Confrontation is a part of life and that confrontation can and does lead to violence. While American believes in law and order, its history has and continues to be a series of confrontations between various groups for a variety of reasons. However, how and by whom confrontation is handled and the probability that confrontation leads to violence varies wildly by what group you are in. To illustrate this effect, I will describe some personal experiences and what they taught me about society.
I was raised by young parents and what I really mean is that we were poor. Since we were poor, I went to a poor predominantly black school with different norms and a different culture than other schools. I was born in the summer and skipped second grade which made me significantly younger than my peers and unfortunately this created problems. In fourth grade one of my peers asked to “borrow” a Gameboy game (Pokemon Yellow), I say borrow, but it was more of a demand disguised as a request. When I asked for it back, he refused so I went to a teacher and while she was sympathetic, she said there wasn’t much she could do. I asked my parents what I could do and they told me that there were times when I was going to have to stand up for myself and that no one could help me. So, I confronted him, which did not go well. He had his friend come from behind me grab my arms while he monologued about how he was the big man on campus, how a little boy like me (a reference to my relative youth with a shot of emasculation thrown in for fun) couldn’t tell him what to do, and no matter how much I snitched no one could make him do anything, all while taking pot shots at me when I couldn’t defend myself. Fortunately, my peers came through and pushed those two around, told them to leave the smart kid alone, and basically no one likes a bully. I was happy that my peers, even those I wasn’t close cared enough about me to step up and defend me, but also a sense of shame at my inability to handle my own problems; I was 8.
However, I learned that even sympathetic authority figures can’t always solve your problems, that going to them can make your problems worse, and that a community is sometimes the best defense against hostilities. For example, many women who report sexual misconduct have been frustrated by the inability of authority to help, while at the same time feeling violated at the invasion of privacy by both the investigators and the public.
For middle school, I went to a magnet school for technology rather than my neighborhood school even though it was on the opposite side of town and I had to spend over an hour on the bus each way to get there. At this point I had learned that my age was a potential source of weakness for others to pick on, so I hid it. In the spring of 6th grade I had to take a class that taught some form of empathy and life skills. The teacher decided to use the fact that I skipped a grade and was younger as a test for the class to practice empathy. She told the class to keep this information to themselves, a class of 35 students mind you. Obviously, they did not. So after that class, people thought it was funny to call me a little baby nerd (creativity at name calling hadn’t yet reached its zenith) and randomly bump into me or knock my stuff down. I had learned not to involve teachers, but I still asked my parents for advice. And they told me a piece of timeless advice that still holds to this day: you have to stand up for yourself or people will walk all over you. At this point I had gotten into sports like pee wee football, baseball, and basketball so I was much more comfortable in my physicality than last time. So, the next time a group of guys bumped into me I told them to stop, they responded with some version of “or what”, I got into one of their faces, he pushed me and called me a little girl (fighting words obviously since in middle school everyone is a man now), and then I proceeded to whoop his ass. The school suspended me for 3 days and the school criminally charged me with assault (luckily this is automatically expunged after a year and a $45 fine), he received a one day suspension; I was 10.
This time I learned that even when authority creates a situation that makes your life worse through no fault of your own, they can and will still punish you rather harshly. This is a fact protesters across the world have learned time and time again. The powers and be take it as a personal affront that you would dare protest the way things are and respond violently provoked or not. Furthermore, as I became more familiar with confrontation I learned that I had to be willing to accept the risk of being hurt when a confrontation turned violent and the responsibility of the physical harm I could cause as well. This responsibility acts as a check on what confrontations you risk escalating to violence; some things aren’t worth the risk and you let them go or some things are worth fighting about.
After the fight, I gained quite a bit of respect and had no more major problems with my peers. In 7th grade I had an English class with an interesting teacher who fought in the first Gulf War and retired as a Colonel. One day I had saved a single serving bowl of Cocoa Puffs from breakfast and when he was writing on the board, I opened it. Trying to be slick, I ripped the plastic off of the plastic bowl too fast and the cereal exploded everywhere, and a few pieces hit the teacher. He was furious, explained he didn’t like to be hit, and sent me to the assistant principal. I understood, he was a lenient teacher, I wasn’t supposed to be eating in class, and not only did I make a big mess but also hit him with a few pieces. The assistant principal almost giddy explained that what I did was assault (a weird go to charge for children) and because of my previous disciplinary problems (mainly the fight but also a few other assorted problems) I was to be expelled (from public school mind you). At first I thought she was joking, it was so patently unfair that she couldn’t be serious, as it dawned on me she was 100% serious I was crestfallen. As she started the paperwork for my indefinite suspension, she smirked as the young student in front of her pleaded his case through warm tears; I was 11.
Academically I was a straight-A student and I was also the leading scorer on the basketball team. She didn’t want me gone because I was a bad student at the historically underperforming school, she just wanted me gone. This school like my previous school was also poor but predominantly Mexican American rather than Black. While my elementary school had its problems (it has since been shuttered) the people there cared about my success, supported me, and cared about me as a person. That was the last time in grade school that would be true. Luckily, once my English teacher asked where I was since I didn’t come to class for a few days (noticeable because I was one of the only students who did the assignments and participated in class) he asked what happened and was livid when he found out about the assistant principal’s heavy hand. All charges were quickly dropped and I was reinstated into school with the records expunged.
I learned two important lessons, one that the rules and the enforcement of those rules are incredibly arbitrary. The second that when those in authority feel like you do not belong or simply do not like you they can use the arbitrariness of the rules to punish you in almost any way they see fit. Many people who have been stopped for minor traffic violations are a testament to the first lesson and the people who have been actually ticketed for these inane traffic violations are a testament to the second. Many people understand that there are probably too many rules and the government can use them to infringe on their liberties. In fact, some of these same people also understand that authority while being overzealous in minor crimes is still inept at investigating serious crimes and lean toward a more libertarian mindset or on their second amendment rights. However, it is extremely hard for people to understand that those same authority figures can use their power to either target or disproportionately affect certain groups. They assume that these groups have to be exaggerating or overly sensitive; it can’t be that bad. Nonetheless, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone is not out to get you.
One group of people that is disproportionately affected by the application of rules often to deadly effect are the mentally ill. At least 25% of police shootings involve the mentally ill or unstable. On April 25, 2015, three mentally ill men were gunned down in 10 hours: David Felix (24, black), Daniel Davis (58, white), and Brandon Lawrence (25, white). None of these men had guns, but a few had weapons and were loudly and aggressively ordered to stand down which likely confused and irritated them more. One particular case that stands out to me is Keith Vidal (18, white) who was mentally unstable and had been committed a few times with police help. His doctor instructed his parents to call the police again and recommit him by force (since he was 18 and if he didn’t consent, he had to be involuntarily committed). The police on scene who had interacted with him before called for backup when Keith got a small screwdriver and Bryon Vassey, an officer from a neighboring department, came. According to Keith’s mother he declared “he didn’t have time for this shit” and according to EMT’s testimony announced “I’m here to kick ass and take names.” He yelled for the other officers to tase the boy, they did so, and then the other two officers and the boy’s stepfather went to get the screwdriver when Byron shot him.
Outsourcing confrontation does not necessarily reduce the risk of the confrontation escalating into violence, it simply shifts the responsibility, often to groups who have much less accountability than you. Since I internalized the idea that authority not only doesn’t help me with my problems and can at times make problems worse; I learned this lesson second hand. In an advanced society, it makes sense to have a trained third party arbitrate disputes and confrontation, which is essentially what court is. However, that assumes that the third party is better equipped or trained to deal with these disputes and confrontations and that is not always the reality. Keith’s mother wanted to help her son get the treatment and lost her son to the police she called and trusted to help. My English teacher expected an appropriate disciplinary response to my disruption and instead almost derailed one of his best student’s academic career. Calling the police over any infractions carries the risk that lethal force will be used to enforce that infraction. Furthermore, the balance between the fear of being harm and the fear of causing harm is out of sync because police authority and power decreases the fear an offender will incite or even resist violence; this power imbalance can be easily abused. There is no violence without confrontation and there is no gun violence without confrontations with armed men like the police. Perhaps this quote by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter says it best:
“Every law is violent. Never argue for invoking the power of law except in a cause for which they are willing to kill because even a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; if he resists.. The sheriff might have to shoot him. This is by no means an argument against having laws. It is an argument for a degree of humility as we choose which of the many things we may not like to make illegal.”Stephen L. Carter, Yale Law Professor
My father’s older brother is over 6 foot 3, well over 200 pounds, dark-skinned black, and mentally challenged; his mental growth is capped at the 4th grade level. My grandmother, a small 5 foot 1 lady, took care of him for most of his life until he became too much and she sent him to a boarding house, not too far away from her house, for other adults like him. Unfortunately, when stressed or angry he ran away from the boarding house, usually towards my grandmother’s house. My father and I, as black men ourselves, realized that my uncle was likely to meet a violent end. My grandmother, wise to the challenges that a large black mentally challenged man might present to police, requested that instead of the boarding house calling the police when he was angry or when he ran away, as is standard practice, to call her instead. This arrangement worked for quite some time, when my uncle was distressed the boarding home called my grandmother and she calmed him down or found him when he ran away and let him stay with her until he calmed down enough to go back. While I was in college, I received a call from my father, my uncle was dead; he was struck by a car while running towards my grandmother’s house. My grandmother was devastated, she had missed a call from the boarding house and by the time she called back my uncle was dead. She blamed herself for not being able to protect her child, but from my perspective she did the best she could after being placed in an impossible position by society. Backed by years of precedent, she couldn’t trust the police to handle my uncle’s unique situation, so she was forced to do the impossible. This is the tragedy of authority mistrust, citizens need to be able to rely on their public servants and services and if they cannot preventable crimes and tragedies will occur.
The final ingredient for mistrust and anger to reach a level where it boils over is infringement. Some groups of Americans who do not trust authority choose not to consult them, and yet these are the groups likely to be policed the most. They have made the choice, rightly or wrongly, to minimize interactions with authorities and yet these authorities have ignored that decision and infringe on their freedoms, subjecting them to numerous confrontations they would rather not have. Without confrontation there is no violence and without confrontations with armed men there is no gun violence, the authoritative decision to force confrontations with armed men onto people has led to violence and sometimes even deadly violence. We have reached a point as a society where the people are tired of it and are protesting. However, a protest is a giant confrontation and the same group that has shown that they often fail to prevent confrontations from devolving into violence are the same groups responsible for policing the protests. Naturally, these confrontations have occasionally devolved into violence and we are lucky the instances of deadly violence are still relatively low.
I wrote this piece with personal examples not to highlight my own experiences (I typically view my own personal injustices as minor) but to illustrate how certain situations shape people’s ideas on and responses to authority. I avoided my interactions with police in this piece not because they didn’t exist (I’ve been pulled over numerous times for minor traffic violations, have been repeatedly asked/threatened to have police search my car and property, found out the hard way police can arrest you for just about any reason regardless of how well you know your rights, and have had a SWAT team aim assault rifles at my face with no provocation) but to illustrate that the lessons learned about authority are not exclusive to police. The following lessons illustrate not only the problem some people have with police but also with some authoritative figures:
- Without confrontation there is no violence, without armed confrontation their is no gun violence.
- Even sympathetic authority figures will struggle to help you solve your problems
- Going to authority figures can sometimes make your problems worse
- Community is at times the best form of prevention
- Even when the societal structure forces you to make tough decisions that same society can punish you for it
- Rules and their enforcement are made and carried by man and as a result are arbitrary
- Authority figures can use the arbitrariness of rules to target and punish certain groups as they see fit
- Using a third party mediator does not inherently reduce the risk of a confrontation turning violent and can create power imbalances that might increase the risk of violence.
- Some groups choose to reduce confrontations involving authority figures
- Those same groups, against their wishes, are also more likely to have confrontations involving armed authority figures which also leads to more violent and deadly confrontations involving those armed authority figures.
Violence is a part of the American identity. Our founding was violent, our growth and expansion were violent, the relations between the labor and capital class was historically violent, our response to aggression is violent, our relations between races are violent, and even our favorite sport is violent. For most people it is hard to view America as a nation where violence is sewn into our DNA and is a part of daily life because we are also a civilized, advanced, and optimistic nation. Nonetheless, our wealth and power were built on and continue to be supported by violence. While the rule of law is necessary for a functioning society and it is enforced by violence or the threat of violence, it is essential to balance that with liberty. Perhaps James Wilson said it best back in 1790:
“Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.”James Wilson, 1790
Although, violence cannot not always be prevented, its prevalence can be mitigated and its effects structured in less harmful ways. Understanding why some groups mistrust authority, how that affects their lives and decisions, and how authority responds to that can go a long way in repairing the current fracture in society.