Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ’em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ’em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.

 

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