Monday, July 11, 2016

What will it take?

Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away
Last week was an extremely disappointing week, and in some respects heartbreaking.

On Tuesday, two Baton Rouge police officers shot and killed Alton Sterling. Police were called to the store in front of which Sterling was selling CDs on the basis of an anonymous call indicating the Sterling had been brandishing a weapon.  Sterling, a homeless black man who sold CDs on the streets of Baton Rouge, was in the process of being arrested when one of the officers on the scene shouted that Sterling was going for his gun, at which point he was summarily executed, on video, by the police.

On Wednesday, during a traffic stop purportedly for a broken tail light, a police officer from St. Anthony, Minnesota (a suburb of St. Paul) shot Philando Castile, also a black man, four times, killing him.  Castile was, by all accounts, fully compliant with the officer's requests during the stop and notified the officer that he had a concealed carry license and a weapon in the car.  As Castile reached for his wallet, the officer shot him as Castile's girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter watched.

On Thursday, during an otherwise peaceful protest of the Sterling and Castile killings in downtown Dallas, a black man, an Army veteran, shot fourteen white police officers, killing five of them.  Later, after negotiations with a Dallas PD crisis negotiator failed to produce a surrender, the bomb squad sent a robot with a bomb into the area where the shooter was holed up and detonated that bomb remotely, killing him.

Protests continued through the weekend, and some of them were marred by minor violence.

On a personal level, a dear friend of mine, who was family of my family, and with whom I had shared family holidays, and who was a valued teammate on our championship trivia team, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on Thursday.  On a personal level, his passing leaves a gaping hole in my life that has predominated over how I feel about the incidents noted above.  I do not cry often, but I cried when I heard that Norman had died.

It has been hard over the last few days to wade through the enormity of what happened last week. But wade I must, because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

When Michael Brown was killed, they said it was OK because he was a tall, lanky, man-sized thug, a criminal who had just stolen from a store, who needed to be stopped, and who punched, then charged at the police officer.

When Freddie Gray was killed, they said it was OK because he had a record and he was engaged in mayhem when they loaded him into the police transport.  Never mind that they failed to buckle him in, then drove erratically, causing him to break his neck.

When Tamir Rice was killed, they said it was OK because at 12 years old he, too, was man-sized, and because he was playing alone in a public park with a toy gun, and so what if the officer shot him dead within 2 seconds of arriving on the scene?

Brown, Gray, Rice--these young black men are three of hundreds like them.  Their murders--and yes, they were murdered--have all gone unpunished for various reasons, such as prosecutors who refuse to prosecute, grand juries that refuse to indict, and juries and judges that refuse to convict police officers.  Excuses are offered instead of action, and the summary executions continue.

Ooh, see the fire is sweepin'
Our very street today
Burns like a red coal carpet
Mad bull lost its way

Don't get me wrong.  I am not suggesting that extrajudicial killings are always inappropriate.  Much to the contrary, most of the time, when police officers kill, they do so in unquestioned self-defense.  When a person is shooting at police or others, or genuinely threatening to do so, the use of deadly force is justified.  I am not talking about these kinds of killings, and statistics that show that more than 500 black persons have been killed by police in 2016--a startling figure--obscure the reality that many of those persons were killed because they were engaged in criminal activity that left police with little choice, if any.

But if killing Michael Brown was OK, and killing Freddie Gray was OK, and killing Tamir Rice was OK, what sorts of police killings are not OK?  What will it take for us to agree, nearly universally, that a police killing was, in fact, unjustified and unjustifiable homicide that should be punished as a murder?  Shouldn't it be in every case that efforts to resolve the situation without killing are exhausted before the gun is fired?  At what point does summary execution become unacceptable?

Since the Castile and Sterling murders entered the public consciousness, I have seen lots of people attempting to side with the police who murdered these men.  "Sterling had a record," they said.  That's true, but lots of people have criminal records; that doesn't mean they should be executed.  "He was resisting," they said.  But the video I've seen doesn't show voluntary resistance. It shows the natural reaction a person would have to being pinned down by police based on a crime he hadn't committed.  I don't believe that any of that justifies the police officers' behavior.

I can see some space for a rational mind to disagree, even if I think it's wrongheaded.  So we fall back again.  Maybe that one might in some universe be considered justifiable, we say.

And then we look at Castile.  Castile was a law-abiding, model citizen. He had no record.  He had a concealed carry permit, which he announced to the police officer and was in the process of retrieving when he was killed.  His girlfriend was in the car. Her four-year-old child was in the car.  He did everything right, and the cop shot him anyway.

He was straight-up murdered.

Nevertheless, I've seen some half-hearted defenses.  "The video just shows the aftermath, not what happened before," they said. "Wait for the body camera video," they said.  "He didn't say the right words when talking about his CCL," they said.

Here we have a case that's clear-cut, for which there is simply no defense.  Perhaps the officer feared for his life.  But that fear was irrational. It was based not on objective facts or a rational interpretation of the situation, but on the unfounded belief that Castile was about the put the officer's life in danger.  What was the basis of that belief?  It's hard to imagine a situation in which a white man gets summarily executed for trying to notify the officer about a gun in the car.

You would think that reasonable people, on those facts, might be willing to concede that the Black Lives Matter movement has a point.  Maybe all those extrajudicial killings aren't as justified as we thought.  After all, if those killings were based on the race of the decedent, they are per se unjustifiable.  We've all been told that this sort of thing doesn't happen.  We were told that with Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice and all the others.

But maybe that was a lie.

What will it take for white people to admit that it was a lie?

What will it take for white people who defend these bad-apple police officers to admit that, to them, black lives haven't really mattered much?

What will it take for the white people who have spent so much time and effort pointing out that ALL LIVES MATTER that it's really just an effort to enforce a status quo in which black lives don't matter at all?

What will it take for these people to understand that BLACK LIVES MATTER doesn't mean BLACK LIVES MATTER MORE but BLACK LIVES MATTER TOO?

What will it take for everyone to recognize that true support for police departments means making it not just possible, but reasonable, and expected, that bad cops get prosecuted for their crimes and get removed from police work?

The floods is threat'ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I'm gonna fade away

There is an old saying that to love your country means accepting what it does, right or wrong.  I have never subscribed to that view at all.  I love my country.  And when it does something wrong, I have a responsibility, based on that love, to say so and to do everything in my power to correct it.  The same goes for police.  I have a deep, abiding respect for the good people who serve us as police officers.  They put themselves on the line for us.  When we run away from danger, they run toward it.  But when bad police commit crimes, they don't just harm the people they damage directly.  They harm everyone by undermining the respect we have given them.  And when good cops and prosecutors allow bad police to flourish without consequences, even if all they are doing is standing idly by, they become as bad as the bad cops.  Their inaction is a poison.

That's why what happened in Dallas, a city I work in and live near, was so horrifying.  Like many large urban police departments, Dallas PD has made a strong effort to root out bad police and to re-earn the respect of the people they serve. They have worked to get the poison out. The five police officers who died, and the nine others who were injured, were protecting people who were protesting against police brutality.  They deserved better than they got.  I am not sorry that the man who killed them is dead, and aside from his family, I doubt you'd find many people who are sorry.

War, children, it's just a shot away
It's just a shot away
It's just a shot away
But maybe the tide is turning.  The old bigots are being exposed.  Finally, we're seeing some recognition of the point that some of us have been making for a long time--grudging recognition, but that's progress.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch said, "First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."  What will it take?  I say that would be a good start.

I tell you love, sister, it's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away
It's just a kiss away
Kiss away, kiss away

Lyrics from "Gimme Shelter" by M. Jagger and K. Richards. Copyright © 1969 ABKCO Music, Inc.

No comments:

Post a Comment