Arbitrary Authority, Punishment and the Production of Violence
Discussing the recent incident at McCarren Pool, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a common mistake when it comes to the relationship between violence and authority.
There was some shock and dismay last week when I wrote that I was rather unsurprised by the violence that broke out at McCarren Pool, but was in fact more surprised that the NYPD hadn’t put in place a more forceful police presence on opening day. I argued yesterday that violence tends to follow whenever you have masses of people in tight cities and no authority with teeth.
Nevertheless, I was slightly taken aback by the fact that many of us seem wholly unfamiliar with this sort of violence–directed at an authority figure, and undertaken by a group of teenagers.
I don’t know what was going through those kids minds. But I know that I used to be one of them. When I was 14 years old my English teacher yelled at me in front of the class. I responded by threatening him. I was subsequently arrested for assault, suspended and almost thrown out school. (You can read the long version here.) Like most of the boys I went to school with, I was obsessed with rather hollow notions of “respect” and saving face. I was not–by any measure–a tough guy. But this made things worse. At any rate, I deserved everything I got. You can’t go around threatening teachers. Or people.
But I don’t think TNC’s own story is about what happens when there’s “no authority with teeth.” It’s about how people respond to authority.
The “masses of people in tight cities” in the US are often underserved by existing institutions, socially isolated from the rest of society, denied opportunity, discriminated against, responded to with punishment in ways others are not, and subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. This generates anger, resentment and rage, which then tends to blow when it gets too strong or those individuals find themselves outside the “authority” of those with power.
Prison psychologist James Gilligan puts it this way:
I have been struck by the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners, or mental patients, why they assaulted or even killed someone. Time after time, they would reply “because he disrespected me” or “he disrespected my visitor [or wife, mother, sister, girl-friend, daughter, etc.].” In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it into the slang phrase, “He dis’ed me.”
On one occasion, the officers in a prison had become involved in a running battle with a prisoner in which he would assault them and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. They placed him in solitary confinement, deprived him of even the last few privileges and possessions prison inmate has; there was no further punishment to which they could subject him without becoming subject to punishment themselves, and yet he continued to assault them whenever they opened his door. At that point they gave up and asked me to see if I could help them understand what was going on so they could extricate themselves from a situation that was only harming both parties to the conflict. (Incidentally, one can observe this same mutually self-defeating vicious cycle on a national and international scale and throughout history, both in this country and elsewhere, as in Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, and Iraq; and historically, as in the punitive peace settlement following the First World War that strengthened the revanchist political movements that culminated in the Second World War—to choose just a few among many possible examples).
When I saw this prisoner I asked him, “What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?” It seemed to me that this was exactly what he was doing. In response, this man, who was usually so inarticulate that it was difficult to get a clear answer to any question, astonished me by standing up tall, looking me in the eye, and replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.” And then, speaking more in his usual manner, he added “And I’ll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.” He went on to describe how the officers were, he felt, attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and self-esteem by disrespecting him, and said, “I still have my pride and I won’t let them take that away from me. If you ain’t got pride, you got nothin’.” He made it clear to me that he would die before he would humble himself to the officers by submitting to their demands.
Gilligan’s point is that when authority robs individuals of their dignity, either by putting them in a position where they cannot maintain it, where others will rob them of it, or where those operating under color of law will do the robbing, people have a tendency to lash out aggressively to try to reassert that dignity. (I should really say men, because there is a really important role for gender here, but that’s a subject for another post).
Studies of why people (this time I really mean people) obey the law show consistently that a central issue is whether it is seen as legitimate, specifically, whether procedures are felt as fair. Fair procedures might be extended to those who are considered fully human by those in power (although this group is shrinking) but as Margaret Somers argues, rights are not generally extended or protected to those who are seen as less than fully human.
Neoliberalism is sometimes mistakenly seen as simply about markets, but it also includes a significant emphasis on punishment. Whether it means punishing through the criminal justice system, the social welfare system, or the national security system assaults people’s sense of dignity, producing the very behaviors it claims to be fighting. Robert Pape’s work on suicide terrorism, showing it to be caused by occupations by countries associated with a different religion than that of the occupied is but one example.
The problem then, is not the lack of authority, but how authority is wielded.
(None of this is to say TNC doesn’t have a lot to offer on these dynamics. See for example this earlier post he linked to.)