One reason I love having Bob Koehler’s weekly political analysis on our site is that he is an intuitive mimetic thinker. Just as Girard claims for mimetic theory, Bob’s analysis consistently “contradicts the thesis of human autonomy.” Most politicians and law enforcement experts don’t even know that “human autonomy” is a speculative theory. They believe in it as an article of faith, and in his latest post, Zero Tolerance about the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Community Policing, Bob points out how that faith has led to disastrous results for children and youth, especially in policing practices.
If you take human autonomy as your starting point, you lose sight of the most central characteristic of human nature: we learn who we are and how to behave from one another. How we treat children is who they will become. This bit of wisdom has gone by many names, among them the popular notion of the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. If teachers consistently have low expectations for certain groups of kids, say minorities or those labeled as “problem kids”, the kids will meet those meager expectations but rarely exceed them. Why? Because our sense of identity is not something we own or develop in isolation. We become ourselves in and through the significant relationships that nurture us from the cradle and envelop us as we move out into the world.
When police officers and teachers greet children with suspicion, as problems to manage as if they are expendable and useless to the world, why would we be surprised that such a thing as the “school-to-prison pipeline” exists? Bob isn’t. And though he finds some hopeful signs for a change of heart in the Task Force’s report, he is also rightly skeptical. Because though the report shows signs of mimetic insights, Bob tells us that it fails dismally at telling the truth about our “nation’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and any current manifestation of institutional racism.” Addiction to the illusion of autonomy is an addiction to a lie, so telling the truth is out of character, to say the least. Sadly, autonomy is a lie that enables us to blame the kids who become inmates rather than examine our complicity in their failure to thrive.
The Task Force calls for a shift in law enforcement culture from a “warrior mindset” to that of a “guardian” role. It acknowledges that a better goal for policing is “protection” rather than enforcement or suppression of crime. Well bravo! A sure way to change outcomes for kids is to change attitudes of the adults that engage with them. What if the police actually saw it as their duty to protect children and adolescents from mistreatment and abuse, even and especially the mistreatment and abuse that can come from the police? Not only would this change outcomes for kids, it has the potential to change our entire society. Because when we treat children as a problem to manage, we are depriving our world of a valuable resource that comes from the children themselves.
It’s been a long time since we thought of children as miniature adults. We’ve known for over one hundred years that childhood is a special and unique stage in human development. The Task Force actually acknowledged the need for officers to be “trained in child and adolescent development” – wouldn’t that be a game changer! But I’d like to suggest we take it a step further, a step that Dr. Maria Montessori encourages us to take. We owe the understanding of childhood as a distinct stage of development in large part to her work and here’s how she pushes her own insight further:
We ought not to consider the child and the adult merely as successive phases in the individual’s life. We ought rather to look upon them as two different forms of human life, going on at the same time, and exerting upon one another a reciprocal influence. The child and the adult are in fact two different and separate parts of humanity which should interpenetrate and work together in the harmony of mutual aid.
The idea that is hard for adults to swallow, even harder to swallow than the illusion of human autonomy, is that we might be better off if we let children set the tone and content of our policing policies. The mimetic insight works both ways: Yes, we make children into our own image, but they can remake us into their image if we let them. As Dr. Montessori puts it, “… not everyone realizes that the child is a wonderfully precious aid to the adult, and that he can, and should… exercise a formative influence on the adult world.”
Can we learn to see children as resources rather than burdens; adolescents as creative contributors rather than drains on society? If you haven’t read Bob’s article yet, I’m including it here in its entirety. It’s a poignant argument for pushing ourselves to make that shift, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our shared future.
by Robert Koehler
As I walked down the hall, one of the police officers employed in the school noticed I did not have my identification badge with me.”
The speaker is testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. He was a high school freshman at the time. Ah, school days!
“Before I could explain why I did not have my badge,” he went on, “I was escorted to the office and suspended for an entire week. I had to leave the school premises immediately.”
It gets better.
“Walking to the bus stop, a different police officer pulled me over and demanded to know why I was not in school. As I tried to explain, I was thrown into the back of the police car. They drove back to my school to see if I was telling the truth, and I was left waiting in the car for over two hours. When they came back, they told me I was in fact suspended, but because the school did not provide me with the proper forms, my guardian and I both had to pay tickets for me being off of school property. The tickets together were $600, and I had a court date for each one.”
Dear Mr. President, the American judicial system, especially as it is applied to low-income neighborhoods, was designed by Franz Kafka. Here it is, the insane truth of its bureaucratic pointlessness, sitting in the public record: “I was at home alone watching Jerry Springer, doing nothing,” the witness concluded his testimony, describing the ultimate effect of his banishment from school.
Take “zero tolerance” and multiply it by the Defense Department’s weapon storage bin and you start to get a picture of what policing and justice have come to look like in low-income America.
This week, coinciding with the release of the task force’s Final Report, President Obama has prohibited the transfer, to local police departments, of: “grenade launchers, bayonets, tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50-caliber or higher,” according to the Associated Press. In addition, explosives, specialized firearms, battering rams, riot batons, Humvees and drones, among many other items, are now under “tighter control.”
The point of Obama’s action was, I guess, to scale back the insanity, although he put it a little more gently. Trotting out this sort of gear “can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message,” he said. And AP called it “an attempt to ease tensions between police and minority communities.”
God bless euphemisms! If you call it what it is – oppression, institutional racism, murder – and demand an unequivocal end to it, you face a wall of police armed with this very gear and certain that YOU are the problem.
All this said, I welcome – cautiously, skeptically – the release of the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. At least it opens up a certain awareness on a topic the nation has, otherwise, officially refused to face. The report is full of recommendations for positive (some would say “feel good”) policing:
- “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior — mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.”
- “It must also be stressed that the absence of crime is not the final goal of law enforcement. Rather, it is the promotion and protection of public safety while respecting the dignity and rights of all.”
- “Noncriminal offenses can escalate to criminal charges when officers are not trained in child and adolescent development and are unable to recognize and manage a child’s emotional, intellectual, and physical development issues.”
- “Community policing emphasizes working with neighborhood residents to co-produce public safety.”
There’s plenty of room for devil’s advocacy in such observations. For instance, former prosecutor and New York City police officer Eugene O’Donnell noted recently in an interview on NPR that community policing – at least the kind that elected officials and members of the public seemingly like – “sort of frays the hard edges of policing and makes it seem as though everything can be done in a happy way, blunts the adversarial nature of the police job and kind of suggests that people can get along well and there’s no room for conflict.”
There’s a grain of truth here, of course, mixed in with a deliberate oversimplification of the concept of “community policing,” which, however tenuous and flawed, at least begins with the idea that police actually serve the community they patrol and are not an occupying army. Furthermore, it acknowledges that life is complex. Young people are complex. And “zero tolerance” has been four decades of disaster for communities of color, wrecking families, guaranteeing the rise of street gangs and feeding the prison-industrial complex.
Where the Final Report truly fails, in my opinion, is in its refusal to acknowledge the nation’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and any current manifestation of institutional racism. While it acknowledges that there’s such a thing as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and cites witnesses, like the one quoted above, who give a picture of what this actually looks like, it opts out of any deep and structural analysis of American society. It fails to challenge, you might say, the nation’s zero tolerance for truth.