Slouching Towards Soft Authoritarianism – Cult of Compliance in New York and Brooklyn (magazines)

As most of you know, last week Al Jazeera America published my essay on the “cult of compliance,” something I’ve been working on for a long time. Thanks to everyone who read it and shared it. The response has been thoughtful and wide-ranging, just as I would have hoped.

Today I am sharing two pieces by other journalists who use my concept to draw connections for their own subject.

First, Matt Zoller Seitz, at New York Magazine, writes “Watching Ferguson in the Stream.” It’s a piece that’s really about the consequences of watching violence, real violence, rather than the fictionalized violence that already dominates our airwaves. He writes [my emphasis]::

As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes… put it last night, “You end up expecting drama from these situations, because everything is always heading toward a heightening point.” Al Jazeera America’s David M. Perry described the clashes between police and citizens in Ferguson as an example of “the cult of compliance” that has normalized state violence against unarmed U.S. citizens. “The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.”

Noncompliance can mean anything from a young man resisting a policeman’s order to move from the street to the sidewalk — the inciting incident that, we’re told, might have ended in the shooting death of Michael Brown — to a reporter understandably chafing at police edicts to stay penned into a particular area or turn off his lights and cameras. The cult of compliance was on display during the Occupy protestsremember the UC Davis pepper-spray incident? — but there’s something singularly unsettling about watching it rumble through the flat streets of a small Missouri town, its streetlights and signage blurred by tear gas.

Obviously, I agree with Seitz’ analysis (read the whole thing!). He talks about the disjunction when there’s a cutesy internet meme on feed right next to the picture of someone having milk poured in their eyes because of gas. He notes that we’re a culture screaming about First Amendment rights every time someone calls for a boycott of a rude website, but that now we’re seeing what real state media control feels like. A reporter was overheard saying, “An officer put his weapon in my face and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t quote-unquote get the fuck out of here.” Compliance runs deep and wide, and it’s on display in every aspect of the Ferguson story.

Meanwhile, over at Brooklyn Magazine, Phillip Pantuso has linked the Ferguson to Rikers using the cult of compliance as one of his analytical tools. I’m pleased to see this, because one of the essays I couldn’t get published in July did exactly the same thing. It took Ferguson to make my “cult of compliance” framework seem true to mainstream media editors, I suppose.

He writes:

If recent events in Ferguson are any indication, something like a culture of violence has permeated some of America’s local police departments, too. Cops and prison guards occupy different places on the hierarchy of corrections enforcement, but the primary interactions of both groups are with similar populations: the poor, the mentally-ill, and the non-white. In Ferguson, the majority-white police force has mishandled not only an encounter with a young black man but with the scores of majority-African-American protestors who’ve demonstrated in the aftermath of that man’s murder.

He then quotes a key line from my piece, and continues:

The consequences of this are not felt equally. The cops have weapons of war and the psychological empowerment that comes with them; the prison guards have a code of silence and institutional advantage, a tacit reinforcement of power and privilege that serves to Other the inmates under their keep. The people of Ferguson have tweets, photos, video, and rapidly-eroding Constitutional rights.

The note that this is not felt equally is very important. The cult of compliance coordinates events, it’s a way of seeing links and trying to identify root causes (always plural), rather than focusing on symptoms. But the consequences fall heavily on, as he says, “the poor, the mentally-ill, the non-white.”

A week after my piece went live, I am more sure than ever that the cult of compliance provides a useful conceptual tool to unpack the ways in which we are slouching towards soft authoritarianism. We can stop this slide.

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