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Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Eric Garner, Michael Brown and The Rest: "The Divide" In Action

With the rulings in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and the protests that have followed, it seems like a natural time to open a discussion on police tactics and race, but I want to approach it from an angle that looks at the vast differences in how certain demographics deal with police, but most importantly how the police deal with them.

What gets lost in incidents like Ferguson, like Eric Garner and etc, is the difference between being white and middle class and being black and poor when it comes to interactions with law enforcement. And sometimes the black part is enough to make a huge difference, even when the person in question isn’t poor. Don’t believe me? Let Bunk from The Wire (otherwise known as actor Wendell Pierce) tell you a thing or two about this disparity.  Most whites simply do not live in the world he describes, and the divide is significant.

This flies over the heads of many whites from middle class backgrounds, and I include myself in this list (once upon a time anyway).  Whites are used to Officer Friendly who says things to them like “How are you today, sir?” and “Can I be of any assistance?” whereas the average black urban youth from the “rough side” of town has probably been asked where they're coming from, where they're going, why they're at a particular building and the like more times than they can count. Officer Friendly and Officer Inner City tend to dress differently also. Typically you aren’t arrested for the crime of standing in front of your own house after a long shift at work in a predominantly white suburb, but that totally happens in the inner city.  It's no wonder that the mantra is often "don't talk to cops" in the inner cities, with trust being at all-time lows on both sides for decades and decades now in many places.  How can you expect any cop and any average resident in one of these areas to have anything but a testy exchange with one another when they meet on the streets for some reason?  This doesn't happen only because the suspect is hiding something or resisting arrest.  Sometimes it happens because the person knows a particular cop is always busting heads in his neighborhood, whether the busted heads were actually guilty of something or not.  If you're white and middle class or above, have you ever had an interaction with a cop at a routine traffic stop like Wendell describes above?

It is for this reason that whites from middle class backgrounds who haven’t had to grow up fearing police cannot comprehend why someone might be combative, defiant, agitated, or somewhat resistant when a cop comes along and starts firing questions at them. They can’t understand why the person doesn’t just immediately comply with every order the cop gives, the nanosecond he gives it. Surely the cop just wants to sort out the truth, and surely he’s not just trying to bust heads and pad stats for the commissioner downtown or anything right? Just do what the cop says! And you won’t get killed! It’s warped logic that just doesn’t compute on inner city streets, and while I’m not exactly advocating a “fuck tha police” stance like NWA suggested some years back, I am asserting that these interactions that make news, like Eric Garner for example, are not nearly as clear cut as the media makes them out to be. And frequently middle class whites lack the context for these interactions gone wrong. The fault surely must be squarely on the guy that died for getting killed. In their view there simply is no other explanation. To suggest otherwise is severely contradicting everything they’ve been raised to believe about authority and police power.

"Why don't they just..." is usually a phrase that starts off a comment that makes me, the one who has a tendency to notice and has researched cases of police abuse in the news, just cringe inside from the sheer ignorance I am about to absorb.  Probably the most disturbing part of this is the assumption that at any time, and for whatever reason a cop deems appropriate regardless of law or departmental policy, someone can be summarily executed on the streets without trial or representation.  I suppose this complacency is akin to how most Americans are OK with us using drones to execute people, including American citizens, in faraway countries without trial and most times without solid evidence aside from flimsy-sounding "intelligence" that indicated the person may be an "imminent threat."  That idea, of you being the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, being seen with the wrong people, or stepping out of line in any way or even so much as seeming like you're anything less than Joe Good Citizen and thus deserving of execution meted out by police on the streets, is probably the most destructive thing about how American society functions today.  Let me be clear: if someone goes for a cop's gun, if someone places a cop under an actual imminent threat of death, the cop has a right to defend themselves.  But having said that, the definition of what is and is not an imminent threat on a cop's life has certainly broadened in the last decade or so, and to my eyes it seems like the policy now is "shoot now, ask questions later."  Ask yourself, can a cop determine within only a few seconds of arriving on scene that a 12 year old child is a threat to his own safety, even though he is twice the kid's size?  Even if he has a partner with him?  Judge for yourself.  What if I also told you this cop didn't exactly have the best judgment in the world?  What do you think now?

Tamir Rice "shouldn't have been pointing his fake gun everywhere."  I challenge you to tell me how many kids you think have ever wandered aimlessly around a city park during a boring day pointing fake guns at stuff and making believe they're some badass.  And I've heard people tell me it's a black thug thing, too.  Hell, I did these things as a 12 year old before, and I'm as white as you can get without going albino.  Should I have been rolled up on and shot within seconds by a "distracted," "weepy" cop who "couldn't communicate clear thoughts?"  Is someone's interpretation of a child pointing a fake gun at inanimate objects as some sort of thug pantomime enough to warrant that child's life being snuffed out on the spot?  Really?  Seriously?  Please help me to understand, America.  Do black lives matter?  Hard to say they do right now.

Michael Brown at least had a thug element to it, with the cigar theft and some of the witness testimony.  It was handled poorly, but a portion of blame does rest with him, I have to admit.  But I believe the cop got off with one there too, and he's lucky for that.  And thankfully he's forcibly retired from the streets now, so unless he goes Zimmerman on someone we should be safe from his trigger happiness from here on.  But what about the cops who killed these guys?  Or these?  Read the stories.  Did those people (some of them children) all deserve to die for what they did?  Did Eric Garner really deserve this for essentially dodging stupid state tax laws?  Did Luis Rodriguez really deserve to be beaten to death because his wife slapped his daughter in a moment of anger?  Or have we maybe become just a tad too OK with cops going from talking to someone to killing them within seconds as if there was no other choice?  Are we going to have a talk about police practices in this country that truly gets at the heart of the matter or will this be like Sandy Hook starting an entire nationwide pissing match over guns and numbers of rounds in clips while the whole discussion of how we ignore mental health care in this country sits around undiscussed?  Meaning that in the end nothing changes, and we go on with business as usual?

We imprison way too many people.  But we're also killing too many people, and at some point the police actually need to be held to the higher standard they supposedly uphold.  It's a nice platitude, but in practice it always seems to fall on the dead guy to do all he can to not be killed, not on the cop who pulls the trigger or wields the club.  Time was you only shot someone when you had no choice.  Now according to the masses you can cross some arbitrary line of etiquette and lose your own right to live.  But I am taking a stand now and saying no, and I think alongside the demands for body cameras, we ought to start asking for cops to actually live up to the mantra to serve and protect, and demand independent accountability to make sure they are.  Far be it for me to say I have all the answers here, but we should at least have the conversation.  If not now, when?  How many more need to die?

--Joe

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