As I See It: Get-tough rhetoric only leads to more protest

Police are necessary because it’s an imperfect world and always will be. There will always be a need for some functions that only a police type organization can furnish. Even the most strictly policed places, prisons and military bases have those problems. Yes, prisons are full of people with behavior problems so let’s deal with that separately. The military, however, is composed of motivated basically normal people, still disagreements and misunderstandings will occur and those can require a disciplinary means AKA police.

We have several real culture problems with police. Start with racism. Most of us will claim we are not racist, or that we are color blind. Some of those with the most racist rhetoric claim “I’m not racist” right after they say something that is subtly racist, but in their point of view is not. Most of us are more comfortable among others who are mostly like us. This is a basic protective herd mentality. The sheep is not comfortable among wolves, but neither is the omega wolf comfortable. Being uncomfortable close to someone who is a little different, and also bigger, angry or armed is not really racism, but it’s close. This is the level we need to start with, which is part of the reason for school integration. We need for people who are a little different to seem familiar.


Law-and-order people like to say “nip it in the bud,” but they don’t really do that. The bud would be to criticize the first racist epithet or remark. Nip it in the bud is not, provoking the peaceful protest in the park until someone colors outside the lines, creating an excuse for a violent reaction. The protest is evidence that something is perceived as wrong: the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. The first reaction should be to open a dialogue, not a military cordon. We have a beautiful Hawaiian word, lokahi: first find what we agree on. The first reaction to a peaceful demonstration should be: What do you want? Not: Disperse or else.

How can we do that? Not shots fired.

When the grievances are not addressed, the demonstrations get bigger. Get-tough rhetoric only leads to more protest, more potential for violence and ultimate repression. The cost to preserve order will escalate and we lose what we hope to preserve.

When the car won’t start, we figure out what’s wrong, then fix it. We don’t beat the car or insult it and expect it to start. “Why do police guys beat on peace guys?” — Arlo Guthrie. When you outfit officers in military gear, with riot weapons in military formation, all it takes is one bang to set off a military response, kill people and break things. When a phalanx of officer in combat armor approach a peaceful assembly and march on them relentlessly, it is inevitable that someone in the assembly will feel threatened. They may do something that someone in the phalanx will interpret as aggressive and suddenly there is pandemonium and a riot. The Lafayette Square disorder started with some who threw candy bars but then a water bottle. Not necessarily a hostile act.

The police (soldiers) came prepared for violence with various degrees of emotional preparedness. In that situation, it only takes one, itching for a fight, to set it off. That one in a thousand bad-apple needs to be excised, but it’s not easy, they look like everyone else until they act out. Some of them have been disciplined many times, yet still carry a badge and a gun, unacceptable. This situation is when good officers in the heat of the moment can do bad things, and some have nightmares about it.

We need to spend our taxes more wisely on the underlying problems and this requires some defunding of police budget items like armor and riot weapons. Education is much less expensive than incarceration. It costs $200,000 a year to incarcerate a teenager in Hawaii. That would pay for 57 student years of junior college at $3,500 a year. The students could be working and paying taxes. Injustice is expensive.


To be continued …

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to