Icelandic Reflections

by: Jeremy Rist

A guest contributor weighs in on Ferguson and the War on Drugs from afar….

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Recently, I relocated from my comfy, conveniently located, roach-filled home in Durham, NC to move in with my girlfriend in the mysterious land of ice and fire known as Iceland. Since then, I’ve been trying to stay up to date and in touch with home through social media, and what I’ve been seeing is alarming. From the protests in Ferguson, Missouri to the violence and beheadings by ISIS in the Middle East — it’s all terrifying and depressing.

With all of the hullabaloo unfolding, I feel like I’m in an interesting place right now to comment on the events going on and affecting Americans as a dude that now resides in Iceland. I’ve learned some interesting things about this country over the past month and that insight has allowed me to view America in a slightly different light. From how we handle our freedoms to the hypocrisy of our elected officials, I’ve become aware of some significant cultural differences between our two countries.

John Oliver, on his show Last Week Tonight, hilariously, and poignantly, commented on the turmoil in Ferguson:

“I know the police love their ridiculous, unnecessary military equipment so here’s another patronizing test: let’s take it all away from them…and if they can make it a whole month without killing an unarmed black man, then and only then can they get their fucking toys back.” 

Since Oliver is a comedian and not an elected official, he can, through the use of satire, illustrate with precision the scary way we go about doing business in America. Yes, we consider ourselves the “Land of Free,” but time and time again that freedom appears to only apply to the people with the money to buy it. In Ferguson, the police have the money to buy it. They are the ones with the power. After they fuck up by killing an unarmed black teen, they get to slap on the riot gear and patrol the streets like there’s a revolution going on. News flash: there wasn’t a revolution going on (even if there should be!) The only thing going on in Ferguson right now is that the people are angry. Angry that another member of their community has been killed through the use of excessive and deadly police force. It’s a natural reaction for people to protest after being wronged by the people in power, the same people who are supposed to be protecting them. In this country, we are told that we have the right to protest. Pictures and reports from Ferguson have shown just the opposite. In fact, protesting in the face of this absurd militaristic police force seems less like a protest and more like a showdown.

In Ferguson, the police seem insulated from the own mess they created. Instead of “taking their toys away,” they show-up on the streets with more weapons and an overwhelming show of force. Here is my problem with this: I don’t think the way to eradicate conflicts is by bringing more guns to the fight. To me that is a sure-fire way to win a conflict, but it does nothing to move society forward peacefully. It does nothing to build us up.

Taking a brief moment to look at this recent quote by President Obama regarding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the hypocrisy in Ferguson is further highlighted:

“People like [ISIS] ultimately fail. Because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.”

The President says this about violent extremists in the Middle East, yet when it comes to policing our cities in the US we are using tactics and policies that I would label as intended to subvert and “destroy.” What are guns and tanks going to build in the chaotic and pressure-cooker streets of Ferguson?  When police show up in the streets with riot gear ready for a battle, it’s easy to assume they have come looking for a conflict. If the police instead were to show up with no weapons at all looking to participate in keeping their people safe, I would wager that safety would ensue. The argument that the police would somehow be unsafe in this situation is overly exaggerated to me. The sheer volume and look of the gear that they are cloaked in is threatening. It’s a visual cue that they are not trusting the people to peacefully protest but that they are, in fact, assuming the worst.

It’s like when you were in middle school and you had to walk in single-file lines to your classes because you couldn’t be trusted to just go there yourself. Then less than a year later you get to high school and it’s assumed that you are now capable of walking to class without any supervision. To everyone’s surprise: you can do it! I view protests in the same manner. If we assume violence will happen by loading the streets with police and weapons, then there is a greater chance that it will happen.

This same thing happened when I was in living Durham, North Carolina after Jesus Huerta’s death. People were angry with how the cops had handled the situation and when the authorities showed up in riot gear people got angry. Then bottles and rocks were thrown, and things escalated quickly, ending with the cops tear-gassing the hell outta’ the place and arresting people. Of course, in both of these situations people are protesting for the sole reason that the police have been too violent. For the police to show up in riot gear only solidifies that violent image of them as antagonists and not protectors.  On the flip side to this issue, if we assume that peaceful protest will happen, then there is a greater chance that it will happen. It’s basically the theory of positive reinforcement. This may sound overly optimistic but by using Iceland as an example, I hope to provide a glimpse of what America could be doing instead.

In Iceland, the police do not carry guns. They are armed only with mace. To no one’s surprise at all, their society has not come to a screeching halt because of this. It’s actually a very safe place to live. Icelanders do not run around killing other people, burning cars, or looting stores. In fact, Iceland has been rated the most peaceful country in the world for the past three years! While there, I have always felt very safe and at peace with the people I met and saw. The level of friendliness and welcoming is inspiring. That being said, the Icelandic police do in fact own guns, they just keep them stored away at their stations. This is a much better alternative to carrying them around all the time. If unfortunate situations arise where weapons and riot gear are necessary, they posses the fire-power and training to respond appropriately.

The police in Missouri have helped prove the point that having a gun on you at all times does not promote peace or help protect the people of their state. Changes must be made to make the system of policing the populace work better for the people. In the wake of all this societal unrest we have the creation of the “Mike Brown Law,” a petition which calls for all police officers to be required to wear body cameras at all times. The petition for this law has already gained over 120,000 signatures.

While I do think that this additional level of surveillance holds police officers more accountable for their actions, I can’t hide from the feeling that this comes off like another example of twisted American thinking. The problem is not that we can’t see everything, the problem is the guns! Take away the guns and keep them at the station. In all of these most recent and tragic situations, mace or a taser would have been a much better alternative to a gun, and still have gotten the job done.

An added level of surveillance in the form of body-worn cameras on police officers could definitely work to hold them more accountable for their actions, I would not argue against that as a positive step forward but I think the change it would produce would be minimal. What we really need to focus on is making better laws for the people of America so that we don’t have to keep filling up our jails at alarming rates. Better laws would mean better police.

This complex issue, in my opinion, recoils us back to an issue whose significance is critical in these matters: The War on Drugs (I apologize about turning on a dime here, but I believe The War on Drugs, and its relation to how young black males in America are viewed, must be explored in relation to Ferguson…). America has more prisons and prisoners than any other nation in the world. In 2012 about 1 out of every 35 adults was under some form of correctional supervision. Of that population over 50% were in trouble for drug-related reasons. Black males made up over 34.6% of the prison population though they were less than 10% of the US population.

What you can deduce from those statistics is that the drug laws in this country are targeting black males. We have too many people in jail, too many of them are black, and an overwhelming majority of them are there for drug-related reasons. If I was a politician I would propose that we start the healing process by continuing the process of decriminalizing marijuana and then moving forward from there. Our current drug laws can be classified as prohibition (“the action of forbidding something, especially by law,”) and prohibition does not work. It never has.

Eventually we will need to legalize all drugs and learn to treat drug-addicts with therapy and compassion instead of pushing them underground. But while this thought can be alarming to many because of a fear of these illegal substances, if you follow the patterns, it only makes sense. Deeming one thing bad and another thing good can only last for so long. The hypocrisy of legalizing alcohol and tobacco while disallowing other substances is slowly becoming recognized and this movement, hopefully, will attain critical mass and grow.

In part, these daunting prison statistics can be charged for the stereotyping of all young black men as drug-dealers or somehow connected to the criminal underground. It creeps into the psyche of these police officers (and misguided men like George Zimmerman). Our current laws are not helping. The War on Drugs demonizes substances like marijuana while allowing more dangerous substances to be legal, thus, perpetuating the cycle. Our laws cycle young black men in and out of a vastly overcrowded and understaffed prison system and as concerned citizens, we need to start changing them.

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Since the beginning of the upheaval in Missouri I have spent much time in thought about the level of attention the conflict is receiving by the media. In many ways the racial divide in Ferguson can be looked at as the perfect news story for corporate America. The perfect fodder for the ceaseless 24-hour cable news programs. I do not mean to minimize the tragedy of Mike Brown losing his life. I only mean to point out the exploitative nature of the coverage, and how concerning this could be in further tearing our country apart.

The conflict is this: older, pro-establishment, pro-guns people facing off against younger, underprivileged, anti-gun people. It’s the ultimate heavy-weight fight. It splits our country. In a Democracy like the USA, the people have the power, and one of the ways to take that power away from the people is to set us against ourselves.

After the economic crash of 2008 Iceland had it bad. But then they went through what is now referred to as the Peaceful Revolution. The people of Iceland rose up against their corrupt banks, joined together, and took power…peacefully. They even wrote a new constitution to defend against foreign loans and debt based currency so they could protect themselves from the same problem in the future. The people now have power in Iceland and the country is well on its way to recovery. It is one of the purest representative Democracies in the world for the simple fact that its citizens really feel like they are well-represented. The police do not carry guns with them while they are out in the streets and they are the three-time champions of “The World’s Most Peaceful Country.”  Now that is something to aspire to!

It is a shame that stories such as this, and ideas that revolve around safe and more progressive communities worldwide, do not get much attention in America. In fact, it promotes a dangerous idea that if we spent less time arguing about why it’s bad to kill innocent minorities, or about why gay people shouldn’t have equal rights, or about whether or not someone can smoke a joint, we would actually get somewhere in our country. We could start to get rid of corporate greed. We could start to close the wealth gap. We could figure out realistic ways to pay reparations. We could work on protecting the environment. We could spread that thing we call Freedom and actually get somewhere!

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