Will Grigg’s Tom Joad Test

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Police began to patrol the neighborhood around 11 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, 2017. There was a report of a dispute at a house party in the Dallas, Texas suburb of Balch Springs.

Prompted by a call from a neighbor’s son, police arrived to investigate a confrontation over the neighbor’s blocked driveway, as well as possible underage drinking at the house party on Baron Drive.

But within sixty-six minutes, yet another person was executed by a law enforcement officer.

That person was fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards.

Jordan Edwards was shot by one of the responding cops, Roy Oliver, as he left the party with his two brothers and two friends in a black Chevrolet Impala.

Your initial response to these details is important. In fact, without any further information about the incident, your visceral reaction to the chronology of events as outlined above might well convey more about your understanding of politics than you think.

The Tom Joad Test

William Norman Grigg, the late, great chronicler of police misconduct and domestic militarization, referred to modern American law enforcement as the State’s punitive priesthood.

“In the eyes of our self-exalted rulers, all of us are criminals who fall short of the glory of the State, and are in proper peril of being detained, shackled, caged, or summarily killed by those who give tangible form to the State’s abstract righteousness,” he wrote.

In response to what Will observed as an instinctive barbarism emerging among the “Mundanes” – that is, everyone outside of the Blue Lives Matter cult – he developed the “Tom Joad Test.”

It is a simple thought experiment that is both forthright and revealing in its application.

Although he was not a fan of the author for reasons mainly unrelated to the literature itself, Will developed the Tom Joad Test based on John Steinbeck’s character in The Grapes of Wrath. He pointed out “…there is substantial merit in Joad’s pledge to sympathize with those who are victims of Power,” exemplified by Joad’s famous statement that, “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”

Will concisely formulated the test:

“In assessing any act of police violence, I believe it’s wise to apply what I’ve called the ‘Tom Joad Test’: When you see a police officer beating or shooting a citizen, is your first impulse to sympathize with the uniformed assailant, or the victim? If the former is the case, you’re a natural authoritarian; if the latter is true, you’re an instinctive libertarian.”

Red State Fascism

As a preemptive rejoinder to anticipated criticism from the defenders of the State’s costumed class of enforcers, Will elaborated further to address the implications of the Tom Joad Test:

“It may later be demonstrated that the figure on the receiving end of the beating had committed some horrible crime. However, such a disclosure wouldn’t invalidate the results of the Tom Joad Test, because that test reveals a subject’s default assumptions about the relationship between the individual and the state.

Do you assume that the state is entitled to the benefit of the doubt whenever its agents inflict violence on somebody, or do you believe that the individual — any individual — is innocent of wrongdoing until his guilt has been proven?”

This qualification is unnecessary for those inclined to a libertarian disposition, but in the case of Jordan Edwards, it’s especially superfluous. Jordan was a straight-A student, a talented athlete, and by all accounts, he came from a home with a loving family.

Jordan Edwards was simply attending a party with his brothers and friends.

The police arrived to check out reports of underage drinking at Lisa Roberson’s home, where her teenage son was throwing a party without her permission, a shared rite of passage among American youth.

Officers Roy Oliver and T. Gross began to break up the house party, and while speaking with the host, bursts resembling gunfire were heard and recorded on the police body camera footage. Gross ran outside and approached the black Chevrolet Impala with Jordan Edwards, his brothers, and friends inside.

Oliver went to his squad car and retrieved a Modern Carbine MC5 rifle. Gross punched the Impala’s rear passenger window with his gun, telling the confused driver to stop.

Jordan and the others were leaving the party. They had done nothing wrong.

At this point, Oliver arrived with his rifle and fired several rounds at the car as the teenagers drove past.

Initial reports claimed that the car was driving toward the officers, possibly endangering their lives (“Officer Safety!”), however, the body camera footage proved otherwise.

One of the rounds fired by Oliver struck the fifteen-year-old occupant in the head. Jordan Edwards was pronounced dead at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas at 12:06 a.m. on April 30, 2017, a little more than an hour after the police first arrived at the house party.

Oliver was fired by the Balch Springs Police Department and later charged with murder on May 5. He posted bail on a $300,000 bond thereafter and was quickly released.

When facts are presented in a case such as this, if you intuitively identify with power, your nature is that of an authoritarian admirer of the State, which Albert Jay Nock described thoroughly in The Criminality of the State:

“Like all predatory or parasitic institutions, its first instinct is that of self-preservation. All its enterprises are directed first towards preserving its own life, and, second, towards increasing its own power and enlarging the scope of its own activity. For the sake of this it will, and regularly does, commit any crime which circumstances make expedient.”

Throughout the last two decades of his life, Will’s tireless efforts on behalf of individual liberty increasingly focused on this fundamental theme, which he summarized quite well only a few months before his untimely death:

“Americans too readily see the law as a weapon to wield against others, rather than as the means of protecting individual rights. Applying Lenin’s famous formula that the key political question is ‘Who does what to Whom?’ Americans covet the role of ‘Who,’ forgetting that they will eventually become the ‘Whom’ – and that the ‘what’ in this equation – the exercise of power over others – is never morally acceptable.”

The “Tom Joad Test” thus serves to assess whether someone has surrendered to the insidious perspective that the State prevails over the individual; that law trumps liberty; that order precedes freedom.

“Ironically, many law-and-order conservatives come uncomfortably close to Lenin’s view of the state when they reflexively take the side of agents of state coercion — the ‘who’ in the typical encounter between police officer and citizen,” Will observed.

“The American view of rights, however, is overwhelmingly weighted on behalf of the latter, even when the ‘who’ is a winsome and well-dressed policeman, and the ‘whom’ is a scruffy and unappealing individual.”

Context to the Conflict

Going out with friends on the weekend should not bear the punishment of summary execution by a cop, yet it is a fate that has befallen too many in recent years, which is why several organizations are now tracking such incidents.

Jordan Edwards is the youngest of at least 352 people shot and killed by police so far in 2017, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. This trends with a similar number of deaths last spring. Ultimately, 963 individuals were killed by cops by the end of 2016, according to the Washington Post’s reporting. The Guardian’s project, the Counted, also tracked people killed by police in the U.S., but that endeavor ended last year. Their reporters identified 394 deaths by spring 2016 and nearly 1,100 total by December 31.

Three other independent websites have also compiled data tracking individuals killed by law enforcement officers. Cop Crisis reports 416 people have been killed by police in the past nineteen weeks. Killed by Police assembled a list detailing 421 deaths in that same timeframe. The database for Fatal Encounters, which has tracked the most fatalities, claims 596 people have been killed by law enforcement officers in 2017 thus far.

As of this writing, differences in methodology, corroborating sources, and additional database updates explain the small discrepancies between the number of people reported killed by cops by these various organizations, but this does not begin to explicate the deaths, nor the murder of Jordan Edwards by Roy Oliver.

William Norman Grigg, however, clearly recognized the perils of modern law enforcement in America. Will’s relentless pursuit of justice led him to boldly expound upon the inequitable balance of power between the Mundanes and members of the State’s punitive priesthood:

“In every encounter between a police officer and a citizen, only one life matters to the former – and it isn’t the latter,” Will insisted throughout his writings.

He, unfortunately, was proven correct again with the murder of Jordan Edwards.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan