On Police Brutality, Civil Unrest, and Resisting Simplified Narratives

On Police Brutality, Civil Unrest, and Resisting Simplified Narratives May 28, 2020

Last night during the protesting and looting in Minneapolis, I viewed a few of the videos and read a fair number of the live reports of what was happening.  If I were to summarize the situation as I perceived it, it would be this:

  • Quite a few peaceful citizens were out assembling in protest, as is their constitutional right, and as they well should have been doing, in light of the recent egregious police brutality that needs to have ended forty years ago.
  • Some lawless citizens, black and white, male and female, took advantage of the situation to loot area businesses.  (Said based on the videos I viewed that showed assorted persons leaving Target with their stash, most either eager that their faces not be filmed or at least in a hurry to exit stage right.)
  • Pillaging and burning ensued, as well as at least one fatality, and precisely who was doing what, why and how, is more difficult to parse out — we can imagine that some of that gratuitous violence was the work of revolution-inspired protesters being utterly stupid and vicious, some of it was the work of criminals who just like to destroy stuff and hurt people, and some of it no doubt happened at the hands of people who would be hard pressed to articulate quite where they fell on that muddied spectrum.
  • The police were not amused. Also: This level of uprising is beyond the present ability of the city police to manage without resorting to slaughter.  No surprises on either of those counts.

As is our habit these days, commentary is falling into two over-simplified narratives:

  1. Oppressed persons . . . something something something . . . therefore the civilian violence is excusable.
  2. Lawless criminals . . . something something something . . . therefore the police brutality is excusable.

Consider the possibility that there is a different way of assessing this situation that is both more accurate and more productive.  I propose as an initial attempt:

  • Because we live in a broken-down, crime-ridden society, many if not all police officers are operating in a state of heightened fear and over-reaction.
  • Our morally-askew culture doesn’t promote violence and impulsiveness selectively — therefore the humans who are working as police officers are also being programmed to behave violently, just as is happening to other citizens.  Google “Game of Thrones” if you aren’t sure what I’m talking about.
  • American citizens are rightly outraged by the way that unwarranted police violence has become a commonplace.  This happens even against affluent white people in liberal states.
  • Racism is clearly the motivator in many (not all) cases where African-Americans are the victims of police or civilian violence, and likely the motivator in many (not all) other cases.  This is a serious issue that, see book recommendation below, plays a significant part on all sides of the societal-violence problem.
  • Something is clearly very, very wrong when there is a steady flow of reports from around the nation that involve the police killing people while apprehending suspects in non-capital crimes (such as counterfeiting), as well as killing innocent bystanders in the process of apprehending unequivocally dangerous persons.
  • The fact that we live in a violent, lawless society — the sort where a peaceful protest inspires pillaging and burning — in no way undermines the cause of the peaceful protesters demanding the police knock it off with the violence and lawlessness.

This is not a left or right issue.  It is not conservative or liberal.  It’s not even religious or secular, though religion has plenty to say about morality and right living.  Thus:

  • You can be a veil-wearing, husband-submitting, ultra-conservative, ultra-religious housewife on the extreme right, or you can be a gigolo on the extreme left who dresses like such a gal for the annual pride parade, and come to the same exact conclusion on this issue.
  • You can own all the guns or want to outlaw all the guns and come to the same exact conclusion on this issue.
  • You can Adore Trump or Trust Biden and come to the same exact conclusion on this issue.

The police not-killing civilians is not a partisan policy position.  It’s a normal decent human being position.


It is, nonetheless, a difficult position to legislate.  Just as the problem is complex, so are the potential solutions.  As it turns out, there’s a bit of contemporary military science that has assessed the factors that make human beings more willing to kill more easily — and therefore given us some information on how to decrease the likelihood of brutality as well.  It’s worth a look.  Initial book review is here.

Carved pillars with colored ribbon (thick) on them in an orange sunset. Item of religious significance in Russia.

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

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