While it’s a safe bet that most of us here in one of the whitest states in the nation don’t know much about the issue of police violence in the black community, that doesn’t keep us all from having opinions about the recent series of police killings and the nationwide protests they have sparked.
In Ferguson, Missouri, white Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. An odd grand jury process resulted in no charges. Kind of like “Rashomon,” a lot of people saw the same event and saw it differently. Perception is selective. We see (and think) according to our interests, needs, desires and fears.
It doesn’t seem surprising that the grand jury did not indict Wilson. It appears that Michael Brown had been using drugs, robbed a variety store, tried to disarm Wilson, resisted arrest and then, having been shot, turned and charged him. It also appears that Wilson was unfit for duty. Whether or not he was properly trained, he obviously lacked what it takes to be a law enforcement officer – courage and a cool head. If you can’t defend yourself without using deadly force, you probably shouldn’t go into law enforcement.
The case of the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police is a different story. To have a man gang-tackled by police for selling untaxed cigarettes and then placed in a chokehold is clearly an unjustified use of force. People across the political and ethnic spectrum were aghast that no charges were brought in Garner’s death.
In Cleveland, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot by police as he played with a toy gun in a public park. Police raced right up beside the boy in a cruiser, jumped out and shot him on the spot. If that’s standard police operating procedure, we’re all in deep, deep trouble.
Now we have had the tragic crime of a deranged man assassinating two New York City police officers in apparent retaliation for Garner’s death. While racism may underlie all these killings, it is also clear that mental illness and easy access to firearms aggravates the epidemic of violence in America.
These recent incidents have had a polarizing effect. Those who believe largely white police forces patrol black communities like occupying armies have taken to the streets. Those who believe the police are being unfairly attacked for doing a thankless job defend them no matter what.
Most of us have no street cred when it comes to the policing of black communities, but a few weeks ago I received an email from a friend with a link to a YouTube video that has become a favorite of conservative websites and blogs. The video, entitled “Will the Real Black Americans Please Stand Up,” features a young black man scolding “my Black people” and urging them to “take some personal responsi-damn-bility.” The young man is identified as Charles R. Patrick Furguson, although I suspect “Furguson” may just be a misspelling of “Ferguson.”
Furguson faults African-Americans for blaming their fates on slavery and racism.
“In 2014, if your life is messed up, take a look in the mirror, figure out what you’re doing, what you’re not doing,” he inveighs. “Take some personal responsi-damn-bility for your life.”
It’s easy to find yourself agreeing with his “common-sense” approach to black problems.
“Ain’t no rich white man sneaking into the hood at night spray-painting graffiti and peeing in the hallway,” Furguson says. “… If your neighborhood is messed up, it’s because people in the neighborhood keep messing it up.”
Furguson lost me, however, when he started blaming the victims, arguing that police target black youth because black youth invite law enforcement attention by using drugs, joining gangs and committing crimes.
“You want the cops to stop messing with you,” he insists, “stop giving them a reason to.”
The e-mail came with the subject line “Best speech ever by a black person: nothing but the truth!!,” but I ended up wondering who had paid young Mr. Furguson to condemn the black community. The video legitimizes every prejudice a privileged white man ever held about black people, and it’s guilt-free because it’s a young black man in a San Francisco 49ers cap espousing their views.
The worst thing about the Furguson video is that it excuses police violence as the inevitable result of policing a black criminal class. Most black people are law-abiding citizens, just as most police officers are well-meaning public defenders.
There are no easy answers to the cultural crisis of violence by and against police officers, but violence is rarely justified and even more rarely effective. Just as the Senate report on CIA torture concluded that “enhanced interrogation” produced little useful intelligence and a lot of new enemies for the U.S., every time a police officer uses deadly force unnecessarily, America becomes less free and less safe.