Responding to Breakdown of Trust in Police: Capitalism, Racism, and Creative Compassion
Most people, most of the time, follow along with whatever is going on. This is precisely what being a “law-abiding citizen” means. That this is considered an ideal is, in itself, a norm that supports the willingness to do what the law says. Often enough many of us do what the law says because we find it helpful, or at least not too difficult, or it’s a deep habit that we don’t even question.
Then there are those of us who do question the law: either specific laws or the entire institution of there being laws at all. Laws, by their nature, create a threat of what would happen to a person who doesn’t follow the law. In our modern nation-states, laws are enforced by the police.
The presence of the police is worlds apart for people in different social locations. This is what is now becoming more visible in the last few months, since the killing of George Floyd unleashed global protests. The gist of it is simple and intense: anyone who is the wrong color, the wrong class, in the wrong place, or in any other way on the wrong side of society, is always aware of the police as a threat. This happens at the very same time that the police are seen as a neutral or even a positive presence in the lives of people whose internal view and internal position in society align with what that society prioritizes as “the good person.” If you are not that “good person,” then you would know it. If you are, if you consider yourself a “law-abiding citizen,” and are also considered such within your society, you are likely to live and die without awareness of the existence of police as a threat. A friend in Israel, for example, mentioned to me a few years ago, and really meant it, that there had to be a reason why the police would shoot and kill the Black people who are routinely killed in the US and in other places. This belief is based on the fact that this friend, being Jewish in Israel, keeping a low profile in life, challenging no authority in any way, would have no way to know about police brutality without believing other people’s accounts rather than his own experience.
The belief that if you don’t do “anything wrong” you would never be bothered by the police is deeply entrenched in many places, especially in those countries where the dominant population believes that country to be democratic, which many do. It’s extremely difficult to show: anyone who is not in continual clash with a normative society won’t have any way to know that the police can be brutal. This is what has been shattered recently: it’s become too difficult not to know this.
In this article I aim to provide some historical and social analysis about the role of police in capitalist states as context for thinking about how systemic awareness can shape our understanding of what’s going on and, from there, what may be possible in response.
Capitalism and the Police
Gaining an understanding of the role of the police within capitalist states, and especially within the US, takes some historical digging and also understanding of what states really are.
The first person who came up with the definition of a state is Max Weber, who is a very mainstream sociologist, not a radical critic. He defined the state as the entity that has a monopoly over the use of violence. I want to repeat what this means in plain terms: It’s OK for states to have weapons, to kill and to threaten: internally with police, and externally with an army. States can do it. No one else. That is what defines states. When I first encountered this definition, it shook me up, so I hope any reader for whom it’s new will take a moment to let that sink in.
There’s a reason why states claim the right to violence: because from the very beginning of their existence, they were imposed on people. Every state has to address the very problem that I started this piece with: how to get an entire population to comply. Or, even more bluntly: how to keep the masses of people who are oppressed by the state from rising up against it. More generally, the very powerful, those who make decisions that affect entire populations, have a serious problem on their hands in terms of being able to maintain their power. All in all, I see them as having four different paths.
This is the ultimate power of states: the capacity to mobilize people and weapons to subdue people, within and outside the specific state. Everyone in power would want to rely on this as little as possible. It’s immensely costly, it’s immensely risky, and, in our time, it’s bad public relations.
The cost is having to feed, clothe, and shelter all the people comprising the physical force at the disposal of the state (armies and police), as well as produce or buy all the weapons and the many other items beyond my own imagination that it takes to maintain enough fear and enough scarcity for enough people to be part of these forces. In times past, and in many parts of the world, people are taken against their will, coerced into participating in such forces, either by law or by literally being taken from their homes at gunpoint. It’s not an easy proposition. Armies can and have revolted against rulers, and those in power know how precarious it is to rely only on this for sustaining their power. Ultimately, everyone knows there’s never going to be a state that will have enough police or enough army to squash the entire population indefinitely. For this reason, it’s not an accident that so many dictators become paranoid.
The purpose of what is commonly known as “divide and conquer” is to reduce the chances that the population at large will see what is going on and come together to resist and transform the social conditions. Such strategies may be intentional or not. Many variations exist, including, for example, the way borders were drawn when the colonial powers left parts of Africa and Asia, leaving behind a time bomb ready to turn into internally waged wars. Here below I provide two key types of this strategy.
A Vassal class. Though we are no longer in feudal times, I find it useful to refer to this term, and grateful to David Graeber for putting it on the map in thinking about present-day capitalism. Vassals, during the feudal times, were people who had some access to privilege, especially in the form of land tenure, in exchange for doing some of the dirty work of the feudal lords. The literal meaning of this is obviously not fitting. The deeper meaning is about shifting allegiance to the ruling classes and, as part of it, separating from the masses. This allegiance was bought through the granting of privileges. Today, as Matthew Stewart wrote in a disturbing and illuminating article called “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy,” in the Atlantic, the people occupying these positions are what he refers to as “the 9.9%.” These are the people whose loyalty is fully with the established order because they know they benefit from it, and are totally willing to support the ones fully in power.
A vassal-like situation was also created in relation to Jews for most of Jewish existence in Europe. Jews were regularly prohibited from owning and sometimes even living on the land and from many forms of work, and were often forced into occupations such as moneylending that would make them the visible target of anger and desperation of the population at large instead of directing those feelings at the ruling classes. This made Jews easy targets for venting those feelings through violence, eventually leading to Jews being expelled and needing to set up an entire new cycle of the same structure in a new place. This cyclical nature of anti-Semitism has also kept it confusing and invisible to many during times in the cycle when Jews appear to benefit from the existing social order, sometimes even confusing the Jews themselves.
Despised groups. Another main strategy of division is to bring apart groups who could otherwise become allies in creating social change. If the previous strategy directs social unrest towards those who are somewhat better off — the vassals, sometimes the Jews, the professional classes today — this strategy directs anger at those who are made to be slightly less fortunate, as if they are a threat to the basic well-being of some other group. This will include groups such as Jews at some points in the cycle of anti-Semitism, immigrants, lepers, and racialized minorities. Such groups, though deeply powerless, are presented as threatening the integrity, sacredness, or economic sustainability of the whole and usually also of another group who is invited to ally itself upwards with the ruling classes rather then horizontally with others. This is one of the core strategies currently used in the US.
All states, and ruling classes more generally, extract resources from the masses and siphon them towards their own accumulation. The methods have changed over the millennia since patriarchy, and, following it, class societies and states, emerged. Anywhere from outright physical extraction to complex forms of profits, the result is growing accumulation unless measures are taken to redistribute wealth, or a collapse results in destruction of the entire society. Redistribution can take many forms, including what is known as progressive taxation (higher proportion of taxes that higher incomes are subject to), free services, and more.
From the perspective of those in power, there is a fundamental tension between the desire for maintaining power and increasing wealth and the clarity that there is a level of misery beyond which the masses will stop complying. A difference in strategy about where to keep the balance between the two is one way of looking at the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties in the US, a point I come back to below. The entire package of “welfare states” is an example of a particular point on that range that allowed several European countries to maintain stability for several decades.
When the ruling classes are able to create a story that justifies the social order and is powerful enough that the masses buy into it, this is another source of stability for those in power. The story will, by necessity, need to demonstrate how what is unfolding is true and just, or is even the only way that things can be. So far in my thinking on this topic, I have catalogued three different pathways to justifying the social order: gods, karma, and merit/talent. For many of us who live within the scientific materialism worldview, gods and karma may appear ridiculous (even while others are aiming to work out a convergence between science and religion). I can imagine that the same would be true in the other direction.
If ruling classes could rely on the story alone, they would, as it means they can continue to accumulate wealth without giving anything back, not even to the vassals of the social order, and without having to worry about revolts that would result in having to squash the population. As it appears, that isn’t a possibility, either. It seems that some combination of the four mechanisms is essential given that, fundamentally, every social order that is taking from the many to give to the few is inherently unstable.
The Contemporary Legitimation Story
The story currently ruling much of the world is that the existing social order is the best that can be, given our human nature. That human nature is defined by the homo economicus model: the purely self-interested being whose primary aim in life is to maximize gain, even if it’s at cost to others. We are given to believe that with all its ailments, the capitalist order has brought mostly flourishing and well-being to humans, and nothing else would work.
Following the massive 1929 crash, as levels of misery for the many grew, and especially following WWII, more and more industrialized countries accepted a particular deal that worked for some decades. Capitalism, in Western Europe in the mid-20th century in particular, bought its legitimacy by making enough people comfortable enough, and all the others craving that comfort to the point where it distracted them from other needs. That is a very solid, stable legitimation for the existing social order, with the so-called liberal democracy form of state as a core part of it.
It didn’t last.
Starting in the mid-seventies, the deal began to crack. My best understanding of why is that the total capacity to grow the economy declined, and thus giving back as much as was the case before was no longer according sufficient accumulation for the few. Why this is — why growing the economy is limited no matter what humans will do — is far beyond the scope of this article which is, after all, about the police and not about economics. Anyone who is interested can look up “threshold hypothesis” and go from there.
Whatever the reason, the deal broke. First, in the US and the UK, the era of Thatcher and Reagan, who coined the term TINA (“There is no alternative”) as they were rapidly dismantling the safety nets that held the deal together. Subsequently, as neoliberalism, complete with austerity measures and structural adjustment programs that have been pauperizing larger and larger parts of the population, it’s been used to justify those very horrors. This story is powerful enough that it keeps even the miserable in many places still striving for a greater share of the pie rather than for entirely changing the social order.
One of the distractions that this story has created is what I see as a manufactured debate about the role of the state in relation to the market. The prevalent belief within much of the global north these days is that the state and the market are at odds with each other. This belief, as best I can glean from my readings, keeps people battling between themselves about how much government to have, ranging from those who claim, as Ronald Reagan said, “Government is the problem,” and those who are profoundly concerned about the ravages of capitalism and yet believe that things can be manageable and sustainable if only governments regulate sufficiently. The entire range within this debate is based on the assumption of opposition between the state and the market.
This stands in stark divergence from my own understanding. Based upon my reading, markets were created by states. Despite what economists say, markets did not exist, and definitely did not arise organically, before states came into existence. And the reason why states created markets was primarily so that there would be some way, through taxation, to siphon resources to those who rule the state.
Capitalism, a particular version of market economy, is no exception. All governments that exist in the world of capitalism fundamentally accept the deal that the economy runs by the market. As far as I know, last I looked, of about 200 countries in the world that are independent states (with the existence of at least 5 being disputed internationally), only 5 are outside of the capitalist globalized economy. In that sense, capitalism definitely won the day in its fight against socialism: just about all the governments of the world are operating on the basis of capitalism, and are sustained by capitalism, and therefore want to sustain it. It’s a deal between the capitalists — the rich capitalists, not the small ones — and the state. The specifics of the deal change from country to country. In some places the deal is based on the premise that for as long as the masses of people benefit sufficiently from the wealth created through technological innovation in all areas, they would accept the continued skewing of income and asset distribution. In other places, the people with most power believe they can accumulate far more without actively making concessions to the working majority.
To me, these are variations on the same theme. Almost universally, the fundamental logic of market, business, and capitalism, more or less regulated, with more or fewer social safety nets, isn’t questioned at its core. The story lasted for a long time.
And that appears to be changing; it’s precisely what is being shaken up in the US right now as the violence within the system itself is being exposed.
Capitalism and Systemic Violence
I am someone who has been asking questions my whole life. I never let go of asking the deep “why” questions once I stopped being four, and I still do that. One of the questions that I was obsessing about for many years emerged from the brutal realization that most people in the world wouldn’t do the work they are doing, day in and day out, if they had any other option they could see to feed, clothe, shelter, and care for their families and communities. That meant, I realized, a deep and inherent violence built into capitalism, since its continued presence depends on the continued presence of such jobs in large quantities. Once I got that, the obvious question for me was to grasp where that violence came from and what holds it in place.
This is where my gratitude to Silvia Federici has no bounds, because she answered that question for me in her book Caliban and the Witch, which I consider to be essential reading for anyone who wants to understand our world at all.
What she was able to do in this one volume, which I see as both extensively documented and accessible, is to demonstrate that inherent violence in how it shows up at the inception of capitalism. What she brings to light, in a nutshell, is how the necessity of having access to cheap labor in order to jump-start capitalism required massive amount of violence that took four forms during the two hundred years when capitalism was coming online, roughly 1500 to 1700: slavery, colonization, land appropriation, and the witch hunts. I had known about these elements, and I had never put them all together into one. The common denominator is what was missing for me: all of them created a cheap, reliable labor force, and this was sorely needed to get the machine going. (If you wonder how the witch hunts are connected: Federici shows that it was primarily about taking away the power that women had to control their reproduction through abortions. That simple.)
Because of the focus of this piece on racism and the police, I am leaving aside the topics of land appropriation and the attack on women that were essential to early capitalism, and which continue to show up again wherever the transition to capitalism unfolds, now extensively in Africa. Silvia Federici documents much of this in the Caliban and the Witch book, as well as in a newer collection of essays called Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons.
Here, given the focus, I want to take a deeper look at slavery and touch on colonization. The original forms of slavery didn’t have any specific othering built into them. They started in three different places more or less at the same time: the Near East, China, and India. Slavery was what happened to those who couldn’t pay back their debt. The highest proportion of slaves in any known society was not in the antebellum US as I had thought. I was surprised to discover that it was during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Gradually over time, slavery was delegitimized, and moral aversion to it increased. By the time the modern slave trade started, slavery was almost entirely seen as immoral.
How, then, did those who engaged in the slave trade manage to get this going? In order to justify slavery, they had to rely on some form of othering that made it OK to enslave certain people. Initially, the othering was based on Christianity. This is no surprise to me, since Christianity has othering baked into its foundations through its treatment of Jews. My mother specialized in medieval history of Christianity in her graduate work, and she said to me something I have remembered for 45 years: there is no way to understand Christian Europe without the presence of the Jews as other. I sometimes think of anti-Semitism as the training ground for colonization and slavery, both of which were initially justified based on the Christian/heathen dichotomy.
Capitalism and Racism in the US
Slavery in the US didn’t become about race until some time later, at a time when many enslaved Africans and their descendants had already adopted Christianity and challenged the theological narrative that was justifying slavery using the Bible. Whiteness was created intentionally to separate indentured workers who came from Europe from enslaved Africans, following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, and other smaller events that demonstrated that they could unite against the ruling classes. Until 1671, there was rarely any usage of the adjective “white.” This increased over time. According to historian Robin D.J. Kelley, “Many of the European-descended poor whites began to identify themselves, if not directly with the rich whites, certainly with being white. And here you get the emergence of this idea of a white race as a way to distinguish themselves from those dark-skinned people who they associate with perpetual slavery.”
Many people in the US of European descent are generally well-meaning, appalled by slavery and by the genocide of the original inhabitants of North America, inspired by the principles on which the US was founded, and wishing for different relationships with people from other places. I would imagine it would be exceedingly difficult for most such people to take in, fully, that the wealth of the United States of America is inextricably connected to slavery and genocide.
It’s so much easier to think that there were awful mistakes that happened, and that they can be corrected while maintaining capitalism. I don’t believe these are correctable without getting rid of capitalism. It seems to me much more aligned with the unfolding of history to see racism as wrapped around and within capitalism, completely inseparable. Even the US Constitution, upheld as a most amazing document, only granted the rights it named to white males with property. This means that the United States of America was created for them; not for all its inhabitants. Every little bit of expanding the enfranchisement since then has come about through bitter fighting. Those who identified, and continue to identify, with the sense of superiority of whites relative to other “races,” of males relative to females, and of those with property relative to “the poor” have never ceded any power and rights to others without a serious fight. This is not just in the past. This is ongoing contested territory to this day, as seen by the continued fights about matters such as who gets to vote and whose vote counts; or which forms of using the same drug get which types of penalty, with multifold differences based on clearly racialized differences.
US laws, initially and still to a large extent today, are based on the sacredness of private property, aiming to protect the property of those who have it. The more property anyone has in the US, the more they can count on police to be on their side.
To come back to the pathways for maintaining power, in the US, the particular combination of methods used — whether consciously or not we will never know — is increasingly focusing on doing as little redistribution as possible while still managing to maintain legitimacy. This is the point I was referring to earlier: it appears that Republicans and Democrats differ in how much redistribution they are willing to accept, how much regulation, or how much full license to accumulate, not on the essential goal of as much accumulation as possible for the few. This makes the creation of a legitimation story harder for the Republicans.
Some of that legitimacy may still be traced to Max Weber’s original insights about the power of what he called “The Protestant Ethic,” within which there is deep attribution of individual responsibility for wealth or lack thereof, mixed, in some denominations, with the doctrine of predestination: if someone is wealthy there is a reason, somehow related to God and to being morally superior as well. This keeps people, especially the impoverished white people, deeply distressed about not “making it.” Within this context, another part of the overall “package” of maintaining power in the US is that having despised minorities that can be blamed for that “failure” takes away some of the sting and keeps many people identified with those in power.
I have a lot of sorrow for the ways in which so much of the left is demonizing the white working class, and much gratitude for Michael Lerner and Cat Zavis’ perspective, with which I fully align, exemplified in this brief article by Cat Zavis called “Why People Are Demanding to Get Back to Work.” This complex mix of strategies and stories means that many people will support the ruling classes, against what would appear to be their own interests as working class people, and thus force need not be used against them to keep them in line. Separating people along constructed racial lines means force can be used mostly against the racialized minorities and that will then be accepted by much of the population. When white right-wing protestors marched on state capitols against wearing masks, police came wearing regular police clothes. When people rose up in protest against larger systemic issues, the police came wearing riot gear.
This is part of why I am so dubious whenever colleagues of mine want to address the issues of police brutality by offering training to police departments in the US. Offering training of this kind assumes that the role of police in the US is, as we’ve been told, to protect everyone’s safety; that the reason there has been so much violence is because there isn’t enough of the right kind of training; and that, with the right kind of training, the police can and will learn how to do it better. I used to be one of those people who, in any country where I have lived, believed this story of the role of police. I no longer do.
My current perspective is that the police in the US are trained in the ways that they are because physical force is becoming more and more what is being used to sustain the basic social order. This is documented, in various ways, by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, where she focuses on the racial dimension of mass incarceration and legal and police violence. It is also documented by Radley Balko in The Rise of the Warrior Cop, about the militarization of police starting in the late 1960s. It’s not an accident that the US has more per capita incarcerated people than anywhere else on the planet, including even South Africa under apartheid and Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Pausing to Feel
Before looking at how all this information might support those of us who are looking for a creative and compassionate response to the depth and intensity of the assault on racialized minorities in the US and the majority of people on the planet, I want to pause for a moment, lest I participate inadvertently in the numbing of self that this kind of information can so easily lead to. I have been taking this kind of information in a lot more than in the past. I use it, these days, to open my heart more and more. I use it to strengthen myself in my resolve. My heart is exploding in grief, and the only remedy I know is companionship in holding it. I am asking you, the reader, to also pause and be with where your heart is. Tenderness, both towards self and towards others, is essential if we are going to survive...
Systemic Understanding, Compassion, and the Police
One of the reasons why I treasure systemic understanding is that I think it is inherently compassionate. My experience has been quite consistent, and I hear similar feedback from people: the systemic lens reduces guilt and shame. It helps us see all of us, wherever we are on the difficult power map of the world, with clear eyed compassion: we are what we are socialized to be, and we are socialized differently based on so many factors that have nothing to do with who we are in essence.
If we look at the police from a systemic lens, and we accept some version of what I’ve been writing about up until now — which is that the primary role of the police is to protect propertied white males against the possible uprising of everyone else — then we can have extraordinary compassion for the police. Because one of the things that is intense to grasp is that police protect the propertied people. But they are not, themselves, those people.
The majority of people who join armies and police forces where there isn’t coercive conscription are working class people who don’t have many options for getting well-paying work with which they can feed their children. They then get training to prepare them for combat.
I only recently learned, to my shock and near-despair, that some such training for police officers has been designed and is delivered by the same person who wrote the book On Killing which I have been referring to for many years. This is retired colonel Dave Grossman. In his book he documents how training of soldiers changed once it became clear that, all the way through WWII, most soldiers were not aiming at the soldiers of the other side. They were shooting in the air, or they were not shooting at all. Once this became known, the US army changed the way they trained soldiers. By the Vietnam war, the majority of the time, soldiers were actually shooting and killing Vietnamese soldiers and even civilians.
When I first read the book as part of my own dissertation research in the 1990s, I had interpreted it through what seemed to me to be a lens of concern. Grossman used his data to explain why there was such enormous PTSD that Vietnam vets have. He maintained that humans have what he called a taboo on killing other humans, and only 2 percent of the population doesn’t have this taboo. For everyone else, this taboo has to be trained out of us in order for us to kill. I understood him to be ringing an alarm bell about the growing desensitization that so many are now subjected to through video games, for example, and, overall, that he was voicing a concern about increasing violence.
I would never have imagined that this same person would be creating training based on all of his research, training that is specifically designed to support police officers in being more able and willing to shoot and kill. This was so completely incomprehensible for me that I did some poking around, and I have concluded that it’s incontrovertible. His organization is called “Killology Research Group” and an article about his methods was simply chilling to read.
If this is the training that police departments now choose to lean on for their operations; if police departments around the US are receiving growing numbers of military equipment and combat weapons to complement the training and prepare them for war zone behavior rather than protective behavior, why would we expect them to suddenly be open to training in methods like Nonviolent Communication that are based on dialogue, de-escalation, and caring for the humanity and dignity of all?
I see people like Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, as a symptom and product of a system designed to do exactly what it has been doing. My understanding is that he had 18 prior incidents of harming people that nothing was done about. Of course this says something about him, and that is much less my interest than the systemic context he is the example of. Why would there be nothing done about his prior transgressions? How could that not be seen by him as at least passive support? This is why I don’t think he is the problem.
I have profound and deep concerns about solutions that focus on training only individuals. As in the #MeToo context, the solutions that are proposed target individuals, rather than looking at systems. I often wonder why so often I see very serious systemic analyses turn into prescriptions for individual solutions that are punitive.
Rather than having harsh judgments of individual police officers, seeing them as bad people, I want to retain my awareness that Derek Chauvin and I are one, kin, both of us human. I make it my business, in general to understand people, to actually put myself inside of them and imagine what they think, how they feel, and what brings them to take the actions that they do. I do this all the time. I can’t not. I tried, more than once, to look at pictures of the killing and imagine being that man who, so casually, did what he did. So far, I have not succeeded. Sure, I can come up with theories about him, about what it takes to create someone so numb that he can so totally not appear to feel anything. I can say that he is a human being who has been made to not feel and not think to such a degree that he could make this happen. And such theories are from the outside; it’s not his actual experience, and the theories are not adding to my capacity to imagine the actual experience of doing what he did. As wide as the gap is, he is still human, like me, with the same needs.
Leveraging Privilege with Creative Compassion
I want to end this article, full of pain as it is, with a story of an action taken by a friend that inspired me so much that I interviewed her for this article to be able to tell the full story. She is choosing to remain anonymous, a point that becomes clearer below, and I call her, for this article, Lindsay. The events described in this interview took place a couple of years ago, not in relation to the current moment. It’s a story about creative compassion, and it’s a story about leveraging privilege in a difficult moment, and it keeps running around in my head and amazing me.
The following transcript is lightly edited for clarity and flow, and mostly shared verbatim. I include a few final comments afterwards.
Lindsay: One afternoon a couple of years ago, I was working with some colleagues in the front room of our office, which is located in a gentrifying, but still primarily African-American neighborhood. There’s a K-8 school [Kindergarten through 8th grade] behind us where 98 percent of the children attending live in poverty.
One of us happened to look out the window and saw a youth from the school — he looked like a middle school kid; not a big kid — running down the sidewalk. The youth looked to be African- American. And the police officer chasing him was white.
We looked out just in time to see this man tackle this youth. I remember his full weight fell on this youth.
I stopped looking at that point and ran down the stairs, out the front door, and to the sidewalk. When I got to the end of the walkway, just adjacent to the sidewalk, a police car with that officer’s partner had pulled up kind of at an angle, like they do sometimes in an emergency, where they don’t worry about how they’re parked. The police officers were standing next to the car on the grass, and the youth was in the back of the police car.
As I approached, I heard the youth saying, “I can’t breathe.” Which makes sense to me when I think about what had just happened to him.
Because this is primarily an African-American neighborhood, people were starting to come out of the houses around us, and beginning to record with their phones.
So I saw the police beginning to bristle when I approached. I didn’t come right up to them. I stood five feet away or so. Then I turned to the white police officer who obviously had done the chasing. He was breathing heavily and perspiring. And I said, “Are you all right?”
He looked a little surprised. Then he said, “Yeah.”
I said, “I’m glad.”
Then I pointed at the youth, and I said, “Is he all right?”
I continued, “I’m worried, right now, that if he doesn’t get taken care of in a good way, this is going to be one of those incidents that gets blown up. Not only harm to him, but harming both of you and the reputation of the police department here. I would like to make sure that he’s OK.”
Then I turned to his partner, who didn’t look like he was as activated, and I said, “What do you think?” They ended up calling an ambulance for the youth.
I went inside and made some phone calls to people I knew who I thought could help. About an hour later, this led to a visit from a special investigator from the Ethics Unit who interviewed my team about what they had seen.
Unfortunately this youth, who was living in a gang-involved family, disappeared a couple of weeks later. As far as I know, he wasn’t seen again by anyone at the school.
Miki: What went on inside of you that led you to focus on the police officer? I am especially asking this because there is a critique around centering white people’s experience. And I think this is something different.
Lindsay: I wanted to be effective and fastest in getting the child help. I saw the distress in all of them. I also knew where the power was. From years of training in Nonviolent Communication, I know the importance of “empathy before education.”
In this situation, I wasn’t focused on the youth in the car getting emotional support. I just, literally, wanted to make sure that he was not going to die.
Miki: What do you think made it possible for you to think so clearly and make purposeful decisions rather than go into reaction in such a charged moment? Is there anything that other people could learn from in what you were able to do?
Lindsay: I’m absolutely grounded in the truth of putting empathy before education, including in a charged moment. And that can be accomplished in just a few words. Like, “Are you OK?”
To have done anything else would not have made sense to me. I couldn’t speak directly to the child first, to ask him if he was OK, because then I would have lost the opportunity to build a connection with the police. And that’s what they were expecting me to do. So part of what I did was trying to do what’s not expected. It catches people off guard.
Miki: I also think of it as “acting upstream,” closer to the cause. Does that make sense to you?
Lindsay: Yeah. Also I do have some compassion for the police. I know people in that police department who are good human beings. Also I’m aware, from witnessing youth/police dialogues, that both youth and police in our community are often demonized by different groups, for different reasons. Both groups feel themselves intensely on the receiving end of “enemy images” [major and persistent judgments] from other people. That’s actually a thing that they bond over, when opportunity presents.
I’m talking to a young man right now who’s interested in joining the force. I’m encouraging him to do it because he’s a multiracial kid with a really good heart. We need really good-hearted people to serve as police officers. Then the question is, “What do we do to take care of their good hearts?”
I know we also need to seriously shrink and prescribe what things police get called for and what they don’t get called for. I’m with all the people who are saying they’re not the right responders for mental health issues, and maybe not for domestic violence calls either.
Someone I know said, “We should turn the police department over to the grandmothers.” Which I love. Until the police get turned over to the grandmothers, I want to have really good people serving. And I also want to continue to unpack enemy images. The development has to engage everybody.
Miki: It helps me, and I’m curious if it helps you, to know that this particular police officer is a symptom of a system rather than the cause of a problem. Does that create more compassion?
Lindsay: Well, it creates more clarity for sure. Getting angry at an individual lets the system off the hook.
Miki: Short of years of training in Nonviolent Communication, do you think there’s anything anybody can do to jump-start themselves into being able to do what you did?
Lindsay: This is one of the reasons why I’m such a proponent of restorative practices. I have heard you talk about three things people need to do in order to have good conflicts. They need relationship, skills, and structure. I think you can build relationships and structures faster than you can build skills.
Also, I keep wondering what the connection is between the social distress, the political and psychological distress, with environmental distress. I know there’s a connection. I just haven’t bothered to pull the pieces together.
I read that last month, even with the pandemic and the reduction of activity globally, still was one of the worst months for CO2 emissions.
I think that we are, on some level, however unconscious, connected to the body of the world.
And the distress of the body of the world is intense right now. It’s like, “Our Mom is getting sicker.” We all feel it, because we’re the blood vessels, we’re like the cells in the body. One of the things Joanna Macy says is that there may be a leap forward on this, just to help us survive as a species.
So all that is in my mind all the time, however inarticulately.
Miki: So when you see a situation, that awareness helps you choose.
Lindsay: Yes. And it also relates to power analysis, to my own comfort, and the work I’ve done on my white racial identity. Learning about stuff like intention vs. impact.
One of the things I have seen is that Nonviolent Communication sometimes makes people more skillful at hiding their conflict aversion.
I love Nonviolent Communication. I don’t know where my life would be without it. And it’s not the only thing that’s needed right now. “Power analysis,” which I studied in Kingian Nonviolence, is also essential.
When I first started learning Nonviolent Communication, it strengthened my conflict aversion. I got better at being conflict-averse. [note: I am guessing what Lindsay may be referring to is the reliance on empathy and the expression of feelings and needs which can easily be filtered through a “should” about being “nice” and accommodating others’ needs, or caring to the point of giving up on what matters to us.]
Miki: One final question: Why do you want this to be anonymous?
Lindsay: I feel uncomfortable in spaces where white people tell stories about how “woke” they are. And for me to get “cred” for a story like that, it doesn’t fit with the sort of cultural humility framework that I want to embody.
I don’t want to contribute to that sort of competitive culture. That’s part of how I want to decolonize my thinking.
I want to collaborate harder. I want to be less worried about who gets the credit. There’s this great quote that I fell in love with some years ago: “You can get a whole hell of a lot of done if you don’t mind who gets the credit.”
In reflecting on this story, a few final comments come to mind. First, I want to highlight how much this is a story of finding leverage within the system as it is using privilege for the benefit of those who don’t have it. This is not a story of transforming the system. No individual can transform a system; only collections of people can do it. This is a challenge I think of, as often as I can: what are the resources I have, and what can I do with them that will benefit, in some way, those who don’t have those resources in whichever situation I am in.
Second, I want to highlight that one of the resources that Lindsay had is an internal resource: her faith in the humanity of the police officer. She was able to access it and she banked on his humanity. That is one thing that, for me, is missing in a lot of what I hear: the idea that we need to bridge into the humanity of the police officer because they’re humans and products of the system. Lindsay did that in a stark, surprising way that transformed the script.
What Lindsay did, for me, is a small example of what I believe is our biggest current task if we are to have a future. It lives in me as an existential question that has been haunting me for the last few weeks and with which I want to end. It appears to me that if we are to have a future, we need to turn around the destruction of all that patriarchy has brought us. In order to do that, we will need to create a field of something that will have more potency than the patriarchal field within which we operate, globally at this point. Enough potency to surround, with tenderness, all that has happened, and to digest, metabolize, mourn, and integrate. Lindsay was able to do that with the police officer. What I don’t know is where the energy will come from to do that collectively, in relation to the totality of things.