Recently I read a book called Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. The book’s heart isn’t really centered upon achieving better communication. It concerns instead a problem with policing in the United States under neoliberalism. I know that because the author stated that a particular instance of policing in Texas, an incident involving Sandra Bland, inspired him to pick up his pen and write Talking to Strangers. You may wonder what has happened to policing in the United States, and I’ll tell you about that in a few more paragraphs. But first, some background.
Neoliberals have wanted to change the United States in so many ways. Their ambition seems boundless. How police do their jobs is only one example of something they have been changing.
After all, we’ve seen changes in our schools, in financial deregulation, communications deregulation, transportation deregulation, energy deregulation. More recently, in our ailing economy, we’ve now seen a seizure of power in our job markets by officials who have blown covid-19 fears out of all reasonable proportion. First, trillions of dollars bailed out banks again when they couldn’t get paid in the repo market. But this bad response to pay banks for making bad loans wasn’t enough. Local economies were also misdirected. At first, taking their cue from health officials and the President, local governments comandeered a health emergency and responded to it by pretending that isolating healthy people has been a proper response when it isn’t. They shut down large parts of the economy. Private businesses were harmed the most when they were sorted into a category the government called “non-essential.” The closure of independent places of work has been wrong. This has become a terrible economic storm. It has swept millions of people’s livelihoods away. Rent and other debts are due and some can’t pay who could have paid before the covid-19 panic.
Fines have been levied against some businesses for opening outside government guidelines. These fines have also been wrong even though the courts have supported the closures and the fines. Our courts supported the business closures based on the theory that a real epidemic that constitues a health emergency requires a government response. The courts have ignored the fact that covid-19 isn’t a healthcare emergency (because it doesn’t have an unusually high death rate as compared with the seasonal flu). They have ignored the inappropriateness of business closures over the whole span of time since March until June, well after covid-19 has proven to be a non-emergency.
Courts are behaving as though they exist in a land of judicial argument rather than this real world that we all live in. The real world has arguments that are reality based and arguments that are fantasy based. Courts are supposed to be able to tell the difference. By now it’s obvious that the covid-19 emergency is a fantasy. Why isn’t it acknowledged by our courts and politicians? Covid-19 has certainly enabled a power grab and a money grab. The covid-19 power grab and money grab seems to have found it’s own new purpose in power-seizure and money-seizure.
I heard that stacks of bricks have been brought to downtown city-centers. Riot instigators were active in the 2016 election and now I hear that they are back. Bricks are brought in order to provide ammunition to rioters so that they can damage property. With cameras on every corner, why haven’t riot instigators been identified? After all, isn’t that what all those cameras were installed to do? It looks like a group of trouble-makers want to vie for power with all the other power grabbers. It’s enough to make you wonder. Are the riots a further excuse for a power and money grab? Aren’t riots a great excuse for even more policing? Is this social destabilization just the outcome of a larger political and economic failure?
If one of the things you’re wondering about is what happened to policing in the United States, I can now explain what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book. Gladwell said that a new book encouraged police to take a more agressive stance whenever they stopped someone for a traffic violation or any other problem that grabbed the police’s attention. This book was published in 1995. It was titled Tactics for Criminal Patrol, and it was written by Charles Remsberg.
Many ordinary people in police and government responded to this book in a way that supported their interests from a certain point of view. That is the logic of neoliberalism: self interest from a narrow perspective.
Police reformers wanted to improve crime control. They wanted to use the book’s methods to patrol areas that are more crime-ridden and to reduce the crime there. If you could only get more agressive policing in those areas, it would reduce crime, they believed. This was a spirit of focusing policing where it would do the most good.
But that’s not what city officials wanted. City officials wanted more revenue. They used the new strengthened policing to get more revenue by encouraging officers to ticket as many offenses as they could discover after any stop. The ordinary person would get multiple citations for any infraction of any law that the officer could cite at the time of the stop.
Police officers wanted something different than what reformers or politicians wanted. Police officers faced enough trouble that couldn’t be avoided and they responded to the new agressive guidelines and higher ticketing requirements by seeking out more docile citizens in more peaceful settings. Police officers wanted to face fewer agressive and problem causing criminals. They wanted to apply more agressive policing to people who would comply. And if those people didn’t comply, police would respond with stronger force, sometimes deadly force.
The Sandra Bland arrest happened in 2015. It was an instance of aggressive policing that ended with the patrol officer’s firing and her suicide. Sandra Bland wasn’t a criminal-type. She was a law student. Her experience of having ten previous police encounters, and 5 tickets that left her $8000 in debt due to fines, made her feel like her life wasn’t hers and she was found hanged in her cell after being arrested for failing to signal after she yielded to a police officer. Her death was determined to have been a suicide. The more recent death of George Floyd was a death by strangulation during a police arrest. It has led to the firing of four police officers and criminal charges laid against the arresting officer who has been accused of killing George Floyd by choking him to death. George Floyd and Sandra Bland were both black Americans. Their deaths resonate strongly with people from the Black Lives Matter group. Prejudiced policing is only part of the problem.
As more people have become jobless in a shrinking economy, there are more opportunities to police. Police agression has grown. Even now, there are lots of power grabbers who want even more power, even more trouble, even more strife, even more violence. What will you do? Can we all demand a different approach to policing–one that is less agressive in stops, arrests and ticketing? It’s time to end this crazy neoliberal power grab. It’s also time for wider economic and political reforms in the United States.
If you want to understand more about our nation in these times of uncertainty, buy a copy of Political Catsup with Economy Fries available at Amazon.com. I will explain all the details that the news agencies aren’t explaining about how we got to our political and economic here and now.