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I have a new essay up at Al Jazeera today on what I call the "cult of compliance." It's a topic I've been writing about for a long time, but the events of the last few days bring it all into focus.

I write:

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, set off by the a policeman’s shooting of an unarmed black teen last week, appear to be spinning out of control — not because crowds are rioting nightly but because law enforcement is operating as though they are in a war zone. Peaceful protesters are facing nothing short of a domestic army, armed with military equipment, waiting for a provocation.

As the protests progressed, the police have used noncompliance, or the failure to obey their every order, as their justification for whatever violence came next. That’s also the excuse that the police used to explain why an officer shot Michael Brown. They said the incident started because Brown didn’t comply with an order to move, so it is he who is to blame.

What happens if you don’t comply when the police give you an order? What rights do you really have? How free are you, really, when the authorities have weapons pointed at you or when they have the right to draw a weapon and use it with relative impunity?

Over the past few years, I have been tracking the rhetoric that police and other authority figures use to justify all kinds of violence. In cases that seem very different, separated by factors such as age, race, gender, sexuality, geography, class and ability, police explain away their actions by citing noncompliance. They do it because it works. They do it because according to their beliefs, any sign of noncompliance is an invitation to strike.

To fight back, ordinary citizens need not only to push specific reforms but also to transform the culture of law enforcement.

This is an intersectional reading of police violence. I come at this as someone who focuses on writing about police violence against people with disabilities, but I see it as a societal threat engaging all categories of people. It hurts those historically oppressed by state power the most, but that doesn't mean anyone is safe.

I continue:

The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.

This cult of compliance provides the point of intersection between racism and militarization of law enforcement — the primary factors at play in Ferguson — and other issues, such as the overuse of stun guns and the failure of police to respond to the needs of the mentally ill. Police may be motivated by their racism to harass people of color, but when officers get violent, they almost always cite a form of noncompliance as their justification.  

I'd very like people on this site to read the piece and offer me their thoughts. I'm working on this long-term now and want to get it right. I think we have to fight the disease in our culture as well as its specific manifestations among our police force.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.


I am a freelance columnist, blogger, long-time member of this site, and history professor. You can read my blog at How Did We Get Into This Mess?

To read more, you could 'like' my public Facebook page.

Or you could follow me on Twitter:

Originally posted to Lollardfish on Fri Aug 15, 2014 at 09:29 AM PDT.

Also republished by Police Accountability Group.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Yeah, and being black is the ultimate in (8+ / 0-)

    non-compliance. It has resulted in slavery, Jim Crow, rape, robbery, lack of rights as citizens, disrespect and murder by people who serve and protect the male white supremacist power structure.

    Too many progeny of the Puritans, Tories and evil Confederacy are in positions of power, which is the biggest problem that we have. Monsters are in charge.

    The police murder people for not being good obedient dogs.

    Many of the majority are on their side so that there is someone else abused and oppressed and many of them want to oppress. Because it is ALWAYS the negro's fault. The crime is being black because we aren't white.

    I voted Tuesday, May 6, 2014 because it is my right, my responsibility and because my parents moved from Alabama to Ohio to vote. Unfortunately, the republicons want to turn Ohio into Alabama.

    by a2nite on Fri Aug 15, 2014 at 09:40:33 AM PDT

  •  LE is in the grip of compliance. (7+ / 0-)

    Americans are in the grips of a cop/authority figure TV show fetish.

  •  I'll go you one better. (4+ / 0-)

    A very common tactic is to be ambiguous about whether it's an "order" or a "request." If you comply they say you acted voluntarily and waived your right to complain that they didn't have the right to make you do it.  If you don't comply you get your head banged.  Police training is very cynical.

    That tactic was very evident in that incident with the journalists in the McDonalds Wednesday night.  When the journalists tried to clarify whether it was an order to leave, the cops were foiled and had to admit that it wasn't an order.  That pissed them off.  So they came back shortly and tried to make a stronger non-order.  The journalists were essentially arrested and roughed up for the "noncompliance" of forcing the officers to admit they were "ordering" them out of the restaurant on camera.

    They get away with it because whether it's an "order" or a "request" is very much a question of fact for a judge to decide, and this sort of oppression cannot take place without complicity of the prosecutors and the courts.

    A right answer to the wrong question is a wrong answer.

    by legalarray on Fri Aug 15, 2014 at 11:28:29 AM PDT

  •  Compliance isn't a "cult". It's the LAW. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    worldlotus, getlost

    Failure to obey a police order is a crime under the laws of every U.S. state. It matters not whether the subject of the order believes it to be illegal or unconstitutional. Failure to present ID to a police officer who demands it is a crime under the laws of a majority of states, laws that were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hiibel v. 6th Judicial Court of Nevada. Cursing at, yelling at, disrespecting, or even failure to show deference to a police officer will get a person arrested in any U.S. state.

    Once a person has been declared to be under arrest, failure to submit absolutely will result in a charge of resisting arrest, & the police are then legally entitled to use whatever force they deem necessary to subdue & apprehend the subject - nightstick, taser, pepper spray, whatever. If the subject attempts to flee, in many circumstances the police can legally shoot to kill, as the Supreme Court affirmed in Tennessee v. Garner. If the person fights back or physically resists the police officers in any way, he/she will be charged with assaulting a police officer, a felony under the laws of every U.S. state.

    Police have virtual impunity for anything they do in the course of their work. Their authority over individuals is absolute. But as bad as the police may f--- you, the law will f--- you even worse. In court it's almost impossible to win acquittal on a charge of disorderly conduct or failure to obey a police order or resisting arrest. A conviction for assaulting an officer virtually always results in a jail sentence.

    How did we get to this point? It's attributable to 45 years of "tough on crime" politics & to the War on Drugs. Specifically it's attributable to a conservative Supreme Court & a series of decisions that have greatly expanded police authority & shielded police from accountability. Above all, it's attributable to the attitudes of a majority of the American people. Americans are of a fairly authoritarian mindset when it comes to matters like this. Americans believe in strict law & order; believe in harsh justice for criminals & scofflaws & anyone who doesn't know his place.

    With regard to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, we've seen this movie before, & it doesn't have a happy ending. The police officer who fired the fatal shots at Michael Brown will never face accountability for his actions. For those persons arrested during the protests, justice will be swift & severe. White people, at least a solid majority of them, will accept as fact the police version of events. In the end, nothing is going to change.

    •  Chilling & terrifies (as it is meant, no doubt). (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Over many years of advocacy work with children with disabilities, I became more aware of the "compliance" mindset.

      It is chilling to know that a child or an adult that cannot comply because they are unable to hear or are intellectually disabled & cannot comprehend are subject to the same use of force techniques.

      In some instances resulting in death.  

      No crime being committed...aside from presumed non compliance.

      The disability community that I reference is a small percentage of the overall population, so these cases either make a momentary splash in the news or not at all. So many do not know that our most vulnerable are at risk.

      It should terrify to know that no one of any age, race or ability are at risk.

      •  I have Aspergers & it's happened to me. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        worldlotus, chimene

        In January 2012, after finishing dinner at about 8:45pm, I decided to take a walk through my neighborhood in Columbia, S.C. About 5 blocks from my house, a police officer cruising in the other direction turned around & stopped me. Immediately he was quite belligerent & suspicious. "We've had some break-ins in the area", he said. He proceeded to ask, in a threatening tone, "where are you headed?"; "where do you live". I answered his questions truthfully & politely as I could. "What's in your backpack?", he then demanded. "Books, magazines, personal stuff", I responded. Then he barked at me loudly, "YOU GOT SOME ID?". "I wasn't aware that I needed one; I'm just walking", I responded. At that point the officer, already out of his car, charged me, kicked my feet out from under me, slammed me down to the turf & moved to put me in handcuffs. "GET DOWN! GET DOWN!", he yelled. "Why are you doing this to me?", I responded. "YOU RESISTED ARREST", he then claimed. The officer, a 22-year-old male, by then had called for back-up. The 2 officers then started to question me some more. "You got warrants out for your arrest", the 2nd officer said. "No I don't", I responded. They then put me in the back of the police car & ran a check, which came back clean. So then the officer wrote out 2 citations, 1 for disorderly conduct & 1 for resisting arrest, then drove me to a paddy wagon which transported me to the county jail. Once I got to the jail, the booking officer, upon seeing the citations, looked up at me & said, "Oh, a smart ass". After spending the night in jail, I was released on a personal-recognizance bond at 4pm the next day.

        So for this walk through my own neighborhood, I was facing 2 criminal charges, to say nothing of the humiliation & degradation I experienced. I had to hire a lawyer, which cost me $2,500. The prosecutor's office had no intention of dropping the charges. All they "offered" me was to go into a diversion program, which meant pleading guilty to the charges, paying the fines, accepting responsibility for my "crimes", paying more money to enter the program, doing 100 hours of "community service", submitting to random drug-testing & also to the authority of a probation officer, of sorts, who had the power to flunk me from the program & remand me back for trial (in which case I would forfeit all that money). My lawyer, who I think did believe my story, nonetheless explained that it was rare for anyone to win acquittal at trial on charges such that I faced & that the diversion program at least assured me of being able to come out of this with no criminal record. Still I refused, & so at arraignment we requested a jury trial.

        Six months later I was required to attend a pre-trial hearing. At this point my lawyer discovered that the arresting officer was no longer on the city police force, & he moved to have the charges dismissed. This motion was granted, & so the criminal case is over. I then filed a civil suit against the city police, which is still pending (in discovery phase), but my civil lawyer warned me that the police would likely "lose" the dashboard video, which is the crux of the civil case & would corroborate my version of events.

        This wasn't the first time I'd had a hostile encounter with police while walking through my neighborhood. The police here have a stop-&-frisk policy, & anyone walking at night, whether white or black, might be subjected to this. The police will simply stop pedestrians at random (on a made-up pretext) & order them to spread & submit to a pat-down that usually involves being forced to empty pockets & open backpack. Give them any backtalk whatsoever & one will be taken straight to jail. I bought my house 10 years ago, & this has happened to me at least 12 times. (I guess walking & wandering are just part of my aspie ways.) I'd had enough of these encounters that I know what to say & what not to say, know what to do & not to do. And I know my rights.

        But that knowledge is of little use when facing a cop on a power-trip. Most people I know, when I told this story, agreed that the police behavior was outrageous, but a significant number told me that they had no sympathy for me, that I'd "brought this all on myself" by my failure to be submissive to this police officer. Unfortunately, that latter sentiment appears to be the majority opinion among Americans, at least among whites & older people.

        After my arrest, I did some more reading on this subject, from the ACLU as well as from other sources. I understand now that I got lucky in that I was able to get the charges dismissed, & that most people who find themselves in this situation don't get such a positive outcome.

        •  Outrageous what happened to you. I did not (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          boudi08, chimene

          know this is considered "resisting arrest" or "disorderly conduct":

          I wasn't aware that I needed one; I'm just walking
          The comment made by the booking officer is very telling.

          The cases I know about involved children unable to hear and/or comprehend.  A couple are seared into memory:

          One youngster on the ASD spectrum was merely doing his thing on a public beach-not a menace nor breaking any laws.  But apparently his hand flapping & echolalia disturbed someone including the responding police.  Who tasered the child from behind for not complying (stop moving his hands).

          LEO excuse was they did not know & thought he was drunk....

          One young adult with Down Syndrome is dead because he did not get out of his seat when the movie ended.  Despite the fact that his caretaker tried to explain that he needed some time & then pleaded to not use force, the LEOs , tased him, 44'd him to the ground & then sat on him as he struggled because he could not breathe.  He died during this.

          A preschooler tased for not complying with a command to stop.  A command that was useless since the child was deaf.

          These stay with me for personal reasons.

          We are in a society that mouths politically correct phrases of "community integration", diversity, human rights, etc and yet provide few services needed to support our most vulnerable.  Which should include disability awareness & extensive training for LEO and all 1st responders.

          Most parents of a child with special needs dream of an independent or an integrated life someday for their baby.  It never once enters their mind that their child will be in harms way from the very people that they assume are there to protect & serve.

           I've been an advocate since the mid 1970s.  I thought & hoped things would change.  Some things have in increments that make my soul scream.  Now I no longer know what to do except bring awareness that may provide some protection.

          I think you should diary your experience to bring awareness.  For the greater good.

          Thank you, Billybones for sharing.  I wish you all the best in your endeavors & a joy filled life.

    •  Wellll (0+ / 0-)

      I agree that the law enables compliance, but I also believe it runs more deeply in our culture and our society. We venerate compliance as idol, and these are the consequences.

  •  Your essay... (0+ / 0-)

    Your essay is great so far. Keep goimg.

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