Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Myers Shooting: The Last Straw For Police Excess?

When Trayvon Martin was killed, the right and the left habitually wrestled over characterizing him as a hardened criminal that deserved it and a cherubic under-aged victim of racism and 'gun violence'. I said firmly from the get-go that he sounded like a juvenile delinquent and probably contributed to the confrontation, but that Zimmerman's deadly force was likely unwarranted.

When Michael Brown was killed, as the same ridiculous conjectural tug-of-war was only shaping up, Joe was yelling at me for saying that he sounded like a thug, but that I saw no reason to believe lethal force was legally justified.

In the case of Vonderrit Deondre Myers, - who, for those that live under a rock, was gunned down by an off-duty St. Louis police officer Wednesday night - I really don't foresee that tired battle over character. He was arrested on June 27 for unlawful use of a weapon, a felony charge, and resisted arrest. At the time of his shooting, he was carrying an illegally possessed firearm, and at least according to the officer's account - fired it at the officer 3 times. There is little question as to whether Myers was a criminal, and even less to say in defense of a man who gets shot by the guy he opened fire on. At least so far, even the protesters seem to agree, as I see hardly anyone defending his innocence. That is what makes this case so unique, and indicative of serious looming political turmoil. A homicide by police that looks justified from all angles is nevertheless spawning protests, garnering nationwide attention, and looks likely to escalate to more violence and confrontations between citizens and police in planned actions this weekend.

Contrary to some abjectly racist assumptions disgustingly popular in the United States; violent crime and assault on police are NOT widely accepted behaviors in our poor, urban communities populated overwhelmingly by minorities. I know this from personal experience working in such communities, as well as from reviewing sociological studies. Like most reasonable people, the average poor, minority American believes that if you commit a violent crime - you deserve to go to jail, if you engage in violence - you have no business complaining about receiving violence in return, and if you open fire on a cop - you should expect to die. In fact, if such communities truly believed anyone killed by police that is poor and a minority is innocent; there would be protests and riots in this country almost daily.

The protests are also being joined by swaths of young, middle class activists concerned with civil liberties and law enforcement excess. While this demographic is more consistent in its distaste for law enforcement and government in general; it is often accused, quite rightfully, by the very poor and minorities it's joining of only complaining from the safety of its suburban homes. Yet this seemingly justified is bringing them out into the streets in ways that only the most unjustified ones have in the past.

Unlike Martin and Brown, Myers is not the kind of police homicide that usually receives this kind of reaction. So why is this unlikely coalition protesting an off-duty cop shooting a man with a documented history of violence who opened fire on him first?

Because to the poor minorities involved in the resistance, every officer is now a bigot and every act of police violence driven by racism. And because to the middle class protesters concerned with overreach and civil liberties, every officer is now a sociopath drunk on power, representing and relying on a corrupt structure of tyranny and incompetence. Both generalizations are grossly misled as the overwhelming majority of officers and agencies meet neither stereotype. But the unlikely bedfellows are united by a simple and destructive consensus that police can do no right. Or, in more social science terms, they are fed up enough with law enforcement engaging in violence with impunity to think compliance with law and order is no longer worth the trouble of putting up with this. There is no reasoning with that mentality, and in extreme cases it leads to the violent ousting of government - as we witnessed recently in Egypt and Ukraine.

I'm not quite predicting outright revolution will occur in the United States within the next couple of months, but I do believe the critical mass has been reached to create significant and permanent policy changes. CNN contributor and civil rights activist Van Jones attributed this to a "wholesale breakdown of trust [between citizens and police]", and I agree completely. No law enforcement agency in the world has the resources to keep everyone in its jurisdiction obedient to the law by force, it is the simple logic of police being outnumbered 1000s-to-1. Most people follow the laws of our own volition, save minor infractions like speeding or littering which predominantly go unpunished, leaving police with enough room to pursue criminals that actually threaten public safety and law and order. Further, law enforcement relies significantly on citizen cooperation in maintaining law and order and apprehending criminals; ranging from supplying information to summoning police to situations of conflict rather than taking the law into their own hands. Both of these elements require a certain widespread faith in both law enforcement's motives and its capacity. So when a critical mass of the population - and this does not require anything close to a majority - begins to see the police as a greater threat to their safety than criminals; law enforcement not only becomes useless and incapable, but law and order itself is threatened as the benefits of non-compliance outweigh the costs in the eyes of enough people to overwhelm its resources. If my estimates of the magnitude of this disobedience movement in coming weeks are accurate - the politicians confronting it will have no choice but to enact significant concessions to its demands to maintain law and order. It helps that many on both sides of the aisle have indicated a desire to take up many of the causes in question, such as demilitarization of police, repeal of multiple laws authorizing police overreach, and accountability measures such as mounted cameras for law enforcement. I believe this eruption of civil unrest, coupled with the upcoming election, may finally spur enough support for their doing so.

Like most large collective reactions to a negative event, this one is coarse and in many ways irrational - seeking retribution against a class for grudges over both real and perceived injustices committed by a few of its members. However, meaningful and lasting social change is rarely achieved through precise and rational action, it certainly was not in the 1890s or the 1960s. So despite its brash nature, I believe this development is overall positive and beneficial for this country. Bringing the authority and political influence of law enforcement agencies in line with the Constitution is LONG overdue, as is bringing their funding in line with economic reality. While we may not all agree on the specifics of how to do so, that statement is one people from across the political spectrum today can get behind, leaving it in need only of a catalyst that pushes reluctant politicians to respond. If you are involved in this, I salute you; but also implore you to keep the violence to a minimum. Remember that the most successful from of civil disobedience is not giving a beating, but being willing to take one.


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