Cops, politics, and race

I got pulled over by the police yesterday. I totally deserved it. In Utah, if you’re driving in the furthest right lane, and you see, on the right shoulder, a traffic stop, you are obligated to move over a lane, so as to not endanger a cop or fellow motorist. I didn’t know that was the law, but I had plenty of room to move over, and it’s a sensible thing to do, distance yourself from a potential problem. One of the many factors that make policing dangerous is the hazard posed by traffic. Anyway, my interaction with the officer was cordially non-confrontational. He let me go with a warning, which was nice of him, but if he had cited me, I did break the law, and had no grounds to be obnoxious about it. Patience and courtesy prevailed.

That has been the case every time I have interacted with police. It doesn’t happen often. I’ve gotten maybe 3 tickets in my life, plus been involved in perhaps 3 or 4 minor traffic accidents investigated by cops. I wouldn’t say things ever got confrontational or even adversarial. I’m treated politely–I’ve responded politely. But then, I’m white. I’m a middle-aged white guy. I’m very large, but still–I don’t seem to be ever perceived as any kind of threat.

That’s not true of Black people. In Tulsa Oklahoma, recently, an unarmed 40 year-old African-American motorist named Terence Crutcher was gunned down by a police officer as he stood, with his arms up, next to his car, which had broken down. The next day, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Keith Scott, a 43 year-old African American man, who suffered from a brain injury, was shot and killed by police outside his home. Scott’s family insists that he was sitting in the shade by his car, reading a book, waiting for his son to get home from school. A video shot by his wife has been released. It does not, however, answer the key question in the case. Was he armed? The family insists that he was not. The police have refused to release their video of the incident, which suggests, at least, that it wouldn’t appear exculpatory.

So, twice more. Two more incidents of Black men killed by the police. In the case of Crutcher, he was not armed. (Why, then, did a police helicopter observer declare that Crutcher was “a bad dude?” From the helicopter footage, the only thing you can see about Crutcher is that he was Black. Does that automatically make him “bad” in the eyes of the police). In the case of Scott, it’s uncertain whether he was armed or not.

In both cities, there were demonstrations, and in Charlotte, those demonstrations turned violent. Despite calls for peaceful protests from, among others, Black Lives Matter leaders, some folks responded by rioting. Sixteen police officers have been injured. Those riots seem now to have calmed down.

Still, the whole thing’s dreadful. And, of course, because this is America, it’s all gotten politicized. A young blonde woman named Tomi Lahren, who I literally had never heard of until this morning, has 60 million viewers on Facebook for rants like this one:

What an awful person. Meanwhile, Seattle Mariners’ back-up catcher Steve Clevenger enlightened us with his views on these shootings, posted on Twitter:

Black people beating whites when a thug got shot holding a gun by a black officer ha ha cracks me up. Keep kneeling for the anthem.

(Later) BLM is pathetic once again! Obama, you are pathetic once again! Everyone involved should be locked behind bars like animals.

Clevenger has been suspended by the Mariners organization for the rest of the season, without pay.

Meanwhile, on my personal Facebook page, Black Lives Matter was compared to the Ku Klux Klan, as part of an, uh, lively conversation on these matters. And President Obama was accused of ‘fanning the flames’ of racial unrest and strife.

All right. Let’s begin by trying to understand. The narrative on the Right would begin in an unexceptionable place; we should all respect police officers. We should recognize how dangerous and how essential their jobs are, and we should stand by their efforts to keep public order. I completely agree with all of that.

At the same time, we need to recognize that police make mistakes, like all humans, and when someone dies, there should be a reckoning. What infuriates people about these moments when unarmed people are killed, is that the officers in the case are rarely held accountable. The officer in the Tulsa case has been criminally charged, with manslaughter. That’s good. But far too often, no charges are even filed. And the relationship between police and prosecutors is hardly adversarial. It can feel awfully cozy, the way prosecutors present cases to grand juries, the way police shootings are investigated, the whole comfortable relationship between the various entities in the criminal justice system.

We’re talking about power, and who has it, and who wields it, and to what end. During the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s, police were the bad guys. Übervillain of the entire Birmingham protest was Bull Connor, chief of police. Police exist to preserve public order, but ‘public order’ is defined by the political power structure. Me, I’m very much in favor of public order; what scares me is anarchy. But I’m white. I’m automatically empowered. I’m generally seen as a ‘good guy’. I look like one. White privilege favors me. Even in situations, like yesterday, when I commit a minor traffic violation. Slap on the hand; don’t do it again.

I’m saying, in part, that ‘public order’ is often defined by the white power structure in ways that harm Black people. I’m saying that police officers have an exceptionally difficult job, and are deserving of our respect, and simultaneously that too many unarmed people seem to be dying. It’s possible to support police, and express concern about how well they’re trained. It’s possible to support the police, and still wonder about the degree to which racism remains part of police culture.

This is why Black Lives Matter is so very very important, and so right. Black people are not generally, routinely, automatically, presumptively thought of as mattering. With very few exceptions, African-Americans are NOT part of the power structure. My Black friends are, without exception, successful. They’re middle-class, educated, employed, good at their jobs. But when they’re pulled over by cops, they experience fear at a level that I can’t comprehend. They are, to at least some degree, Other, in a white society. And I am privileged, and know it. I don’t fear cops. People of color do, and for good reason.

That’s the insidious way in which racism works. And, yes, of course racism still exists, and still, in part, defines Black/White relationships. We’re not talking segregated rest rooms (though, incredibly, throughout much of the nation, we ARE still talking about segregated schools). We’re talking about how Black Americans get pulled over by traffic cops 31% more often than white drivers are. How New York City’s contemptible and unconstitutional ‘stop and frisk’ policing (which Mr. Trump wants to revive and extend), focused almost entirely on people of color. And the shocking fact that a significant number of Black drivers, pulled over by police, aren’t ever told why.

So when a Bill O’Reilly points to black-on-black crime statistics, or suggests that if ‘those people’ lived in more stable families things would be fine, putting the blame on African-Americans themselves, he just comes across as foolish and ignorant. Our country, in dealing with the issue of race, took shortcuts. We went from overt displays of racial prejudice to pretending that everything was swell, and that no one harbored those feelings anymore.  We didn’t evolve, but leapt, from ingrained systemic obvious racism to more subtle and quieter forms of it.

One problem, of course, is our nation’s failed war on drugs, which turns a public health problem into a criminal disaster. Another is educational apartheid, nearly 70 years after Brown v. Board. Another is mass incarceration. President Obama has made some small progress during his eight years in office. Now, with Trump, we’re seeing the backlash. But we have to solve this, especially since we’re increasingly becoming a multi-cultural society.

Our first and most obvious beginning requires that we listen to Black Lives Matter. Because they do.


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