If you learned anything from Ferguson, how are you planning to hang on to it?
Remember the days right after the Newtown Massacre? For a week, maybe two, it seemed like the country had finally woken up and nothing would ever be the same. Twenty innocent children were dead, along with six adults who tried to protect them. And it was our fault. Mass shootings had been happening more and more often for years, and — unlike Australia, which had the same problem and solved it — we’d done nothing. But now that was all going to change.
It didn’t. Within months, all the vested interests that benefit from our crazy lack of gun laws had re-asserted themselves, and nothing happened. Or rather, things continued getting worse, with the momentum still on the side of the guns-everywhere movement. Instead of trying to get rid of assault rifles (or at least keep them away from the mentally ill), we’re debating whether or not you can hang one over your shoulder while you shop for Oreos. (The ad to the right is a parody, but the picture is genuine.)
So now we’ve had Ferguson, another national trauma that has mesmerized the media and caused a number of people to see the light on some important issues. Maybe someday we’ll look back and see the Michael Brown shooting and the ensuing protests as a tipping point, a moment when things started to turn around. Or maybe we have just briefly tossed in our sleep and will soon settle back down.
In part, that decision is up to all of us. Will we let the things we’ve learned these last few weeks slip away like the trig identities we crammed into our heads for the big math test? Or will we hang on to our new understandings and not settle back into the same old conversations? Will we demand that our news sources and our political representatives recognize these realities? Or not?
The first step in hanging on to new knowledge is spelling it out clearly. Here’s my attempt to isolate five simple Ferguson lessons that we shouldn’t forget or let the country forget. I admit they’re not rocket science. If they were, we’d already be forgetting them.
1. Police mistreat black people. It’s not a fantasy created by “the grievance industry” and it’s not a few isolated incidents caused by a handful of bad apples, it’s a pattern.
Some parts of the national media have finally started covering it like a pattern, and drawing attention to incidents that by themselves wouldn’t usually get national attention. Just this week I ran across the following stories.
- New information the John Crawford shooting came out. On August 5, a 22-year-old black man was killed by police in a WalMart in Ohio because he was carrying an air rifle that he had picked up from a shelf. We had already heard from his girl friend, who was talking to him on the phone as he was being shot. Tuesday, we heard that the shooting was captured on WalMart’s surveillance video. It has not been released (though information favorable to the police has been), but Crawford’s parents and their attorney have been allowed to see it. The attorney said that Crawford was facing away from officers when they killed him, and that “John was doing nothing wrong in Walmart, nothing more, nothing less than shopping.” One of the officers involved in the shooting is back on the job. (A fake news site’s story of a second WalMart shooting got taken seriously by a number of people, but didn’t actually happen.)
- Chris Lollie was arrested and tased by police in St. Paul while he was waiting for his kids to get out of school. He was trying to walk away from police when they got violent with him. The incident was recorded on his cellphone when it happened in January, but only became public recently after charges against Lollie were dropped and he got his phone back. St. Paul police have defended their officers’ actions, which is hard to imagine as I watch the tape.
- Kametra Barbour and her four young children were pulled over in Texas, even though their car was a different color than the one police received a complaint about. The police dashcam video shows the terrified woman being forced at gunpoint to walk backwards towards the police cruiser, protesting all the while that they’re making her leave her frightened children alone in the car. The confrontation doesn’t end until her 6-year-old son also gets out of the car and walks toward police with his hands up. (What if he’d come out some other way?) “Do they look young to you?” one officer finally asks the other.
- A week and a half ago TV producer Charles Belk was walking back to his car from a Beverly Hills restaurant when his evening took a bad turn. “I was wrongly arrested, locked up, denied a phone call, denied explanation of charges against me, denied ever being read my rights, denied being able to speak to my lawyer for a lengthy time, and denied being told that my car had been impounded…..All because I was mis-indentified as the wrong ‘tall, bald head, black male,’ … ‘fitting the description.’ ” It was six hours before his lawyer convinced police to watch the surveillance video and recognize that the bank robber’s accomplice was obviously not Belk. According to his lawyer (as summarized by ThinkProgress) “many other individuals who found themselves in Belk’s situation without his resources would likely have been detained at least until Monday”.
- Rev. Madison T. Shockley II published similar stories from his own life, his father’s, and his son’s. “I fit the description. I was a black man.”
What makes these stories hit home is that they’re not about purse-snatchers who got roughed up a little too much. They’re about people who did nothing and suffered for it.
I know blacks must look at this lesson and say, “Well, duh.” But for the most part, whites — and the media that caters to whites — have refused to take it seriously until these last few weeks. Many of us came to a similar insight after Trayvon Martin, and then backslid into denial. Let’s not do it again.
2. Police kill a lot of people in America. Responding to the racism charge, some conservatives put forward a bizarre police-kill-white-people-too case centered on the shooting of Dillon Taylor in Salt Lake City — as if that should make everybody more sanguine about Michael Brown or John Crawford. But if white deaths are what it takes to get a certain segment of the public excited about police violence, then let’s publicize them. Because whether you break things down by race or not, there’s a problem.
You can say policing is a tough, dangerous job — and it is. But somehow police in other countries manage to do that job without killing nearly so many people. No government agency totals the exact number — it’s like we don’t really want to know — but various available statistics point to around 400 police killings a year in the United States. Here’s how that stacks up internationally.
If you want some real contrast, look at Iceland, where last December police shot and killed someone for the first time in the country’s history. Admittedly, Iceland is a thousand times smaller than the U.S., but even so, at our rate you’d expect Icelandic police to shoot someone dead every two or three years, rather than once since World War II.
3. We need better ways to hold police accountable. One inescapable feature of the Michael Brown investigation is that the Ferguson police are an interested party, and are not simply seeking to bring the truth to light. (For example, the only detail they were willing to release from Brown’s autopsy was that he tested positive for marijuana. And they released a video that they claimed was Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store, but not an incident report on his death.) It’s crazy to believe that they — or a prosecutor who works hand-in-glove with them every day — will investigate Brown’s death fairly and see that justice is done.
And yet, that is the standard situation whenever a citizen feels mistreated: Police will investigate themselves and find that whatever they did was justified. After police killed his white son, Michael Bell did the research:
In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.
Police will also control — and distort — the flow of official information to the media. Reporters, in turn, depend on police leaks for their scoops, so they are often active participants in smearing victims. (It’s the same pattern we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq War, when reporters whose careers depended on their relationships with Bush administration sources published whatever they were told as if it were fact.)
Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel (whose interview with Chris Hayes starts around the 14-minute mark) suggests a common-sense reform:
There should be a civilian review board in Ferguson and in every city in America. And what that means is that you can’t allow the police to investigate the police. You have to have independent civilians looking at the complaint. We need a permanent special prosecutor for police misconduct so we can finally get accountability.
In April, Wisconsin passed a law requiring an outside investigation whenever someone dies in police custody. Every state should follow.
There has been some limited accountability for the most outrageous police behavior during the Ferguson protests. Dan Page, the frighteningly paranoid St. Louis officer I described last week, has been allowed to retire; he’ll get full pension and benefits, but at least he’s not wearing a badge any more. Ray (“I will fucking kill you”) Albers was forced to resign. Matthew (“These protesters should be put down like a rabid dog the first night”) Pappert was fired. Chris Hayes asks the right follow-up question:
The national media came to one (in some ways) random metro area suburb, St. Louis Country, with a hundred cameras for two weeks. And you’ve got at least four police officers essentially caught on camera doing really awful things, and a bunch more unnamed. It was almost a random audit. And the thing I can’t help thinking is “OK. There’s two ways to interpret this. Is this area particularly bad in terms of the quotient of police officers who act like this? Or is this just normal, and we just happened to have the cameras pointed there?”
What if we put the cameras right on the police? Events in Ferguson have added momentum to the notion that all police cars should have dash-cams and all officers should wear cameras on their uniforms. Private sources have donated enough body cameras for every Ferguson officer to wear one. Let’s see if they do.
4. White privilege is real. Stephen Colbert advised the Ferguson protesters to learn from Cliven Bundy and his friends in the militia movement.
By the way, black people, why can’t you be more like these guys? They were armed, and they dared the cops to shot them, and nothing happened. Just figure out whatever was different about them, and you’ll be fine.
But being treated with more respect by police is just one aspect of white privilege, which affects everything from hailing a cab to whether your resume will get you an interview. Pre-Ferguson, most whites reacted to talk about white privilege as if it were just an Ivy League way to call them racists or tell them to STFU.
But recently more whites have started to get it and explain it to others. One of the most approachable explanations is in “What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege” posted by Pastor Jeremy Dowsett on his blog A Little More Sauce. Dowsett, who is white but has non-white children, compared being black in America to his own experience riding a bicycle on the busy streets of Lansing.
[Bike riders] have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.
Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.
And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car.
Similarly, our laws promise racial equality and not all whites are racists, but our society was built with whites in mind. Systems that seem perfectly natural and transparent if you’re white are problematic if you’re not.
Elaborating on Dowsett’s metaphor from my biking perspective: I can’t count how many times I’ve nearly fallen off a no-shoulder country road because car drivers have no idea how loud a “light” beep of the horn sounds to someone not enclosed in a glass-and-metal bubble. (Apparently they worry that their internal-combustion engine might “sneak up” on me because it seems so quiet to them.) Keep that in mind the next time you offer a “reasonable” criticism of the black experience.
Jon Stewart’s epic response to conservative fury that blacks “make everything about race” is worth watching from the beginning, but it came down to this:
Race is there, and it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how f*cking exhausting it is living it.
How are we whites going to keep this increased consciousness of privilege from fading away? Christian Lander, who writes the blog Stuff White People Like, suggests making it the next ice-bucket challenge. He observes that what whites really need to raise their awareness of (far more than any deadly disease) is what it’s like to be a black teen. So he proposes the BT Challenge: Video yourself doing something that is dangerous for a black teen — like, say, walking to the convenience store for Skittles — and post it on social media.
5. We need to de-militarize our society. Americans from coast to coast were repulsed and alarmed by the images of mine-resistant military vehicles roaming American streets with camo-clad police snipers perched on top of them. It was way beyond ironic that equipment created to defend an occupying army in a guerrilla war was being deployed against American citizens protesting excessive force from police.
The militarization of police has been roundly denounced — most effectively by John Oliver — and it deserved every word of that denunciation.
That public outcry has even started to have some effect. Anchorage police have rescinded their request for military vehicles. Claire McCaskill will be chairing Senate hearings on police militarization.
But while MRAPs are obviously over the top, Ladd Everitt from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence told Business Insider that some advanced weaponry is justified by the level of armament police might face (from someone other than mostly non-violent protesters).
“We see this as a product of the continuing arms race between law enforcement and civilians that has been going on for decades.” Everitt said the increasingly sophisticated weaponry being sold to U.S. civilians is forcing police to keep up, with both sides purchasing ever more powerful weapons. The arms race means “police officers have legitimate fears about the nature of the firepower they are confronting on a daily basis,” he said.
So the problem isn’t just the militarization of American police, it’s the militarization of American society.
That puts a different spin on the gap in police killings between the U.S. and every other first-world nation. American police are on a hair trigger because, in a country with over 300 million firearms, the possibility that a suspect might start shooting at them is never far from their minds. Over the course of a long career, it just doesn’t seem safe to take the more laid-back approach of a German or English policeman.
Bear that in mind the next time the NRA frames guns-everywhere as purely a question of personal rights. No matter how responsible and well-intentioned that gun-toting Oreo shopper might be, his presence raises the temperature in the room. All of us — and especially police — have to shorten our response times, given how fast a situation can turn deadly. So whether I choose to carry a gun or not, that raised room temperature might get me killed someday.
And that brings me full circle, back to gun control. Remember Newtown?