Sunday, August 28, 2016

Some overdue nuance on police shootings


“Social media's reaction to the Orlando shooting is the most frustrating instance of confirmation bias I can remember. Everyone sees only what they want to see. The entire right wing cannot fathom it resulting from anything besides Islamic extremist terrorism. The entire left wing will not admit it relates to anything besides the need for gun control or mental health research. And whenever these brainwashed culture warriors accidentally meet, neither knows what to do besides demonize the other. We self-select into a comforting echo-chamber of people and pages that reaffirm what we already believe, and on the rare occasion someone breaches that bubble of consensus, we would rather Google "tell me why I'm right" for ammunition in our argument than deal with the cognitive dissonance of considering dissent.

The entire country is allergic to nuance, and this November we will reap what we sow.”

Today, I just want to add that everything I wrote there also applies to how most people react to police shootings.  If you're anything like the people I see discussing them, you're probably wrong about a lot, no matter which side of the cultural divide you're on.

First, white police apologists…get the following things through your skulls:

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system do not solely result from black people committing more crimes.  It is statistically proven, over and over again, that police patrol minority neighborhoods disproportionately, pull minorities over disproportionately, and arrest and charge them disproportionately.  Judges and juries are statistically proven to sentence blacks more harshly and set their bail higher, other things equal.  That this is inconvenient to the worldview you find most reassuring doesn’t make it less true.

Second, even to the extent that such disparities do result from blacks committing more crime, that’s still a problematic consequence of historic marginalization COUPLED with over-criminalization, the war on drugs, and “tough on crime” mandatory minimum laws – which are each bullshit, and which white people voted for and have a responsibility to undo.

Third, white people need to realize that police cannot legally or ethically kill somebody just because they’re a criminal, or resisting/fleeing arrest, or a dirt bag in general.  Lethal force is only justified when the suspect poses an active threat to the life of the cop, or of someone else.  Accordingly, if we are to have any semblance of a civilized society, policemen MUST be held legally accountable when they kill people they had no reason to believe were armed or dangerous – even when that person was a dirt-bag criminal!

Fourth, white people should realize that while policing is dangerous work, it is also voluntary work, and signing up to do a risky job does not give you extra leeway with the laws governing how to perform that job.  They should also realize that it’s not actually as dangerous as many other professions, and that they don’t really need armored vehicles or SWAT teams to serve a warrant.  They should concede that police training in this country is far too militarized and aggressive, which causes many policemen to escalate tensions at the slightest hint of non-compliance instead of de-escalating situations before they become violent.

Perhaps most importantly, white people should recognize that BLM is not a “terrorist organization.”  They are not even causing racial division.  They are merely revealing racial division, which has been here all along, but which many white people were too white to have noticed.  This division exists in part because for most of our country’s history, there have been a shit-ton of police shootings, especially of black people.  For most of our country’s history, white people much gave their unquestioning trust that these shootings were justified and necessary.

Turns out, a lot of them weren’t.

Video evidence is quickly revealing lot of them still aren’t today, so I cannot fathom how bad it must have been in the 60’s, 70’s 80’s and 90’s, while white people were pretending the damn Civil Rights Act had fixed racism.

The enormous upheaval of the Black Lives Matter uprisings is merely white people’s helpful newsflash to this state of affairs.  No matter what your cheery suburban elementary school teacher may have led you to believe, some ineffective, polarizing legislation from the 60’s did not resolve the prejudices of the Jim Crow south in the span of a single generation.  Get over it.  You don’t need to agree with everything they propose, but at the very least, consider BLM as your wakeup call to a situation which many less fortunate than you have known all along.

Now...BLM sympathizers…

You’re not off the hook.  You need to understand the following:

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system do not solely result from bigoted cops treating black people differently than they do whites.  Even if we implement all our desired criminal justice reforms, violent crime will still be more prevalent in impoverished communities than it is in the suburbs for a whole host of socioeconomic reasons.  Consequently, residual racial disparities in the criminal justice system would likely continue even in a perfectly just society.

Second, not everyone killed by police is a victim – in fact, most are not.  There are roughly 1100 police killings every year.  Many of them are filmed, but only the most egregious make it onto social media.  The rest are predominantly justifiable responses to armed and dangerous people (usually white people) who are threatening innocent life.  Police deal with armed robbers, gang shootouts, hostage situations, serial killers, school shootings, and high speed chases on a daily basis in this country.  To be frank, the world is a happier place without such people.  It is both legal and ethical to kill these people while they are in the act of trying or threatening to kill others. 

Accordingly, statistics about the total number of black people killed by police in a given year are completely meaningless absent context, since they clump together the Eric Garners and Philando Castille’s of the world with all the people who actually had it coming.
  None of this means we should be any less vigilant in keeping the police accountable – it just means we should have a filter, and reserve judgment.  Don’t be gullible.  Left-leaning, quasi-media clickbait outlets like Salon, NowThis or Mic.com have discovered it is extremely profitable to stoke up racial tension as much as possible.  Reporters in search of controversy descend like hounds each time a black person is shot by police, hoping against hope that the circumstances will allow them to make it into the latest viral horror story of police abuse.  Sometimes it is – sometimes it isn’t.  Be able to tell the difference.

Third, BLM should realize that part of the reason police are trained the way they are is because we live in a country with 330 million guns, and a lot more violent criminals than other democracies.  Accordingly, the more laid back European model of policing wouldn’t really work here.  Teaching police to diffuse the situation and be less jumpy is a good idea, but disarming police altogether would enable more crime and result in a whole lot more dead people, including (but not limited to) more dead cops.

Finally, BLM should understand that not everything is explained by race.  In the wake of the Korryn Gaines case I described here, the people at Atlanta Black Star convinced themselves that Gaines was only shot because she was black.  To prove it, they created this really bad video comparing Gaines to a white woman named Ashley Sterling, who were able to arrest without having to shoot her.  The comparison was horrible from the outset – Gaines fired a shotgun at officers, whereas Sterling was unarmed – but the most absurd part of the video comes here:



Let’s read that again: “After police TAZED Sterling, she ENJOYED THE LUXURY OF AIR CONDITIONING en route to the police station.”

That made me snort out laughing the first time I watched it.  I can’t help but wonder: If an unarmed black woman were tazed while she lie pinned to the ground, surrounded by multiple policemen, and then a white police sympathizer had dismissed any criticism of such abuse as giving her "the luxury of air conditioning", would anyone in BLM agree they treated that person luxuriously?

The article continued that “Ashley Sterling lived to have her day in court.  Korryn Gaines did not.”  They conveniently omit that Gaines was in fact offered a day in court – she just declined to show up.


Such a preposterous reaches and half-truths makes the job of resentful white anti-BLM reactionaries way easier than it should be, serving up low-hanging fruit to those eager to classify all of BLM as unreasonable zealots.  Don’t overplay your hand, people.  Don’t make air conditioning arguments.  That’s not evidence of racial disparity, and there isn’t always evidence to be found, because not everything that happens to black people in our country results from racism. Our movement will be stronger and more effective if you stop pretending otherwise.

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