Tragedy of Errors

The death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was a tragedy.  But, it is also the pivot point of a series of errors, both before and after the fatal shooting, that are tragic in their own right.

Long before Brown took that walk down the street where his body laid for hours after he was shot down, events in his town helped form a culture where an emboldened police force found itself at odds with the citizens it was tasked to protect.

These events began with the segregationist policies that resulted in a town where most of its populace is black and nearly all of its police force is white.  On its own, this may not seem problematic, but couple these demographics with the high unemployment, disproportionate targeting by law enforcement, and greater health risks among the African-American community, and the beginnings of unrest can be seen.

As Steven W Thrasher writes at the Guardian:

The symptoms of structural racism stain America everywhere, but its execution is particularly perverse in places like Ferguson. It’s not just that black drivers are stopped more often for alleged crimes than white drivers, despite the Missouri attorney general’s report that white people break the law more often. It’s not that Ferguson’s police force is 94% white in a town that’s two-thirds black. It’s not even, as Jeff Smith wrote in Monday’s New York Times, that black people – many unemployed – “do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites” by way of those stops and the subsequent fines.

The real perversion of justice by way of modern American racism is that black people in Ferguson – like black people in the greater St Louis metropolitan area and nationally – are marginalized economically and physically from day one. That is the real looting of Ferguson.

We are consistently twice as likely to be unemployed – and in and near St Louis, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed”. Our men are more likely to be convicted and our women are more likely to be evicted. We are more likely to be victims of predatory loans. Our children are twice as likely to have asthma (even before you teargas them). Our babies are twice as likely to die before the age of one – and their mothers are three or four times more likely to die as a result of bearing them.

The people of Ferguson could have used some help, but none was coming for them.  Yet, at the same time, their police force was being showered with fancy new toys from the federal government.  This is how the cops found themselves armed with the same kind of weapons and armor the American military used in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And, like anyone with new toys, they were eager to use them.

The community in Ferguson has suffered.  Then, one of their own was gunned down in the street, unarmed and with his hands up in submission to a police officer who then shot him dead.  And, nothing was being done.  That was simply more than the community could bear.  So, they took to the streets.

It is unfortunate that some used the protests that followed as an excuse for looting and vandalism.  And, a police response to these actions would have been justified.  But, the police were largely occupied by the peaceful protests taking place across the town.  They drove out their armored vehicles and parked them in the street.  They pointed their military-style rifles at protesters.  They threw tear gas.  They arrested protesters and journalists.  And, they fired their weapons at the citizens of the town they served.  And, though the rounds they fired were “non-lethal,” they were certainly still capable of injuring and intimidating the people who wanted nothing more than to show their grief and frustration to the world.

This parade of tragic errors, from arming the police like the army, to the economic and legal oppression of a community, to the murder of a young black man, to looting, to violent suppression of peaceful protest, has brought the city of Ferguson to where it is today.  The question is, what now?

Errors just like these have taken place all across the country, and each of them can be learned from.  We should be motivated to examine policies that have led to segregated towns and the oppression of minorities.  We should examine how we have armed our police and empowered them to use tools of war against their own communities.  We should examine how we respond to peaceful protest.  We can listen to the people of Ferguson and we can change our ways.  Mistakes have been made and tragedies have resulted, but these mistakes do not have to be repeated.  We can learn from them and we can be better.

This is Why People Don’t Like Cops

I have been fortunate enough to have had very few encounters with the police in my life.  I don’t think that I am any more well-behaved than most people, but I do have the societal advantages of white skin and growing up in the suburbs.  Many other people do not, and therefore their interactions with the police are far more numerous, and far more potentially dangerous.  And, based on what they have seen and experienced they have grown distrustful of cops.  After reading things like this, and after what I keep seeing on the news, I can’t say that I blame them.

Sunil Dutta, a LAPD officer, believes that there is an easy solution to police violence: just do whatever they tell you to do.  He says:

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

At least he concedes that most people don’t want to get tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground.  But, you know what else people don’t want?  They don’t want to get harassed by entitled police officers who abuse their power and disproportionately target minorities.

While it might be easy for Officer Dutta to suggest that the people he stop just do what he tells them, it is far more difficult for people to follow that suggestion when they are stopped repeatedly and for no reason.  If Dutta was stopped while walking down the street just because of the color of his skin, would he be so quick to comply?  How about the second time it happened, or the third?  How about if it happened all the time?  At what point is it okay to resist an unjust system?  At what point is it okay NOT to cooperate?  Even if a stop is “complete in minutes,” would he agree to be stripped of his dignity for that long?  Would he stand by and watch others suffer the same humiliation?

Dutta continues:

You don’t know what is in my mind when I stop you. Did I just get a radio call of a shooting moments ago? Am I looking for a murderer or an armed fugitive? For you, this might be a “simple” traffic stop, for me each traffic stop is a potentially dangerous encounter. Show some empathy for an officer’s safety concerns. Don’t make our job more difficult than it already is.

The officer would be wise to listen to his own advice.  He could stand to show some empathy himself.  He does not know what is in the mind of the person being stopped any more than they know what is in his.  Is this person a victim of a police force that abuses its power and targets certain segments of the community?  Is he marked as a suspect in that shooting or murder Dutta just got a call about simply because of his clothing or skin color?  Does he live in a world where no traffic stop is ever really “simple?”  Is he part of a community where the potential danger far too often is for the one who is stopped?  While Dutta’s job may truly be difficult, he is speaking to people whose entire lives are difficult, largely because of a society that wants them to just comply while it continues to abuse and humiliate them.

Dutta goes on:

Community members deserve courtesy, respect and professionalism from their officers. Every person stopped by a cop should feel safe instead of feeling that their wellbeing is in jeopardy. Shouldn’t the community members extend the same courtesy to their officers and project that the officer’s safety is not threatened by their actions?

What if the community members don’t receive the courtesy, respect and professionalism they deserve?  What if they don’t feel safe?  What if their well-being is in jeopardy?  Mike Brown’s certainly was.  And, I don’t think the bullets that killed him came with any courtesy or respect.

Communities have entrusted their police forces with certain powers.  But, regardless of what Officer Dutta seems to think, their responsibility is to the community.  They are public servants, trusted to protect the communities they work for.  And, yes, that sometimes means using force when necessary.  But, that does not mean they have license to use force whenever they want.  And, as citizens see their police forces behave like an occupying army, they get the urge to resist.  And, when the police are not held accountable for their misdeeds, that urge grows.  And, when they see one of their own shot down by the very people tasked with protecting them, they cry out.

Dutta addresses this use of force:

[C]ops are legally prohibited from using excessive force: The moment a suspect submits and stops resisting, the officers must cease use of force.

This is great, in theory, but reality shows that this is simply not true.  Mike Brown submitted.  He did not resist.  By all accounts, he had his hands raised in surrender.  He was shot and killed and left to lie in the street.  And, he is not alone.

Dutta says, “cops are not murderers.”  But, sometimes they are.  And, when nothing is done, it makes it that much easier for the next cop to shoot and kill the next unarmed black man walking down the street, and that much harder for people to just do what they are told.