No Exorcizing Our Demons

Presidential candidates promise all sorts of things – a chicken in every pot, no gay folks ever coming near you again, lower taxes for you and higher taxes for everyone else, a government that does good things, a government that slowly disappears until everyone is a free man when it’s gone for good, guns for everyone, especially young school children, or guns for no one – and no one believes a word of it. These are promises. They’re value statements. Congress passes our laws. No president can dissolve Congress and just tell them to go home, so he can get on with what he wants to do. He has to convince them to pass the legislation that allows this or that, or forbids the other thing, and they’re an ornery lot. Even when a president’s party controls both the Senate and the House, there are always troublemakers – and even if things work out, there’s the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court can rule legislation unconstitutional, no matter who wanted what. Obama promised some sort of universal healthcare, but the Affordable Care Act of 2010 is a poor excuse for that. There were too many hoops to jump through.

We got a subsidized free-market system instead, one that assumes the point of health insurance is for the right people to make big money. The major insurers get a ton of new cash-in-hand customers, and new rules about standards that are a drain on their new profits, but they come out ahead in the end. They seem to be fine with that, and Republicans should have loved what Obama came up with, but they hate the idea of subsidies for anything that’s personal, not business. Corporations need tax breaks, to keep the economy humming along. Actual people should pay their own way, as a matter of personal responsibility – and by the way, standards made up by bureaucrats always distort the free market, which regulates itself for the good of everyone, if it’s left alone. Obama had to listen to all of this, and early on he decided he’d give them a quasi-free-market system, not a single-payer Medicare-for-all sort of thing, hoping they’d support it. This wasn’t what any on the left really wanted, what all other industrialized nations have had for years, but it was what might finally pass.

The Republicans didn’t support it. In that two year window as Obama started out, a Democratic House and Senate passed it, by a hair – and then the Republicans took back the House. This was a close-run thing that could never happen again. It’s damned hard to keep campaign promises.

Obama also promised to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center – our prison for the worst of the worst in the war on terror that George Bush had set up in 2002 – a place that wasn’t on our soil, so we didn’t have to follow even our own rules. That had become an embarrassment, or even worse, shameful. We said these folks weren’t prisoners of war – we made up a special name for them, illegal combatants – so the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to them. We tortured many of them, but Bush had signed an executive order that declared that what we were doing with the waterboarding and all wasn’t really torture, even if the Geneva Conventions and every other nation said so, and we had once said so too. We claimed an exemption, and the world was rightly appalled, and appalled by the few new and unique trials we conducted, where our not-war-prisoners couldn’t even know what the evidence against them was – and it turned out most of the worst-of-the-worst were not guilty of anything at all. The Bush administration began to quietly release a few of them every few months, and now, with the exception of two or three actual bad guys, we don’t really know what to do with the rest of them. They go on hunger strikes now and then, and we force-feed them to keep them alive. Some commit suicide. We hate when they do that. That makes us look bad. They whole thing was a bad idea in the first place.

Obama promised to close the place – move those who remain to an isolated maximum-security prison here, use our legal system and international law to sort it all out, then try the few bad guys in our own courts, with rules we know work just fine – and be done with it. We’re better than this, and it’s easier to win the war on terror if the world begins to respect you once again.

The Republicans had enough votes to stop any of that. Obama gave up. The place is still in operation, even if the Republicans had won over the American people, and a few Democrats in Congress, with arguments that never made a whole lot of sense. We were told that these were really supermen – if they set foot on our soil they’d escape any possible prison or cell that might be invented, and then they’d kill us all. Or if not that, once here, even locked up in isolation, they’d cloud men’s minds and everyone left and right would be joining al-Qaeda, right here. They had magic voices, or they were carrying al-Qaeda cooties. Let one in and they’d infect all of America, kind of like Ebola, which has now killed most of the population Dallas.

It hasn’t? Of course it hasn’t. For political reasons, the Republicans created these Guantanamo demons, these unstoppable agents of evil – or maybe it wasn’t for political reasons. Maybe they really believed it all. These were supermen, evil supermen. They just assumed that was so. Seeing demons in a world populated by quite ordinary men somehow makes things easier. You can do nasty and unspeakable things with a clear conscience.

That’s playing out again. Jamelle Bouie explains:

To his friends, Michael Brown was a “gentle giant” – a “quiet person with a wicked sense of humor.”

That’s a far cry from the man described by Officer Darren Wilson in his grand jury testimony in the shooting of Brown. To Wilson, who stopped and scuffled with the 18-year-old on the morning of Aug. 9, 2014, Brown was a “demon,” a monster with terrible resilience and incredible strength.

“When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson of the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Brown. “Hulk Hogan, that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”

Yes, that is odd, given their relatives sizes, but Wilson saw a demon:

In Wilson’s account, Brown punched like Balrog, with enough force to kill him outright. “I felt another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse. I mean, it was, he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger and the, I’ve already taken two to the face and I didn’t think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.”

At this point, Wilson says, he drew his gun. “Get back or I’m going to shoot you.” Brown – Wilson said – grabbed his gun and replied, “You are too much of a pussy to shoot me.” Wilson fired, shooting through the glass panel, and prompting Brown to back away. Brown, according to Wilson, “had the most aggressive face. That’s the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

The grand jury bought it. These two were evenly matched, except Michael Brown was a demon. What are you going to do? It’s like this:

Brown approached again and hit Wilson, who fired another bullet. At that point, Brown ran away, with Wilson following on foot. He fired more shots – striking Brown at least once – and stopped. But Brown wasn’t down. Instead – like a villain, or perhaps, an evil mutant – he appeared stronger than before. Wilson fired again. “At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him,” Wilson said. “And that face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.” …

Eventually, after 12 total shots, Wilson hit Brown in the head, killing him and ending the confrontation.

Bouie wonders what’s going on here:

Take Wilson’s account of Brown’s actions and language. He describes a vicious, combative Brown, quick with a quip and eager to fight with police. Based on what we know from his family and friends, this sounds out of character. But more than that, it’s weird behavior. Brown and Johnson were just at a convenience store, where they stole a box of Swisher Sweets. Most people who steal want to get away from the police, not charge in their direction. And while it’s possible Brown was itching to fight a cop, it just doesn’t ring true to who Brown was and how he understood himself.

More troubling is Wilson’s physical description of Brown, which sits flush with a century of stereotypes and a bundle of recent research on implicit bias and racial perceptions of pain. In so many words, Wilson describes the “black brute,” a stock figure of white supremacist rhetoric in the lynching era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The southern press was rife with articles attacking the “Negro Beast” and the “Big Black Brute,” notes Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. To the white public, the “black brute” was a menacing, powerful creature who could withstand the worst punishment. Likewise, in northern papers, it was easy to find stories of “giant negroes” who “spread terror” and rampaged through urban centers. That image never went away; it lingers in crack-era stories of superpowered addicts and teenaged superpredators, as well as rhetoric around other victims of police brutality. “Jurors in the Rodney King beating trial were warned early on that the black motorist was not on trial,” notes a March 29, 1993 wire story on jury deliberations, “Yet they have heard King compared to a ‘monster,’ a ‘Tasmanian devil’ and a man with ‘hulk-like strength.'”

This is getting too familiar:

It’s worth noting the extent to which Wilson’s story echoes George Zimmerman’s account of his confrontation with Trayvon Martin. Like Brown, Martin is aggressive; he approaches Zimmerman’s SUV, circles it, and threatens him. When he tried to escape, Zimmerman said, Martin punched him in the face, knocked him down, and began beating him on the sidewalk. Like Brown, Martin threatens Zimmerman – “You’re gonna die now” – and like Wilson, Zimmerman shoots him, fearing for his life.

That fear is the odd part:

Wilson was trained, armed, and empowered with the force of law. At almost any point in his confrontation with Brown, he could have called for backup and won control of the situation. But, he says, he was too gripped with terror to do anything but shoot. The same was true for Zimmerman, and the same was true for Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan Davis in a Jacksonville, Florida parking lot.

Maybe Wilson is telling the truth. Maybe – like Zimmerman and Dunn and all the others – he faced a powerful black “demon” who wouldn’t stop and had to be killed. But this would be an incredible coincidence, or more likely, evidence of some terrible, criminal pathology among young black men.

Bouie doubts that:

Maybe Wilson was an ordinary police officer with all the baggage it carries. Maybe, like many of his peers on the Ferguson police force, he was hard on black teenagers. Maybe, like many Americans, he was a little afraid of them. And maybe all of this – his fear, his bias, and his training – met Michael Brown and combined to create tragedy.

If so, the lesson of Wilson is that he isn’t unique.

Adam Waytz is more scholarly about this:

It is not uncommon, for example, to see advertisements depict black athletes as superhuman. Think Ray Lewis in Old Spice commercials: seven heads spewing lightening, ripping the cosmos (not his heart!) out of his chest. Super-humanization of black people in film is also common – what Spike Lee famously termed, “the mystical, magical negro,” has become a stock character: Morgan Freeman (as God) in Evan Almighty, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Wesley Snipes in Blade, to name a few. Notably, unlike superheroes, which are predominantly white and act as saviors, Lee notes that these figures only show up “only to benefit the white characters.”

This needed investigating:

As psychologists, we examined whether these superhuman depictions exist in the minds of everyday (white) people.

In a first set of studies, we asked white participants to categorize words related to the concept “human” (e.g., person, citizen) and words related to the concept “superhuman” (e.g., magic, wizard). Before each word was presented on a computer screen, a picture of a black or white face appeared briefly, outside of conscious awareness.

Participants were significantly faster at processing superhuman compared to human words following black – but not white – faces, suggesting that whites associate blacks (vs. whites) more strongly with superhuman (vs. human) concepts.

In one study, in particular, whites were particularly adept processing a set of words including Wilson’s depiction, demon, when a black face appeared on the computer screen just before.

In subsequent studies, we found that whites even grant blacks superhuman capacities.

That leads here:

Most pertinent to Wilson’s testimony, our final study found that the strength of participants’ super-humanizing beliefs about blacks, in turn, predicted their perceptions that blacks feel less pain than whites from various injuries.

Wilson seemed to justify his infliction of lethal pain on to Brown precisely because he perceived Brown to be a superhuman threat.

It is easy to feel good or indifferent about super-humanization because it seems to “elevate” black people, celebrating their strength and resilience.

Some might even argue that super-humanization of black people is our earnest attempt to counteract sub-humanization of black people.

Perhaps so, but either way you’re not seeing the guy in front of you. He’s just a guy. Heather Parton (Digby) adds this:

We used to believe that citizens had an affirmative responsibility not to use deadly force when it was possible for them to escape the situation. Certainly, it was not acceptable for citizens to pursue and then shoot unarmed people on the street. The Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground movements have changed all that. Today, in many jurisdictions, if a citizen feels afraid, regardless of his ability to escape his situation, he is allowed to use deadly force. It’s a defense that doesn’t always work out for them, as we saw down in Florida with the Michael Dunn case, but more and more our society is accepting the idea that if you feel afraid you can shoot first and ask questions later.

Meanwhile, we have the police behaving as if they are patrolling the streets of Mosul instead of the town in which they live and raise their families. As former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara put it, they now place the “emphasis on ‘officer safety’ [where] paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed”.

The question then, is who are these people so afraid of that they need to fire blindly rather than run away? Who do the police think are the enemy they must shoot down in the street? It would appear to be the same old frightening stereotype it’s always been: the “black brute” – a “thug” in modern parlance. His super-human strength is so overwhelming that he could kill you with one blow. You fear for your life even when he is running away, even when he is wounded, even when he is unarmed. He is not human. He is “demoniacal.”

Yeah, just like the 142 guys left in Guantanamo, but there’s this:

One of the most troubling things about Darren Wilson’s interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired on ABC News this week was his denial of racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. …

Wilson responded Stephanopoulos’ questions with virtually no emotion.

He said that although he never wanted to take someone’s life, he did his job properly. Wilson does not think he’s responsible for Brown’s death in the sense that he said the shooting was the only possible outcome of Brown’s actions.

He insisted the situation would have unfolded the same way if Brown had been white.

He then went on to deny racial tension even exists in Ferguson. Even more, he implied that police officers in general aren’t ever racist.

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” he said. “I help people. That’s my job.”

Apparently he doesn’t help demons, and God’s folks are on his side:

On Wednesday, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer read from the grand jury testimony of Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department and concluded that “chances are very good” that the unarmed teenager was possessed by a “homicidal demon.”…

“I think at this point that there was a demonic presence that was operating inside Michael Brown’s body,” the pastor continued, “activating him, energizing him, driving him forward in this homicidal rage. So when he says he looked like a demon, I think that’s because he was looking into the eyes of a demon that was driving Michael Brown to do what he did.”

Well, that settles that, but Michael Brendan Dougherty recommends not discussing demons at Thanksgiving dinner:

These advice columns are becoming a genre unto themselves. The stock villain: crazy right-wing uncle, the jokes about stuffing. But I recognize them by what they unwittingly emulate: guides for religious evangelism. The gentle, righteous self-regard, the slightly orthogonal response guides, the implied urgency to cure your loved ones of their ignorance. Your raging uncle will know the truth, and the truth will set him free.

That’s a problem. Our politics are taking on a religious shape. Increasingly we allow politics to form our moral identity and self-conception. We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the “elect” who share our convictions, and convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself – and so one of the best, least religious holidays in the calendar becomes a chance to deliver your uncle up as a sinner in the hands of an angry niece.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

Maybe we all see demons, instead of seeing, well, you know – actual other people. Michael Brown was one of those. Darren Wilson still is one of those. But we just can quit our demons.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to No Exorcizing Our Demons

  1. Rick says:

    “These two were evenly matched, except Michael Brown was a demon.”

    Not really “matched”. Yes, Michael Brown only had a mere one inch on Darren Wilson, but he weighed 80 pounds more! That, I think, makes the kid significantly bigger.

    I guess that historical white image of “Superhuman” black guys has some validity, which may help explain why even a white supremacist could be impressed by an African-American football star’s prowess, at the same time seeing the guy as a demon if he tried to date his daughter. (In fact, I suppose you might have added that “those people” reputedly have huge “members”, which could explain why his daughter herself might want to date him. Hey, it’s all part of our folklore!)

    But I must admit that I’m not convinced by the argument that Wilson could easily have run away. Yes, Zimmerman could (and should) have run away, since he had no real reason to be stalking Martin, but Wilson’s case in different in that he was an actual — as opposed to a let’s-pretend — police officer, who’s job it is to pursue and not allow this apparently angry and dangerous man to run amok in public — assuming Wilson’s account of what happened is true, that is.

    And whether or not Brown’s friends and family saw him as a gentle giant, he didn’t seem to be very gentle in that convenience store video. He was acting like a bully. I assume his autopsy found no drugs that might explain his behavior or we would have heard about it, but in Wilson’s story, he sounds to me like he was under the influence of something.

    But do I believe Wilson’s account justifies what he did? Not sure. Even though Brown was a bit bigger, I do have a hard time thinking a hit or two to the head could have killed Wilson in the way he is claiming.

    I wonder if that claim would have held up for a jury, in a court of law. It’s too bad we never got the chance to find out.


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