I used to work at a residential treatment center for youth with mental and behavioral problems. Before you could begin working, whether you were a therapist, management, or child care worker, you had to go through a 2 week training on how to deal with behavioral issues. This population were all teens, and their issues would cause them to act out in self-destructive and/or violent ways. We were expected to be able to de-escalate these situations, be that through conversations, behavioral management techniques, or the least desirable physical restraint. One of the main “mantras” that was drilled in us was to avoid “power struggles.”
Power struggles would often occur when a child was being oppositional or they felt that their rights were not being adhered to. The child would challenge the authority of the staff member, and if you were not careful you would be baited into a situation whereby you are trying to prove your upper hand. The staff who were not careful to disengage these power struggles, were often the staff with the most abuse allegations. Why is that? Because once you’re in a power struggle, it doesn’t end until the point has been proven on who has the power.
As I look at the current state of our country with regards to race relations, all I can hear is the mantra “avoid power struggles.” Trayvon Martin died for not answering to a neighborhood watchman. Eric Garner choked to death by police for selling single cigarettes. Michael Brown shot several times for walking in the street. Now amidst the debates, there are arguments addressing the behaviors of the victims and whether they contributed to their own death – much like the staff at the residential treatment facility would make their defense based on the oppositional behavior of the youth. And just as they asked us in our internal investigations I ask “did you engage a power struggle?”
This country has a long history of enforcing perceived authority and power. It is apparent to me that these officers felt their power was being defied, hence the need to get more aggressive, as if they are symbolically beating their chest. So now our country is in a racial turmoil and Ferguson, Missouri is on fire because a couple of teens continued to walk in the street and an officer refused to have his authority denied. All across the country people walk in the street and personally living in the suburbs, I’m always driving around power walkers and those moms with the super 3-wheeled strollers for their babies. Are they too in that much violation of the law that they require strict and aggressive enforcement of the law?
In order to address the issue of power struggles, we first have to address the perception of power. The enforcement of power is determined by the way a person views their subjects. Take for instance T.J. Lane. This adolescent male committed a school shooting that resulted in the death of 3 fellow students. Lane was chased out of the school by a teacher and later found and arrested by the police. Based on the lethality assessments that I conduct in my work, Lane was definitely a high risk lethal threat, however the police found a way to subdue and arrest him without harming him. The perception of Lane is that he is a troubled youth who needs help.
In the case of Michael Brown, officer Darren Wilson while reporting to the grand jury, shared his opinions on “that community” being “hostile”, “just not a very well liked community” and “feared Brown could beat him to death” (while he was in his cruiser). Now based on the lethality assessment, there is low to no risk considering there was no act of violence preceding this confrontation. After the fact, the shoplifting story surfaced but initially Brown was confronted for walking in the street. So what makes the involvement of the policing system different in this instance than that of the Lane situation is the perception of the offender.
So, one must address the origin of a perception. How you perceive a person will dictate how you will treat a person. As painful as this may be for the powers of America to see, the people of Ferguson were not seen as people who needed protection and help but are considered hostile and not very well liked. This perception was there at the moment officer Warren confronted Brown, it dictated his tone, his reaction, his influence of power. When Brown defied him and continued to walk in the street, the perception was that this person of “that community” is “hostile” and “not very well liked” and he felt the need to impose his power. I ask Officer Warren and the countless other officer who use excessive force, “did you engage in a power struggle?”