COMMENTARY: Police, race, and class issues in America

Your perception is your reality

Hardly a day or two goes by without the death of another black or poor person from an encounter with, or in the custody of, the police. This may be followed by destructive riots, arson, or other lawless acts, supposedly in protest. What’s new? Nothing.

On the other side of the ledger, an average of more than one police officer is killed a week in the line of duty from either deliberate gunfire or vehicular assault, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Things are worst in the urban and suburban minority ghettos where large segments of the population see the police – of any race – as instruments of oppression who use maximum force to aggressively impose our endless laws or who, the residents believe, act on mere suspicion to harass them in a society where, as George Will recently put it, everything has become a crime.

Yet there are too many real and serious crimes and the police see those same ghettos as enemy territory rampant with violent criminals who are ready to dispute every order with physical or armed confrontation over perceived slights and rights, simple enforcement orders, or arrests.

These are classic cases of self-fulfilling prophecy; everyone gets exactly what they expected, then they all say, “I told you so.”

There is no simple answer because it’s not a simple problem. Some of the police are exactly what the minority population believes they are, racists, but so are some of the minority residents because racism and xenophobia exists in every large cohesive group of humans, but most of all stress and bad experiences on both sides produces an “us versus them” psychology.

Some police are aggressive merely because that is how they have been trained to react to confrontation. The police are not looking for a fair fight, they are looking to overwhelm suspects and place them in custody; the more an individual fails to follow instructions or fights the more force the police will use. After the confrontation the police, being human, often have a problem turning off the adrenaline even if the subject has been subdued. At times, they vent their overflowing anger with added violence. We’ve all seen the videos.

At the same time some of the population is exactly what the police believe they are, serious and violent criminals willing to use deadly force to commit crimes, terrorize the population, defy authority, and remain at large. 

In the “hood” even those with a history of minor violations do not want to go to court because they know the consequences, so they run, often recklessly and dangerously, or they fight. That action can escalate quickly. Occasionally, in the worst cases, the criminals just shoot at the police because that is the street solution to almost every problem – violence.  Sometimes the police shoot first; they do not want to risk their own lives; it’s almost never planned, it’s visceral reaction under the famous fog of war because it is a war.

Sitting in your living room watching these events on TV only reinforces your personal bias; however, it is as far as you can get from the real world where your heart is pounding and the projectiles, be they bullets, batons, firebombs, fists and kicks, or merely dangerous sounds, are flying. It’s not always flight or fight, when you have a job to do and you perceive a threat it’s often fright and fight. The police do not leave the field of battle, it’s not an option.

This is not a chicken and egg problem, it does not matter which came first; at this iteration the perceptions feed off of each other. It’s a closed circle whose stations include all societal impacts; intergenerational poverty, fear, addiction, the decline of morality, lack of respect for institutions and the rise of violence as a cure-all. Ignorance, machismo, race, class, and our foul-mouthed, in-your-face, disrespect for authority society just add fuel to the fire.

In both cases, half the problems lie within, and half lie without. In many jurisdictions, each side stereotypes, hates, and fears the other. Under those circumstances, what do you think you’re going to get?

Marty Richman

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Marty (Martin G.) spent his teen years in northern New Jersey. He served more than 22 years on active military duty, mostly in Europe, and is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, Nuclear Weapons Technical Officer. Marty then worked 25 years in various engineering and management positions in the electronics and energetic materials industries supporting the communications, computer, aerospace, defense and automotive sectors. He is a graduate, summa cum laude, from The College of Hard Knocks, among his numerous awards and accomplishments. He was a regular weekly Op/Ed columnist and feature writer for The Hollister Free Lance for seven years and a member of its editorial board for five years. Marty is a frequent commentator and contributor to BenitoLink on a wide variety of local, state, national and international subjects.   Marty was elected to represent the City of Hollister District 4 on the City Council in November, 2018. Marty and his wife, Joyce, have been residents of Hollister since 1996.