The recent events surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice have shocked me. I don’t think the events themselves are that shocking anymore, but their proximity and the inspiration they provided for groups of people around the country is surprising. The protests and awareness campaigns make me proud. I’m not sure exactly how to explain why that is, and I think it is somewhat condescending to feel that way, but I can’t think of another appropriate word.
Perhaps it’s because of these mixed feelings that I’ve remained relatively quiet. The idea that “they got this,” has prevented me from writing much about it, though I’ve tried to signal boost on Twitter and Facebook, and have talked to some folks about what I think. But after the execution of Officers Liu and Ramos, I felt compelled to write.
This essay, however imperfect, is a response to that compulsion. It’s an attempt to take a sociological view through the prism of these incidents. The goal is to take seriously the idea of C. Wright Mills (and later, Jock Young) to link biography to history in the context of social structure. I’ve decided to focus on the development of two “happenings” as the prism through which relevant social processes can be identified. In the current consideration I’m less interested in the specific parties involved than I am in the underlying dynamics propelling them, and the historical circumstances which can be thought of as leading to them. I am not making the claim for probability here, just plausibility – as a way to continue the conversation.
The word happenings, as I’m using it, means a series of very closely connected events. The two I’m focusing on here are: the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice and the subsequent movements that have developed in the aftermath of those deaths coupled with the killing of officers Liu and Ramos and the reaction their murder has generated; and the development of the Rolling Stone article about Jackie (Erdley, 2014) and her experience of sexual assault at the University of Virginia (UVA), along with the subsequent issues with that reporting and the reaction of people to that happening. The events within a happening are not necessarily related in the causal sense, but they are at least perceptually related.
All of this developed from my feelings that the dynamics surrounding the Rolling Stone expose and Jackie’s assault were eerily close to those that propelled the narratives of the killing of Eric Garner. They are certainly not identical, but they share enough characteristics that they serve as a sufficient prism through which to understand two key elements that have helped propel them: deservedness and risk.
The two, seemingly unrelated happenings – Jackie’s rape at UVA and the subsequent backing-away by the Rolling Stone and the coverage of the Brown/Garner/Rice killings – plus the coverage of the NYPD officers’ deaths – share important characteristics. First, there is the development of the original coverage of the happenings. Both inspired movements that were nationwide (Laughland, Epstein and Glenza, 2014), both gained additional attention as the media coverage was increased to incorporate more stories relating similar narratives to the original, and both have had to deal with active counter-narratives (though the counter-narrative came about in different ways across both happenings).
In addition, both happenings played out with an embrace from a previously constituted group (who in turn garnered support from others) and an initial, often very vocal, skepticism from another. This was followed by the retreat of many supporters from the initial victim, while trying to maintain an embrace of the cause that had developed around the events. Finally, there was a concerted counter-attack by the original skeptics. All of this has been played out in the specific contexts of each happening over time.
There are, of course, important differences, and any generalization as broad as the one I have just made hides a lot of important detail. But there is something that comes out of this that I think is useful to examine: the question of deservedness when it comes to justice.
The issue of deservedness came up first (for me) in the context of the UVA story. After the Rolling Stone backtracked from their article (Rolling Stone, 2014), media outlets (notably the Washington Post) began to refer to Jackie in such a way as to imply that she was no longer a rape victim. The constant reference to forced oral sex in opposition to rape, as if that somehow doesn’t meet the requirement for an “actual” rape – as if it’s “only” forced oral sex.
Similarly, in many responses (particularly that of the police), and especially since the horrific execution of officers Ramos and Liu, there has been an active attempt to reduce the actions of the officers that killed Eric Garner and Tamir Rice (let alone Michael Brown) to “only” what was necessary to protect themselves or carry out their jobs. The number of videos appearing in Facebook and Twitter feeds that show officers being horrifically beaten or killed, and various examples of the other threats officers face in their line of work is beyond count. Perhaps the best examples of this type were the picture of real guns made to look like super-soakers. These are nothing more than an attempt to demonstrate that those who are killed by police are not actually victims – and therefore they don’t deserve justice.
While these two types of minimization, those directed towards Jackie and those directed at the victims of police violence, are different in many respects, they share the function of reducing the victim to someone who doesn’t deserve justice. In the case of Jackie, as someone who does not deserve justice because she may have lied or, let’s be honest, as a rape victim she may be misremembering – a significant difference painted as one or the other by the media. In the case of the black victims of police over-reaction, it minimizes their killing as justified – and therefore excused – from the attempt to find justice for them.
Incidentally, the movements developing from the communities surrounding both happenings have revolved around those ideas: hidden victimization and the deservedness of those communities for the receipt of justice.
The structural dynamics manifesting themselves in the debate about deservedness are similar to the dynamics that were happening as the country moved from its liberalism in the 1960’s to the neo-conservatism of the 1980’s. The same process that was described so well in David Garland’s (2001) book Culture of Control.
The welfare state that had developed since the end of World War II allowed for the development of an independent middle class, which soon outgrew their need for it. The subsequent shift in politics, focusing on a critique of the state and spearheaded in some respects by the left, eventually led to the dual politics of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism operating simultaneously. This turn of events, and the increasing difficulty of consistent assistance for those who needed it, coupled with reliance on “the market” to reward members of society created a class disparity, while morality politics in the guise of neo-conservatism tended to shift more along racialized lines – exacerbating the class issues for people of color (Garland, 2001).
This has been the consistent economic-political attitude since the end of the Reagan administration, though there have been differences in nuance. In particular, the unique blend of attitudes regarding individualism and deservedness, partially delineated by class but more closely associated with race, are similar between our era and the Reagan era. In the context of crime, it’s the idea that, as Garland pointed out,
Crime came to be seen instead as a problem of indiscipline, a lack of self-control or social control, a matter of wicked individuals who needed to be deterred and who deserved to be punished (p. 102).
This, in it’s essence, is a denial of deservedness of an entire group of people as long as those engaging in violence against them are in a position to enforce the law. The evidence for this is manifest in the myriad statements regarding “thugs” and “black on black crime” – no more than thinly veiled attempts to move blame away from the police and deny victims of their violence justice.
The dynamics affecting Jackie’s situation are similar in many respects. I need not spend time re-articulating the idea that our society often blames rape victims, essentially classing them among those who also “deserved” what they got – and therefore they too are not really victims. This is also a denial of justice based on deservedness. Despite the fact that Jackie was raped, because of perceived discrepancies in her story she has also been denied victimhood – and therefore justice.
Deservedness and Risk
Risk is a squirrely concept, but it boils down to the idea that we are more concerned with probability and consequence than we are with intent and capability. It requires us to live nearly completely in the future, within the realm of these potential consequences. In the cases of Jackie and the black victims of police violence with which we are here concerned, the risk is easily identified, though it is not often found at the level of the individual events. Instead, it is the context of the complete happenings that provide the evidence of risk’s role. For instance, the actions of the police chief in Ferguson, particularly right after Michael Brown’s death, reflect the concerns of departmental risk: risk in terms of loss of legitimacy, in terms of negative publicity, and in terms of liability. The actions of Officer Wilson in many ways reflect a reaction to risk. The actions of UVA after the Rolling Stone article, and really the whole process of sexual assault reporting at that institution, was devoted to minimization of risk largely along the same lines as the Chief in Ferguson, though with admittedly less firepower.
Societally, we see the same thing. The interest groups mentioned above, those who support the victims in these happenings as worthy of justice and those who oppose them by excusing the need for justice, are aligned based on risk. They are at risk for violence from those who are in positions of power or at risk of losing their power (e.g. police discretion). The events that precipitated the happenings are legitimations of future risk for both sides (if we constitute them as sides). The negotiation of deservedness is one that plays out in the context of risk negotiation between those groups.
In other words, none of the communities that have developed over the course of these happenings feels secure. Their defining characteristic is, in fact, their insecurity and the association that insecurity has with the groups providing the counter-narrative. In the case of the Eric Garner happening, it’s both the black community and the police who feel insecure – so that’s where the negotiation centers. In the case of the happening surrounding Jackie, it’s victims of sexual violence and harassment as well as those who are institutionally insecure at UVA. In short, it’s risk that has caused the communities to coalesce, and the negotiation they are engaging in through protest and public statement is one of deservedness. This risk is, according to Ulrich Beck, the defining characteristic of Reflexive Modernity, and he anticipated groups developing along these lines (Beck, 1992).
In many respects, the debate that has developed is not reflective of the existence of the risk at all. In the case of the Erica Garner happening, one community feels that no risk exists, while the second community feels that they have been victimized. Similarly, Jackie’s happening has provided a context in which some groups are explicitly arguing against the risk of sexual assault on campus by arguing that it’s not as common as has been claimed, and the “crisis” is phony (Reynolds, 2014). This, of course, denies the risk, but also delegitimizes the victims in so doing. While risk is driving the conversation, the actual negotiation between groups tends to take place in terms of risk reduction.
This need to reduce risk is perhaps most acutely felt in the context of institutions. The police, as a social institution, have reacted negatively to the claims put forth by #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot, and the various protests associated with these hashtags. Many men have reacted negatively towards the continuing release of accusations of sexual assault at UVA and elsewhere. This is unsurprising. The call for additional training, more regulation and oversight, in addition to internal investigations, is also utterly predictable. Each of these steps represents a way to manage risk. We see the same techniques used both in the case of UVA and of all the departments involved in the police violence happening.
An important element regarding risk is that it is generated by the system itself – not externally. Ulrich Beck puts it this way,
Risk depends on decisions; they are industrially produced and in this sense [are] politically reflexive. While all earlier cultures and phases of social development confronted threats in various ways, society today is confronted by itself through its dealings with risk [emphasis in original] (p. 183).
This means that the risks are specifically produced by the process of modernization. The way we police now would not have been possible in generations past, and our ability to see the police as they do their job is a relatively new phenomenon associated with the development of technology and society (the videos of Eric Garner’s and Tamir Rice’s deaths are perhaps the most poignant examples in recent memory). The way we report and the responses to that report would have been impossible even 20 years ago, and the fact checking we now demand is also new because of the availability of information. The very happenings described above are a product of the movement into Late Modernity. This means that insofar as there are risks represented, they are in large part presented in the way they are because of this movement.
The problem with the approach that views retraining and accountability as solutions then, is that it does not change the underlying dynamics mentioned above at all. In fact, there is a good argument to be made that the retraining approach may exacerbate it. As we hold police and other institutions more “accountable,” we necessarily raise the problematic issues more frequently. Given the rise of personalized technology (body cameras for police, for example) and the particularization of media reporting (individual stories vs. general social issues), and coupled with the move to the universalization of management, there are at least two strong possibilities. First, it is possible the issue of deservedness, now that we have been (re)sensitized to it, become increasingly problematic structurally until there is more significant conflict (a historical analogy would be the “race riots” in the 1970’s). Or, as a public, we become desensitized to happenings as the images and statistics become ubiquitous. This, in turn, perpetuates the conflict in its own way, though we will care less about it as it becomes normalized. This second track is arguably what got us here now – and seems to me to be a direct function of the way risk operates in Late Modernity.
The concern over risk, and the subsequent efforts to “manage” risk (rather than actually address it), has trumped the need to change anything structurally, which is the only real way to address the risk because it is self-generated. I need not mention here the underlying power-dynamics involved (particularly in regards to who gets to decide deservedness), because they’re obvious, but in truth there are no long-term winners. The kinds of risk represented here have a tendency to be subject to a boomerang effect, and thus, even those with power are not immune to the long-term consequences of the risks. In some respects, they are uniquely vulnerable to them (e.g. police and folks in the political realm often suffer both physically and politically when there is rioting).
All of this leads to the question: so what do we do? Honestly, I’m uncertain. Given the structural foundations for the issues presented here, and they clearly go well beyond what’s written in this short piece, there doesn’t seem to be a way out without changing those underlying structural variables. Rethinking what we mean by policing – how we police, who we police, and where we police – are, it seems, necessary components. Beck suggests that we have the ability to be reflexive, in the sense that we should be able to recognize these elements as part of the movement from Modernity to whatever is beyond and thereby actively create new a new biography for society, but I’m less sanguine about “the reflexive man” and their ability to be able to change course at will.
So as the police go through retraining, as departments retool their procedures and add additional rules or technologies, watching the underlying dynamics will be essential to a complete understanding of what’s happening. When the conversation shifts from specific happenings to general issues, there may be a chance to operate reflexively.
Joshua B. Hill, PhD
Assistant Professor of CJ and Security Studies
College of Criminal Justice & Social Science
Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Erdely, S.R. (19 November 2014). A rape on campus: A brutal assault and struggle for justice at UVA. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-20141119.
Garland, D. (2001). Culture of Control. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Laughland, O., Epstein, K., and Glenza, J. (5 December 2014). Eric Garner protests continue in cities across America through a second night. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/dec/05/eric-garner-case-new-york-protests-continue-through-second-night.
Reynolds, G.H. (15 December 2014). The great campus rape hoax: Column. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/12/14/campus-rape-uva-crisis-rolling-stone-politics-column/20397277/.
Rolling Stone. (2014). A note to our readers. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/a-note-to-our-readers-20141205.