I have a new essay up at Al Jazeera today on what I call the "cult of compliance." It's a topic I've been writing about for a long time, but the events of the last few days bring it all into focus.

I write:

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, set off by the a policeman’s shooting of an unarmed black teen last week, appear to be spinning out of control — not because crowds are rioting nightly but because law enforcement is operating as though they are in a war zone. Peaceful protesters are facing nothing short of a domestic army, armed with military equipment, waiting for a provocation.

As the protests progressed, the police have used noncompliance, or the failure to obey their every order, as their justification for whatever violence came next. That’s also the excuse that the police used to explain why an officer shot Michael Brown. They said the incident started because Brown didn’t comply with an order to move, so it is he who is to blame.

What happens if you don’t comply when the police give you an order? What rights do you really have? How free are you, really, when the authorities have weapons pointed at you or when they have the right to draw a weapon and use it with relative impunity?

Over the past few years, I have been tracking the rhetoric that police and other authority figures use to justify all kinds of violence. In cases that seem very different, separated by factors such as age, race, gender, sexuality, geography, class and ability, police explain away their actions by citing noncompliance. They do it because it works. They do it because according to their beliefs, any sign of noncompliance is an invitation to strike.

To fight back, ordinary citizens need not only to push specific reforms but also to transform the culture of law enforcement.

This is an intersectional reading of police violence. I come at this as someone who focuses on writing about police violence against people with disabilities, but I see it as a societal threat engaging all categories of people. It hurts those historically oppressed by state power the most, but that doesn't mean anyone is safe.

I continue:

The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.

This cult of compliance provides the point of intersection between racism and militarization of law enforcement — the primary factors at play in Ferguson — and other issues, such as the overuse of stun guns and the failure of police to respond to the needs of the mentally ill. Police may be motivated by their racism to harass people of color, but when officers get violent, they almost always cite a form of noncompliance as their justification.  

I'd very like people on this site to read the piece and offer me their thoughts. I'm working on this long-term now and want to get it right. I think we have to fight the disease in our culture as well as its specific manifestations among our police force.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.


I am a freelance columnist, blogger, long-time member of this site, and history professor. You can read my blog at How Did We Get Into This Mess?

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Originally posted to Lollardfish on Fri Aug 15, 2014 at 09:29 AM PDT.

Also republished by Police Accountability Group.

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