Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Ferguson and the cult of compliance

When the police won’t take no for an answer

August 15, 2014 6:00AM ET

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri, set off by a policeman’s shooting of an unarmed black teen last week, appear to be spinning out of control — not because crowds are rioting nightly but because law enforcement is operating as though they are in a war zone. Peaceful protesters are facing nothing short of a domestic army, armed with military equipment, waiting for a provocation.

As the protests progressed, the police have used noncompliance, or the failure to obey their every order, as their justification for whatever violence came next. That’s also the excuse that the police used to explain why an officer shot Michael Brown. They said the incident started because Brown didn’t comply with an order to move, so it is he who is to blame.

What happens if you don’t comply when the police give you an order? What rights do you really have? How free are you, really, when the authorities have weapons pointed at you or when they have the right to draw a weapon and use it with relative impunity?

Over the past few years, I have been tracking the rhetoric that police and other authority figures use to justify all kinds of violence. In cases that seem very different, separated by factors such as age, race, gender, sexuality, geography, class and ability, police explain away their actions by citing noncompliance. They do it because it works. They do it because according to their beliefs, any sign of noncompliance is an invitation to strike.

To fight back, ordinary citizens need not only to push specific reforms but also to transform the culture of law enforcement. 

Police patterns

The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.

This cult of compliance provides the point of intersection between racism and militarization of law enforcement — the primary factors at play in Ferguson — and other issues, such as the overuse of stun guns and the failure of police to respond to the needs of the mentally ill. Police may be motivated by their racism to harass people of color, but when officers get violent, they almost always cite a form of noncompliance as their justification.  

In many cases, people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands, and the police initiate violence despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) appears to recognize that something needs to change. In the aftermath of Brown’s death, the DOJ has promised both to investigate what happened in Ferguson and to examine police procedures more generally. Its list of topics includes lethal force incidents and the many encounters between police and mentally ill people. A recent confrontation in East Los Angeles, in which a police officer allegedly shot and killed Ezell Ford, an unarmed 24-year-old black man who was known to have suffered from mental illness, is the latest example of such an incident.

This last point is significant. Mental illness has been sidelined as a separate issue requiring specialized training rather than included in broader conversations. To my knowledge, this is the first time that any major law enforcement official has included police violence against minorities and police violence against those with disabilities in the same review and identified them as part of the same broader problem.  

It’s a link that needs to be made. In the vast majority of cases, especially those involving young black and Latino men, police can punish someone for noncompliance with impunity, and because of deeply entrenched racism, little is done in the way of reform. But when someone is disabled or unwell, violent police action reveals itself as what it is: disproportionate, crude and uncalled for. It is therefore imperative to consider the two situations side by side and integrate them into a broader discussion about how the police treats people who, for whatever reason, do not comply with their every whim.

Common denominator

First, we have to recognize the common denominators in many of these incidents: that people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands and that the police initiate violence, despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.

Brown’s story is now well known. According to an eyewitness, a police officer told Brown, an 18-year-old black man, to “get the f--- onto the sidewalk.” He didn’t comply, the incident escalated, and he got shot repeatedly.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of similar examples in which noncompliance led to violence. Ersula Ore, a black woman in Arizona refused to hand over her ID and was flung to the ground. A drunk woman in Skokie, Illinois, didn’t look into the camera when being booked, so the police threw her onto a bench, breaking her face. They claimed she was resisting arrest.

Some victims — Eric Garner, James Boyd and Nicholas Davis, to name just a few — die. Others, such as Antonio Martinez, just get beaten. Every time, the police explain their conduct by citing noncompliance. Cameras can provide a counternarrative to police tales of noncompliance, showing that Garner was peaceful and that Ore was a professor on her own campus.

But here’s the worst thing: Most of the victims of this cult of compliance are invisible. They receive no media coverage. Their stories get buried in plea deals. They are told that fighting bogus charges will just make matters worse. When police violence targets people who have suffered it for so long, it takes something unusual to bring it to light. People with disabilities, on the other hand, tend to generate broad sympathy. Disability makes it harder for police to blame the victim for not complying, so those stories make news.

Here’s a story from Maryland. Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, was told to get out of his seat at a movie theater in Frederick, Maryland, because he hadn’t paid for his ticket. He refused and swore at the off-duty deputies who were moonlighting as mall security. They grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground. He was asphyxiated.

John Wrana, a 95-year-old World War II vet, didn’t want to go the hospital. The staff at his assisted living community decided to involuntarily commit him and called the police. When he didn’t comply and instead picked up a shoehorn and a cane, they tased him and shot him at close range with a beanbag round. He died from the injury.

In Oklahoma a deaf man was hauled from his car and beaten because he didn’t comply with verbal instructions. A panhandler with mental illness ran away from a police office in Missouri and was shot in the back for running.

This is why it’s so important that the DOJ has potentially acknowledged links among all different types of lethal-force incidents, including cases involving disability. It’s too easy for groups that have not historically experienced police violence to see the situation as someone else’s problem. Disability-related cases emerge from all races and social classes. By seeing police conduct through the lens of disability, the whole nation can engage in this discussion about policing, but only if the connections are made visible. 

Bad cops

Fixing the problems will involve working on racism in police departments across the country, enforcing bans on chokeholds, all kinds of better training and building a national mental health system focused on care rather than incarceration. Mandatory cameras are a good idea too. Let’s treat all these symptoms but keep our eye on the disease that’s causing them.

The public must stop blaming these events on bad cops or bad departments. Too many people are willing to accept that because being a cop is risky, they have to punch, shoot or tase at the slightest provocation. Such attitudes enable the cult of compliance.

In the aftermath of the police takeover of Ferguson, Americans are hearing many excuses about how noncompliance necessitated violent action. The public must push back by demanding that individual officers be held accountable for their actions and by emphasizing that the right to use lethal force comes with the requirement to accept the risk of not using it when people don’t instantly comply. 

David M. Perry writes on language and power at How Did We Get Into This Mess? He is a history professor at Dominican University

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter