American society is a violent society. Rates of homicide and other violent death in the United States dramatically exceed those of other industrialized, high-income nations. Our violence is a product of living in an environment that breeds racial and ethnic discrimination and conflict, abuse of women, children, elders, and the poor, labeled as “weaker” members of our society. The results of such society are problematic. Research shows how trauma caused by violence is a significant precursor to the development of mental and substance use problems. If we want to reduce substance use and improve overall mental health, we need to focus on the root causes of violence in the United States, such as racism, sexism, inequality and militarism.
Last Saturday, local police in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot an unarmed African-American 18-year-old named Michael Brown. In the days that followed, there have been massive protests in Ferguson (and elsewhere) and heavily armed SWAT teams are roaming the streets in response.
On August 4, 2014 advocates who spoke against jail conditions as unconstitutionally atrocious, released a report showcasing the findings of a two-year investigation into conditions facing teenage boys held at Rikers Island. The report concludes “that there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates. Indeed, we find that a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers.” Both these events highlight the deeply problematic stance the United States government has taken in relation to violence, in the name of safety. And these incidents should force all of us to think about: democracy, freedom, and mental health.
The post-9/11 society in the United States is a violent paranoid society, where we are obsessed with finding the enemy among us. The U.S. now gives billions of dollars to state and local law enforcement agencies every year to purchase military equipment. Created in the name of safety, the post 9/11 society is a militarized society, where local police has unprecedented power and military capability to crush any/all decent. Yet, as history teaches us, such power in the hands of any state is dangerous, for it leads to authoritarianism and a highly controlled society.
The dangers of police militarization are well explained in the 2013 book Rise of the Warrior Cops: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, written by journalist Radley Balko. Balko traces the history and underlying mentality of such police brutality. He talks about America’s obsession with law and order that grew as a backlash to the 1960s civil rights movement, the War on Drugs that created a mentality of Americans as an enemy population, the Reagan-era “War on Poverty” (which is really a war on American’s poor), the aggressive Clinton-era expansions of domestic policing, culminating in the massively funded, Patriot Act post-9/11 security state of the Bush and Obama years. And if that is not disturbing enough, in June 2014, ACLU published a 96 page report on this problem, entitled War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. It shows how the “United States today has become excessively militarized, mainly through federal programs that create incentives for state and local police to use unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield. The dangers of domestic militarization are worrisome. As the ACLU report summarized: “excessive militarism in policing, particularly through the use of paramilitary policing teams, escalates the risk of violence, threatens individual liberties, and unfairly impacts people of color.”
Ferguson is just a culmination of how police officers, through practices such as stop and frisk, racial profiling, etc. are waging war with communities of color in particular and poor folks in general. The scenes on TV that we’ve seen in Ferguson and in other areas unfortunately are reminiscent of the 1950s, where police were beating civil rights protestors. Unfortunately, the weaponry has changed for the worse, yet the targets remain the same. Communities, especially low income communities of color, are looking more like warzones, and less like towns.
And if we are not intimidating our youth (mostly of color), or killing them in the streets, drug laws ensure that we are locking them in places like Rikers, where solitary confinement is one of the many practices that subjugate and dehumanize inmates. In fact, the U.S. Attorney found that approximately 51 percent of adolescents at Rikers were diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Of course the question remains: how did the mental illness develop? Was it exasperated by inequality? Did incarceration make it worse? Or, did it lead to a direct arrest?
At Rikers, those who demonstrate a dire need for mental health services are placed in the mental health observation unit or the restrictive housing unit. Currently, Rikers has no adolescent psychiatrist. Since teenagers with mental illnesses are more likely to not follow rules or engage in behavior that often leads them into solitary confinement, those in need of most compassion are subjected to most violence. According to the report, approximately 60 percent of adolescents in jail have mental health diagnoses, in contrast to 40 percent of adults.
Although Attorney General Eric Holder has publicly spoken about the high rates of violence and solitary confinement as “unacceptable” and has promised that the Department of Justice will “work with the City of New York to make good on our commitment to reform practices that are unfair and unjust, ” this has not happened. Further recommendations were that all adolescents should be removed from Rikers Island, yet no movement has happened.
Violence breeds violence. We cannot talk about compassion, love, peace, and nurturing environments, while in the streets the police hired to protect us, carry high powered weaponry and fire rubber bullets and tear gas. We cannot maintain that we are committed to peace, while investing in ammunition. Unfortunately, American society has a historical legacy of violence that results in a widespread acceptance of violent methods. Whether we cross the line in torturing people, or shoot to kill people in the streets, or hold our incarcerated youth in solitary confinement, this society reflects our values, as we seem to show a readiness for military solutions, and a patriarchal desire to dominate through threats and force.
If we want a different society, we need different ideologies. If we want to end war we start by teaching nonviolence and peaceful conflict resolutions to our youth. We abolish corporal punishment in schools (since its usefulness is only to teach violence) while providing training in nonviolent parenting skills for parents. Further, we invest in social programs instead of war programs. We start by providing adequate housing, jobs and training in order to remedy the conditions that spawn violent crime. And, we give less power to the state, less power to the police, and more power to the people.