Some thoughts on the nature of violence in American society: Thinking about complexity and assaults against police
By C. Kenneth Meyer, Thomas F. Sheehan Distinguished Professor of Public Administration, Drake University
We now live during a period of great uncertainty and turbulence in society. I have spent a lifetime researching and writing in the area of violence against authority. My work covers many types of violent behaviors, but particularly, it has been focused on violence against police in form of general municipal police officer assaults, attacks on state law enforcement officers, and assaults on officer during robbery and robbery-in-progress and ambush attacks. As such, we struggle with understanding what is taking place in terms police-citizen encounters. We know that most of the major urban riots and crises that we have experienced during the last thirty years have come from police engagement/interaction between those they were sworn to serve and protect, yet little understanding of the root causes of violence is either understood or communicated. In this essay, there are many different kinds, instances and types of violent behavior that will be presented as illustrations only.
The recent attack on the U.S. citadel of democracy brought once more to national and international attention, the attacks against the “thin blue line” that secured and protected the nation’s capital and enabled “democracy” to live another day. The number of officers assaulted in this insurrection and violent mob attack is dramatic given that more officers were assaulted in the January 6th incident than any time since the end of the Civil War—culminating with nearly 150 officers assaulted, attacked, injured—both physically and psychologically.
Because we have been taught to believe that there is a general consensus on matters of right and wrong in American society, most of us are included to dismiss many extreme examples of the use of force against authority figures as aberrations. But that is a big mistake. They only appear to be aberrations because the political and education systems usually stress our common interests and try to ignore the things that are most likely to tear us apart. Instead, as a result of the ethnic, cultural, ethical, religious, economic, social, regional, and a multitude of other differences that exist in American society, it is impossible to present an all-inclusive and generally agreed upon definition of what constitutes the legitimate use of force.
Although America is generally a violent society as shown by the number of murders and mass shootings since January 1, 2022 (nearly 320 separate instances), there is still a great deal of variation across the states in the propensity of Americans to use violence. One consequence of this geographical variability is that what is a legally acceptable level of force in one jurisdiction may not be an acceptable act in another jurisdiction for either governmental officials or civilians. In fact, there is an entire region of the country—the South—that has always been recognized as a region of exceptionalism regarding almost everything, including the use of violent force to solve disputes.
Statistically, as I have shown in many peer reviewed journal articles and in several books, the South is much more violent than the other regions of the US, and the Southern threshold justifying the legitimate use of violence is substantially lower than in most other parts of the country. So it should not be too surprising, for example, that many more police officers are killed in the South—where violence is seen as a more legitimate way to solve problems and where authority figures have less legitimacy among many citizens. Not only do there tend to be more killings and assaults in the South, but its state and local governments often are prone to greater corruption and using more forceful responses against civilians, as well.
While the national and American state governments have tried to monopolize the authority to grant people the right to use force, they have not been all that successful in convincing most citizens that only the government has the right to decide when physical force can be used. Usually Americans will defer to the authority of the government in such matters, but in certain particularly contentious situations, what one group sees as the legitimate use of force, another group may see as unacceptable violence that should be treated as criminal behavior. This is because disputes over the use of force often rest on fundamental, but many times unrecognized, disagreements. What is more important: Honoring the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Or protecting the life of an innocent civilian? Consequently, some disputes over the proper use of force can never be resolved through public discussion or education. Ironically, increased public discussion about them may just increase the hostility between the contending sides. As with the gun control or abortion controversy, an open discussion will show everyone that there really are important differences between their positions, which are not just a matter of semantics. In trying to understand the motives and causes of violence, it is helpful to distinguish individual acts of violence from acts of group violence. Under each of these broad divisions there are a number of categories that enable the different causes of American violent behavior to be classified. These demonstrate that some type of violence are peculiar to attacks on authority figures, while some are not distinguishable from other kinds of violence in our society. The following listing seems to account for most of the goal-oriented violence that occurs in American society.
Individual Violence 1. Violence used in self-defense against assault. 2. Violence for economic gain, e.g., armed robbery. 3. Violence as a means to achieve basic needs, e.g., stealing a loaf of bread to feed one’s starving children. 4. Violence as a subcultural indication of grown-up status, e.g., not considering yourself to be a “man” until you have been in a fist fight. 5. Violence as a means to maintain one’s own identity and self-worth, e.g., punching out a person who insults your Texas heritage. 6. Violence against authority figures as a response to unresolved psychological conflicts, e.g., a teenager goes ballistic and runs over a police officer after a routine traffic stop because the kid hates his father.
Group Violence 1. Violence as a way to solidify an economic advantage over others, e.g., gang controlled drug distribution territories and prohibition era protection rackets. 2. Violence as a symbol of group solidarity and commitment, e.g. initiation rituals such as drive-by shootings, mob politically motivated and inspired behavior. 3. Violence as a way of ensuring political control of one group over another, e.g., lynching’s or killings of Black or brown people. 4. Violence as group revenge, e.g., the murder of a rabbinical student by a Black mob after a Black child had been killed by an automobile that was driven by an orthodox Jew. 5. Violence against people whose behaviors one believes are so evil that one is required to take all possible actions to destroy and punish them, e.g. abortion clinic bombings, the “theft” 6. Violence against authority symbols as a way to so severely destabilize the system that it will be possible to overthrow the current regime, e.g., the Oklahoma City bombing or January 6, 2021 insurrection. 7. Violence as a contagion process spreading like a plague once it has been triggered, e.g., the Vietnam anti-war riots and the riots that followed acquittal of the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating.
Factors Affecting the Probability of Triggering Violence Furthermore, the propensity for employing violence for either individual or group goals within the United States seems to vary by: 1. Whether a particular sort of violent behavior is considered to be criminal in a particular jurisdiction, e.g., what is the definition of a reasonable use of lethal force. 2. The social subculture where one was raised, e.g., violence is more common in the South and the inner-city. 3. How much one’s religious and ethical beliefs justify the use of force to resolve disputes, e.g., whether a person is a Mennonite or one’s family has a long history of either police service or jail time. 4. Whether one has been a victim of violence in the past or has already routinely used physical violence, i.e., “violence breeds violence.” 5. How reasonable one perceives the legal system, e.g., a Mississippi Black in the 1930s who was unfairly accused of a capital crime should have been quite inclined to use violence in escaping because he likely would not get a fair trial. 6. The extent to which one believes that violence is an effective strategy, i.e., if it appears to work, then you will be more inclined to use it. 7. The monetary cost of violence, e.g., a person already included to use violence for business purposes is more likely to spend $2500 on hiring a hit person than if killing a competitor costs $250,000. 8. How physically risky you perceive your situation, e.g., police in a small town where there has never been a murder is much less likely to think that a suspect might kill them than a Chicago police officer who has twice been wounded in the line of duty. 9. Whether there are any physical characteristics that lower one’s threshold for employing violence, e.g., the use of psychotic inducing-drugs or physiological abnormalities. 10. Whether one believes that violence can be employed to achieve a particular goal without setting off an unending chain of violent events, as with prohibition era gang wars.
Given this discussion, we can now better see that only certain causes of violent behavior are closely related to one’s status as an authority figure, while others are not. This revelation is particularly important for understanding the reasons for attacks on American police officers or violent attacks by police on citizens. In conclusion, as implied in the title of this essay: Violence does not submit to simple solutions.
C. Kenneth Meyer is the Thomas F. Sheehan Distinguished Professor of Public Administration, College of Business and Public Administration, Drake University.
C. Kenneth Meyer is an author of numerous books on public personnel management, public management practice, violence in American society, public administration and public policy. He has published nearly 100 scholarly articles on a range of topics including: effective and efficient government, program evaluation, workplace violence, organizational training and development, policy evaluation, and public participation strategies.
During C. Kenneth Meyer’s 50 years of teaching at the university level, he has taught more than 45 diverse courses for the public administration field including public administration, public policy, research methods and statistics, empirical theory, international policy, American government, politics and public participation. Among these courses is an international award-winning comparative public management and public policy class incorporating a European study abroad component. The class is focused specifically on identifying the best worldwide practices in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. The information learned and resources gathered from these identified best models and best practices are incorporated in many of the cases presented in texts authored by Dr. Meyer and available at www.millenniumrmpress.com.
As an invited speaker, presenter and host for more than 50 presentations around the world, C. Kenneth Meyer keeps an active schedule speaking and consulting throughout North America, Europe and Asia.