With Mute Assent

August 15, 2014

Ferguson 02

There’s are good and prudent reasons not to have armies policing citizens; they have to do with issues of function and mental attitude. A police force is established to protect citizens against lawbreakers, armies are created to fight wars. It’s all about training and mindset. A police force with a military state of mind will find an enemy because, like nature itself, we and our armies abhor vacuums.

Of the many human inclinations, we (especially of western civilization) are creatures of accumulation. We cram empty spaces with stuff —our houses brim and overflow into landfills; we stuff empty minds with stuff —jam them with useless info while discarding wisdom to make room; we forever invent new stuff and always find new reasons to use it.

We invented the wheel and rolled over everything. We invented the light bulb and lit up the world. We invented vaccination and decimated disease. We invented the atom bomb and gave it an immediate tandem tryout in Japan to demonstrate it worked. We invented guns and (fulfilling the fiscal dreams of the NRA) the world became a collection of armed camps looking for a fight. And now, as the federal government unloads new and surplus military paraphernalia —guns, helmets, grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers, flak jackets, camo suits, boots— on local police forces, an ill wind smelling of teargas and gun power, is filling vacuums of our own making.

Almost inevitably, as a poem says:

cops with army stuff
use more army stuff,
find more reasons

with more reasons
sometimes kill

tasers, small tanks, flack vests
big  muscle guns, jackboots

toughen up
with  army stuff

turn up heat
see if gizmos work
go boom rattatat
zap hurt

The most recent vacuum into which our growing domestic army has been sucked is called Ferguson Missouri, a town in which a war-equipped police force took to the streets to compel both outraged citizens and an inconvenient media to shut up.. Citizens were outraged because another unarmed man, young and not coincidentally black, was gunned down in the street in broad daylight. But no one had to call the police because the police were already on the scene. In fact, the police did it.

The camouflaged Ferguson troops (who could nevertheless clearly be seen) geared up for the apocalypse with heavy armament, in Kevlar vests emblazoned “POLICE”, backed up with tank-like vehicles, faced off with an enemy armed only with signs and shouted exclamations such as: “Don’t shoot me!” Most of that enemy happened to be black because, incident after recent incident, unarmed young black men have been shot and killed by vigilantes and police: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford and now, Ferguson’s Michael Brown. It should come as no surprise that things finally reached critical mass in at least one black community. Call Ferguson a tipping point.

What’s happening? What’s happening  is that our vaunted system, based upon the equal application of law, is being outed as one that is just not. Journalist Glenn Greenwald in his book, Liberty and Justice for Some, lays out the reality that has eclipsed an ideal never realized:

“From the nation’s beginnings, the law was to be the great equalizer in American life, the guarantor of a common set of rules for all. But over the past four decades, the principle of equality before the law has been effectively abolished. Instead, a two-tiered system of justice ensures that the country’s political and financial class is virtually immune from prosecution, licensed to act without restraint, while the politically powerless are imprisoned with greater ease and in greater numbers than in any other country in the world.”

Greenwald does not exaggerate. Our prison population stands now at more than 2.4 million or about 8% of the population —the highest in the world. 40% of these are black, although blacks are only just under 14% of the population. Anyone with an open mind who pays attention to the news knows this has more to do with the way justice is meted out in the US than it does with the inherent character of people of color.

In the aftermath of the economic collapse of 2008 virtually none of the crooks responsible: politicians, shyster bank executives, junk bond marketers, or CEOs of any failed (or too-big-to-fail) financial institution has seen the inside of a jail cell, but anyone stealing a loaf of bread from a convenience store has probably found their way there. Our legal system protects the rich and powerful and their police forces behind heaps of Benjamines stacked higher than the walls of the Department of Justice. In fact, justice is not served it’s dished out to each according to his financial means.

Looking at Ferguson, Missouri —it’s massed police, its clouds of tear gas, is guns, it’s combat gear, its blue-uniformed gun-men, its official belligerence, its killing of unarmed men — is not something that conjures up the American dream. Instead it conjures a glimpse of an American future that signals that the dream and its tortured democracy is dying before our eyes, with our mute ascent.

Jim Culleny
8/21/14
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