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Overreaction as a Societal Ill

If I walk up to you and slap you in the face because your music is too loud and I can’t think, or because you’re acting carelessly and have damaged some of my property, or nearly knocked me down, several things may happen. First off, in perhaps the “best case” scenario, I’m likely to be arrested. In a worst case scenario, I may be shot and killed. In almost no scenario that I can imagine will you thank me for bringing the problem to your attention. Nor are you likely to modify your behavior because I slapped your face.

Yet every day we — collectively, as a society — slap others around and expect to change behaviors, even if we don’t necessarily expect our victims to thank us for bringing the fact that we think they have (or are) a problem to their attention.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here: I’m not arguing that it’s wrong of us to lock people up in jails and prisons for committing crimes. I might argue — in fact, I frequently do — that we lock too many people up in jails and prisons for doing things which should not be considered “committing crimes.”

Sometimes I’m talking about things like Prohibition, which worked out so well when it was enacted via constitutional amendment in 1920 that it was repealed by 1933, then re-born as the “War on Drugs” that has nearly bankrupted us while destroying the countries (EDIT 12/2015: link broken) that cater to our black markets. (In fact, the case has been made that the War on Drugs, more than anything else, has contributed to the problems this article I’m writing highlights.)

Sometimes I’m complaining about locking up juveniles for fighting in school, where, in the old days, a trip to the principal’s office — at worst an expulsion — would have been considered more than adequate.

But nobody resolves banal disputes in such a banal manner anymore. The ordinary response to nearly any such incident these days is to call the police. Hell, we now even arrest 5- and 6-year-olds for throwing temper tantrums. After an uproar over handcuffing kindergarten crybabies, the New York Police Department tried to calm parents by promising to use softer handcuffs.

“When the NYPD is writing protocols for handcuffing 5-year-olds, doesn’t that give them pause?” [the NYCLU’s executive director] says. “It’s a school system that has abdicated responsibility for routine discipline to the Police Department.”

Does it give the police pause? Does it give the majority of us pause? No. It does not. Overreaction is the new norm. Resistance to authority is futile. You will be arrestolated.

Everything that happens is subject to police intervention and our militarized police forces “take no chances.” The new “zero-tolerance” for “civilians”means that an anonymous 911 call can result in police officers surrounding a school bus, “extracting” and handcuffing every child on board until things can be sorted out. If it turns out that neither a justification for the action, nor the 911 caller (!) can be found after such a gratuitous display of force, well, they uncuff the kids and let them go. No harm, no foul, right?

What? Your kid fell down and bumped his head? You’re trained to deal with such things, having worked with medical forces in Vietnam, and your kid seems fine? If you refuse to let the paramedics invade your home, uninvited, you could find yourself, days later, confronted at gunpoint, thrown to the ground and handcuffed after the police break down your front door “to check on” your kid.

These are not the isolated events that many would have you believe they are. Such things happen every day. As Scott Greenfield pointed out this morning, even judges know not to refuse to submit to the inquiries of the police when they encounter them in the wild.

Things are, of course, even worse if you happen to be already charged with a crime; worse still if you’ve been convicted and imprisoned. In one of my juvenile cases, a guard grabbed a kid around the throat and then taunted him because he didn’t like something the kid had said. As usual, I don’t want to give many details about my own cases, especially those involving juveniles — suffice it to say the kid resisted this, which resulted in new charges. In a prison case I’m handling, guards mistreated my client and, when he tried to utilize prison procedures to complain, his complaints “disappeared” — as did he for a short time after he was deemed “a danger to the general prison population,” requiring an “administrative segregation.” Because he kept trying to complain.

The toxicity — the lack of simple human decency or respect — to which we expose prisoners virtually guarantees future trouble, both for them and for us.

A story in the monthly paper Community Alliance: The Voice of the Progressive Movement since 1996 tells of a Native American religious ceremony being interrupted by a guard who — thanks to the lack of training, intelligence and understanding one might hope for in such circumstances — mistakenly believed the ceremonial activities performed in accordance with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA, 42 § 2000CC et seq.) were criminal acts. The ceremony was interrupted. The inmates originally offered to cooperate with the guards. They all offered to submit to drug tests to prove the guard wrong. They offered to let the guard examine and smell — the case involved a charge of marijuana being smoked — the burning sage and sweet grass, so she could realize it wasn’t the kind of grass she thought it was. These offers were rejected. The inmates were strip-searched for metals. (Did the suspicious guard, having “smelled marijuana,” possibly decide that if the inmates had “pot” and “some pots are metal” then a search for metals was in order?)

Based on the refusal to treat the inmates with basic human dignity in the face of their cooperation, the inmates stopped cooperating. For this refusal to continue cooperating — something that had borne so much fruit already — all the inmates were accused of CDC-115 (serious) Rules Violation Reports, were convicted by a senior hearing officer in the prison, and lost “good-time credits, contact visits and phone, canteen (prison commissary) and quarterly package program privileges.” (Boston Woodard, “When the Smoke Clears (It’s Just Medicine)” (June 2010) Community Alliance, p. 3, col. 3.)

Even with our draconian sentencing laws, many of these people will one day be free. They will be out in public again. The indignities to which they were subjected will not be forgotten anymore than you would forget my having slapped you in the face for playing your music too loudly.

So stop, just for a moment, and think about that slap in the face. How wouldyou react?

Then ask yourself if maybe we — as a society — ought to change the way we treat others.

And if you happen to be one of my friendly law enforcement readers, do everyone a favor: ask yourself this several times a day. If you overreact, it has far-reaching consequences for us all.

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