Posts Tagged ‘prejudice’

Under Siege

Posted: October 20, 2015 in Police State
Tags: , , ,

My colleague who shares my office is black.  Most of my co-workers are black.  Detroit is a black majority city (almost 83% at last check).

This morning, my colleague told me about getting pulled over, twice, the day before.  Her son attends a private school in a suburb of Detroit, and each day she provides him transportation.  On the way to the school in the afternoon, she was pulled over for speeding next to a college (where the speed limit inexplicably drops to 20 from a 55).  Fair enough.

Later that day, she was driving home with her son and infant daughter.  She was on the freeway, in the right lane, driving slowly because of the earlier ticket.  She was pulled over, and the police behind her turned on their spotlights and loudspeakers, ordering her to roll down her windows and put her hands outside the vehicle.  Two more state police vehicles pulled up within seconds, and four policemen approached her car with guns drawn; after berating her for not lowering her windows fully (on a 40 degree day with a 10-month old baby in the car), they issued a ticket and told her to come to court for it to be thrown out.

Her crime?  Tinted windows.  Which are completely see-through.  Which were put in by her father, when he owned the vehicle.

Did I mention her father is a police officer?

Police no doubt have an image of who is driving a red Impala with tinted windows.  They have thoughts about who drives from Warren to Detroit, and why that trip is made.

Traffic stops are scary for cops.  There is always the chance someone can be dangerous.  However, most fatalities from traffic stops are from other vehicles on the road; of the 149 officers who died in the line of duty in 2014, 57 were traffic stop related, but only eight were killed by firearms during a traffic stop.*

In 2014, about 1,100 civilians were killed by police.  Most civilian contact with police starts with a traffic stop.

Terror connects police and civilians.  Police worry they will be killed by a dangerous civilian, but know if someone kills a police offer, the full weight of law enforcement will be upon them.  Civilians worry if they put a finger wrong, they will be killed without compunction or punishment.

Police may feel they are under siege, against a groundswell of public opposition.  People of color, in the wrong neighborhoods, driving the wrong cars, have felt under siege for decades.

Civilians are killed at about 21.5% the rate of police.  So far this year, about 922 civilians were killed by the police.  About 100 police officers were killed in the same period.  You’re almost 10 times a likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than vice versa.

And it’s likely the numbers are far greater; statistics about police violence are notoriously unreliable.

Any number of deaths is likely too many.  I’m sure some of these deaths are justifiable homicide.  And it’s horrendous that people die in the line of duty, many of whom are likely good cops doing the right things.

But the numbers don’t lie.  Police approaching normal, routine events as if they are life-or-death situations leads to unnecessary killing, increases civilian anger with law enforcement, and actually makes cops less safe; as people get angrier, the violence against the police will grow.

Both sides need to stand down.  But the ones with the legally sanctioned right to kill need to start.

*(In 2012, over 4,000 officers were wounded/assaulted during traffic stops)

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We all think we’re really, really smart.

And we are.  Evolution has turned us into some of the smartest, highly adaptable creatures on the face of the planet so far.  Evolution has done this through creating systems of shortcuts in our brains and bodies to ensure most time can be spent on thriving rather than simple survival.

Evidence of these systems is all around us, and depending on the discipline, the words may vary but the concepts do not.  In psychology we talk about heuristics (categories so we know how to deal with things), in neuroscience it’s brain categorization and cortex organization, in social science and justice movements we talk about stereotypes and prejudice. 

In each idea we see remnants of our incredible adaptation; we have these categories in our brains because if we had to think about daily minutia, we wouldn’t have (any) time left over for the business of thinking and living.  Invisibila just did a podcast on categories, talking about a person without the ability to create simple heuristics who was often baffled by different shaped couches (what is this?  is it a bomb?  I better stay away).

Categories are a part of our brains and our world, but if we’re not aware of these unconscious processes bad things happen.  This is why you’re more likely to associate negative words with a black face, even if you don’t think you’re racist.  This is why you promote a man after he mentors someone, while looking at the same task as part of a woman’s role in the workplace.  It’s why you assume someone who reads her daily horoscopes and drinks herbal tea is a holistic healer rather than a school teacher, even though it’s much more likely she is a teacher.

It’s the same reason we look at fat people and assume we know all sorts of things.

The thing that sucks?  It’s not entirely our fault.

We are deluged on a daily basis with news stories and talk shows and commercials, all telling us about how important it is to be thin(ner), how it’s a health issue, how we should be totally focused on our bodies.  This triggers what’s called the availability heuristic; when something’s always around and it’s on the top of our brain, we’re much more likely to overestimate the occurrence of this thing.  It’s the same principle behind why people are afraid of plane crashes, when it’s WAY more likely they’ll be in a car crash.

Bodies do not always reflect our behavior.  We’re taught that fat people get fat because they’re lazy, because they eat junk food, because their eating is out of control.  We’re taught that you can be thin if only…

If only you try harder, eat less, exercise more, TRY HARDER, TRY HARDER, TRY HARDER.

No.  No, no, no.

It’s been pointed out that if diets were a drug, no self-respecting doctor in the world would prescribe them.  It’s been said that the billion dollar diet industry is built that way because no diet has been shown to work for long term, sustainable, healthy weight loss.  EVER.

Just as we don’t accept total character judgments based on skin color or hair color or gender, it’s time to acknowledge we have enormous prejudice against fat bodies.  And just as skin color is ultimately a ridiculous way to determine anything about a person’s character, so body size does not determine character.