The friction between worlds

Photo by Roman Koester via Unsplash

Photo by Roman Koester via Unsplash

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.
— Marcus Garvey

It is an unprecedented time. In the world, in America. The rise of the Internet, blogs, vlogs, social media constructs, wireless tech, Podcasts—especially Podcasts—have given us access to more information than we know what to do with. It’s a molten mix of facts, opinions, and raw data. We do with it what we will. But there are gems in this mess. Personal accounts, extended journalism, and analytical reasoning abound. It’s a shift in information gathering and sharing that has occurred over barely one generation. Multiple generations overlap the development of the Web, however, and we’re seeing intergenerational clashes in real-time. Near instantaneous communication of conflicts and mobile video are providing a glimpse into worlds that nearly 4,000,000 square miles of land, 326,000,000 people, and inadequate technology have acted as a speed-limiter on our understanding of each other. Considering our history, it’s understandable where the social friction—and our lousy habits of preventing it—have come from. Old habits, new world. It’s a classic position for the United States to be in. And our track record on handling the situation is not great.

culture (noun)
cul·ture | \ˈkəl-chər
a) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
b) the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
c) the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic
d) the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

In general, the U.S. population is not as well-equipped to operate a Constitutional democracy as it should be. There are stunning gaps in understanding of how the government is supposed to operate and of the laws governing it. As much as I try to educate myself, in fact, I’m still consistently surprised at how much more there is to learn. I think this is a significant driver of voter self-suppression—whether that be in the form of apathy, frustration, or indecision. From this perspective, the poor are even worse off. Multiple generations of being poor have created cultural bubbles, entire worlds removed from what’s considered middle-class or wealthy. Low-income populations don’t live in the same world as high-income populations. Poor folks do not speak the same language or make decisions in the same was as the wealthy. A wealthy person’s experience and interactions with the legal system are significantly different than a poor person’s. This is further exacerbated by historically oppressed demographics. And we’re now able to see it in real-time, thanks to bloggers, vloggers, mobile social media, and Podcasters broadcasting from inside and outside the bubble.

I think gritty crime writers tend to understand the situation I’m trying to describe. Needing to create authentic fiction that piques the reader’s interest means having an intrinsic understanding of what drives lower-income populations, how those communities communicate and understand the world, their culture. Some researchers seem to understand, as well. The idea that the police and criminal justice system are effectively ‘colonizers’ in poor communities probably arose from this understanding.

Stories told from the perspective of law enforcement, however, are from the other side of the veil. Where another culture exists, another world. Whenever the two meet, its disastrous, almost as if the involved parties are speaking a different language. Listening to stories where this friction comes to life; having grown up in low-income, black neighborhoods; and having some understanding of the history that got us here; the examples are disturbingly clear.

Police officers investigating a child’s kidnapping in Minnesota gaslight the parents of the victims, ignore evidence, accuse an innocent citizen of the crime and refuse to reflect on any possible errors. And the good citizens of this ‘working class’—not poor—white town are confused because the police are infallible, and such things ‘never happen here’ because it’s a good community where people go to church and everyone knows everyone else. Heinous crimes are something that happens to other people. Murderous pedophiles can’t be here, not here. This is a good neighborhood, they believe, knowing in their souls they live in the same world as law enforcement. The people considered poor in these towns, however, they are closer to understanding as they have multiple, petty run-ins with the law, as they are scapegoated for crimes, as their lives are turned inside out and upside down for decades. Getting caught in the machinery of that other world is an inevitability, a rite of passage. Before they know it, they’ve been ‘in trouble’ for most of their lives and an uneasy acceptance settles in.

Police officers investigating a quadruple homicide roll up on a poor, black citizen in Mississippi, tell them to ‘get in the car and come down to the station so we can talk to you.’ And the citizen complies. They don’t want trouble and the police are trouble. At the station, they are asked the same questions over and over until they comply, until the potential witness becomes a definite witness, until their story satisfies the investigation. They comply. Because they don’t want any trouble, because the police are trouble, because they are now in the gears of the system and those gears are sharp. The citizen’s understanding: they have no standing, no inalienable rights, no protection. The police aren’t exactly the adversary, they’re a threat to be avoided, yet still a terrifying disaster. These folks live in a world where legal troubles and jail time are an inevitability, where death is expected. And all of this is exacerbated by prosecutors, judges, grand juries, sheriffs, and others who are intimate with the criminal justice system. People who live in an entirely different world. A world where citizens know their basic rights, have access to capital and legal representation, and medical support. A world where jail time is practically impossible, where death is an abstract concept to be dealt with in old age.

Police officers involved in shootings where the suspect is described as “crazed,” making “animal-like, brutish sounds,” of having “pure hate in their eyes,” and maintaining a “threatening posture” after being shot and crawling through their own blood. All this for running from the police. All this to justifying emptying a service weapon. All this to explain the terror of creatures hailing from another planet. That police officers and the populations they most frequently serve exist in entirely different worlds is never addressed structurally. Those in power do not self-reflect or consider. Even when they do, the very system they belong to—their culture, their world—self-corrects and maintains the course. Integrity and professionalism are treated like an aberration. Yet, that is exactly what’s needed from law enforcement. From uniformed officers, to detectives, commissioners, sheriffs, deputies, district attorneys, prosecutors, and judges.

Different worlds, incompatible cultures, friction. Friction means heat and enough friction means ignition. Fire can provide warmth, it can sterilize for safety, and it can rage out of control and consume everything around it. Unless we listen and make some changes within ourselves and these systems—but mostly ourselves—we can only hope there isn’t too much combustible material in the way when fires start.