But What About Ferguson? I quoted Orlando Patterson earlier: “Today we no longer lynch in public rituals supervised by local clergymen. Instead, the state hires the hangman to do it.” Quite true, but this civilized approach creates two problems for the high priests of sacrifice. One: Specific capital punishment cases can take many years, including lengthy appeals, from crime to arrest to judgment to execution. Two: Since the act itself is relatively private and few people get to observe it, it has no deterrent value.
Human sacrifice must be a public spectacle or it has no value. Consider that in a typical witch burning of the 17th century (not the Middle Ages, as most people assume) or in the auto-de-fe trials and executions of heretics by the Inquisition, absolutely every single person in the community was required to be present. All were to share in the sacrament, all shared in the guilt, and all were expected to project that guilt upon the designated victim.
I am suggesting that we as a society have given local law enforcement officers the right and privilege to carry out these rituals of sacrifice – approximately five times a week, out on the streets, brazenly, proudly, especially before videotaping witnesses, with practically no interference from the legal system. The number of cops who are even mildly punished for gunning people down is microscopic.
And what kind of people are American policemen? The question, of course, proposes an absurd generality. But we are talking about a society whose myths are collapsing, myths that have been dysfunctional for a long time. And this means that all of our institutions, cultural, religious, educational, political, communication, production and distribution of resources, social welfare, foreign policy and the penal system have also been dysfunctional, or at least functional in a perverted way.
Policing is the worst example of all. A system which under ideal, indigenous or archetypal conditions could initiate men into the sacred role of the protective (“serve and protect”) Warrior, that could actually bring out the best in such men, has functioned under capitalism to bring out the very worst in far too many of them for far too long.
Not – not at all – that good men don’t still work as police. The problem is the system that takes – is now designed to take – idealistic young men and spit out killers. Chief K.L. Williams, who has trained thousands of officers around the country, argues:
On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
Former Black officer Redditt Hudson agrees:
I worked with men and women who became cops for all the right reasons — they really wanted to help make their communities better. And I worked with people like the president of my police academy class, who sent out an email after President Obama won the 2008 election that included the statement, “I can’t believe I live in a country full of ni**er lovers!!!!!!!!”
Nevertheless, many Americans believe that police officers are generally good, noble heroes. A Gallup poll from 2014 asked Americans to rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in various fields: police officers ranked in the top five, just above members of the clergy. The profession — the endeavor — is noble. But this myth about the general goodness of cops obscures the truth of what needs to be done to fix the system. It makes it look like all we need to do is hire good people, rather than fix the entire system. Institutional racism runs throughout our criminal justice system.
This is a mess, and it’s very expensive. Looking at it from a purely rational and economic perspective – the kind of perspective liberals and academics take – American cities are broke, and they need to stop hemorrhaging badly needed civic funds. For example, the NYPD has paid out over $1 billion in settlements over the last decade and a half for the misconduct of its officers.
Seen, however, from a mythically-literate perspective (the kind of perspective that, yes, republicans take), those court-ordered expenses are well spent. They are the price that America is willing to pay to maintain the narratives of the Evil Other, the Lone Hero, the best system (capitalism), and the willingness to “surrender freedom (despite Benjamin Franklin’s warning) for security.”
And, despite all the payouts and all the videos, writes Chancey De Vega, the (white) public
…overwhelmingly still believes — as documented by numerous public opinion surveys and other research — that police treat all people fairly and equally, regardless of skin color. This perverse denial of social and political reality is an example of Joe Feagin’s concept of the white racial frame in action…These examples of recorded violence against black people function as a type of modern-day lynching photography.
In the age of Obama, media pundits praised our “post-racial” society. Indeed, I have argued in several previous blogs (38, 46 and 69), that the corporate gatekeepers carefully vetted him for his reliability long before he sought the presidency. His specific mission was to revive the myth of innocence and restore faith in government with the narrative of a post-racial America.
However, even as blacks achieved legal equality and crime decreased, those same pundits collaborated with government in manipulating the nation’s post-9/11 levels of fear of both terrorism and immigrants. So it shouldn’t surprise us that public police murders of unarmed African-Americans – in many cases, documented by video with their hands raised in surrender – also increased.
As I wrote at the beginning of this essay, throughout history when a community needs to resolve some fundamental social transition, human sacrifice becomes its method. Certainly our current age – with women and gays continuing to question traditional notions of masculinity; as men are rapidly losing jobs and financial security; as immigrants question our notions of who is a member of the Polis; as fewer and fewer of us have any interest in the political process; as we wake up from the American dream to discover the nightmare we have been living – certainly our age qualifies as one of fundamental transition. Hence the search for scapegoats.
The Hands Up – Don’t shoot chant, followed by Black Lives Matter, became the new We Shall Overcome, which, in a sense, served its purpose. The older chant spoke of a future time when segregation and discrimination would be eliminated and African Americans would be both free and equal. It was intended quite deliberately to shame America into living up to its promise. Indeed, the Civil Rights movement did procure its initial objectives. Legal discrimination was abolished and middle-class Blacks entered society’s mainstream.
But America missed the opportunity to eliminate the deeper, systemic foundations of the myth of Innocence. Rather than lancing and finally cleaning out the canker of racism, it smoothed it over with superficial reforms. The centuries-old pressure on the national – white – psyche remained: the alienation from the body, the condemnation of the feminine, the eagerness to rape the natural world for short-term material comforts, the worship of celebrities, the literalized religious fundamentalism, the dumbing-down of our innate intelligence and indigenous souls. All this remained, and the pressure naturally sought an outlet in our happy willingness to allow free reign to those would embody the darkest of our repressed desires, the violent retribution against the Others of the world. Naturally, racism resurfaced in Ronald Reagan’s (in James Baldwin’s words) “brutal contempt for the poor,” in Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform,” in George Bush’s disgusting neglect of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and in Obama’s “Post-racial America.” Now, We Shall Overcome has been reduced to a parody, a photo-op for Congressional clowns.
Hands Up – Don’t shoot, on the other hand, spoke ironically and with passion to the core of the issue.
Blacks and Browns have always known that much police violence has nothing to do with preventing or stopping crime, that the police have often been little more than a Gaza-like occupation force intended to keep the Other inside America’s urban ghettos. As Noam Chomsky has written, Black people were “herded into concentration camps, which we…call ‘cities.’” Now, the young protesters of Ferguson are teaching the rest of us that murder of the unarmed – and non-threatening – victim, for all to see on You-Tube is precisely the point.
This is how, in 2014, America engaged in human sacrifice. We no longer have Aztec temples or lynching trees with hundreds of spectators, but now the high priests of sacrifice can perform their ceremonies before millions of us, even as Black people raised their arms up in surrender. They no longer require our physical presence. But who can look away?
Anusha Kedhar speculates about the meaning of the gesture. And Cornel West speaks of “Niggerization,” which
…is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is also the wholesale attempt to impede democratization — to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects.