About two years ago I received a ticket while driving for not having my registration up to date. My car was unwashed and banged up, and the cop that tailed me followed me for several blocks (running my plate through “the system”) before flashing his lights and pulling me over. My girlfriend was with me at the time, and the officer had me sit still for several minutes while he waited for two more cars to arrive.
I kept my hands on the steering wheel because I wanted them to see that my hands weren’t doing anything suspicious. I didn’t want them to get spooked or to give them any reason to put a bullet in me. Truth was I was afraid of them at the time, and with good reason.
When I was in high school my JV baseball coach was a police officer. During the course of the year the man shot a seventeen year old in the parking-lot of the local Walmart. The papers said it was in self defense, and it probably was, but there was doubt among the students and even my parents. Whether it was self defense or not, it was a white on black homicide, and it was someone I thought I knew and who I’d trusted.
I’ve heard that there is generally mistrust between cops and two specific groups; lower-class Americans, and Minorities. Sociology would suggest that there are reasons for this particular phenomena beyond something internal and individual. Applying the Sociological Imagination gives us a way to view the attitude that is, maybe, less biased than what one might be able to produce through the act of “common-sense” reflection.
In order to understand how the seeds of mistrust grew with in me a lot of it has to do with experiences, but also with education, and even with hollywood. My JV baseball coach was a major blow. Seeing a truck-full of armed-to-the-teeth police officers barreling after a truck-full of grim looking “freedom fighters” (or gangsters) in El Salvador was another experience which opened my eyes to the dangers of cops, police brutality, and their function in society both stated and unstated. Tied with Police is the Justice system.
In my life I have seen Wall-street commit terrible crimes; Frauds that have hurt millions (including my parents) and money laundering for terrorist organizations. In these cases, after we as a nation payed the “bailout,” these institutions and the people that ran them didn’t go to jail. They paid a fine, but they didn’t go to jail. Without being able to articulate it I began to see the police as something for the poor, not for the elite, and since I was not elite, I began to mistrust and to feel bitter. This is something I still feel today.
Recently I’ve read a book called American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, by Matt Taibi, and this has helped me to be able to better articulate this double standard. But even if I couldn’t say it, or describe it accurately before, we could all see it. This double standard preserves stability, and Capitalism, and of course our bottom line.
The stated, or primary function, of a police force is to “protect and serve.” I believe this is true. Even with my bias I can see how without a police force organized crime and random acts of violence could not be regulated. This would be disastrous for society. The problem is there is an idealistic assumption that everyone should be protected and served equally, and this is not true.
Law-enforcement targets and profiles poorer communities more than wealthy and affluent communities, and that is tied to politics, and political opinions championed by an elite class who doesn’t have to worry as much about run-ins with the Law. In this way we can see that a latent function of Law-enforcement is to regulate and control the poor.
Law enforcement can hurt you personally for a long time too. When I was pulled over for that ticket I was young an stupid. I didn’t know enough to check the mail, and the officer who issued the ticket also gave me a court summons. Because I didn’t check the mail, I didn’t see the summons, and began a slippery slope that lead to a $1000-plus ticket and a suspended license that I still haven’t been able to pay off with my minimum-wage income.
This hit set me on a track, and I could feel it. Because I couldn’t drive my employment options where limited by where I could bike or walk. Because I couldn’t drive seeing my parents and family has been greatly reduced (once or twice a year) which has put a strain on my relationships with them. Because I couldn’t drive my world became much much smaller. Work, School, and Home became the only places I visited. This limitation of freedom and access really does choke the spirit and fuel my bitterness towards law-enforcement. Last summer I was almost facing homelessness for the second time in my life, and it is something very much connected to the handicap of not being able to drive.
I won’t dispute the role I played in getting my license suspended. When I do get my license back, you can bet I will never let this happen again, but Law enforcement displayed a unique callousness to my personal circumstances. They did not consider personal consequences, strains in my relationships or anything else when they ran me through the system, they just did it because that was the law and they could.
With the banks it was different. Lawyers and judges considered collateral consequences. The term “to big to fail” was thrown around, and what it meant was that if a financial institution where to be compromised our national economy and the companies employees might be hurt in a significant and profound way. Somehow the term “too big to fail” was applied to the individuals responsible for the worst crimes of the last economic recession too, and we saw no jail or real punishment of any kind for these institutions and the people who ran them. Basically the worst banks and companies were holding their employees hostage and saying if you hurt us you hurt them. They would be the collateral consequences.
So in one case collateral consequences get considered, and in mine they are ignored completely. This is inexcusable in my opinion, and this is a situation felt, experienced, and lived by so many more than just myself. I’m telling you this is part of the aggression that fuels the riots we’ve seen of late in Ferguson and other places. People are tired of a system that is designed to hold them in poverty, and worse the uneducated can’t articulate why they feel frustrated they only know that they are, and worse still it’s going to keep happening.
And when it does, the violence that erupts because of pandemic frustration among the lower social strata the media and the elites of our society are going to paint an ugly picture. They will condemn “those people” as violent, un-American, and criminal. The media will make sure this message is widely spread, and (think about the “looking-glass self theory”) because the lower classes are perceived in that reduced and vilified lens they might actually believe it. And if they internalize it, this perception effects their self esteem and every other aspect of their lives. This is our vicious cycle, and it is a real problem in America.