On Monday, January 13, two Fullerton, California police officers charged with the beating death of Kelly Thomas were acquitted, and the prosecutor announced his decision not to press charges against a third officer involved. Millions who had been following the story met the verdict with incredulity: How could anyone who watched that horrific video of Thomas pinned down and brutally beaten with fists and batons, begging for his life and calling out for his father, have possibly returned any verdict but guilty?
The answer lies in a famous psychological experiment — the Milgram Experiment — conducted in 1961. This experiment, conducted when the Nuremberg trials were still a recent memory, led subjects to believe they were torturing a fellow subject in the next room (who in fact was a confederate pretending to be a volunteer, and suffered no actual pain) with increasingly powerful electric shocks. Reassured by scientists in white coats that they would assume all responsibility, and urged to continue, subjects continued to (so far as they knew) inflict more and more painful shocks on their fellow subjects, even as the screams became louder and then went silent. In short, these people were willing to inflict pain on strangers who were begging for mercy, to the point of unconsciousness and possible death, based on the assurances of “responsible authority figures,” so long as the victim was framed as an outsider.
Developmental psychologists tell us that children are initially socialized to view political authority as an extension of their parents’ authority. The president is first viewed as a sort of Mommy or Daddy, with all Americans as the family. Gradually actors like Congress, the courts, and so forth enter the picture — at first understood as simply “helpers” to the President, and only later as constitutional checks to presidential authority. But the aura of parental authority persists, on a subliminal level, even then.
This continuing aura of authority stimulates a tendency to give political leaders the benefit of the doubt when they start wars (“they must be privy to information that we’re not”) and to view formal systems of authority as things that exist by popular consent in order to address common problems (“the government is just all of us”). Nowhere is this ingrained tendency more evident than in the view of police officers inculcated in small children. “The policeman is your friend.” “If you’re ever in trouble or need help, call a policeman.” “They must have been doing something wrong, or they wouldn’t have been arrested.”
But this is simply untrue. Perhaps in years past, police were mostly benign presences in neighborhoods or small towns where local residents had long known both each other and the officer on the beat (although even here things might not seem so benign to vagrants or members of racial minorities). But today a major portion of officers on metropolitan police forces of any size are people who self-selected police work based on authoritarian personalities and a desire to brutalize others; another portion are encultured into brutality after they join the force, and most of those who don’t fall into either of the first two categories learn to honor the blue code of silence when they witness brutality by others in their “band of brothers.”
What happened to Thomas is standard police operating procedure in most jurisdictions: Continue to brutalize someone who’s been rendered physically incapable of resistance — other than involuntary spasms from unbearable agony — while continuing to yell “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” Local police forces are sordid empires of criminality based on planted evidence, entrapment, coerced testimony, “civil forfeiture” racketeering with stolen property and dogs trained to falsely alert on command. Thanks to the gravy train of federal military surplus hardware and military cross-training, police forces are militarized to the point that SWAT teams are used to serve routine search or arrest warrants — battering down doors, shooting pets, ransacking houses and terror families in the dead of night just like Soviet or Nazi-era secret police. Police forces increasingly view civilians as an occupied enemy population to be awed with random shows of force.
Until most people abandon their state-inculcated respect for uniformed authority, and their willingness to treat officially defined outsiders as the “other,” the Rodney King and Kelly Thomas verdicts — and uncounted such verdicts yet unnamed — will continue.