National Opinions

Conflicting attitudes about authority; Millennials reject aggressive policing

A police sharpshooter keeps an eye on protesters along W. Florissant Avenue on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
A police sharpshooter keeps an eye on protesters along W. Florissant Avenue on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT) MCT

Ferguson, Mo., has suffered from "white flight" in recent years, leaving pockets of structural poverty and deeply alienated black people. The once predominantly white suburb now is 65 percent black. Poverty afflicts 22 percent of residents, twice as many as in 2000, according to the Census Bureau. Ferguson's story isn't uncommon. Authorities often see fit to heavily police towns with growing black and poor populations, to surveil them and occasionally to harass them in the name of a "broken windows theory" of policing.

The broken windows theory, promulgated by James Q. Wilson, holds that where there is urban disarray, there is crime. Wilson argued that cleaning up trash and fixing broken windows — but also quickly policing deviants and miscreants for even small-scale crimes — would lessen crime overall. The thinking was that by taking care of the small stuff, you won't face as much big stuff. The theory caught on, and authorities began to use it all over the country.

For example, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police commissioner Bill Bratton employed this theory in New York City, and it seemed to reduce crime. But increased "stop-and-frisk" incidents — which allow officers routinely to stop sometimes law-abiding citizens in search of illegal drugs, firearms or other criminal possessions — resulted in ever greater tension between communities of color and police.

The intensified police presence in poor black communities fosters negative association in residents from a young age. As children, they see police officers walk the hallways of their schools as in a prison. When black boys are involved in an altercation or disruption, instead of being sent to the principal's office, they are too often handcuffed and given a criminal record. Experience teaches black men that police officers exist not to protect them, but to criminalize and humiliate them.

While this is not the first time in history that aggressive police tactics have plagued black communities, this generation of young people have limited tolerance for such experiments in policing at their expense.

Compared to their grandparents, the millennial generation — regardless of race — is less inclined to blindly respect and trust authority. A 2011 MTV poll found that 70 percent of millennial respondents believed they could "successfully negotiate anything with authority figures."

Further, a Pew Research poll found that millennials are detached from hierarchal institutions and are distrustful of people in general. This generation isn't intimidated by authority. On top of that, images of police brutality against black men have proliferated online, turning what might have been isolated local antagonisms into national grievances.

Under authoritarian oversight and normalized police harassment, a generation of young people were bound to get fed up and respond with the defiance and turmoil we are witnessing in Ferguson.

Elijah Anderson is a professor of sociology at Yale University. He has authored several books on urban black life, including Code of the Street and The Cosmopolitan Canopy.