Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Andy Lopez – these are the well-known names. But to really understand America’s myth of innocence, we must see these tragedies in the proper perspective. Every 28 hours, an African-American, Native American or Latino is shot dead by a police officer, a security guard or a self-appointed vigilante. 43% of the shootings occur after incidents of racial profiling, and 80% of the victims are unarmed.
Those who are familiar with the darker side of American history know that these statistics, sadly, are nothing new. But there is one new aspect. The cops left Michael Brown bleeding in the street for over four hours. Despite the crowd of witnesses and their cell phone cameras, they administered no first aid and called no ambulance before hauling the body away in an SUV. It would appear that the Ferguson cops (50 whites out of 53 on the force, in a community that is overwhelmingly black) were taunting the community, deliberately daring it to spread word of the grisly murder, daring it to respond.
It did, of course, respond, and several days after the protests began, in broad daylight, in a busy neighborhood, within 20 seconds of arriving at the scene of a disturbance, while bystanders held up their cell phones, Ferguson police pumped nine bullets into another young black man, Kajieme Powell. You can see the murder here (Viewer Discretion Advised).
This is the new factor. Apparently the police in many jurisdictions (Ferguson is hardly unique), knowing how rarely they are held accountable, want you to see the evidence. In the age of cell phone photography and instant publicity through social media, these police killings have become increasingly, audaciously, proudly, brazenly public affairs. And when we take note that over the past several years this has become a pattern, we have to ask, “Does this pattern have a function? What is the purpose of public state violence?” Such questions are not simply sociological. Since they invite us to consider how our society functions, they are profoundly mythological. And in America, they usually have theological roots as well.
Yes, state violence is certainly intended to serve as a deterrent and a warning to anyone who might act out of line or question the status quo. That’s Radical Politics 101. A subset of this truth is the specifically American history of policing, which has its roots in pre-Civil War slave patrols. After that war, there is a long, sordid, documented relationship of Southern police departments with the Ku Klux Klan, as told by K.L. Williams, the Black Chief of Police of Kinloch, Missouri: Often the Klan functioned as a covert enforcement arm of white governments, acting in secrecy to oppress Blacks, Jews, immigrants and Catholics.
But we need to look deeper. Ferguson reminds us that modern America continues to engage in ceremonies that we prefer to think of as primitive, as part of humanity’s ancient past. We are talking about human sacrifice.
Studies of societies like the Aztecs have revealed that sacrifice always occurred within a religious context. The word itself means “to make sacred.” Common components of the rituals generally included consecrated places, fire (symbolizing the deity to be propitiated) and (if large temples had not been built) a tree where the deed was performed.
“The victim,” writes sociologist Orlando Patterson in Rituals Of Blood: The Consequences Of Slavery In Two American Centuries, “mediated between the sacred and the profane.” His sacrifice created a compact between the people and their deity, expiating their sins and reinforcing their values.
Throughout history, when a community needs to resolve some fundamental social transition, human sacrifice becomes its method. American Southern whites faced precisely such a period of acute liminal transition in the decades after the Civil War, and they performed regular rituals of human sacrifice well into the 1930s.
René Girard, in Violence and the Sacred, writes that every society develops rituals to protect its members from their own potential violence, periodically identifying a victim whose violent death will cure the community. Once the community has identified him as the source of the trouble, they can violently rid themselves of the pollution. This action reconstitutes
…a true community, united in its hatred for one alone of its number… any community that has fallen prey to violence or has been stricken by some overwhelming catastrophe hurls itself blindly into the search for a scapegoat.”
I take issue with Girard when he writes of “a true community.” There are examples of indigenous societies that do not scapegoat. But his theory certainly applies to almost all large, modern societies.
The community achieves temporary unity and restored innocence by focusing its shadow upon the Other (usually accused of having the Dionysian qualities of sexuality or irrational violence) and projecting it outwards where all can safely view it. However, as in all addictive conditions, the need to be cleansed of the unacceptable feelings always continues to build up, and so does the need to sacrifice a scapegoat.
Our demythologized culture socializes children by destroying their experience of primordial unity and instilling the basic polarities (black/white, male/female, good/evil, etc) upon which it is built. But this process, begun in original sin, leaves tremendous reservoirs of guilt in the western mind. In response, the collective unconscious dreamed up mythic images of the killing of the children and projected them onto a long series of scapegoats who, in their righteous suffering, might cleanse us of our sins.
The killing of the children, one of patriarchy’s fundamental statements, is the universal substrate for scapegoating in America. Now, no longer allowed to engage in literal child-sacrifice, we do so through abuse, battery, negligence, rape and institutionalized hopelessness. Girls eleven years old or younger make up 30% of rape victims, and juvenile sexual assault victims know their perpetrators 93% of the time. A quarter of American children live in poverty; over a million of them are homeless.
But aren’t adolescents troublemakers? When polled, adults estimate that juveniles are responsible for 43% of violent crime. Sociologist Mike Males, however, reports that teenagers commit only 13% of these crimes. Yet nearly half the states prosecute children as young as ten as if they were adults, and over 50% of adults favor executing teenage killers.
We are referring, of course, to a society that more or less equates crime with race. If polling officials include the word “white” in their surveys, the vitriol drops considerably. In fact, argues Males, “aging baby boomers” are responsible for most drug addiction and crime, and most of them are white. But adults can deny the extent and causes of our social problems by falling back upon the mythically-charged war against the children, easily substituting the code word “teenage” for “black” or “Latino.” Thus, the domestic war on minority children yields some stunning numbers. American youths consistently receive prison sentences 60% longer than adults for the same crimes. When adults are the victims of sex crimes, sentences are tougher than when the victims are children; and parents who abuse their children receive shorter sentences than strangers who do so.
Where does the anger go in a culture that eats its children? We identify persons whose mere existence questions our identity, especially our notions of racial purity and gender, and label them as child-molesters. If they are guilty, then we remain innocent. This relieves us of the “terror of history,” says historian Teofilo Ruiz: “… at the very root of our making into civilized people lies always the fact of child sacrifice.”
We scapegoat minorities, gays, women and youth. Three of these streams of bile converge on black, teenage girls (all four if they are gay or transgender). The “welfare queen” still bears the burden of an old, puritan tradition in which the legal system equated lack of chastity with lack of veracity.
Long before our concern over child molesters, however, a uniquely American pattern of scapegoating existed: the grizzly murder of thousands of black men – based upon accusations of sexual relations with white women.