The Morality of Violence Against Police

As an outspoken critic of police brutality, non-accountability and militarization, I have often advocated violent self-defense against police officers.  This is, to many people, a very radical position to take, and I get more than my fair share of push back whenever I articulate my position on this point.  So naturally, when a local police officer, Kerrie Orozco, was recently murdered by a suspect in another shooting as she approached his home to serve a search warrant, I was immediately inundated with a barrage of comments.  The content of these comments were harsh and accusatory. Since I had publicly advocated violent self-defense against police, their argument went, this officer’s murder was a natural outgrowth of my rhetoric, and the rhetoric employed by leftist radicals more broadly. The purpose of this short essay is to clarify my position on this issue, and to draw a line between the random killing of police officers and the direct attack on police officers who have committed crimes for which no justice was served.

Kerrie Orozco, by all accounts, was a stand-up officer and human being.  She coached an inner city little league team, was known to get out of her cruiser to shoot hoops with young members of the community in North Omaha, and had no record of misconduct.  She had recently given birth to a daughter, and was about to go on maternity leave when her life was taken by a criminal who was a suspect in another unrelated shooting.  The reason she was targeted was not because she had taken the life of someone else unjustly, or because she was known to be corrupt; but simply because she happened to be the officer who approached the suspect’s door to serve a legal search warrant. Her death does nothing but depress me, and I am brought to the brink of tears when I contemplate her infant daughter growing up without a mother.

How is my position on this officer’s death conducive with my position on violent self-defense against police? Well, the answer should be obvious, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be obvious to my detractors, so I will explain. I advocate violent self-defense against police who abuse their authority and inflict criminal violence against citizens for no good reason. When an unarmed black man is shot in the back multiple times while running away, or when a young girl is forced to perform a sex act to get out of an arrest, or when a sleeping child is killed by a trigger-happy cop entering the wrong home in search of drugs, and when those officers are not, in any meaningful way, investigated, charged, convicted or punished for their behavior, I support retaliation from the community.  The form this retaliation can take is diverse, and should be proportionate to the crime committed by the officer. Additionally, this retaliation should only come when all other options have failed.  Protests, rallies, writing our representatives, and even rioting are all tactics that should be tried first.  If these strategies fail (as they often do), and the officer is back on the beat, I view that officer as a threat to the citizenry, and I think a valid moral argument can be given in support of retaliatory measures by the citizenry (for whom the police work, and to whom the police should be directly accountable). Please note that I am not making any threats against any specific police officers, nor am I advocating wanton violence against police officers. I am merely articulating my position that valid moral arguments can be made in certain cases for retaliatory measures against certain police officers who commit violent crimes against the citizenry for which they face absolutely no punishment via the normal means of the justice system. These retaliatory measures should not be taken lightly, and should only be used as a last resort.  The reason I take such a position is because, far too often, police are allowed to abuse their authority with no consequence.  The very system that employs police is too often the system we rely on to hold them accountable, and time after time it fails to this job. Since police hold a very unique and powerful position in society, and since they are here, in theory, to protect and serve the citizenry, they should be directly accountable to the citizenry when their crimes go unpunished by the normal social and judiciary mechanisms.  This position falls out of my belief that human beings have a natural right to self-defense and to eliminate existential threats to themselves, their families, and their communities.  If a specific police officer has a history of unwarranted violence against the very citizenry that officer is supposed to protect, and if these crimes go utterly unpunished (paid leave is NOT a punishment, for the record), I believe the citizenry has not only a moral license, but perhaps a moral obligation, to defend themselves and the innocent.

According to this line of reasoning, the murder of Officer Orozco was totally unjustified and tragic.  Orozco’s murderer was killed on the scene by other officers, but had he survived, I would support the harshest penalties allowable by law against him (which in Nebraska, would be life in prison without the chance for parole). My heart goes out to Officer Orozco’s family and friends, not because she was a police officer, but because she was a human being who did not deserve her fate.

Depression, Recursive Self-Analysis and Creativity

To be depressed is to be thoroughly hollowed out, as if someone took an existential ice-cream-scoop and scraped out your insides; leaving a human-shaped cicada shell where a real person once was. Depression (actual depression, not just the periodic run-of-the-mill blues) cannot be understood by those who have not themselves experienced it.  It cannot be communicated to those unsoiled by its inky black discharge. But when it is adequately described, those who have come into intimate contact with it recognize it immediately. To say that David Foster Wallace “adequately describes” depression in the following quote from his novel Infinite Jest is to so flagrantly understate things as to almost be offensive. He describes a clinically depressed character by the name of Kate Gompert:

Some psychiatric patients — plus a certain percentage of people who’ve gotten so dependent on chemicals for feelings of well-being that when the chemicals have to be abandoned they undergo a loss-trauma that reaches way down deep into the soul’s core system — these persons know firsthand that there’s more than one kind of so-called ‘depression.’ One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges. The gourmand is off his feed. The sensualist finds his beloved Unit all of a sudden to be so much feelingless gristle, just hanging there. The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overtly painful its deadness is disconcerting and . . . well, depressing. Kate Gompert’s always thought of this anhedonic state as a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content. Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy — happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love — are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world. An anhedonic can navigate, but has no location. I.e. the anhedonic becomes, in the lingo of Boston AA, Unable To Identify. . . .

It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as ‘It’.

‘It’ is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.”

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Speaking as someone who has been hospitalized for clinical depression in a pscyh-ward and has felt, on many occasions, the intricate grooves on the underside of Melancholies’ heavy boot impress themselves onto my fleshy throat, reading this description of depression by David Foster Wallace is simultaneously hair-raising and exciting.  Hair-raising because its an example of someone explaining a feeling you have had in such a way that exceeds the limits of what you thought was linguistically possible.  Exciting because its an example of radical empathy; of having the unique relief of another human being nod in total recognition of one of the deepest feelings (or, more precisely, lack thereof) that you have ever felt. And when you are struggling with a mental dis-ease whose most insidious aspect, perhaps, is its soul-crushing loneliness, nothing feels better than hearing someone else say, in so many words, “me too”.

The thing about depression is that it exponentially gains momentum.  Like a storm, slowly blowing in over your house, it creeps up at the fringes of your periphery, almost undetectable.  But as depression develops, it creates it own feedback loops in the mind; it creates its own food source in a way.  And that is what I mean by “recursive self-analysis”; the victim does the worst thing one can do when depression starts tightening its grip: they turn in on themselves and begin to try to self-analyze their way out of the labyrinth (which, incidentally, is also the automatic cognitive strategy usually employed when dealing with anxiety: depression’s fraternal twin).  This inward spiral no doubt lends itself to that overwhelming sense of loneliness described above.  This tactic is so automatic that I don’t think its even possible to not employ it; perhaps its in a strict causal relationship with depression, and for that reason, simply unavoidable. It’s a manifestation of the depression itself.

Recently I struggled with a strain of depression that was totally unique to me: existential depression.  I had suffered from depression many times in my life, but this time it was different in form and substance; it was also welded to an abysmal anxiety. It wasn’t the normal anxiety of increased heart rate, sweating, racing thoughts, etc.  It was the slow mechanical grinding sort of anxiety that churns away at the base of your limbic system, rotting just under the surface of consciousness.  The sort of anxiety that makes your mind try and run from itself; desperately attempting to avoid certain sets of thoughts, and by trying to avoid them, aggressively inviting them. This existential depression/anxiety revolved solely around compulsive thoughts of death.  In the autumn of 2014, death thoughts began creeping in at an almost imperceptible pace. I have always been more sensitive to death than everyone else around me, but this was different. The thoughts began to consume me, and by early 2015, I fell headfirst into Nietzsche’s abyss. From the moment I woke up to the moment I managed to fall asleep I obsessively compulsively reflected on not only my own demise, but the demise of everyone and everything around me. It was cognitively corrosive, and I felt my hitherto well-established grip on reality begin to loosen.  I was going insane, and the more I tried to avoid this conclusion, the more it made itself at home in my psyche. I tried to use my only weapon, my intellect, to find a way out, but the more I strained my analyticity the more I exacerbated the problem. Throwing gas on a fire in an attempt to put it out.

“It is a gift to be able to use your brain to create and not to turn it in on yourself.”

– Amy Wallace (David Foster Wallace’s sister) talking about her brother.

David Foster Wallace, the same genius who wrote the quote at the beginning of this essay, hanged himself in 2008 at the age of 46, succumbing to a life long battle with the very depression about which he so elegantly wrote. There is an unmistakable and highly significant correlation between various forms of mental illness and great works of art, science and philosophy.  Thinkers and artists like Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, Ernest Hemingway, Wolfgang Mozart, and Walt Whitman (I could go on indefinitely) all suffered from depression, and much of their work benefited from their experiences with mental illness. Although I cannot explicate exactly how and why depression is linked with creativity, it seems pretty obvious that it is. Furthermore, it seems self evident that this connection is complex and nuanced.

In my own case, I used artistic expression to pull myself out of my existential depression. As the above quote from Amy Wallace indicates, I eventually healed just enough to take back control of my brain and re-direct my inner turmoil outwardly into creative endeavors.  Now, to be sure, I had to get well enough that it became possible for me to create.  When you are in the thick of depression, you lose all motivation, and you become a passive play-thing of life instead of an active participant in it.  And therefore the fog of melancholy has to naturally thin itself out before one is in any position to do anything other than curl into the fetal position and inwardly whimper like a wounded animal. So when my depression did begin to retreat, and mental health was on the horizon again, I immediately began composing music, reading books, learning the guitar, writing and meditating. Every single one of these activities were used as outlets of catharsis; a way for me to process my emotions and turn them into something unique and expressive.  In a way, it was an attempt at emotional alchemy; transforming the base metals of my existential despair into into gilded bars of creativity. When the mind, especially the intelligent and sensitive mind, turns concave, it tends to devour itself.  The goal then becomes to re-commandeer the mind and aim it back out into the world; to harness its intelligence and sensitivity in the service of artistic innovation and expression.

Depression seems to give us the raw material to work with, and perhaps that is one reason why depression and creativity go hand in hand; they are the respective results of the mind turned radically inward and the mind turned radically outward.

Engrossed in Sport: Zen-Like States in the Midst of Competition

I have recently, after years of halfhearted attempts motivated by sincere desire, joined an adults intramural sports league.  My new year’s resolution for 2015 was to finally buckle down and join a league in one of many possible sports (flag football? basketball? volley ball?), and in the process of trying to figure out the logistics of finding a local recreational league, singling out a sport, and convincing enough friends to join, an offer to join my mom’s workplace softball league fell into my lap.  I was extremely excited because not only did it fulfill my aspiration to join a sports league, it freed me from the banal and headache-inducing duties of finding a league, navigating less-than-professional websites, registering, going to the “coaches” meetings, getting enough people to commit, collecting money, etc. All I had to do was show up and play. Additionally, it coincided perfectly with my renewed interest in baseball.  I had played as a youth, and loved it.  I had always excelled at Center Field and yearned to play a sport (and a position) that I was naturally adept at. My baseball career had ended freshman year when I tried out for my high school’s team and was promptly cut.  Puberty was a rose that blossomed a little late for me, and my hairy-legged, deep-voiced peers had the physical advantages that I lacked. I remember being pretty devastated by being cut; few things are more heart-breaking for a teenage boy than watching all his friends, who he grew up playing baseball with, go on to fill the roster of a team he was deemed unfit to play for.  I knew I had talent, especially on defense, but my pre-pubescent body simply wasn’t up to par when it came to swinging the ol’ bat.  What followed was a temporary disintegration of my interests in athletics.  The rest of my teens was spent prioritizing sex, drugs, and recreational recklessness. It wasn’t until my mid twenties that the desire to play organized sports returned to me.  There is something about the mid-twenties lull in one’s life that tends to reinvigorate certain interests that were previously abandoned for the chaos and excitement inherent in one’s late-teens and early-twenties. People start developing or re-discovering comparatively tame, albeit more mature, desires and hobbies.  The wish to get back into sports, and baseball specifically, flowed from this common stage of development.  But I digress.

The point of this essay is not to chart the path of my personal interest in sports, but rather to briefly discuss a certain mind-state that occurs when one is thoroughly engaged in an activity; in this case the activity of playing a sport.  Professional psychologists refer to this mind-state as “flow”.  “Flow” refers to the psychological state that arises when one is so engrossed in an activity that they no longer have the resources of concentration to be self-conscious.  The feeling that results is one of self-transcendence and exhilarating happiness.  A happiness that is highly elusive for most of us.  This sort of happiness occurs when the incessant pursuit of happiness is totally and completely dropped, and the mind focuses deeply on the activity at hand.  This can, and often does, occur with musicians in the midst of playing an instrument, a writer in the midst of a effortlessly laying down a string of prose, and of course, an athlete in the midst of competitive play.  Its the latter of these examples I wish to discuss here.

For most of our waking life, we are almost neurotically self-obsessed.  If one examines the content of their thoughts they will surely find a startling high percentage of self-referential thoughts.  Whether the thoughts are directly about the self or indirectly about the self, if one seriously observes their own thought patterns, they will find the vast majority of their thoughts are pathetically narcissistic. This sort of constant self-analysis often leaves us dismayed, depressed, anxious, neurotic, and feeling rather empty.  Many of us feel a disconnect between who we are, and who we want to be; between what we need and what we want; between what we have and what we desire.  Those who lack a certain degree of self-awareness float through life with a subtle, but not fully understood, sense of discontent. Those with high levels of self-awareness see the problem quite clearly but the solution often evades them.  But whether one is highly self-aware or not, we all have experienced the bliss and freedom of being temporarily engrossed in one activity or another.  Many of us are driven, unconsciously, to engage in activities that give us temporarily relief from the long, recursive inner dialogue that dominates our inner life. That incessant voice in our head that talks to itself all day long.  Sports are one way in which we find relief from this voice.  When we are sprinting across an outfield to retrieve a well-hit ball, with the overwhelming and urgent compulsion to pick up the ball and hurl it, accurately, into the infield to stop the opponent from advancing we do not have the time to engage in self-talk.  The mind goes silent as the body takes over, and this temporary silence is intoxicating. When we are cutting back and forth on a football field, avoiding other apes who are trying to physically crush us, balancing coordination, vision, speed and grace, our minds simply aren’t allowed the room to ask “am I happy?”.  When the game is tied, and the clock is ticking down the final minute of play, and we are dribbling a basketball around defenders, searching desperately for a square foot of unimpeded room on the floor to take a shot from, our bodies politely and discreetly wrestle attention away from our minds in order to focus that attention on the present moment.  In these brief spurts of athletic engagement, we find a sense of happiness, not because we have a certain set of self-referential desires that are being met or because we have strategically *thought* our way into a state of happiness; we experience happiness precisely because we have stopped the search.  Our attention is wholly devoted to the present moment, it simply doesn’t have enough resources to engage in these activities while maintaining an inner dialogue. And therein lies the principle mental benefit of athletic competition: we are forced by circumstance to shut the fuck up and let the intrinsic intelligence of our bodies take over.  We fall, headfirst, into the present moment; into the NOW. Many athletes would be at a loss to give this sort of account of things, but the truth of this diagnosis is immediately acknowledged to any athlete for whom it is explained.

This state of “flow” that we obtain in athletic competition is the same exact state that practitioners of meditation try to achieve in everyday life. By sitting down in meditation, one focuses the attention away from the inner dialogue and inward towards the breath and body.  Its a methodical way to train the mind to enter into a state of flow without having to be engrossed in a certain activity.  To meditate properly is to be totally engrossed in everyday life; to achieve the sense of balance and “now-ness” that most people can only *briefly* obtain through activities that DEMAND total attention. I meditate daily as well as play softball, and therefore I am in a position to make these comparisons and to have the insight into the commonalities that occur in deep states of meditation and complete absorption in sports.  In quiet times in the outfield, when the batter has not quite made it to the batter’s box, and there is a lull in the action, I reflect on my mind state and see, with glaring clarity, how meditative I was during the previous play.  For example, last week during my softball game there was a pop fly out to shallow left field.  I was playing deep center-left field, and once the ball left the bat of my opponent, I had to strain every muscle in my body to run towards the infield if I had any hope of making the catch.  I saw the ball descending rapidly and I noticed I had several yards of space to overcome still.  As the ball approached the ground, pulled inexorably by gravity, I realized that the only way I could catch this ball was to dedicate myself to a frontward dive.  I had to leap, extend my body, place my glove in the correct location, and maintain bodily stability to secure the catch through the hard fall.  I felt and heard the solid thump of the ball landing in my glove.  My teammates immediately roared their approval, and I hopped to my feet and threw the ball back into the infield.  As I turned to run back out to my position, I had time to reflect on the fact that my body made that play with absolutely no input from my conscious mind.  I had not thought about how I was going to extend my body.  I had not contemplated the physics or pondered the decision to dive; I JUST DID IT. My body demanded full attention to make the play, and my mind was as silent as the bottom of the ocean. It was blissful.  A beautiful dance of meditation, physics, and that mysterious involuntary bodily intelligence.  It was only after the catch that I was able to put the experience into words.

These mind-states are valuable and beautiful.  They punctuate the routine and banality of everyday life with excitement; and it is in these brief moments of “flow” where we feel alive.  I encourage anyone and everyone to try to increase your opportunities to enter this state by picking up hobbies and going deeply into them.  Whether its playing the guitar, writing poetry, or playing sports.

To conclude, I leave you with a passage from the book I am currently reading: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  In this passage, the narrator is describing a conversation that a main character (Orin) is having with another character.  Orin is a highly talented punter for his college football team, and he is describing why he enjoys punting so much: 

Orin said the thing he thought he liked was that he literally could not hear himself think out there, maybe a cliche’, but out there transformed, his own self transcended as he’d never escaped himself before, a sense of presence in the sky, the crowd-sound congregational, the stadium-shaking climax as the ball climbed and inscribed a cathedran arch, seeming to take forever to fall…”