#2. Cops Do Not to See Citizens As People
Yet another seemingly inexplicable part of the protests in Ferguson was this interview with one of Wilson's friends. The guy says he "can't imagine [Wilson] shooting anybody, even as a police officer," which seems like a weird thing to say about a guy who just shot somebody, since it does nothing but point out what a shitty judge of character this guy is. If that sounds harsh, think about how this news report must come off to the family of the victim, Mike Brown.
I never realized that a black silhouette could seem so punchable.
Here's the problem: What if cops don't see citizens as "somebodies"? What if, to some cops in some neighborhoods, anybody not in a uniform isn't a person, just a potential problem that they might have to take care of -- the same way someone working at Starbucks eventually gets jaded and sees every customer as a potential pain in the ass?
"Potential" is being optimistic. There's a reason we don't arm baristas.
This is sorta due to a weird quirk with human psychology. We've talked before about how every single person on the planet discounts most of the world's population as non-human just because we can fit only so many other humans in our brain. And anyone with a job that involves interacting with other humans is going to have this problem more than most, though cops seem particularly bad at it.
Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois once spent over five years in one of the most dangerous parts of East Harlem, getting to know and understand the crack dealers so he could write a pretty badass book about it. But while he managed to become close friends with the criminal underworld, and though he attended "community outreach" meetings to try to build a rapport with the local law enforcement, he was never recognized on the street by a cop. Keep in mind, he's the only white dude on the street after dark, for five and a half years. But he didn't stand out, because the cops weren't thinking of the people they saw as part of their community, they were just seeing a sequence of problems to solve. You can't help but imagine that they would just acknowledge a person, assess them for a threat, and move on, like fucking ED-209. Yes, they are only human and can only remember faces, but holy fucking shit -- there was only one white dude on your street, guys, how did you not start recognizing him?
Do all white people look the same to you?
Of course, cops have tried to fix these problems. The problem is they went about it in the worst possible way. Which leads to our last entry.
#1. Cops Chose to Be Badass
Cops want to be heroes. Hopefully that's why they got into this business in the first place. In a perfect world, everyone would look up to them just because of their uniform. But they also want to be badass, and that creates a problem, because who's more badass: Splinter or Shredder? Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Kyle Reese or a Terminator?
Follow up question: who does this most resemble?
We don't understand crime, police work, poverty, or oppression, and we won't pretend to. But we do understand stories, and we do know that the human brain defines its world through story tropes. Not because we're taught to think by movies but because movies are a reflection of how we think. We create bad guys that look a certain way because we know that will make the audience scared and resentful. And we make the good guys look like us because we want to identify with them. This is a simple, powerful part of human thought that has informed storytelling for thousands of years, and yet cops completely fucking ignore it: Over the past few hundred years, American police uniforms have become darker, more intimidating, and more militaristic -- and as they drift closer and closer to looking like someone who should be firing their blaster in the general vicinity of Han Solo, their ability to enforce the law has become weaker. Because everyone wants to be on Han Solo's side, and if we don't trust the cops, they're nothing more than armed bullies.
We're not saying that cops should dress in flashy superhero colors to get on our good side, but surely there's a middle ground between that and actively presenting yourself as a cartoonish villain. We know that if you dress in black, with heavy armor, and carry a big-ass gun with a mask over your face, you look like a fucking Stormtrooper and no one is going to see you as their protector, because we all see ourselves as the Luke Skywalker of their own, personal, slightly more boring Star Wars.
20th Century Fox
Most of us just happen to be stuck in this scene ... for now.
And by the way, when we say that the police needs to calm the fuck down and become our friends again many actual cops agree. In 1969, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Jerry Wilson was appointed police chief of Washington. While the city protested, he took discreet precautions (putting riot teams in unmarked buses and parking those buses out of sight of protesters) and made sure to recruit a police force that reflected the ethnic make-up of the local population. Because of this, Washington was one of the only cities where crime actually fell during that period of American History. The shit cops do to protesters now -- tear gas, preemptive SWAT raids -- is based off of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, which Norm Stamper, then-Seattle police chief, calls "the worst mistake" of his career, because "police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from" them. If you're trying to violence a town into being peaceful, your understanding of violence, peace, and nouns is just completely broken.
We're not going to stop stereotyping cops because, again, that's the point of their uniform. So we say it's their responsibility to change the fucking stereotype.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Reasons the Video Game Industry Is About to Crash and 5 Popular Medications You Won't Believe Mess With Your Brain.