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Among the many factors that contribute to death is one that is scarcely noticed: a deadly self-conception. The classic example is the person who defines himself as a fearsome, brave warrior anxious to risk everything—including almost certain death—for personal glory. The pursuit of pleasure can also be self-destructive. For example, in the 1970s and 80’s thousands of young gay males came to believe that being authentically gay entailed engaging in promiscuous unprotected anal sex.
Unfortunately, a similar death-inviting self-image currently flourishes among countless young, underclass black males. Central is resisting police authority, energetically fighting back, or at least fleeing if arrested regardless of circumstances. Eric Garner was the classic example. Surely he must have realized the futility of escape since he was surrounded by multiple police officers and even if he did manage to momentarily break free, he would have been quickly apprehended (and the resisting arrest effort would compound his punishment). Did Michael Brown reasonably expect that wrestling with Officer Wilson and shooting him with the policeman’s own gun was a prudent strategy to escape the relatively minor charges of robbery and obstructing traffic? What is the benefit of taunting and mocking police officers when they try to arrest you? In other words, rational calculations in such police encounters cannot justify the risky misbehavior. Rather, a cultural ethos exists, perhaps comparable to WW II Japanese banzai charges where certain death in battle outshined cowardly surrender.
This “resistance” mentality might even be viewed as an anti-law enforcement “lifestyle.” It is reflected in today’s “ghetto look” where youngsters purposely imitate those who’ve been arrested–beltless trousers, untied shoes, and a scowling angry demeanor. Popular tee-shirts now declare “Snitches Get Stiches.” The anti-cop message is ubiquitous in rap and hip-hop music. Twenty-five years ago the group N.W. A. released what became a classic—“Fuck tha Police” and it has created a multi-million dollar musical genre ever sensitive to the latest incident of alleged police brutality. Following Ferguson anti-police songs were released by G-Unit, Public Enemy, the Game among several others. Indeed, some blacks in Ferguson now celebrate Michael Brown as a hero. And, of course, there’s the anti-cop Black Lives Matter—fry them like bacon–Movement ever anxious to portray those killed by resisting arrest saint-like martyrs.
An incredible irony exists here for those who remember the glory days of the Civil Rights movement. Then getting hundreds of protestors arrested (voluntary “mass incarceration”), almost always in full view of the news cameras was the movement’s central tactic. But, being arrested followed a carefully devised script whose aim was to capture the high moral ground while depicting the police as heavy-handed racist goons. As per the movement’s then dominant Gandhian philosophy, those arrested offered zero resistance as they were marched off to the patty wagon. In some instances there was a rush to get taken into custody so as to burnish one’s movement bona fides. To further sharpen the contrast between the “evil” white authorities and the movement, activists were well dressed, often in suits and ties and remarkably polite. If there was to be violence, it would be the police clubbing peaceful demonstrators who refused to defend themselves.
Now, what is to be done regarding a sub-culture where authenticity requires turning a simple police stop over a misdemeanor into one that risks being arrested for a felony or even death? A solution would, obviously, require major cultural re-engineering but, has been the case with other efforts to uplift African Americans, the prospects of success are bleak. The culture is not about to be altered by such measures as cultivating closer police-community relations, abandoning broken windows policing, cutting back on stop and frisk, affirmative action police hires, wearing body cameras, sensitizing police to black under-class culture (i.e., implicit bias training) and using non-lethal weapons.
Nor can an appeal to think-before-you-act cost/benefit analysis likely to prove effective. It’s a waste of breath to tell youngsters, many of whom have low I.Q’s, that provoking cops can turn a decent town into the next East St. Louis. If these miscreants could calculate the broader consequences of their behavior they probably would not be in trouble with the cops in the first place. The very opposite may be believed: behaving aggressively toward the police enhances social standing and conceivably will result in a multi-million dollar settlement (think Rodney King, Freddie Gray and others) or quickly bring risk-free looting.
Even more pointless would be trying to publicize the bogus premises underlying this anti-cop mentality. Good luck lecturing to BLM activists that the number of black deaths due to police shooting unarmed blacks is trivial compare to black-on-black carnage. To be blunt, in the current environment of black politics, community activists (and the white liberal allies) gain nothing by even hinting that nearly all the problems of policing are self-inflicted.
Similar pessimism attends to re-engineering this confrontational culture. What are the odds of successfully encouraging rappers and hip hop stars to celebrate the cops or teaching black grade schoolers to cooperate with “your friend the police officer”? What black office-holder would gain votes by denouncing the violence prone underclass culture. The very opposite is true—votes are to be gained by celebrating the likes of Michael Brown as “heroes.”
Outside of returning to a currently unthinkable 1990s style policy of mass incarceration for those resisting arrest or otherwise behaving unlawfully, can anything be done? If history is any guide, the answer is “barely anything.” At most there will be cosmetic solutions, for example the “Ferguson Effect,” whereby police informally backing off when confronting black criminality. Such tolerance will also become more formal as police departments under the gun of Department of Justice consent decrees will enforce laws by racial quota.
This prediction regarding the futility of altering toxic cultures seems excessively pessimistic, remember all the failed government intervention to turn young gays away from dangerous promiscuous sex or to stamp out the crack epidemic of the 1990s. Also recall the billions wasted in failed educational nostrums or trying to reduce black teen illegitimacy. Actually, such outbreaks of seemingly irrational violence seem an integral part of human nature (see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for a catalogue of such outbreaks). The most appropriate model might be the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s when gays eventually moderated their promiscuity only when the carnage reached Black Plague proportions. Conceivably, non-confrontational police encounters will return when the most violent under-class blacks will be “boiled off” in gang violence and drug overdoses leaving behind a residue of youngsters who finally understand the horrific costs of the anti-cop culture.