64 by 40%. Ironically, the suicide rate for black Americans is much lower than that for whites; the rate of opioid addiction and overdose deaths is substantially lower; and life expectancy for black Americans has risen.
Junger’s anti-dote for those alone and isolated? Connectedness. Family and friends must reach out to those they’ve lost touch with and who they know or suspect might be troubled. Churches and community-based service organizations must do the same for absent members and seek and welcome new ones. Social welfare organizations cannot let any of their clients go missing. The VA and the Federal government must help our veterans and we must insist on it.
Men like the black shooters are hard to connect with. From what little I know of them, it seems each had troubled military careers, even Gavin Long, a Marine sergeant who received an honorable discharge. Men like these, like all the rampage killers who preceded them, are highly suggestible and become readily immersed in the culture of guns, violence, fear and hatred that has engulfed our society. They seek no help, would reject outright the notion of any kind of psychotherapy, and retreat into a world of their own making, communicating, when they do, online with those who have made similar lives for themselves. I always think of the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who presented to their world and the school they attended as weird, idiosyncratic kids who were scornful of fellow students and teachers and whose parents left them on their own, free to buy guns and make plans to kill others. The Dallas and Baton Rouge shooters were very similar to Harris and Klebold in that they, too, were very much on their own, bought guns and explosives and laid very clever plans to trap and kill white police officers.
I’m sure there are many individuals out there, white and black, equally isolated and paranoid, who might respond to outreach efforts and made to feel that there are some folks genuinely concerned to help them. The black American community seems to have the resources necessary to undertake such efforts. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) report that contained the suicide data highlighting the increased risk for older white Americans cited as the principal reasons for the lower suicide rate among black Americans the apparent resiliency of black Americans in the face of adversity, i.e., their deeper understanding and ready acceptance of American reality, and the greater connectedness of members of the black community. I’m sure, as Junger is, that increased outreach might give great pause to many of those individuals who are isolated and despondent to not kill themselves, which would constitute a great achievement for them and for our society. I do not believe that outreach efforts alone will be sufficient to stop these rampage killings without a concerted effort to curb overall gun-related violence.
In conclusion, I detailed the foregoing not with the intent of rationalizing or explaining why the two black shooters did what they did but to emphasize that the responsibility for the murders they committed and for the wanton shooting deaths of Sterling and Castile by police officers in St. Anthony and Baton Rouge is not only theirs but ours as well. Rampage killings of white police officers by black men and the apparent gratuitous shooting of black men by white cops are more than just black or white problems, they are our problems, American problems. And only when black and white Americans accept them as such will the great rift between black and white Americans begin to be sealed and will our two Americas finally have the capability of finding their way to become whole. That is indeed a very long road down which black Americans have already embarked; white Americans have a lot of catching up to do, a fuller discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. I refer the reader to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the two treatises he has written on the questions of national accountability and the safety of black bodies – “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, June, 2014) and Between the World and Me (2015) — which are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand these issues in all their complexity.
In the interim, remember Joe Hill’s admonition – “Don’t mourn, organize.” To which I would add, for all black American men
and all American cops – “Do no harm and be safe.”
Additional readings: All of which can be accessed on my website, www.paddlingupstream.org. Click on the “home” page for my book of essays, Nation of Killers … , and the “North Country Forum” page for “Fear and Hate …” and “Traitor to My Race …”
Nation of Killers – Guns, Violence, White Supremacy: the American Dream as Delusion (December, 2015)
“Fear and Hate: Seeds of Violence and Murder” (December 16, 2015)
“Traitor to My Race: The Abolition of White Privilege” (September 4, 2015)