Okay. Where to start?
How about here: In the past week, there have been two very high-profile murders of black men by police, accompanied by video evidence. In the first case, Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Someone called the police and said he pointed a gun at…someone. The police arrived, and we have cell phone footage of most of that encounter, for people with the fortitude to watch it. What appears to NOT be in question: the police had Mr. Sterling on the ground, one officer shouted, “he has a gun!”, and a different officer pulled his weapon and shot Mr. Sterling in the chest at point-blank range. A witness (the owner of the convenience store) says the police were aggressive from the start, and that Sterling never had a gun in his hand. The cell phone video appears to back up a lot of the witness’ statement. Hence my use of the word “murder”. This appears to be (another) murder of a black man by police, which they will almost certainly not be held accountable for, because it is legal, apparently, for police to use unnecessary lethal force against someone who is resisting arrest, and because they are going to claim “miscommunication” – “he has a gun” but not in his hand, oops, our bad.
No, I’m not sympathetic to the police in this case. A man is dead. AGAIN. There’s lots of evidence that police across the U.S. often jump to “shoot him dead” when dealing with black men.
Which brings me to the next case: Philando Castile. Mr. Castile was pulled over for a busted taillight. (In fact, the inevitable look at his “criminal record” reveals it to be entirely traffic stops over small things, bringing me to speculate about harassment by police generally.) Mr. Castile had a gun on him. A LEGAL, permitted weapon. He did what he had to do, by law: he told the cop he had a gun. And the cop shot him. Through the window of the car.
Now, there’s some debate about the ensuing events; the video here starts after the shooting has already happened. The officer may have been telling him to keep his hands where they could be seen, and he may have been reaching to get his wallet, leading to confusion when he said he had a gun. That said…miscommunication with the police shouldn’t get you murdered during a routine traffic stop. If you’re arguing that this was the expected outcome, then you’re arguing that “being a black man” is sufficiently threatening ALL BY ITSELF that he should have expected to be shot for reaching for his wallet. Because, fellow white people, whether you want to admit it or not, white people don’t get shot for reaching for their wallets. EVEN IF they say that they have a gun.
Why? Well, I’d say white people get the benefit of the doubt. We’re assumed to be…not-dangerous. If a white person said to a police officer, calmly, “I have a gun in the car,” would the officer panic and shoot them? Be honest.
Philando Castile should infuriate everyone. He was shot for NOTHING. He did nothing wrong. He was doing what he was supposed to do to the best of his ability, and he’s dead now. He was a law-abiding, well-loved, and well-respected citizen of his community, and he’s dead now.
Why? Well, I’m not sure. Best-case scenario: people see black men as threats, inherently, and overreact to innocuous things, and police are no exception. In which case: I want the police to be an exception. I want the police NOT to overreact in that situation, as much as possible. This needs to be addressed. Stop pretending the problem isn’t real, because it is real.
Okay. Now for some less-nice observations. Not all police are good people. Not all PEOPLE are good people, and the police are no exception. But there ARE data that says that there are a higher proportion of both really good AND really bad people among police. By this I mean:
- Really good people: people who are self-sacrificing, who see it as their life’s duty to protect others, who are willing to put their lives on the line for others, for STRANGERS, are more likely to be attracted to police work. And this is wonderful.
- Really bad people: unfortunately, psychopaths are also more likely to be attracted to police work (and the data backs this up), because you get cover to be a psychopath. There is an organization that will protect you when you indulge in psychopathic behavior, whether that behavior is taking bribes from local businesses, or beating up suspects, or raping young women (see the recent Oakland PD scandal for some lovely material in this area, or a couple of SJPD stories from a few years back), or murdering black people – you’re more likely to be able to do it and get away with it if you’re a police officer. This part is horrible.
So. Some of these incidents are probably NOT about miscommunication, or being trained by a racist society to view black men as a threat, but are, in fact, deliberate psychopathic acts. We have to admit THAT, too, and deal with it.
This post wouldn’t be complete without discussing the five police officers murdered in Dallas this past week, either. These officers were helping with a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. They were shot dead by a sniper who, it appears, had been planning to murder police for some time. (I mention this because it’s clear that he was NOT inspired by the events of last week.) It’s important to note that the murderer was not affiliated with Black Lives Matter, an important fact that appears to be getting lost in the media coverage of the murders.
However, as awful as this is, as horrible as it is, and as close to home as it is for people whose loved ones are police officers…it pales by comparison with being afraid to DRIVE because you’re black. It pales by comparison with being afraid to let your son carry a toy gun outside because the police might even shoot a child with a toy gun. It may compare personally, if you are the spouse of a cop. I get that. But on the larger scale…one of these things is a large-scale societal problem, and the other really isn’t.
My heart hurts for the families of these officers. I can be horrified by the murder of police officers AND innocent black men at the same time. I can acknowledge systemic problems within many police forces AND the fact that the Dallas PD is one that has already started to (successfully) address these problems. I can do all of this AT THE SAME TIME.
I can also point out, again, that we make it awfully easy for potential murderers to get weapons that are designed with the express purpose of killing other humans. And that we are militarizing our police force, which makes it harder for those of us who aren’t police to relate to them. The police are scary. Even if you’re not black, the dude in the body armor driving an armored vehicle…that’s making it harder for me to relate to the police. I don’t like having a small army occupying my city, frankly.
It would really be lovely if people would stop thinking that the world has to be binary. It’s not “either/or”. You can be pro-2nd Amendment and pro-gun control. For example. You can be pro-police and anti-militarization of the police. In fact…you should be all of these things, in my opinion. At the same time.
Okay. I have to get back to work. I’m sure there’s more, especially with the aforementioned militarized police and the protests going on right now, but this will have to do for now.