Posts Tagged ‘sad and frustrating’

Yesterday I was doing a book crawl through beautiful Cambridge, and I thought of the recent turmoil over the arrest of Professor Henry Gates. I then drove back to the Cape and read this interesting take on the arrest by the quite fascinating Pam Spaulding.

I decided to have an opinion.

What I find really troubling in this situation is the inability of Sgt. Crawley to identify the situation appropriately and respond accordingly. This is part of a much bigger trend of police officers who are having difficulty dealing with their authority being challenged or questioned. Instead of identifying themselves as public servants, they see themselves as authority figures entitled to respect and obedience. This view of their role impedes an ability to respond flexibly and with civility. It has led to an increasing number of taser attacks, and it is responsible for the murder of innocent people.

Now, I would like to talk about high-stress situations. I once had a job where I had occasional interaction with the police. It was a very sad job where I spent a lot of time with a neglected and forgotten group in our society. In a few tough moments I had to call the police (or someone else would call, which was not fun either), or I had to go to a place where the cops had arrived and step in to assume control for a minor.

These were not fun experiences. The people involved were upset. Misunderstandings occurred, and events would escalate out of control. The police were there to do their job. They could be very helpful, and you can’t help but see how frustrating it must be to respond to calls constantly where people with little control over their circumstances are lashing out at everyone around them. It feels impossible to affect things in the long-term, and all the police can do is try to contain the immediate situation.

What I frequently noticed is while the cops were there to do their job, they had a poor ability to cope if the other party became accusatory or disrespectful. Now, obviously that doesn’t give cops a reason to arrest someone, taser them, or shoot them. They’re supposed to be able to deal with stressful situations and angry people. Authority figures should not be automatically entitled to respect. People deserve respect on the basis of being people, but our officials or power figures deserve respect (as authority figures, not as people) only so far as they earn it.  That’s what the bigger issue is here, and it’s the one I’m angry about.

There is a smaller issue here too. Every conflict is worsened when the parties involved fail to show empathy to one another, or at least even try to think about what the other person is thinking. I’m often sympathetic to the school of thought that to understand is to forgive the person (though not the crime). It’s very stressful to have a cop enter your own house, and it must be a whole lot worse to have them accuse you of being a robber, and to fail to accept your proof of who you are. It seems that Professor Gates responded the way many of us would, and certainly the way most of us would feel inside even if we were able to keep our cool. But it probably wasn’t the best reaction. Cops are going to be wrong. Sometimes they are going to do evil, vicious things, and they need to be held responsible. Other times, though, there may just be a misunderstanding which is aggravated by a failure to think about why the other person is reacting a certain way.

It’s tragic when misunderstandings escalate because neither party is capable of reacting calmly, even when they are being wronged. When people are being verbally attacked or feel threatened, what they are thinking about is how the other person is treating them, and less about how their actions are affecting the other. They expect empathy while being unable to give it. That’s the basic groundwork for all real nasty fights. Two (or more) people (or groups) not listening, not understanding. It’s frustrating when you know you’re right, but unfortunately, your opponent almost always thinks they’re right too.

Being right isn’t always enough. I wish it was, but the world isn’t fair. Gandhi knew that, and so did Martin Luther King Jr. They seem, to me, to be two men so full of the desire for justice that rage must have been a component of their lives. Rage, and a desire for justice and righteousness amid so much horror and injustice. Rage can start our need for change, but it doesn’t bring about change. What brings about change is our ability to control our anger and turn it into something productive. Most people think they’re good, most people rationalize the oppressions of their time and think of wrongs as existing in the past or someplace far away. In all my life, yelling and being angry at someone in the wrong has never changed their mind or turned them in to sudden sweethearts. It’s just made them scream and be enraged as well. It sucks, because if screaming and yelling and being angry worked, I would get in my car and drive back to DC right now and march into the congressional offices and start screaming and yelling about health care day and night. That would be easy, and it would feel really fucking good. But that’s not going to get us a single-payer option. Using our rage in a constructive way is our only chance. Pointing out injustice and working to fight it calmly and rationally is our best hope for change.

That said, the inability of Sgt. Crawley to respond to this situation calmly and rationally is really disturbing. Because that is his job. While Professor Gates may have been frustrated and angry, that is his right in his own home when he is falsely accused of being a burglar. But we can’t have policemen being enraged if they feel they’re not being shown due deference.

Police in our society are being seen less and less as public servants, and more and more as representatives of a power structure which highly values authority. I protested both of George W. Bush’s inaugurations as well as the Iraq War multiple times, and it was disconcerting to see the DC police riding motorcycles into crowds of middle-aged peaceful protesters. It was upsetting to see officers pour out of dark vans with guns in Adams-Morgan looking for protesters during the inauguration. That’s really fucking weird and not good.  Their top priority is not about protecting The People, but Some People. In their role of serving power, they demand more respect for their own authority.  The mentality of a public servant is far different from an authority figure. Both people may be called upon to a bad scene, but their reactions will be totally different. One person is going to help, the other person is going to take control, and will balk if that control and their right to determine action is not acknowledged.

I’m concerned the cop couldn’t handle Professor Gates’ annoyance. I’m concerned his conflict training failed. I’m concerned about his feeling of entitlement to respect and obedience. We’re not required to be nice to cops. We’re not required to be polite and deferential. It’s not good to have cops who tie their egos up with their jobs, who try to impose their will on situations and aren’t able to cope with resistance. This results in cops fulfilling their role as public protecters less. Instead, the public is supposed to protect their ego by showing obedience to their will. As long as we have authority figures who many people think are entitled to unquestioned respect and deference solely based upon their possession of power, we will have gross abuses of power.


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