Posted by: thealienist | August 20, 2014

What’s Happening in Ferguson?

Some situations just seem to scream for a psychological analysis.  In Ferguson, MO, a young black man was shot under suspicious circumstances.  The effects have spread from a grieving family and involved police officer to the community of Ferguson, then national media, then our entire nation and international media.  Is this because this incident was so unique?  Was the young man so famous or the Ferguson police department so infamous that fame was assured?  No.  There are other things at work here.I propose that what we see in Ferguson is the product of fear.  It has played itself out in many ways through different individuals.

1.  Police:

a.  Police throughout the nation are in an arms race with criminals.  This has contributed to the “militarization” of large city police forces.  We demand that our police put their lives on the line for the benefit of our communities, but our tolerance for guns and military style weapons are making our streets less and less safe while fueling the need for a police force that can respond to highly armed criminals.  It also drives the need for police to react quickly to perceived threats.  Despite rigorous training in the use of lethal force, the combination of powerful weaponry with reduced reaction time is a recipe for tragedy.

b.  Police are human.  Citizens may vilify them as corrupt, unfeeling, and violent or may laud them as courageous and self-sacrificing.  The truth is that they are merely human.  If citizens taunt them, threaten them, verbally abuse them, assault them, and defame them, some will resist the urge to retaliate, but others will reach a breaking point and respond — possibly excessively.  If that happens, who is to blame?  Providing that the participants are sane and healthy, both the instigator and the police are to blame.  We need to hold the police responsible for their actions, but we need to hold those provoking them responsible, too.

c.  We treat the things we fear differently from things we do not fear.  We tend to avoid fearsome things or to only engage them when they are under our control.  We tend to assume that fearsome things are really threats without bothering to check if they really are.  We react viscerally to fearsome things and have problems engaging our intellect with them.  This is a problem when humans get scared.  They may flee, then the problem may be over.  However, they may attack in order to eliminate the threat.  This may be helpful for the community or it may be the seeds of tragedy.  The enemy of fear is true knowledge.  A well-informed police officer is a better police officer.  An officer who thinks he is well-informed but possesses only a caricature of the person he is dealing with is a danger to himself and his community.

2.  Community

a.  Our suspicious nation has learned to mistrust people with power.  Our media is full of stories of corruption, misuse of power, violent extortion and other misdeeds of the government.  They paint police officers and court officials as crooked and only interested in maintaining their own power.  This is reinforced by actual mistreatment of people in the community by law enforcement.  These stories get wide distribution in media.  As a result, police are treated with disrespect or contempt.  Their orders are not obeyed.  Use of force is invited in a masochistic attempt to reduce police to the violent people they are believed to be.  Thus, both the police and the community behave in ways that increase mutual mistrust.

b.  Citizens are human.  They may be characterized as passive, not caring about their neighbors, and more interested in families than in justice.  They may also be characterized by others as active, neighborly, and promoting of civic responsibility.  The truth is that citizens are merely human.  They are not usually either as good or as bad as they appear on t.v.  If their families are attacked, they respond.  Some of their responses may be emotionally extravagant.  Some of them may be quiet and private.  Most of them will be appropriate to their community.  But some may be violent.  Some may be directed at police, and some may be directed at other community members.  To confront a response to violence or threat of violence with a stronger threat of violence is not wise.  It increases fear and mistrust.

c.  See #1.c.  Replace “police officer” with “citizen.”  We are all human.

3.  Media

Media wants the “scoop.”  They want to be the first to report.  This tends to make them report first and understand later.  This tends to lead to use of biased assumptions and stereotypes that fit these assumptions.  Why do they want the “scoop”?  Because citizens demand it and reward them handsomely for it.  If citizens were more patient and were more interested in the truth, if they punished media outlets who let the need for speed corrupt the demand for truth, then we would have true knowledge.  This would reduce, rather than inflame, fear.

I could go on (and maybe I will) but this post is too long by now anyway.  Please understand that the above generalizations do not apply to every police officer or to every citizen.  Unfortunately, we have seen that it only takes a few from either side to take a tragedy and turn it into a fiasco.

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