I got a good bit of positive feedback on my last entry on “othering.” I’d written:

Othering is, I believe, a necessary precursor to oppression. “Othering” involves what the sociologist Yiannis Gabriel has described as “casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.” It has two parts: setting one apart from oneself and treating the Other as less than oneself. Once a we/them perspective is taken oppression can readily follow if you have convinced yourself that the Other is less than you and that you are better than the Other.

A bit later in the piece I wrote:

I wonder to what degree my attitudes about police are complicated by my own othering. To what degree have I set police (and other poster children for systemic racism) apart from myself? In what ways have I participated in dehumanizing my perceptions of them and whitewashing (pun intended) my image of myself?

A friend noted that I missed the power dynamic involved with my relationship with the police chief. She noted that the otherer perceives themselves as powerful compared to the “othered” who is seen as less than. Her point was well taken since I didn’t indicate how I viewed my relationship with the chief in terms of who has the upper hand. I think she was surprised when I said that my othering does indeed reflect my perception that I am above the chief in terms of power.

That’s because the chief works for me. I don’t work for him. As a white, taxpaying, home owner, I believe it’s his duty to protect me and my interests rather than the other way around. I also believe that my friend, who is a Black, taxpaying, homeowner ought to be perceived as a boss of the police chief in her town – but she didn’t see it that way and was surprised that I saw myself in the position of power vis a vis the chief. I was going from my experience: police officers always call me “Sir” and convey deference in their communications with me. Rude behavior, name calling, or threats would be out of line and if I was subjected to behavior of that kind my complaints could have repercussions for the officer.

A familiar encounter I’ve had with the police is related to moving vehicle violations. I try to stay within bounds – which to me means staying within 20 mph of the posted limit (most of the time – and Curt Collier, if you are reading this, “mums the word!”) Every so often that level of constraint is insufficient and I get pulled over. When the lights flash the dance begins. I know from experience that if I pull over quickly my chances of avoiding the ticket go up. Likewise, having my license and insurance card at the ready is better than producing it when requested. I modulate my voice, answer questions without embellishment or defensiveness, and give honest and straightforward responses.

That strategy works pretty well most of the time. It didn’t work so well in Haverford, NY when the officer said, after looking at my license, “so you require an oversize rearview mirror and are hard of hearing?” “What?” I said (probably not the smartest reply). It turned out that someone at Motor Vehicles put those codes on my license by accident or perhaps there’s someone with the same or similar name who really should have those codes on his license. Which brings me to next strategy – if you get a ticket, plead Not Guilty, go to court, and bargain down to a lesser charge!

The main point is that my dance with the police carries little risk – especially when compared to what might befall my friend if her behavior triggered a fearful response on the part of the police officer. But what do I know of what’s it’s like to be on the receiving end rather than the giving end of the power dynamic? But, am I wrong in my assessment of my own position? Is it possible that I am confused about who has the power in the police/civilian encounter?

That third question sent me down a rabbit hole that I am still stuck in. The power dynamic is a crucial element in understanding culture but how does one understand the power dynamic? It seems clear to me, for example, that police officers responding to the recent protests felt they had permission to use violence against the protesters. Where did that permission come from? And what is the nature of the permission?

Permission is complicated. Take the example of sexual assault where the assaulting person(s) threatens bodily harm. The assaulted person may, in the interest of staying alive, avoid actively fighting back. Is the assaulted person then “permitting” the assault from the assaulter’s point of view? Yet fighting back would likely result in the attacker stepping up the intensity of the attack. Would fighting back be experienced by the attacker as “permitting” a higher level of intensity?

Getting back to the police/protester scenario, something that stood out in a number of the scenes captured on video, was that police officers seemed to be behaving as violently toward white protesters as they were to Black protesters. Were you not shocked when you watched the videos showing police pushing white women and old white men to the ground? If you were, how much of your shock was related to the whiteness of the people who were attacked? Do you think you would have felt so much shock if young black or brown men were attacked?

Those scenes showed incidences of what I would call “situational permission.” I am confident that if those same officers had stopped those same white people for having a brake light out, or making an illegal right turn, they would have demonstrated the kind of courteous behavior that I’ve become accustomed to. During a protest, however, what would be perceived by police, I believe, is a threat to, and challenge of, their permission to use force to “protect the public.”

But where does that permission come from in the first place? I believe it comes from me and other people seen as white. In a white person’s world, we are the public – so long as we stay white. Join a protest with, and on behalf of, Black people and you may slip out of your whiteness in the eyes of the police – for a moment. What is different for me and other “white” people is that we go back to being white once we leave the protest.

I think that can only happen because of our collusion with the institutions of systemic racism. While our personal safety may be somewhat circumstantial our permission-giving transcends circumstances.

In my effort to hunt down the basis for permission I checked out a Thesaurus and found a lot of words that had subtle variations in meaning. To narrow it down a bit, I looked up synonyms for “consent” in the online Merriam Webster Dictionary and got the following six words: Assent, Consent, Accede, Acquiesce, Agree, and Subscribe.

Different people would probably characterize their support for police protection differently according to their level of reluctance or enthusiasm for police actions. Take a look at how Merriam Webster characterizes the terms. Where do you think you would fall in your level of support for police use of force?

  • ASSENT implies an act involving the understanding or judgment and applies to propositions or opinions.
  • CONSENT involves the will or feelings and indicates compliance with what is requested or desired.
  • ACCEDE implies a yielding, often under pressure, of assent or consent.
  • ACQUIESCE implies tacit acceptance or forbearance of opposition.
  • AGREE sometimes implies previous difference of opinion or attempts at persuasion.
  • SUBSCRIBE implies not only consent or assent but hearty approval and active support.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter where you fall because the effect is about the same. Once permission is felt by the police we have, essentially, handed off our influence. And if we try to take back our permission there will be repercussions. So how do we reassert ourselves and rescind – or even adjust – the permission we’ve handed off? I’m trying to figure that out but finding it tough to do from the rabbit hole. One thing is for sure, it will take a lot of people showing a lot of resolve to get real change to occur.

Bart Worden

Leader Bart Worden