Questioning authority is hardwired into the American consciousness, in our DNA.
When police issue commands, many Americans ask why. It’s basic American instinct — especially when we’ve done nothing wrong.
This instinct is getting too many Americans killed.
Almost daily, new video emerges of someone, usually black, being pummeled or killed by police. Imagine how often these outrages occurred before ubiquitous modern video sources started spreading these stories all over social media.
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That this institutionalized violence continues despite the exposure is astounding. Most disturbing is the apparent indifference of officers to their victims, as if they’re bugs, not human, with no right to resist being beaten and having their lives extinguished.
Yes, this torrent of video police violence doesn’t reflect the whole story of our nation’s law enforcement. Let’s stipulate these clips reveal a small fraction of police behavior.
Still, video after video reveals cops who seem to believe people have no right to question their authority: Obey or die, even for minor offenses.
“Because I said so” appears to be the operating rationale behind many of these encounters that escalate from zero to deadly within seconds.
These videos expose an apparently widespread police misunderstanding of, or willful disregard for, the American character — our soul. The instinct to question authority has imbued our national identity since the country’s founding.
Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian military officer tasked with training a ragtag Continental Army at Valley Forge complained to Gen. George Washington that Yanks always asked “why” when ordered to do something, unlike every other army von Steuben had trained before.
Accustomed to European military culture of blind, immediate submission to authority, enforced by strict punishment, even death, the Prussian was amazed that American soldiers demanded to know the reasoning behind commands.
This history comes to mind recalling the time I was mugged by San Luis Obispo police, in 1976, at a college party. When commanded to leave the premises by a baton-wielding cop in riot gear, I made the mistake of acknowledging the order by nodding and saying I needed to find my roommate, my ride home.
The result was an instantaneous clubbing to the head and handcuffing, followed by another cop pulling my head back by the hair, and a full facial douching with pepper spray. When I asked why they were being so violent, I was clubbed again and told to stop resisting. Protesting that I wasn’t resisting, I was clubbed and pepper sprayed again.
I wasn’t arrested. I’d broken no law. In the cop car, on the way to the hospital, when again I asked why the hair-trigger violence, one turned to me and smirked, “Shut up! You’re lucky we didn’t shoot you.”
The encounter colored my view of police for life. I learned then that some cops enjoy hurting people, and they get away with it. I’m not alone in this experience or thinking. Ask nearly any black American.
Today, I remain convinced most cops are good people with abundant humanity. I’ve met many. I’m also convinced they allow far too much latitude within their ranks for bad actors who abuse their authority.
In a recent opinion piece, retired San Luis Obispo police Chief Jim Gardiner wrote that body cameras on cops can prevent abuses and capture the whole story. That’s good, but only a Band-Aid that masks the root problem: Some cops believe they’re entitled to be violent, and that any verbal objection or assertion of rights is “resisting,” a provocation justifying uninhibited violent response.
At first, von Steuben believed American soldiers should be executed for challenging authority. Then he learned that applying dignity and patience to soldiers reaped huge rewards of obedience on the battlefield. Most Americans, by nature, will do what’s asked of us — once we know why.
It seems every day, another video surfaces showing another police outrage. Why?
Perhaps because there’s a national culture shielding police with immunity from public accountability and criminal culpability — and an institutionalized police certainty that citizens must bow to their authority, no matter how unjust, or face violent, even fatal consequences.
Until this culture changes, police will continue to be feared, public trust will continue to erode. Police shouldn’t expect unquestioned respect and trust, but rather earn and nourish it.
Law enforcement can and should police itself far more aggressively by weeding out the intemperate few who refuse to acknowledge that it’s our nature, as Americans, to question their authority.
“Because I said so” is no justification for violence. Having a dangerous job is no excuse for being dangerous.