Notes from Vacation


When I’m on vacation I avoid doing much writing. It’s time for me to recharge my batteries and explore some new ideas and new directions. Normally, this is not a problem. This last couple of weeks, however, have been a big problem. Lots has gone on that I really want to elaborate on, but the personal costs would have been too high. So I held off, promising myself to do a brief overview of some of the things going through my head during the time I was away from my keyboard. The following is a start. As my readers know, “brief” does not always come easily, so I kept it down to less than 2000 words. 

I was completely away from news coverage when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered by police officers. When I actually heard about the incident it was in the context of an already existing #blacklivesmatter protest. In this case, the only surprising news was that both men appeared to be armed. Neither men, however, were using their weapons in a threatening manner. Philando Castile was reportedly reaching for his identification when he was murdered by a police officer. This kind of deadly over-reaction on the part of the police has a long history, coming to the public attention after the death of Amidou Diallo for reaching for his threatening wallet. Alton Sterling had two officers kneeling on his chest when he was murdered. The alleged weapon was removed from his pocket. Remember, it is not illegal for black people to carry guns…yet.

A couple of things come to mind here. As Americans, we are all encouraged to arm ourselves. We are imbued with the fear that there are bad-guys behind every corner waiting to get us, and if we are not armed to defend ourselves, then we are just setting ourselves up to be victims. Get a Gun! Get a Gun! Get a Gun! The data on this contradicts the rhetoric. Violent crime is down, most people are just trying to get through the day as best as they can and are certainly no threat to you. Even if they were a threat, there’s no evidence that having a gun in your pocket is any protection. It was certainly no defense for Castile and Sterling against trigger happy police.

In fact, as I’ve noted in an earlier post on the subject, the Good-Guy/Bad-Guy paradigm does not describe American gun violence. A better description would be a Guy Reacting to Fear and Anger Shooting Someone From a Blind Rage paradigm. Bad guys aren’t lurking in the shadows ready to shoot. Instead, two people get into a conflict, one person pulls out his gun and shoots. It’s a simple algorithm: conflict + gun = tragedy. This is true for civilians and, there’s no reason to believe it is less true for police officers. Fear, very much influenced by racial prejudice, perhaps resulting from a conflict cycle between cop and suspect, ends in tragedy when said cop pulls a gun and resolves the conflict.

police shooting by raceThat race is a factor is beyond debate. African American males, especially teenagers are perceived as being particularly threatening and are, therefore, more subject to police violence. I would offer that they are also more likely to be involved in conflict cycles with police than their white peers as black males perceive police as potential threats to their well being. Having spent much of my career dealing with conflicts cycles, it is my belief that the party with the most power, in this case the police officer holding the gun as well as the legitimacy of the state, is responsible for ending the conflict in a way that is just.

That death may be the result of complicated interpersonal conflicts rather than simple Good-Guy/Bad-Guy dynamics, however, does not absolve the perpetrator from responsibility. In our society, killing someone requires some kind of accounting to justice including imprisonment. That the killer is an otherwise good person may be relevant in deciding upon a sanction, but does not constitute absolution for the crime of murder. That is unless the murderer is a cop and the victim is a black male…especially an armed black male. So it was no surprise to hear the excuses fly.

Source: New York Times

The most wrenching justification given was and remains, “if (fill in victim’s name here) had only done what he was told, he wouldn’t have been shot.” Well, that may not be true for Philando Castile who was reportedly reaching for his ID at the officer’s command. Regardless, this rationale is probably the most dangerous for a democratic society. If you don’t want to be killed, comply with the police. If you do not comply…die. This is not something that is said in democratic society. This is the standard for a police state. Disobedience is not a justification for police murder.

Look, the police have two legitimate reasons for shooting a suspect. First, if that suspect is a perceived threat to the officer or to a civilian in the immediate area. Second, if the officer perceives that allowing the suspect to escape would constitute an immediate danger to community. Of the names in the box above, how many suspects fit that description? Ah, but the operative word is “perceived.” And that is the problem. Perceived is the reason why police rarely face significant sanction in the event that they murder someone…again, especially when that someone is black.

“Perceived” is the reason we have…and desperately need…Black Lives Matter. In a society in which racism is imbued in our history, incorporated into our institutions and woven into our identities, Black Lives are “perceived” as being more threatening than are white lives. That’s why Black Lives Matter. That’s why counterclaims like “All Lives Matter” make little sense. If “ALL” lives truly mattered then there would be no reason for an organization like Black Lives Matter. “All lives matter” is a good concept, a laudable ideal, but not a lived reality in the United States.

Then Dallas happened. I had not yet processed the information from the Sterling and Castile shootings when I heard about a shooter (possibly two) targeting and killing police officers in Dallas. No surprises here as any sociologist can predict that violence perpetrated by one party is likely to inspire violence against that party. This is especially true in a society in which we are all encouraged to be armed and to act violently against “perceived” Bad-Guys. Some idiot is sure to take it upon himself to take this as a license to seek retribution against anyone in blue. This isn’t a justification. It’s an observation.

Equally unsurprising was the near unanimous attempt by the media to pin this shooting on Black Lives Matter if only to ponder “did Black Lives Matter inspire the Dallas shooter?” It’s impossible to know for sure, but a person seeking to do violence may be inspired by anything otherwise innocuous. But there is a clear intent to drop the blame for Dallas in the lap of movement participants. After all, if the actions of a few police officers represent the whole police force, then why should the actions of a gunman citing Black Lives Matter not reflect the movement?

The answer is simple. We know that racism is instituted in our law enforcement institutions. We know that state sanctioned murders of black males are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the victimization of black communities at the hands of police departments all over the country. The same is not true of Black Lives Matter, which has a clear and demonstrated peaceful mission.

Let’s do a thought experiment to prove the point. Had the Dallas shooter been caught, what would have happened to him? Most likely he would have stood trial, been convicted of five counts of murder plus who knows how many counts of assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, etc. In Texas, he almost certainly would have found himself on death row. Compare this to the consequences that police officers face for shooting black male suspects to death. There it is. That’s the point Black Lives Matter is trying to make.

(One parenthetical aside on the Dallas Shooting. Whereas it is impossible to feel sorry for the shooter, the fact that he was, in essence, taken out by a killer robot should give us pause.)

So then the question remains, how do we bridge the gap between Black Lives and Blue Lives in a nation where All Lives SHOULD Matter, but clearly don’t? What are the solutions?

  • Racism must be addressed in the police departments and the court system with special training for officers and officials to understand their own racial biases–and yes, we all have them, black, white or mixed. Racism is imbued in the system and can only be mitigated by introspection.
  • Communities must be stabilized: Poverty must be mitigated by state or federal jobs programs, incentives for investment, publicly financed health care, education, housing. Nothing breeds violence and resentment quite like desperation.
  • The war on drugs must end because war destroys communities more than does drugs!
  • Community policing. The police should, as much as possible, be recruited and hired from the communities they are patrolling. Patrols should be consistent and every effort should be made by police to actively engage members of the communities that they serve. We are more likely to be violent toward those whom we fear, police or civilian. We are more likely to fear those whom we do not know.

    This is madness! 
  • Related, militarized police forces must be dismantled or severely curtailed. The kind of firepower currently on display at peaceful protests is becoming increasingly nauseating to anyone who respects democracy and loathes fascism.
  • Guns must be addressed. It’s way too easy to get and to use a gun to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Owning a gun should be a commitment including more than some training at target shooting. Guns should be registered, owners should be licensed and that licensing should include in-depth and ongoing training on how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Background checks should be conducted on all sales, including criminal and mental health. The killing capacity of guns should be determined and those capable of higher levels of destruction should be subject to more acute restrictions. Smart technology that makes guns safer, more difficult to steal or easier to locate should be mandated when viable versions are marketable. Specialized ammunition like “cop killers” should be banned. We have a right to bear “arms,” but guns are only one such technology.

Also to be added to the list, but elaborated, is the role of what I call Democratic Surveillance. Another term would be the right to bear cameras. This is a much more powerful tool in the arsenal of democracy than is any gun. The cell phone camera has made this movement possible and very real reforms are being put into place that will certainly improve the lives of millions of people, police officers and civilians alike. This should be encouraged and protected.

However, you can almost guarantee that it won’t be. Democratic surveillance is a huge threat to the power elite that is no longer to be taken lightly. Already, there are attempts to restrict this powerful tool at the state level. Last week, Apple patented technology that would allow outside agents to disable personal cell phone cameras. This technology is being justified as protecting copyright such as live performances, but the ramifications are clear for a growing police state.

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