Myths of Authority in Practice

August 22, 2014 | By | 2 Replies More

I’ve been trying to come to terms with Ferguson since it began.  The shooting of Michael Browne sparked a response that surprised many people and the counter responses have been equally surprising among certain people, not so much among certain others.  Every time I start to write something I find what I intended to say had already been said better elsewhere.   My response, whatever it may have been or will continue to be, is not out of any isolated, singular place.  I am part of a community and how that community responds necessarily becomes part of my own response.

There’s a fund for the police officer and his family, which the last time I noticed was mounting to a respectable six-figure level.  I scratch my head and wonder what it’s for.  His family?  Sure, they shouldn’t have to bear the costs of his actions.

Another statistic I noted with deep ambivalence is that while Ferguson is 60% African American, voter turn-out in that population in that community is about 6%.  This helps explain the racial composition of Ferguson’s elected leaders and especially the police department.  Certain people are, however, using this as an excuse to continue to blame the victim and shift the responsibility back onto those who are supposed to be served by those officials when that service fails. Regardless of the voting statistics, it is the mayor’s and the police department’s job to serve the community as a whole, but we all tend to carve up factions into even smaller bits in order to avoid responsibility.  A deeper question here is why those voting rates are so low and that opens the door to bigger questions some people don’t want asked and others are tired of dealing with and still others are simply blocked from resolving.

Ferguson

In the confusion of response and counter response, I’m reminded once again of the single sacred thing that is at the heart of American social reality—property.  We become apoplectic when property is damaged in the course of social upheaval or criminal action.  We have mixed feelings about it in all instances, but burning a business—anywhere, anytime—triggers a deep, visceral revulsion in Americans that goes back to our origins as a nation.  Of course it’s powerful—if it weren’t, it would be useless as any kind of statement.

But many of us stop paying attention to the why once the torch is lit and we then see the unfolding of shifting issues.  The initial issue is displaced by the response, which becomes a new issue, which is then overwhelmed by the next response, which becomes still a third issue, and so one until one day we look around and realize that the primary issue has been lost in the fracturing landscape of antiphonal reaction.

We lose sight of the fact that this entire thing is about abuse of power.

Let me tell you a story. You can consider it a parable of sorts, though it happened, something I witnessed at a very young age, though I was old enough to get what was happening.  (I’m avoiding names, even though this happened so long ago the principles are either dead or have forgotten the particulars.)

I used to hang out at a certain local business as a boy.  Among the clientele of this business were many police officers.  There was a certain excitement in this, being close to people who, at that time in my life, I saw either at a distance or only on tv.  The business owner knew them by name, had cordial relations with most of them, and in return his business was given a bit extra attention by them.

Occasionally, though, one would come in who was different.  It was evident in many difficult to describe ways—mannerisms, speech patterns, choice of topic—and I could tell that these officers were in some way less reliable.  It must be hard to work every day wielding the kind of power and authority a policeman has and remaining grounded, humble, connected to the people you serve.  The violence that comes with the job over time erodes idealism, hardens you to ordinary surprise, banks your sympathy at often miserly rates because it’s hard to do your job and retain an intact core of humanity that must nevertheless be there for you to function.  Protecting people requires sympathy, but it can become muddled in the contradictions inevitable in protecting people from other people who in their turn need (and deserve) your protection.  You could sense when this core had disintegrated or, perhaps, was never really there to begin with.  Instead, there was only a shell that resembled this necessary core, and the shell didn’t last very long in the daily radiation of The Job.

In any event, one evening an officer well known to us brought in another—a county—officer to introduce and have some work done.  It was a night I happened to be there and most of the conversation was the normal sort.  But then this new officer made an odd remark.

“I go through eight-cell flashlights like water.”

Hmm?  Why’s that?

Cocky grin, conspiratorial stance, leaning on the counter, hand on hip.  “Well, I get these assholes I pull over, traffic violations or what-have-you, and they get mouthy.  Y’know?  Surly.  I have to teach ‘em manners.  Kinda hard on the flashlight.”

There was a deep silence for a time. Then the owner said, “What, do they resist arrest or try to attack you?”

“Oh, hell, nothing like that!  Just get smart with me.  You don’t talk to a cop that way.  I remind ‘em who has the badge. Good thing I don’t have to pay for the flashlights.”

Silence extended.  The owner—who was not someone who spoke lightly about such things, was a veteran, worked hard, and had a deep and abiding respect for law enforcement—said: “You ever did that to me you might as well just shoot me.  Because I’d find your ass and that’d be the last flashlight you ever cracked over anybody’s head.”

Two interesting things of note in this:  one, the other officer, a city cop, backed the owner up.  He, as everybody else in that room that night, recognized that what was happening was not between a citizen and a cop but between one citizen and another who happened to be wearing a police uniform.  The owner was talking to an asshole who was hiding in that uniform, who with that admission of abuse and, most especially, with the actions he described had lost any legitimate claim of authority.  What this county policeman was bragging about was a blatant abuse of authority.  In fact, he had been lucky up to that point that no complaints had been filed and charges made.  Clearly he was picking his targets well, like any bully.

The other thing to note is that everyone in that room that night was white.  Later I thought it over and wondered what would have happened had the shop owner been black.

This was also in 1965.

In the interim, the entire spectacle of the the Sixties occurred.  Populations have shifted, demographics changed, generations have grown up to a new arrangement.

Or so we thought.

What we have witnessed unfold in Ferguson was an exercise in the myth of authority, the idea that the one with the power, in charge, so to speak, ought to be unquestioned in his or her actions unless those with even more authority call those actions into question.  The cop is always right.  Well, the cop has the gun, certainly, which we know, if we’re honest with ourselves, is no substitute for being right.  But the myth does not stop there.  The other component is a little more difficult to pin down, but it has to do with what that authority is in service to.  People may be forgiven if they think it is in service to them.  It is not, except by convention.

It is in service to order.  To an idea of public conduct.  You can understand this when you realize how often of late the police refuse to permit recording of their actions and have been harassing and barring the press.  Calling their actions toward people into question renders their mission to preserve order problematic.  Showing their shortcomings is also disorderly.  At least, in their view.

I suspect that what in previous generations could be seen clearly as racism or classism today has been obscured by the abstraction of such things into less definable tropes having to do with public displays, property rights, permits, and an idea of public action that segregates certain activities and de facto labels them disorderly.

This can be anything from something as obvious as a riot to an individual insisting the officer take his hands off her so she can explain who she is and what she’s doing there.  In every instance, the police are following an idea that their commands are absolutely essential to order and any contravention of them is by default disorderly and therefore subject to immediate remedial action, which can be anything from pepper spray to a full court beating to a shooting.

The problem with this is that the definition of “orderly” is so subjective and conditional as to be meaningless.

And where boundaries are loosely defined or entirely absent, chaos is but a heartbeat away.

That county cop and his eight-cell flashlights was enforcing an idea of “order” that seemed perfectly consistent to him, I’m sure.  Backtalk, surliness, “being mouthy” to a cop is disorderly and requires “correction.”  The cop forgot who he was working for and why.  Or never knew in the first place.  It’s too easy to assume that all the people who never cause him to pull them over are good citizens and that those who do are automatically less so.  We hear this casual relation to right and wrong all the time in phrases like “Well, he must’ve done something wrong or they wouldn’t have arrested him.”  Why, in a country founded on the revolutionary principle of innocent till proven guilty, we have such difficulty understanding how this is backwards thinking I will never understand.  Unless it goes to that sacred relation to property which is sibling to order and which is a substitute for genuine moral awareness.

The other lesson I learned from that long-ago encounter was this:  we will never have an end to this kind of abuse if the police themselves refuse to call out the bullies in their ranks and start siding with the citizenry against the wrongs done them in the name of seamless authority.  All this does is widen the fissure between the people and those they have hired to protect them.  All of them.

All. Of. Them.

Share

Tags:

Category: Aggression and Violence, American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, cognitive biases, Communication, Community, Corruption, Culture, Current Events, Education, History, ignorance, Ingroup/Outgroup, Law, Politics, Protests and Actions, Saint Louis, Social justice

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Erich Vieth says:

    You touch on one of the six basis of morality identified by Jonathan Haidt: Authority. Recognized to be a basis of morality by conservatives, but not much by self-identified liberals.

    Tonight I had dinner with a woman who proclaimed that she is a Republican and that law and order is by far the most important thing that needs to be done in Ferguson. She is not at all impressed with the right of free speech. She can’t comprehend that the protesters MIGHT be correct, that the cop committed murder. I should have asked her how she would feel if a cop broke down the door of an innocent woman in Clayton and murdered her. Then assume that hundreds of Clayton residents (including bankers, politicians, doctors and lawyers) protested, but were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets.

    I would bet she would find this confusing, because she first of all knows that the cops would respect protesters from Clayton. But the bottom line would be that the high-earning citizens would be perceived to be a higher authority than a cop. In Ferguson, many people see the guy with a badge, gun and tank as a much higher authority than those people with darker colored skin.

    Hence, the morality runs with the people in my hypothetical, but not in Ferguson.

    • Mark W. Tiedemann says:

      That kind of blindness is not limited to people of means, by any stretch. I think it has to do with an ability—or inability—to see abstract concepts in concrete terms. I’ve encountered this many times in different conversations over heated topics. Once when I suggested that Ollie North should have been court martialed and perhaps executed for treason for violating his oath, I was met with absolute bafflement by the conservatives to whom I was talking. “His oath is to protect and defend the constitution, which he violated,” I said. “But the president…” Hence one of the blindnesses—people will follow a person before an idea, because the person is real to them while ideas are nebulous.

      What disturbs me more is the shortchanging of the First Amendment. I would wager your conversant would have a very different stance on the Second Amendment. The dynamics of the two amendments are different in very concrete terms. But at base, freedom of speech is fine if she wields it but not so much for other people who just wish, probably in her view, to be disruptive. (I’m responsible, but they, not so much.)

      But it goes further in that there is an automatic identification with authority on her part, one wherein she cannot see that she would ever be on the wrong side of it. This is called privilege and until more people understand how this works we will continue to have these disconnects in civil rights and public discourse.

Leave a Reply