With “Why I Feel Bad For the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike,” Atlantic magazine senior editor Alexis Madrigal provides a useful discussion of the criminalization of protest and related militarization of police response. Madrigal is quite right that we’re missing the point if we pretend that Pike is an “independent bad actor” and “vilify” him as an individual without analyzing the flawed system of protest policing in which Pike operates. However, Madrigal makes a serious blunder in framing the piece.
Madrigal’s intention for the frame was to offer a provocative meditation on the way that the management of disorder dehumanizes police officers as well as the police—the sort of thing any reasonably well-read grad student should be able to churn out (cf Foucault, Fanon, etc):
I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn’t become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it.
And while the kids may cough up blood and writhe in pain, what happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.
We get the point, as far it goes: Most victims of police brutality recover, but the policeman remains a brute. The ruling class doesn’t do its own dirty work; it pays the weakest of us very well to be its police (and university administrators, corporate lawyers, etc).
The last line of Madrigal’s piece is a direct homage to James Baldwin (who wrote those words about the moral ugliness of Alabama troopers using cattle prods on civil rights marchers). Channeling the novelist, Madrigal positions Pike in an educated liberal’s cartoon of the working class, a child-like Christ-figure and fool, a lumbering innocent “man like me” (except nowhere near as clever), dumbly shouldering the sins of his masters.
There are several problems with this glib, recycled framing observation. It neatly targets the magazine’s readership—the morally-conflicted members of the professional-managerial class and educators (inhabiting the upper and lower half of the top income quintile, respectively), which is to say, “us.”
It makes us feel feel better about our own complicities: I serve the system in some ways too but I’d never do what that guy does!
It produces smug condescension. We have a few moral scars ourselves, but overall we feel glad that we’re not morally deformed on Pike’s scale. We feel wise to have exchanged a degree of possible monetary rewards for affective compensation instead. The framing material is one step away from the consumable irony of The Colbert Report, which has a vast, enthusiastic viewership among those whose ideology it purportedly skewers. Like Colbert’s material, Madrigal’s frame makes it pretty easy to consume the piece in ways all too close to the one he claims to critique.
In short, Madrigal misses the point about the banality of Lt. John Pike. Hannah Arendt’s study of Eichmann, and scores of social psychologists and clinical researchers, have helped us to understand that everyday brutality (the “banality of evil”) is furthered by ordinary, unimaginative careerists obeying both orders and law out of a strong sense of duty. All Eichmanns are little Eichmanns; there’s no master villain to blame. Eichmann is responsible for his own sins and those sins are precisely his ordinariness, his obedience, and conventionality. Eichmann isn’t innocent in the system; he’s complicit.
We are Eichmann. Arendt wasn’t trying to get us to “feel bad for” Eichmann, but to see his evil in our ordinary selves, recoil, and change. The discovery that Lt. John Pike is a nice fellow to watch the game with and a good scratcher of puppy ears isn’t meant to lift his moral responsibility—or ours. His and our failure to refuse the system is the system.
Madrigal’s note erases personal, moral agency on both margins of his caricature. The lieutenant—and a few tens of million like him—have not resisted the inner Eichmann. They have chosen obedience and the warm praise of their masters, and the material rewards of their complicity.
By contrast the objects of Pike and his masters’ brutality have chosen the brave, difficult, path of refusal.
But by brave and difficult, I don’t mean exceptional. At most of the forks in our road, most of us choose the brave and difficult path. Every day, hundreds of millions of us refuse invitations to be Eichmann. We refuse to be exploiters and thugs, or their attorneys and lower managers. That’s why democracy works better than hierarchy, and that, among imperfect social organizations, more democratic generally works better than less democratic.
Of course, many of us having made many better choices than Pike doesn’t make us perfect. Far from it. We have accepted a whole lot of Eichmann in our own lives. We could choose a lot more democracy than at present—particularly in our workplaces and schools.
The lesson of Lt. Pike is not that he’s the victim of a lousy policy (“just the end point” of a system of which he “is a casualty too,” as Madrigal says). The lesson is that even within a flawed system he could and should have chosen better. So can we all.
So no, you don’t pretend that the legion of Eichmanns are master villains. But you don’t make excuses for them, either. You try them for their crimes—and you hunt down the little Eichmann in your own soul.
Update Sunday 7 p.m.: Pike and one other UC-D officer have been suspended, and UC system president Yudof will conduct an immediate review of police protocols on the individual campuses.
If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and watch this incredible footage of a shocked and chagrined UC-Davis chancellor walking through a long, seated double file of silently reproachful students.
Also this interview with one of Pike’s victims in BoingBoing: “I received a lot of pepper spray in my throat. I vomited twice, right away, then spent the next hour or two dry heaving. Someone said they saw him spray down my throat intentionally. Another girl near me who has asthma had an attack triggered by the pepper spray, and she was taken to the hospital.”
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