The Cult of Compliance – #Ferguson and the Department of Justice

My first piece for Al Jazeera America is a big one: The Cult of Compliance.

As regular readers know, I have been talking this for a long time and thinking about police violence in various ways for even longer. I used the phrase for the first time on this post from August 17, 2013. The post cites Digby and Bruce Schneier, two great writers on different aspects of privacy and civil liberty, but emerged from my frustration  I was frustrated by my inability to land the story with a major publication. I wrote:

I’ve been trying to write about non-compliance and police violence to no avail, so far. I’m not sure what’s not catching editors’ eyes about my various essays (and soon I’ll just start posting them here), as I think there’s a very big story happening before us, but we get distracted by tasers, by drones, by tanks, by SWAT, by racial profiling, by guns, by all the VERY REAL and very troubling symptoms of deep problems in American police culture. I call it the Cult of Compliance, in which police demand instant compliance or feel free (and unaccountable) to respond with force.

Little did I know that it would take another year and police takeover of Ferguson, MO, to get the story out there. I hope the piece does it justice and that it influences the discourse. I think it’s so important to acknowledge the specifics of each case – racism, sexism, ableism, classism, whatever factors create a violent incident – but also to see the patterns. 

Here’s some of the thinking behind the “cult” language. I could have said a culture of compliance, or a culture that doesn’t accept non-compliance, or any number of other ways of framing the problem. Cult, though, implies an unthinking adherence to an idea, principle, group, prophet or deity that you must venerate at all costs. To me, in our police culture but also our American culture more broadly, we venerate compliance.  It’s not just the police to blame, but all of us who accept the “he/she didn’t comply” rationale in any given case. 
Here are some of the stories I didn’t reference in the “AJAM” article.
The stories include a boy attacked for a “dehumanizing stare.” I wrote about a mentally ill man shot at in Times Square because he was endangering himself by running in traffic. Later, the police charged him as responsible for the people the police themselves shot.  Then there was Jonathan Ferrell who was hurt in a car crash and ran towards police looking for help, addled from the crash. They said stop. He didn’t, so they shot and killed him.
In Connecticut, a deaf boy was escaping from abusive custody. Police crept up behind him and tased him, not even risking non-compliance. He sued and that’s the last I’ve been able to find about the story.
Schools, like the one in CT, are a major site for the cult of compliance. Here’s a boy with Down syndrome dragged across the floor for being “defiant.” I haven’t even written about the horrors of the Judge Rothenberg Center and their electric shocks for non-compliant kids with autism, though it’s been sitting in my draft folder for months.
Andy Lopez – murdered while holding a toy gun.
Gilberto Powell, a man with Down syndrome, given “multiple commands” and then beaten when he didn’t comply.
A couple of college girls buying bottled water in Virginia. The cops thought it was beer and, without ID, charged. The girls panicked. Later, a spokesman said, “This whole unfortunate incident could have been avoided had the occupants complied with law enforcement requests.”
An Arab man with intellectual disabilities daring to ride a bicycle.
There are so many more, and I’m not even attempting to document all incidents that might fit. That’s not the goal of the blog., for example, documents more. 
My goal is to provide the conceptual links that pull these incidents together. We can only treat the problem when we identify it and call it out. The solution – laws, regulations, and trainings that do not focus on one class of people or another, but that offer simple rules: 

1. Non-compliance does not justify violence. 
2. Inconvenience or impatience does not justify violence.
3. All use of all types of weapons or hands constitutes violence.
4. In a few well-defined circumstances, non-compliance may justify a citation, a ticket, a warning, even an arrest. But it does not justify violence.
As I discuss in the Al-Jazeera piece, the Department of Justice is now looking into police culture with the broadest scope in decades. We need to watch this and make sure that they reach conclusions and make recommendations that will treat the disease, that will fight the cult of compliance, not just work on symptoms.

6 Replies to “The Cult of Compliance – #Ferguson and the Department of Justice”

  1. P. Sturm says:

    You are overlooking one factor. Court sealed settlements allows the appearance of guilt by the perpetrators of crimes of the misuse of power. All these settlements need to be open to the public and only accepted with an official and binding acknowledgment of guilt.

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