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Post "Folk Devils" and Moral Panic (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 06/10/21 2:13 PM

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"Folk Devils" and Moral Panic (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 06/10/21 2:13 pm)

Gary Moore writes:

The potent term "moral panic" met the world in a 1972 book by sociologist Stanley Cohen, referring to waves of collective anger focused on the "folk devils" of a given moment in human affairs. "Folk devils," in Cohen's parlance, make up a class of people despised or feared as supposedly representing a pocket of destructive deviancy, where they disdain accepted norms of behavior.

Cohen explained that the "folk devil" out-group might have real warts that help make it a target, but any such flaws are greatly exaggerated by the moral panic. An image becomes monstrous, evoking cries of alarm. Cohen called this the "disproportionality" of the imagined accusations, vis-à-vis the less spectacular nature of the real targets.

Thus, in any given wave of moral panic, there might be some targeted folk devils who are completely innocent scapegoats, while others may be only irritating or frightening. And there might--or might not--be an elusive subset fitting a bit more closely into the menacing folk devil stereotype. Cohen called it a moral "panic" because subjective emotions are driving a blind over-classification. And he called it a "moral" panic because the folk devils are seen as trampling on norms of decency, which are indignantly defended by the accusers.

Before he began work on his idea for a PhD in the late 1960s in London, it seems that the entirety of human history had lacked a typology for naming this kind of infamously common pattern. Of course, history's pogroms, witch hunts, mass persecutions and other waves of contagious accusation needed no handy reference handle if our side did it, whereupon it was simply outraged virtue striking at evil. And the targets, by contrast, were ill-positioned for much input into the discussion. Cohen did not belabor the most catastrophic variant of the pattern, the one occurring when our side is especially right: the demonization process sometimes called "war fever" (in which even some of smaller cases can be pristine, as in the Spanish-American War).

Cohen was still around in 2011, after a generation of publicity and controversy, when he said specifically that his ground-breaking conceptualization had been one more child of the late 1960s, born in a climate of flamboyant action and reaction. Inadvertently, too, he suggested a shortcoming. Having mellowed over the years, Cohen cautioned in 2011 that his world-shaking term "moral panic" should not be used as a simplistic weapon for sneering at any political leanings that might be right-of-center, or which might promote old-fashioned discipline or traditional morality. He was thus suggesting that only stiff-necked right-of-center crusades might become candidates for being called moral panics. But what of the times in history when opinions rather far left have attained mainstream power, and hunted devils of their own? We tend to think of the extremes--the Khmer Rouge, the Great Leap Forward, the Reign of Terror, the Liquidation of the Kulaks--but could there be less apocalyptic examples?

On July 6, 2016, in the same Minneapolis area as George Floyd but four years earlier, the manager of a high school cafeteria, a man named Philando Castille, an African American, was traffic-stopped by a remarkably imaginative suburban police officer, who imagined he saw non-existent links to a cold-case convenience-store robbery, and then imagined that he saw a gun, whereupon he shot Castille dead--and yet was let off without criminal penalty by a remarkably sympathetic suburban jury. This wrenchingly lengthened the list of incidents protested by Black Lives Matter.

But a year earlier, on July 29, 2015, in much the same Minneapolis area, a stolen car with two minors on the back seat led police on a 70-mile-an-hour chase through residential stop signs until it crashed against a building, and a police car chasing it hit a tree. The driver who got out was Jamar Clark, due in court within a week for having thrown a brick through his girlfriend's window, then pouring lighter fluid in threats to burn her out. This was after prison on a robbery conviction and a complex history reportedly involving neurological seizures, cause unclear. Beside the crashed stolen car he resisted attempts to arrest him and a scuffle ensued, in which a police officer hit him in the face, a fact that the heavily rule-bound police patiently explained to him when he came to, for he seemed to have passed out. Clark then began announcing that he had been hit not once but seven times, and that he had been forced into a seizure which he likened to Eric Garner in New York, the widely publicized Black Lives Matter fatality who suffocated after a choke hold-though the hold on Garner had been released five minutes before death and Garner, a severe asthmatic just out of the emergency ward (who nonetheless was selling bootleg cigarettes) died of a renewed asthma attack (scarcely lessened by the choke hold).

Back at the crashed car in Minneapolis, Jamar Clark repeatedly refused to give police his name and accused them of killing one of the (quite alive) teenagers he had been endangering on the back seat. Clark was temporarily charged with fleeing a peace officer, but Minneapolis, the city that George Floyd would later make famous, was by then capping its long history of progressive innovation by electing not to "arrest its way out" of its epidemic street crime, so that even many serious offenses, if caught in flagrante, might disappear from the record with no penalty. Though seeming improbable, this became verified publicly through the more famous case of George Floyd, who, a year before his death, was caught in a Minneapolis traffic stop on May 6, 2019, with thousands of dollars worth of controlled substances (not only hundreds of opioid pills but crack and powdered cocaine), whereupon Floyd, weeping and revealing that he had swallowed eight of his Percocet pills, was only interviewed briefly, rushed to a hospital, and then was released, no charges, and no public record of the event. It disappeared so completely from Floyd's record that it would never have been known at all if not for his sensational death a year later and the ensuing trial.

But going back to Jamar Clark, released and expunged that day in 2016, he surfaced again four months later at an apartment party. A fight broke out there involving at least two women, and one called an ambulance. Paramedics, arriving for her, found that she seemed to be afraid of a male figure who kept interfering with the rescue, and the paramedics called police. The arriving police, unaware of the history, found that the figure was Jamar Clark, who confronted them with his hands shoved diffidently into his pockets, and he refused to remove them. Clark had apparently been smoking marijuana and drinking, and told the police ominously, "I'm not afraid to die." Again a scuffle ensued. One of the police wound up lying awkwardly on top of Clark but face-up, and he thought he could feel Clark reaching into his holster and groping for his gun. "Shoot him!" he pleaded to his partner, who hesitated in order to look more closely and warn Clark, to no avail, then saw enough and fired, fatally. Clark's DNA was found on the prostrate partner's gun. Soon people from the party and from a lodge hall across the street had come out, and at least five of them declared vehemently to indignant news media that Clark had been handcuffed helplessly at the time he was shot. An early attempt at handcuffing had left the cuffs nearby during the scuffle, and Clark's DNA was not on them, nor were any signs or scratches on his wrists. Both the paramedics and a number of other witnesses gave agreeing accounts that at the time he was shot he was not handcuffed. Other evidence made it clear that the bystanders initially saying he was cuffed had imagined it from a distance in the dark.

The Black Lives Matter movement made Jamar Clark a martyr, saying he had showed great promise and was "trying to turn his life around," and they stated flatly in their literature that he was shot while handcuffed. Minneapolis's Precinct 4 police station was engulfed by crowds and angry sit-ins for weeks. The relentlessly progressive city that didn't even arrest many of the offenders it caught red-handed grew increasingly demonized as being, supposedly, the most racially oppressive city in the nation.

Had both Jamar Clark and George Floyd been arrested and jailed when originally caught in serious offenses, and had their cases not been made to extra-procedurally disappear, both might conceivably be alive today.

Some of the fatalities on the Black Lives Matter protest list seem more like Philando Castille, or worse. But most may be more like Jamar Clark. And even Philando Castille involved additional circumstances not described above.

Is this what Stanley Cohen meant by "disproportionality"?

JE comments:  The original model for "moral panic" in the Christian world must be anti-Semitism, which reached its perverse culmination in Nazi ideology.  It's interesting that the "folk devil" has two faces in the current controversies, both in the police conceptualization of the criminality of African Americans and the BLM demonization of the police.

Gary, you present a provocative argument in the above:  that Clark and Floyd may be alive today, if Minneapolis had been harsher with lesser crime.  A variation on the "broken windows" theory--that it keeps not only the community safer, but also the perpetrators?


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