Archive for December, 2014


Killing Me Softly: In a hair-trigger society, the stress is quicker than the eye

December 28, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Last week as I was doing a live podcast with Dr. Sophy, a listener called in wondering if Americans today are less trustworthy. This got me thinking about two competing ideas about American society. One is that notion of neighborly bonding associated with barn raising, quilting bees, the Great Depression, and WW2.  You help one another, and the strong help the weak. It’s the assumption thatwe’re all in this together. Today as in the old days, the notion varies from place to place, and it’s always under pressure.

The New Deal and WW2 treated society as a system. If we pull together, as the chorus goes, we can lick any problem. That mentality gave us Social Security, a winning war effort, and then postwar prosperity. When he died, FDR was envisioning basic rights to employment and health insurance.

The opposite idea, privatization, worked best for the rich. It meant individual responsibility, but also every man for himself. Pulling together was for Communists and socialists. Polls show that the lies of the Vietnam War undermined trust in government, and that spurred President Reagan to demand that “big government” (we’re all in this together) be privatized. The idea was to put Wall Street in charge of Social Security, punish welfare parasites, and lower taxes, especially on wealthy investors.

Privatization encouraged Scrooge McDuck, but ordinary salaries have been flat for three decades. Starting in the 1980s a family needed two wage earners to hold its own. MBAs preached that job insecurity is good for business, whereas an employee voice—organized labor—is bad. At Walmart the pay is now so low you need government food stamps to survive.  Even so, Walmart’s been caught cheating employees on their pay stubs (an estimated 5% of companies cheat their workers).[1] Any new expense may be the bullet that cripples or kills you.

When living standards are under stress, everybody’s tempted to cheat and fib. Privatization gets rid of regulations, so that when businesses advertise “A name you can trust” and run amok as the banks just did in 2008, nobody is punished. When you’re downsized, you suspect that maybe we’re not all in this together. You worry about trust.

But there’s a deeper problem. Pure trust is a fantasy. Even babies scream at their trusted parents when they’re scared and hungry. Trust is always a best guess, an estimate of how reliable others are. We want to believe that we’re all in this together—or that a privatized “free market” will police itself. But these are enabling fictions. In a psychological age, the ad industry manufactures belief. The advertising costs more than the beer in the bottle. People feel manipulated, unsure which corporate talking head to vote for. They worry about trust.

You can see these ideas shaping the turmoil over police killing young, unarmed black males. At the center of things, trust is in trouble.  If we’re all in this together, police are supposed to protect everyone, not victimize a stigmatized group of the poor. Yet alone on the street, his life at risk, the cop’s situation is radically privatized.

If he kills an innocent person, the law privatizes his role, too, by judging whether he felt his life threatened. Pulling together and privatization are desperately confused. In different ways, both sides are in denial about the reality of risk, the role of guesswork, and the overlays of prejudices that distort their assumptions.

The nationwide protests aren’t just about the numbers of victims (a few hundred a year versus 33,000 traffic deaths in 2012) and racism. The police killings, I think, dramatize a kind of hair-trigger oppression that’s becoming pervasive in the US. It feels like a betrayal when forces that should help you make a life are instead pushing you toward social death. Corporations send your job abroad or refuse you a living wage. Politicians shred the safety net to force you to settle for crumbs. Wall Street cheats on mortgages, then takes your house. The corporate military takes your social security trust fund to spend on endless futile wars. The law itself shoots first and asks questions afterward when it replaces the jury trial—every citizen’s right—with hair-trigger plea bargains that force you to plead guiltyor we’ll lock you up forever. [2] Police broke up Occupy Wall Street’s lawful demonstration with rough-house arrests and courthouse harassment.

I call this hair-trigger oppression because its violence seems to happen too fast for a response, let alone accountability. Any number of processes now are structured so that deadlines or rates are triggered, as if nobody is responsible. Financialized mortgages disguised risk so that it blew up in somebody else’s hands. Inquiries or problem-solving efforts meet with a phone tree (“Your call is very important to us, please wait“). A Cleveland police spokesman on TV expressed the underlying fantasy when he warned that nobody would be killed “if people would just obey us when we tell them to stop”—even though two Ohio cops had just been caught on film shooting first and asking questions afterward.

TV allowed no follow-up to determine if the spokesman was lying or just in denial. He assumes that you’ll sympathize: You can’t expect obedience from those people.

This is the formula for our undeclared wars, as in the invasion of Iraq on the false suspicion that Saddam Hussein had terror weapons.  As in police killings, with hair-trigger panic, soldiers cut down innocent civilians without punishment. The Cleveland spokesman implies that as in warfare, policing is all about obedience, at a time when police departments are becoming militarized by acquiring equipment from the armed forces. More chillingly still, when a deranged black man ambushed two New York policemen in retaliation for publicized black victims of police bullets, NYPD spokesmen purportedly threatened that the protesters’ concern for justice had caused the officers’ deaths, and that the NYPD would “become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.” They vowed that protesters and New York mayor de Blasio had blood on their hands. [3, 4]

Notice what happened: denying the agonizing guilt of killing innocent civilians, the police accuse the protesters and the mayor of being murderers. Retaliating for the deranged killer’s retaliation, they indirectly threaten to escalate their killing. This is of course how real wars start, in a cycle of fear and wounded self-esteem. At the same time, in a calmer mood, they’re actually demanding more support (Support Our Troops) to cope with their fears: they too want to believe that we’re all in this together.

You can understand the cops’ denial. Who wants to wake up every morning thinking, I killed a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun in a playground? In countries free of American mania for guns, cops are rarely if ever killed. When people try to privatize policing by being armed to the teeth, suspicion and terror are explosive.

Even if it’s only an enabling fiction, it’s useful to maintain that we’re all in this together as a way of defusing paranoia and that devilish cycle of retaliation. It helps keep morale up and stress down. American police are scared, especially in cities, among racial “strangers.” Risk is real, yet ironically polls show blacks generally trust police, while police overestimate the criminality of blacks, especially black males.

When living standards are under pressure, racism is inflamed, especially with a mixed race president to blame for any ills. The invective hurled at Obama shows that gut-level mistrust of blacks is surfacing again. Race also spurs some to blame minority victims rather than cops. Maybe they were lazy parasites sucking your money out of the system. Maybe they were competitors for scarce jobs and status. In any event, scared citizens don’t want to blame police. They don’t want to know that a scared and unreliable cop killed someone by mistake. They want to feel protected, whatever the cost.

Trust, belonging, race, crime, hair-trigger oppression—you can see why people dream of escape from such stress. In the PBS documentary “America by the Numbers,” Maria Hinojosa interviews folks in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, once a bastion of Aryan Nation white supremacy, now a civilized suburb that is, nevertheless, 94% white. The citizens say they’re not racists, they just feel more comfortable among people like themselves. We’re all in this together—as long as you’re in my family, my exclusive suburb.

The problem is, differences and “strangers” are everywhere, and they compete, sometimes to the death. Like the nation, Coeur d’Alene is reluctant to acknowledge the economic injustice minorities face (since the 2008 banking disaster, net worth has shrunk by 25% vs. 43% for minority families).[5] It’s particularly perverse since haves feel so much mistrust and contempt for have-nots. Cops don’t gun down Wall Street crooks with attaché cases.

The air today sizzles with images of excessive force. In Montana a man named Kaarma shot to death an unarmed German exchange student, enraged that the kid might pilfer something out of his garage. Meanwhile the “global policeman” uses hair-trigger drones to whack “enemies” who may turn out to be visiting aunts. Hair-trigger CIA has tortured innocents off the street. Oh, and by the way, NSA has you and me under surveillance.Just obey when they tell you to stop.

Across the planet, like children, humans react to strangers with mistrust and hair-trigger nerves. It’s how we’re built. Even with our big brains it’s not easy to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way.


Resources used in this essay:

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (soon to be out in paperback from Leveller’s Press)

Kirby Farrell/Leveller’s Press

Also in this series, “Who Can You Trust?” (September 15, 2014); “The Child and the Monster” (November 29); and “Guilty Games” (December 5).

1. Laura Klawson, “Walmart ordered to pay $188 million in Pennsylvania wage theft lawsuit,”Daily Kos, December 16, 2014.   <<…

2. Jed S. Rakoff, “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014.

3. Steven Thrasher, “Two NYPD Cops Get Killed and ‘Wartime’ Police Blame Protesters.” Guardian UK, December 22, 2014.

4. Michelle Conlin, “Off Duty Black Officers in New York SayThey Fear Fellow Cops,” Reuters, December 23, 2014.

5.Quentin Fortrell, “Americans Are 40 Percent Poorer Than Before the Recession,” MarketWatch (December 16, 2014).


Guilty Games: Even law officers can behave like children when found guilty (Part Two)

December 13, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

If you ever doubted that humans are childlike creatures, watch the video that shows New York City police arresting—and killing—a 42 year old black father of six on a Staten Island sidewalk. Eric Garner was selling illegal loose (untaxed) cigarettes—you can see why he protested the triviality of the arrest. Perhaps he had trouble understanding why handcuffs for him when Wall Street bankers triggered the financial calamity of 2008 with shifty tricks and collected bonuses instead of punishments.

The arrest and killing have the quality of a children’s game. The cops are dressed up in uniforms and enjoy bossing the tall, heavyset, mild Garner. They’re the big kids; he‘s It. His size and his attempt not to be handcuffed give them the excuse to “take him down.” Two cops close in. One, officer Pantaleo, uses a taboo chokehold to drop the big guy to the pavement as the man pleads that he can’t breathe. Then there are four cops piling on. It’s the bigger boys’ version of what at age 10 we called a pig pile. It’s partly a macho exercise. If you’re “on top,” you feel great.

The police game, you notice, has no place for negotiation with the one who’s It, and no sense of medical emergency when the loser loses consciousness.  Various hands feel for Garner’s  pulse, nobody’s alarmed or tries CPR: the guy who’s “It” is hardly important.

Unluckily for the players, the city medical examiner rules Garner’s death a homicide caused by a chokehold and compression of his chest during an attempted arrest. When the grand jury looks the other way, the nation is outraged, especially because since Garner’s death, US police have killed at least half a dozen other unarmed black males in trivial circumstances.

What’s revealing is that the police shirk all responsibility. Not only do they blame Eric Garner for his death, they feel sorry for themselves, milking the public for pity. “Officers say the outcry has left them feeling betrayed and demonized by everyone.” [1] The problem is, “everyone” thinks the cops betrayed the citizens they serve, in particular Eric Garner, by choking instead of talking to him or even warning him.

“Police officers feel like they are being thrown under the bus,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the police union. Mr. Lynch depicts the cops as martyrs. They’re the ones being crushed to death, not Eric Garner. To keep up this grotesque projection, Lynch complains about the protests: “What we did not hear is this: You cannot go out and break the law. What we did not hear is that you cannot resist arrest. That’s a crime.”

The joke here of course is that the medical examiner found the cops, not Eric Garner, guilty of homicide. That’s a crime. Sometimes.

Prisons are full of folks who can’t handle the pain of guilt. They need to feel “right” as all of us do. Guilt attacks, wrecks, rots self-esteem. No wonder kids sometimes deny guilt so fast they can deny they’ve denied it. Yet coming to terms with guilt is crucial if we’re ever going to escape childhood.

The NYC police feel they played the game by the rules. And it is a game: their spokesmen, like coaches or sports dads, want to get on with the game. Don’t rattle the players or you’ll be sorry. Cop culture has no sense of tragedy. No sense that motives can betray us. No sense that like children, we’d rather deny responsibility than interrogate ourselves as suspects to find out why some guy’s dead on the sidewalk.

Rep. Peter King (R) argues that the grand jury outcome would have been the same if Garner had been white. Try to picture NY cops choking Lloyd Blankfein, the Chief Smooothie at Goldman Sachs, to the sidewalk of Wall Street.

Officer Pantaleo told the grand jury he tried to release Garner as soon as he began pleading, but the video doesn’t show that. He insisted that he hadn’t meant to hurt Eric Garner, which is how you feel playing a game.

Officer Pantaleo also explained that Garner’s ability to plead that he couldn’t breathe means he could breathe.

The officer is taking a cue from the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Like the cops, the Queen doesn’t talk to you: she bosses you. Lewis Carroll understood the cops perfectly: The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.”


Resources used in this essay:

Kirby Farrell,  The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller’s Press, coming soon)

1. Tom Hays and Colleen Long, “Police: Chokehold Victim Eric Garner Complicit In Own Death,” Huffington Post, December 5, 2014.

Eric L. Adams, a (black) retired NYPD Capt. and state senator observed the connection of police survival anxiety and attacks on the mascuinity of “losers” under arrest.…


The Child Cop and the Monster: Police Killing and the Psychology of Abandon

December 3, 2014
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

Police stops are scripted to minimize the chance of an emotional blowout. Stick to the rules and roles and nobody gets hurt. In Ferguson Missouri, a white cop named Darren Wilson and the black 18-year-old Michael Brown lost the script and a dozen bullets later, Michael Brown was dead, the nation rattled by protests, and the city choking on tear gas and arson. How did the script turn into do-or-die abandon?

While witnesses don’t agree on the details, Wilson tells the story this way: in his cruiser he heard a radio report of cigarillos swiped from a local market. Moments later he stopped Brown and a friend, Dorian Johnson, walking in the middle of the street, slowing traffic. Wilson claims he said, “Why don’t you guys walk on the sidewalk.”[1] According to Johnson, Wilson actually said, “Get the fuck on the sidewalk,” and Brown shot back: “Fuck what you have to say.” Startled by the defiance, Wilson notices cigarillos in Brown’s hand, calls in a request for help. When Wilson tries to get out of his cruiser to detain them, Brown pushes the door to shut him in and demands “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” Wilson retorts, “Get the fuck back.” Through the window Wilson grabs Brown’s arm (Johnson calls it a “tug of war”) and is shocked:

“And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.”[2]

Brown punches Wilson’s cheek, and Wilson panics at being punched and trapped in the cruiser. He draws his pistol and threatens to shoot, but Brown taunts that “You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me,” and grabs for the gun. They struggle, and Wilson fires two shots. Now Brown backs away. He “had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Brown starts to flee, Wilson and his gun in pursuit. Then Brown turns, and ignoring commands to get down on the ground, charges him—or maybe steps toward him with his hands up to surrender. To the terrified Wilson,

“it looked like [Brown] was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way. I shoot a series of shots.” “I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.” 

Wilson empties his pistol at the suspect.[3]  This overkill stops “the demon.” With Brown’s death, the sense of abandon spread to violent protesters even as “the law” tried to restore the script. What caused the loss of control?

While panic is a response to terror, in abandon you cast off restraints and plunge ahead. A nervous system rush may give you emergency strength, daring, and clarity. This is why abandon fascinates us in boxing, bungee jumping, even in military training. But the experience is treacherous: you may “break through” to new powers or go berserk and run amok.

For whatever reasons, Michael Brown was on the edge of abandon from the moment he allegedly swiped the cigarillos—a move that disconcerted his friend Johnson. Challenged by Officer Wilson in the street, they exchanged macho Fuck-you’s, quickly creating a personal macho contest of threat displays.

Threat displays among animals usually involve deception such as puffing up to look fearsome. Cops rely on the authority of badge and gun to intimidate others. You and the officer both know he can kill you. Michael Brown was already large (6’4”, 290 pounds), and perhaps pumped up by brazen theft of the cigarillos. Both males used the jabbing Fuck you’s—abandon—as threat display. Slamming the cruiser door, trapping Wilson in the cruiser, grappling with him, Brown mocked the cop’s death threat:“You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me.”

For a moment Brown dominated the other man. He threw off inhibitions with a show of nerve and power, apparently believing the officer’s gun was a bluff.

Wilson, humiliated and frightened, imagining superhuman rage (the Hulk), tells us he felt like a helpless child. He coped by also plunging into abandon, turning flight to fight by pulling the trigger and chasing off Brown. When in the pursuit Brown turned back toward him, as if to dominate him again, Wilson saw it in macho body-building terms: Brown was “bulking up to run through the shots” and “like he was going to run right through me.”By then Wilson was far enough beyond self-control that he emptied the pistol in a spasm of overkill.[2]

Males use macho contests to sort out hierarchy. Masters used macho cruelty to dominate slaves. Later, whites used peonage and lynching to keep the upper hand. Wars of course are the ultimate macho contest. Like a soldier in Iraq or Vietnam, a white cop like Wilson is paid to protect yet also control “others” who may be friendly or hostile. As in Iraq, the temptation is to shoot first. And war is not just a figure of speech. Studies show that whites are quick to assume black men are criminals. Police guns kill 21 times more young black men than whites.[4] The justice system targets black males for imprisonment.

Americans fight over gun control because guns are a critical symbol in macho contests. Rampage killers identify with macho guns. Following a massacre, gun sales “surge,” with high-pitched NRA demands for more access to military-style automatic weapons.  The fear of being outgunned in a shootout and in threat display has American police militarizing with surplus corporate military hardware.

As you’d expect, this arms race makes abandon especially murderous, because anybody could be armed, and the logical brain can’t keep up with hair-trigger decisions.  Guns call for do-or-die survival reflexes and adrenalized passions, including racism. You can see the effects of abandon when a 911 call in Ohio sends cops to gun down 12-year-old Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun in an empty playground (11.23.2014).[5] The logical mind sees no threat here, but abandon grips the pistol and cries: He’s armed. Get him!  And then has a lifetime to remember the dead child and struggle with guilt and shameful excuses.

Abandon also shows up in the bizarre mismatch between deadly force and trivial offenses. Michael Brown died for a handful of cigars. With a chokehold, Staten Island police killed Eric Garner, a large frail black man, for selling loose “untaxed” cigarettes (7.17.2014). Trayvon Martin was killed basically for wearing a hoodie  (2.26.2013).

Martin’s death clarifies the psychology of abandon. Like Wilson, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, imagined his “police” role and gun gave him power over his young black “suspect.” He began trailing Martin, never imagining that the innocent, frightened “suspect” might seehim as a predator and also act with abandon. When Martin preemptively jumped him, dominating him in the scuffle, the vigilante panicked and shot him to death.

Prejudice (pre-judgment) says you can dominate “losers.” Until they sock you, that is— then suddenly they’re demons or the superhuman Hulk.

Abandon is modeled everywhere in American culture: from reality cop shows that trash “losers” to the bedwetting rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. After Adam Lanza’s rampage at Sandy Hook school, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre called for more guns: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He elaborated: “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment?”[i]

In this formula the gun makes you a heroic vigilante, and your adversary is “a genuine monster.” Officer Wilson saw Michael Brown as the monster Hulk Hogan. Ironically and tragically, some young black men try to look intimidating in order not to be taken for a loser. It’s a cycle, with each violent incident ratcheting up hair-trigger abandon.

The NRA and the corporate military want this nation to be a paramilitary state. With guns and “concealed carry” laws everywhere, cops are caught between prudence and do-or-die survival mode. Consider the way abandon is built into recent police killings in Ohio, and the training offered to the officers. A Beavercreek Ohio police training presentation focuses alarm on rampage killings, which are terrifying but actually rare. The instruction warns that “the faster we can neutralize [shoot] the suspect the less time he / she will have to harm innocent persons.” It concludes with an emotional photo of a teacher leading tots to safety at Sandy Hook school. (Remember officer Wilson feeling like a helpless “five-year-old.”)

In case you don’t get it, you’re tested: “An Active Threat is in a building with the person I love the most. I want Law Enforcement to: 1/ Wait outside for more officers. Or 2/ Enter the building and find the threat as fast as possible. What would you want?” [6] The psychological manipulation in this “training” contributes to a wild west mentality in which police shoot first and ask questions later.

“What would you want?”  It’s a macho taunt: Are you a coward?

It was in a Beavercreek Walmart that police killed 22-year-old John Crawford III as he held a fake gun from the merchandise rack while talking on his cellphone. Ronald Ritchie had phoned a phony alarm to a 911 dispatcher, and based on Ritchie’s lies, police fired on the shopper without sufficient warning. Crawford was black; Ritchie and the trigger-happy officer were not held responsible.

Policing is a system, and easily distorted by fear and bias. All of us, but especially police, are caught between official rules, which can’t cover every situation, and do-or-die abandon, which can make you a hero. Or a murderer.

The evidence says we need to do better.


Resources used in this essay:

Themes from the essay are further developed in my new book, The Psychology of Abandon, available soon from Leveller’s Press.

1. Grand Jury Testimony:

2. Ang Lee’s film of the Marvel comic Incredible Hulk (2003) dramatizes berserk abandon. Made susceptible by radiation poisoning, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) periodically becomes the Hulk: his eyes glow with alien fury, and his body swells to superhuman proportions.  He becomes indomitable but also abominably dangerous. The story is a parable about the risk of self-destruction in the struggle to master heroic autonomy.

3. Nonstop firing is a familiar symptom of berserk stress in combat, as in Lt. Calley’s killing at My Lai. While his platoon searched a house during the Iraq war, Kenneth Eastridge said he shot more than 1,700 rounds. “Families were out playing soccer and barbecuing,” and fled when the gunfire erupted. When asked how many people he killed, he said, “Not that many. Maybe a dozen.“

4. Charles M. Blow, “Fury after Ferguson,” NY Times, November 26, 2014.


6. Beavercreek Police Training presentation, “Single Officer Response to Active Threats”

[i] Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2012, “Remarks from the NRA press conference on Sandy Hook school shooting (Transcript).”