“Get on the ground! Get on the ground!”
That demand is spat by police into the face of thousands of people every day in this country, many – perhaps most -- of whom have neither been caught in a criminal act nor have been named on an arrest warrant. The refrain is recited by home invaders in paramilitary garb after they have kicked in a door, usually as a follow-up to an attack with a flash-bang grenade.
It is often performed as a prelude to Taser strikes, baton blows, or other punitive violence used against people who refuse to render immediate and unqualified obedience.
Once the victim is forced to the ground, the familiar liturgy continues as the assailants chant “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” in counterpoint to punches, kicks, and other varieties of state-licensed criminal violence.
This exercise, we are told, is carried out in the service of that most important of all considerations, “Officer Safety.” It is true that the use of such methods is of great practical value to the privileged aggressors in government-issued attire.
However, there is a sacramental function being performed here, as well: When a police officer – a carnal emissary of the divine state, an accredited member of its punitive priesthood -- orders a citizen to prostrate himself, he is, quite literally, demanding worship.
The Greek word translated as “worship” in the New Testament is proskuneo; it is related to such English words as “prostrate” and “prone.”
The typical gesture referred to by that term involves placing one’s self face-down on the ground: “…. And when I, John, saw these things, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel…. Then saith he unto me, ‘See thou do it not: For I am thy fellowservant…. Worship God.” (Rev. 22:8-9)
For both Christian and Jewish believers, this act was appropriate only when directed at God. This is why three refractory Hebrew youths in Babylonian captivity refused King Nebuchadnezzar’s command that they “fall to the ground” as an act of worship before an idol of the king’s construction, even when death was prescribed as punishment for this act of resistance (Daniel 3:6).
Prostration in prayer and worship is widely practiced in many faith traditions today – both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, in addition to Judaism and Islam. For believers, this is done as a display of complete submission and unqualified surrender to the only Being who has the right to require it from us.
Most people of faith believe that refusal to render such worship is a matter for God to deal with in His good time. This isn’t true for the State’s armed emissaries, who respond to such impiety in much the same way that Nebuchadnezzar did: Refusal to prostrate one’s self at the command of a government functionary is cause for summary punishment, often of the lethal variety.
Until the late 1980s, it was unusual for police to require such worship from citizens. The 1991 Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department describes how elements of the LAPD had made it a common practice to order black and Hispanic men to “prone out” during ordinary traffic stops and similar encounters.
“The `prone-out’ position is a police control tactic that requires the suspect first to kneel, and then lie flat on his stomach, with his arms spread from his sides or his hands behind his back,” stated the report. “The Commission received numerous accounts of incidents involving African-American or Latino men stopped for traffic infractions, who were `proned-out’ under circumstances that did not present any risk of harm to the officers and that did not involve a warrant.”
One officer explained to the Commission that the use of the “prone-out” was “pretty routine” as a way of intimidating the targeted public and imposing a proper attitude of contrite submissiveness. According to that officer, “aggression and force are the only things these people understand.”
This is why such people must be ordered to prostrate themselves before the Holy State and its anointed representatives – and then beaten into submission and caged if they resist. With evangelistic zeal, police have spread this gospel at gunpoint from inner-city neighborhoods in Los Angeles to the farthest reaches of rural and suburban America.
Recently in the town of Moore, Oklahoma, five of the State’s purveyors of sacred violence ministered so vigorously to a middle-aged man named Luis Rodriguez that he was relieved of this life’s sorry burdens.
Rodriguez had tried to intercede during a quarrel between his wife and daughter. This was brought to the attention of several police officers who were providing “Security” at the theater. When one of the strangers butted into the affair, Rodriguez politely explained that it was a family matter and ordered the intruder to mind his own business.
Rather than obeying that lawful order, the officer – aided by three and eventually four of his comrades – escalated the affair, demanding identification, attempting to shackle and detain the innocent man, and finally taking him to the ground and killing him, most likely through prolonged positional asphyxia.
Rodriguez was never suspected or accused of a crime. He was killed – in a fashion deemed “appropriate” by the local police chief – because he dared to withhold the act of worship-through-submission demanded of him.
Police command, and expect us to obey, on the assumption that what liberties we enjoy are theirs to dispense, or dispense with, at whim – and that permitting defiance of “lawful” commands would cause society to unravel.
In his novel Under Western Eyes, Joseph Conrad captured this mindset by allowing us a glimpse into the thoughts of a Minister of State in Czarist Russia: “The thought of liberty has never existed in the Act of the Creator. From the multitude of men’s counsel nothing could come but revolt and disorder; and revolt and disorder in a world created for obedience and stability is sin.”
A very similar perspective was presented by an autocratic figure in a more recent work of popular fiction: “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation…. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
There is only One before whom I will ever kneel. Others might eventually succeed in forcing me to the ground, but I’ll never prostrate myself before them of my volition.
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Dum spiro, pugno!