Policing -- particularly crowd control and protests -- has two competing narratives. We have the "cop on the beat" as part of the community "to protect and to serve." More officially, we call this "community based policing." It centers on the idea that the vast majority of people in the community are peaceful and law abiding. There are occasional moments of danger and potential violence that require carefully measured force to address the very specific danger, but the objective is to resolve situations without force if possible, with minimal force if necessary. Critically, the "cop on the beat" is a member of the community. A part of the community as much as the fireman, the teacher, the teenager, whoever.
The second narrative is the "war on crime" or "thin blue line" model. It is a hostile jungle out there. The only thing that defends poor, frightened desperate law abiding folks (coincidentally envisioned as white -- not that we're racist!) is the brave thin blue line of grim and gritty policeman (coincidentally mostly white and male -- not that this makes us racist or sexist!) willing to put their lives on the line and do what it takes to stop those criminal animals (coincidentally envisioned as young black men -- not that we're racist!) and anarchist mobs from destroying what's left of our once great Nation. It's Dirty Harry and Fort Apache the Bronx. And anyone who thinks all this stupid "rights" stuff that panders and protects criminals (coincidentally envisioned as young black men and young Latino men -- not that we're racist!) is part of the problem.
And, of course, an army conducting a war on crime needs weapons, right? Real weapons, 'cause it's a jungle out there and we're all just one step away from living in a Hellscape where criminals gangs that just happen to be visualized as young black men high on drugs rape our women who just happen to be visualized as white, attractive (but not 'slutty,' obviously, if they were 'slutty' they'd be prostitutes) and suitably grateful when rescued.
We got to see both these narratives play out in Ferguson.
For days, we saw a local, overly armed police force that sees itself as a "thin blue line" overreact because they knew, KNEW that they were civilization's last hope and that these anarchist mobs of black people were going to descend on them and riot. And the more force they put in the field, the more military equipment they called in, the more like-minded overly armed and overly-hyped backup they brought in from the surrounding area, the more the situation spiraled out of control. But this, of course, only proved the Rambo wannabes were right. It never occurred to them that the more they acted like an occupying army here to pacify the resistance, the more people would respond to them like an invading army set to crush them.
After all, we, the Police, the Thin Blue Line, the real heroes, we KNOW we're the good guys. If people keep blathering about how our going in with body armor and machine guns escalates the situation and creates the problems in the first place -- they are just wussy liberals who don't understand what's going on. Sure, we may look like 6 uncoordinated paramilitary units running around in a vague panic shouting at people to go back to their homes and then using tear gas and smoke when they won't. That may look like overreaction. That may look like no one is really in charge and we don't know what we're doing other than running around with our military equipment that we've acquired over the years. But that's not the real story. We're the heroes. The good guys. Those guys who look exactly like the bad guys (and look, they turned out to be black, just like we pictured them -- see, we're not racist!) are the ones causing the trouble. True, the violent reaction didnt start until we got there with our guns and stuff, but it was gonna happen and it would have been much worse if we hadn't been there because, see, these guys are animals (not that all black people or all protesters or all reporters are animals or pussy liberals coddling and abetting these animals destroying civilization -- we're not racist! just these specific black people and reporters.)
In good Hollywood fashion, the Governor came in, relieved the folks on the scene, brought in an African American traffic patrol captain and local guy named Captain Ron Ferguson. They announced they were gonna de-escalate the situation by pulling back the armies of cops, reverting to normal cop uniforms, not try to interfere with peaceful marchers, and work with the protesters and community leaders to rebuild trust.
If the Dirty Harry/Fort Apache/Escape from NY/War on Crime/Thin Blue Line narrative was the reality, then last night should have been a disaster as the pussy liberals coddling the vicious animals got their well deserved comeuppance. Rioting should have spread out of control without the brave, well armed Thin Blue Line to protect civilization as we know it, and a chastened pussy governor should have been forced to go on bended knee to our now vindicated Dirty Harry police chief to get him to call out The Boys to restore order.
But a funny thing happened.
It turns out, at least in this case, the cop on the beat/community policing narrative was right. A relieved community greeted Cpt Ron Johnson with hugs. He marched with the protesters. And it looked for all the world like a peaceful protest with local police doing crowd control rather than like a confrontation between anarchists and the last line of defense for civilization. Remove the army of over-excited and over-armed Rambo wannabes and the situation de-escalated to what we like to think is reality.
No, it didn't solve any of the problems the protesters are mad about.
But ya know, maybe we can think about that narrative too. Maybe the protesters are right that our internal narrative about young black men or black communities *is* racist. Not because we're bad people, but because we have the wrong internal narrative. When we actually know people, or meet them under circumstances that give us a positive narrative -- a religious service, a job -- we don't freak out and imagine our lives are at risk (we can work on the internal narratives about the workplace too, come to think of it). But when we encounter random strangers when the situation does not give us context, we fill in with our internal narrative. And if our internal narrative is driven by movies like Dirty Harry or Fort Apache the Bronx, or TV shows like The Wire, where every urban neighborhood of African Americans is a jungle teeming with angry young black men smoking crack and every Latino neighborhood is a barrio teeming with "illegals" and gangs, then we tend to react in a particular way when some random young black man or Latino teen crosses our path.
Maybe we should, just possible, rethink our internal narrative. Because we're not racist. Not intrinsically. But we do seem to have an awful lot of bad internal narratives that make us act all racist. And an internal narrative can be changed. We saw that in Ferguson. And it makes a difference. We saw that in Ferguson too.