The non-indictment of police officers involved in the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island have led to protests all over the country in support of the murdered men. The narrative of the protesters and those supporting them is that the police unfairly target African-American men, treat them more harshly than whites for similar infractions (which is a documented fact), and that the police are not punished when they murder unarmed black men.
“And fuck the popo because that 39% tax I pay
Don’t get me nuthin’ but a choke hold and some pepper spray”
– E-40, “It’s All Bad”
The argument in support of the police officers, which has been taken up by the more conservative elements in this country, has been that both Garner and Brown were crooks who were aggressive with police, that police interact more with African-Americans because they commit more crimes, and that blacks should really be more concerned with black-on-black homicides, since a young black man is far more likely to be murdered by another young black man than by a police officer.
The conservative reaction is interesting and infuriating on a few levels. For one thing, it’s interesting that a group that positions itself as being against government oppression would be in support of the government literally getting away with murder. At the very least, as a citizen it should concern you when law enforcement is able to kill an unarmed man in unclear circumstances (or in the case of Mr. Garner, all too clear), and get away without so much as an indictment. The only reason why Michael Brown’s murder was even investigated by a grand jury is because citizens made a stink about it. If it hadn’t become a national issue, nothing would have happened at all beyond the Browns having to go on with life without their son.
“Fucking with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinking every nigga is sellin narcotics”
– N.W.A., “Fuck Tha Police”
There’s also this idea that the problem in both cases is that the suspects did not cooperate with police. In the video of Eric Garner it’s not clear to me that he was aggressively resisting, and the reaction to what resistance he did offer would have been overboard even if it hadn’t killed him. Michael Brown’s alleged reaction does sound unfortunate and not the best call. Giving lip to a police officer is never a good idea, much less getting physical with one. But even if we concede that both men’s reaction to the police were overly aggressive and out of line (which I’m not saying is true), the outcome should not have been death. You don’t get the death penalty for assaulting a police officer, shoplifting, or selling contraband cigarettes. Telling black men in the wake of this that the lesson they should learn is to be nice to cops is like telling a rape victim not to wear such revealing clothes or accept drinks from strangers next time she’s goes out. It’s focusing on the victim’s behavior, as if the resulting act is inevitable and excusable. I can accept that if you pull a weapon on an officer of the law (or anyone for that matter), you should expect that they might react with lethal force. But getting mouthy with a cop should in no way be a death sentence, and we as a society cannot accept as much.
“Now tell me who protects me from you?”
– Jay Dilla “Fuck the Police”
Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room: black criminality. Conservative rocker Ted Nugent had a Facebook post in the wake of the Ferguson decision in which he said, among other things, “When a cop tells you to get out of the middle of the street, obey him & don’t attack him as brainwashed by the gangsta a**holes you hang with & look up to….And don’t claim that “black lives matter” when you ignore the millions you abort & slaughter each & every day by other blacks. Those of us with a soul do indeed believe black lives matter, as all lives matter. So quit killin each other you f**kin idiots.”
I normally wouldn’t take anything Nugent says seriously since, like Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, his whole schtick is more or less troll baiting liberals (or in this case, anyone with half a shred of decency). But since 517,000 people liked that post, I think it is worth addressing.
Nugent is right on one count: blacks are much more likely to be killed by another black than by a police officer. (Whites are also more likely to be killed by other whites, for that matter.) Blacks are also more likely to be killed by heart disease than by a police officer. We don’t have to solve every other problem African-Americans have in order to address police violence. And all 44 million African-Americans in this country don’t have to be perfect before they can complain. More importantly, there is a difference between crimes committed by criminals and crimes committed and condoned by the system. I keep seeing people post things on social media asking why blacks aren’t marching to protest (white) people killed by (black) muggers. The answer is simple: because the mugging victim’s death wasn’t caused and condoned by members of the system. I saw a sign at one of the Ferguson protests that summed this up perfectly. It said “We aren’t mad because the system failed, we are mad because the system worked.”
“This fucking city
Overrun by pigs
Their taking the rights away
From all us kids
Understand, we’re fighting a war we can’t win
They hate us, we hate them
We can’t win”
– Black Flag, “Police Story”
High rates of black criminality does something to explain the disproportionate amount of contact African-Americans have with police, in regards to other ethnicities. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the majority of high-crime areas are largely African-American. They are also the poorest areas, but class is an issue we don’t talk about in the U.S., unless it is to label the poor “takers.” Unfortunately, it seems that in the eyes of some police departments, the fact that some young black men are involved in crime has led to treating all of them as criminals.
Nugent’s phrase “don’t claim that ‘black lives matter’ when you ignore the millions you abort & slaughter each & every day by other blacks” is instructive in its use of “you.” He doesn’t realize it, but Nugent is proving one of the main points of a lot of the protesters. He’s condensing 44 million African-Americans into one person, one “you,” and making them all responsible for one another’s actions. He’s saying in my eyes, you are all the same, and I don’t differentiate between a vicious criminal, a young kid, a petty thief, a blue-collar father, a security guard, a white collar worker, a CEO, or the President of the United States of America.
There’s a Twitter hashtag #alivewhileblack that collects stories by African-Americans of uncomfortable interactions they’ve had with the police where they were treated like criminals whether or not they were doing anything wrong. Those stories echo what I’ve heard from my friends and colleagues of color. African-Americans are treated as suspects from the minute they enter the system. They are suspended from school at higher rates than their white classmates. They are stopped more frequently, arrested more frequently, and get longer jail terms than whites. From the cradle to the grave they are treated as defacto violent criminals.
What’s frustrating to me about this focus on black criminality is how the fact that Michael Brown and Eric Garner may have been involved in something criminal means, to many Americans, that they deserve what they got. Even if you think that both men were being aggressive, shouldn’t the fact that they were killed during a routine police interaction raise some serious questions about how law enforcement are interacting with African-Americans in those communities? At the very least, from a management perspective, the police force in Ferguson and New York City should be questioning why the public they are serving has so much distrust and hostility towards them that questioning someone for a shoplifting or selling illegal cigarettes ends in an officer killing someone. Having someone’s son, husband, or father lying dead shouldn’t just be chalked up as the price we pay to be “safe.”
Even as a white guy who can’t relate to the feelings these two verdicts have raised personally, I still felt deeply saddened by both of them. Because I can only imagine what it is like. Because Killer Mike was crying on stage about how scared he was for his two sons’ lives. And because I know how deeply embedded the fear of black people, and especially black men, is in our culture. Fear of black men is what sells car alarms, security systems, and a lot of the firearms that are sold today. It is why parents in cities send their children to private schools. It is why we choose the neighborhoods we live in and the neighborhoods we don’t visit.
The weekly murders of young men of color in cities like Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco are barely make the local news unless it is a young child or a so-called “good kid,” one who did well in school, played football, and thought about going to college. Otherwise we, as a society, assume that they have it coming, that is something that doesn’t involve the rest of us, that their lives don’t matter. We write them off as thugs, gangsters, or crooks. If there is any good to come out of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Kendrec McDade, Patrick Dorismond, Tamir Rice, and the many other unarmed men who have been killed by law enforcement, it is to bring to question how the police use force, the unequal treatment of African-Americans by police, and remind people that these men’s lives mattered.