Friday, September 12, 2014

How It Should Be And How It Isn't

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of a jaywalking teenager by an out-of-control cop in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that understandably lead a neighborhood to protest in the streets, I wrote a post decrying the extreme, militaristic, anti-democratic police response, one that unnecessarily made the streets of a small American town into a war zone.

I was living in downtown Seattle in 1999 when the World Trade Organization met here. At the time, I had just returned from living in Germany with my wife, we had a two-year-old daughter, and, frankly, my attentions were turned almost totally inward, focusing on this new life our family was creating together. In other words, I wasn't at all politicized in those days and, in fact, knew little if anything about the WTO. But obviously, others did. As tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to exercise their First Amendment rights, the police turned out in full-on military gear, with military weaponry. 

My initial instinct was to side with the cops. After all, world leaders had honored our city by choosing it as a venue for their important talks and these gnarly protesters were wrecking the chamber of commerce opportunity. But that all changed when I decided to walk around to see what was happening. What I found were lines of tense, threatening cops, men and women literally dressed to kill standing across from people singing, chanting, and waving signs. At one point, I got caught up in some sort of aggressive "corralling" maneuver, whereby the police were marching upon a clutch of protestors, riot shields raised, guns ready, apparently attempting to drive everyone away from some central location. Tear gas was launched at us. I ran to avoid the affects. At times the entire downtown area seemed to be under a fog of tear gas.

I'd been a part of a few protests and rallies in my past, but had never experienced anything like this. The police had always been around, but these cops were aggressively fighting against American citizens rather than supporting them in their exercise of free speech. Yes, a few petty criminals used the cover of the protesting crowd to commit acts of vandalism and theft as happened in Ferguson and during the Occupy protests, but from my position as a truly "innocent" bystander, the police had abdicated their role to catch law-breakers and were simply holding everyone responsible for the acts of a few. The assumption of collective guilt is always wrong: and they were doing it as an occupying army. It does not get any more undemocratic than this.

It's not just Ferguson or Seattle. Policing right across our nation is out of control: I've come to think of them as just another "gang," one that is armed to the teeth. I wanted to start with the idea that it was just a matter of the proverbial "bad apples," because, after all, I didn't want to be responsible for the same sort of guilt by association I'd seen from the police, but as long as cops continue to protect their own, as long as they continue to close ranks behind a "blue wall," they are participating in a criminal conspiracy to cover-up crimes. This makes them all bad cops. The reason I support the people of Ferguson, who are still in the streets, is that the courts have proven totally incapable of convicting these "bad apples" even when it gets that far, largely due to the fact that their fellow gang members refuse to honestly testify against them. We already know that internal investigations will result in, at worst, a slap on the wrist (although in their "defense," one cop was forced to resign, presumedly with full benefits, for pointing a rifle into a journalist's camera and threatening to kill him). It's with a truly heavy heart that I confess that I have no faith whatsoever that there will be justice in the death of that Ferguson teenager. 

These days, it appears that the court of public opinion is the only court we have when it comes to bad cops. 

It's gotten so that I no longer counsel my teenager to seek out an officer if she feels threatened in downtown Seattle, in part because I'm worried she'll wind up getting shot (I can't even imagine what it must be like to be the parent of a black teen). I instead tell her to duck into the nearest shop because, at least, I know the police are committed to protecting commerce.

It's gotten so that foreign governments are warning their citizens traveling in America about the criminality of our police forces. That's right, they are being warned about our police, rather than our criminals.

It's gotten so that the use of police SWAT raids, military-style invasions of homes and businesses, have increased from about 3,000 a year in the 1980's, to over 50,000 a year today, often to arrest unarmed, petty criminals, causing death and injury to hundreds of innocent people including young children.

And it's getting worse:

The nation gaped at the sight of a military-grade Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle trundling through Ferguson, but it turns out that was relatively restrained policing. Relative, that is, to San Diego, where police will use a similar steel behemoth for the city's schools. The San Diego Unified School District Police Department has acquired its own vehicle, known as a MRAP, and expect it to be operational by October.

That's right: now even school police have tanks. I'll bet that will make the teachers think twice before complaining about pay or working conditions or, well, just about anything. I'm guessing this takes going on strike off the table. I reckon we won't be hearing about any San Diego high schoolers engaging in any sort of righteous civil actions like the kids sometimes do in Seattle

This militarization of America's police forces, both in terms of weaponry and mentality, must stop. It is an undemocratic, un-American development, one that should outrage all of us. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, the man in charge during the WTO protests, hardly a bleeding-heart, is one of the few cops courageous enough to step out from behind the blue wall and tell the truth about what is going on. Of course, he had to resign to do that. He's been making the rounds lately, promoting his new book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of American Policing (which I've not read), regretting the mistakes the SPD made in 1996, and calling for the de-militarization of American police forces. I chose to embed this clip because it's the most entertaining, but you can find much more serious discussion with a quick Google search.

As I wrote in my former post on this topic:

You might ask, what does this have to do with teaching and learning from preschoolers? My job as an educator is to prepare children to assume the rights and responsibilities of self-governance, of citizenship, and this right to peaceful protest is one of them. I took my own daughter to some of the Occupy Seattle protests, but had second thoughts when I saw the vicious brutality implied in the garb, armaments, and attitude of so-called law enforcement. Those guys came prepared for a fight even when none was offered. They shouted, commanded, and threw their weight around like a pack of sociopathic thugs. Early on in the protests I tried to sidle up to cops and chat with them, but those days faded away as the weeks wore on. Soon my friendly comments were met with curses and threats. I had become their enemy simply by virtue of how I chose to exercise my rights and responsibilities as a citizen. 

I've heard that some of my readers don't care for these "political" posts. I'm sorry. I sometimes wish I didn't write them, but in all honesty I see no difference between these posts and the cute anecdotes from the classroom: these are all stories of democracy, both how it should be and how it isn't.

UPDATE: I had to add this video clip of a news report about a 70 lb. teenage girl who was wrestled to the ground by three cops, not for breaking the law, but for violating a school policy about mobile phones. It's unbelievable to me that grown-ups can't figure out a better way to deal with a little sass than through pure brutality. This is not a funny one. This is what militarization and lack of accountability looks like:

Sadly, I couldn't get the clip to embed, but here's a link.

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Anonymous said...

THANK you for writing these responses! If readers only want the cute, pre-school information, shame on them. What a lovely privilege to choose to not care about these topics. I so greatly appreciate your voice, your research, your call for change, and your commitment to doing what is best not just for a select few children but for ALL children and, as a result, our country.

Zhug said...

Merci pour TOUS vos articles. Votre blog aborde de véritables questions pédagogiques, c'est ce qui le rend supérieur à tous les autres blogs s’intéressant au monde préscolaire. Ces derniers étant plus attachés au "Oh that's cute !" plutôt qu'à la question de ce qu'apprennent réellement les enfants en pratiquant des activités "cute". Quant aux sujets politisés que vous abordez, il faut continuer et je vous en remercie.
Isa, from France

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this article. I was recently involved with a school board that fired the school's lead teacher and Director, without notice and without cause. This was done on a Thursday and the board simply expected the school to go on with business as usual on Monday without any considerations for the lack of an administrator and lead teacher. The same abuse of power impacts our neighborhoods as impact our cities. Learning how to handle this organized violence is urgent for every single part of our society.