I have been thinking about anxiety and uncertainty recently. Mostly this is because it is hurricane season in Texas and we’ve been grappling with a near-miss over the last 24 hours with a hurricane approaching the coast and, after that, our city. Securing patio furniture, ensuring we have fuel for the generator, planning for ways to keep fed during the potential power outages. These are normal responses to anxiety – the attempts to cope ahead, to plan for the worst case scenario and establish a mechanism for managing the outcome should that scenario occur.
That kind of anxiety is useful. That’s the thing that nobody tells you. The anxiety that encourages actions and efforts to mitigate potential harm.
That anxiety helps with school – it can push you to care what your teachers think, to worry about how your performance and preparation will affect future success. Anxiety is why we study for tests. It’s why we work hard on papers.
Anxiety has another purpose, I see it a lot in clients that have ADHD or ADD, but have never been medicated or even officially diagnosed. It’s a natural way of counteracting the chemical imbalances that lead to the effects of ADHD or ADD. If you become anxious, your body releases adrenaline. It’s getting ready to act and react. Adrenaline causes intense focus (some would say tunnel vision). This tunnel vision or intense focus naturally counteracts the disorganized, scattered attention common in people with ADD or ADHD. It allows them to overcome their symptoms. It’s an effective way of coping with the symptoms, really, while in school or at work.
The problem is that anxiety is not easy to shut off. It leaves a hangover of irritability and fear. It can paralyze when it becomes too strong. It can leave us unable to react in our own best interests – the proverbial deer in the headlights, unable to race out of the road to safety. The alternative to the deer, is the aggressor. When anxiety becomes too strong the adrenaline can take over and force the brain to shut down and just act.
Here’s where we come to the problem that we have with policing in this country. Too often police are trained to see the public in general, and black people specifically, as a thing they are fighting against. They are trained to see their job as to subdue an unruly populace. To impose order. We arm them like the military. The uniforms and gear we have them wear reinforces this notion that they are at risk and fighting against a public that wishes them harm. That it is them or us.
We hype the police up on adrenaline in every interaction with the public and then expect that they’re going to be able to pull it back. To be able to react rationally when thwarted or denied their immediate wishes.
That’s not how anxiety works. Adrenaline doesn’t just shut off because we no longer have to be anxious. We need to do something to work it out of our system. Anxiety is not useful in policing. It leads to inaction or aggression.
Unless it is the anxiety about doing a good job. We need to fundamentally change the idea of the good job for police. It is not subduing people. It is not control. It’s safety for EVERY citizen. It is the minimization of harm. Minimization of harm to people. Buildings are not more valuable than people.
I saw Lindsay Graham ask in a press conference why Jacob Blake didn’t comply. I saw people on twitter arguing that there were existing arrest warrants for Jacob Blake’s arrest. We give officers the benefit of the doubt all the time when they shoot someone, “he was afraid for his life” we say. Even when it seems outlandish, that no reasonable person would actually be afraid for their life, juries are inclined to believe a police officer repeating this get out of jail free mantra. Why do we not give Jacob Blake the same benefit of the doubt? He stopped to break up a fight and was tased and menaced by the police at the scene. Why do we not assume he was afraid and worried about his children. Why do we even care about these things?
They shot him in the back because he wouldn’t stop walking to his car.
Imagine yourself with your small kids in the car. They’ve seen the police grab you, they’ve seen adults fighting. They’re scared and upset. Lindsay Graham are you sure you wouldn’t, without any thought, walk over to make sure they were alright? That tunnel vision wouldn’t lead you to focus on your kids’ need for reassurance? Is that a thing that is worthy of a lifetime of paralysis or death? Of being shot seven times?
I’ve tried to avoid the video of the shooting. I saw the video of Ahmad Arbery being lynched and I still see it in my mind at night. It’s horrific. But the still footage I’ve seen is the same, police frustrated that they are not in immediate control of a situation. Despite that situation not being immediately dangerous to them or to others, they become aggressive because they cannot tolerate their own unjustified fears.
It’s people thinking they can impose their will, they can resolve their anxiety about situation (whether that anxiety is warranted or not, in most of these cases the answer is NOT) with deadly force. That their need to feel in control is more important than someone else’s life.
This problem feels so big because anxiety is so hard to overcome. It’s one of our most primitive and powerful emotions. It’s the drive to survive that is hardwired into us. We won’t get rid of anxiety.
But we have to find a way to change the way we think about situations. TO change what we see as the threat to our survival. To fundamentally rewrite the narratives we carry about what is dangerous and what is reasonable. To refocus away from law and order and onto public safety. To renew our vision of police as public safety officers rather than a military force engaged in a peace-keeping mission through our cities and neighborhoods. We are not a war zone in need of subjugation.
So that’s it. I don’t have the answer, but training isn’t it. Or isn’t only it. We need to focus on rewriting the goals and ambitions of our police forces. We need to fundamentally alter their mission, staff, and equipment to serve the public rather than subdue the public.
It’s a huge and anxiety producing task. I’m just hoping that it will be motivating rather than paralyzing.