I have been as appalled as anyone by the events in Ferguson, Missouri–from the killing that precipitated it, through the (literally) jack-booted thuggery of the local bureaucracy’s bumbling, violent attempts to suppress the inevitable reactions, the stumbling efforts to hide their conduct from the media, to the equally inept machinations to spin the story into a tale of a valiant public servant defending himself against a “Negro Super Criminal.”
What surprises me most was that people were surprised this happened, when just a few weeks earlier NYPD officers made national news strangling a man to death in the street for allegedly selling a single, unlicensed cigarette. These encounters have become ubiquitous; they no longer surprise anyone.
Cops misbehave every day–they’re humans, they’re flawed, it happens–and until we summon the collective will to morally–not bureaucratically–demand accountability, this is what we get, and it’s what we deserve as a community. Unfortunately, we don’t reap the proverbial harvest of our sins with anything approaching equitable distribution. In America, a black man is killed every 28 hours by a police officer, security guard, or a vigilante. Of course, this isn’t a new thing. Scholars have pointed out that the high level of racial violence in America, as well as our predilection for using torture as an acceptable interrogation technique is rooted in the historical treatment of slaves–fascinating, though disturbing. Now, it’s important to note that police violence isn’t exclusive to people of color–a quick and cursory look at incidents reveals that plenty of white people are beaten, tazed, strangled, shot, or killed by corrupt or incompetent officers whose aggression escalates growingly tense interactions between police and civilians. My research–some of it admittedly presumption based on the appearances of victims in images–is that poor white people are also targeted, though not as intensely.
It’s worth noting, that this phenomena isn’t just about killing. The USA has, by far, the world’s highest per capita incarceration rate–over 500 per 100,000, more than 5 times the average for similar first world countries. The disparity is largely made up of blacks (over 3,000/100K) and Latinos (over 1250/100K). The easy response by those who deny the facts is to say “well, it’s because black and brown people are just more criminal, and more violent than white people.” Uh, sure. That’s it.
Still, the incarcerated are the lucky ones. They survived. Fortunately, people have begun to take more notice, and as their exasperation grows I fully expect to see more of these incidents. Hopefully it will not on the scale of what we’ve seen in Ferguson, but this is a cumulative response to a culture of aggressive policing that has been growing more and more militaristic over the past 35 years. My parents weren’t afraid of police officers, nor was I when I was a child, but I am now. That’s right–I’m a white, middle-class, small-town man who actively participates in local government, and I’m afraid of the police. I’m on a first name basis with our police chief, for whom I have a great deal of respect, yet I’m afraid of the police. I have friends and relatives in law enforcement, and still, I’m afraid of the police. I’ve raised my children to be wary of police, and to avoid interaction of any kind with them. Why?
Because you just don’t know what you’re going to run into, or who. The city of Pittsburgh’s great Achilles heel is its untouchable, aggressive police department and its reputation for corruption and violence. You absolutely don’t want to be a black guy in Pittsburgh and interact with the police because, even though most of the officers are upstanding, if you run into one of those who aren’t and it turns bad there will be zero accountability. They may kick your ass if you’re white, too, but the odds turn south if you’re not.
The problem is not endemic to Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh is certainly representative of the greater problem. Time and time again, violent confrontations end with district attorneys deciding not to press charges, split juries, and acquittals. When a civilian is arrested for a crime, names are immediately released, often combined with the showy “perp walks” that the media love so well, but when the accused is a cop, the name of the officer is–as was the case in Ferguson–held secret for as long as the department can manage to keep it under wraps.
If I shoot someone, I’m going to be arrested, printed, mug-shotted, perp-walked, and talked about in press releases and interviews and(assuming my crime is high profile enough) shown on the news. I’ll be thrown in jail pending a hearing that will almost certainly end in a stiff bail requirement. A cop, on the other hand, who guns someone down, often gets anonymity, and…some vague restriction known as “administrative leave with pay” which sounds a lot like a reward to me: you still get paid to be police, but you don’t have to do any policing.
People notice this stuff. That was match that lit the powder keg in Ferguson: a teenager was left dead in the streets and cops refused to name suspect name because he is one of their own. Again, these riots weren’t just about Ferguson–they are about the cumulative effect of literally hundreds of these cases, over and over, week after week, and the inevitable artful dodges and inexplicable acquittals that follow. We have been conditioned to expect zero accountability. If citizens had any confidence that police would face a fair and transparent legal process equivalent to that which a civilian would face for the same action, not only would outrage be contained but the temptation towards questionable conduct would be greatly reduced–a result which, in the end, would make things safer for the officers.
One thing I don’t understand, however, is the relative silence of all the teabaggers and libertarians who are usually doing back flips and cursing from their sphincters over even the slightest “big government” infringement on the rights of “we the people.” I can’t think of anything more indicative of an oppressive government than the gunning suspects down in the streets, except perhaps for the systematic protection of those who swing the clubs and squeeze the triggers. Perhaps the disconnect here is the interpretation of who exactly composes “we the people?”