How Can We Cure Our Chronic Illness of Police Murder?

The only thing new is our collective awareness of the problem. 

This week, two incidents of police violence are in the national spotlight.  The first, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, involved a man, Alton Sterling, selling CDs outside a gas station.  Two police officers threw the man violently against the hood of a car, forced him to the ground, pinned him in a prone position, and then shot him several times in the chest.  He died.

Across the country, in Minnesota, a man, Philando Castille, was pulled over for an allegedly busted tail light.  He had his girlfriend and a four-year-old in the car with him.  He told the officer that he had a (legal) firearm, but was going to retrieve his ID from his pocket.  The officer shot him several times in the arm and chest.  He died.

Both men were black.  All police involved were not.

This week’s tragedies are the latest installment in an ongoing narrative about police violence against black men.  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Dante Parker, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott. The list goes on.  Each time, there is outrage on social media, and the same tired choreography plays out in public: the authorities pledge to get to the bottom of things, usually in press conferences held by white leaders surrounding themselves with people of color.  Protesters chant and demand justice, remind us that black lives matter.  The right wing retorts that blue lives matter, or all lives matter.  There are investigations, sometimes charges are even brought, but more often they aren’t.  There are acquittals of those charged.  Rinse, repeat.

This parade of horribleness has been featured prominently in the culture these past few years, leading some- including me, at one time- to wonder: what’s changed?  Why is this happening now?

The sad truth is that nothing has changed.  This violence isn’t new.  What’s new is that we have become a society of camera-wielders.  We capture these deadly encounters.  Where a mere decade ago, Alton Sterling would be dismissed as another stupid criminal who pulled a gun on some cops and was killed, now we have evidence that directly, indisputably refutes the police account of his murder.  We have cell phone video from Minnesota, where we can see and hear the rabid, berserk police officer who had just killed Philando Castille, still inexplicably pointing his gun at the dying man and his girlfriend with a four year old child in the backseat.

The culture has changed.  People are aware, and with that awareness comes anger.  With that anger comes calls for accountability.  And as yet, there is no accountability.  Black teenagers are told that they must take great care not to provoke police, not to do anything that might be interpreted as threatening.  They get shot anyway.  Their very existence is perceived as a threat.  Police are not yet facing legal consequences.  Social consequences are ill-defined, trickier to employ.  George Zimmerman gained a following of idiots after shooting Trayvon Martin.  Society is sick.

I feel sick, watching this.  Sick, and helpless to make it right, or even to make it better.  Petitions and protests don’t seem to be working.  Spilled ink- or pixels, let’s update the metaphor- isn’t helping.  I’m a middle-class white male professional, full of privilege, and I can’t figure out how to leverage that privilege to stop this madness.  I want desperately to stand up and be counted as an ally, to affirm that black lives matter, but somehow my efforts seem at best futile, and at worst, appropriative of a movement and a mantle that isn’t mine to claim.

Thank you, Michael Heyliger, for your suggestion that would-be allies put pen to paper.  Expressing anger isn’t a solution, but it’s as good a first step as any.

-AG