Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The "matter" of life

Following another shooting of a black man by a white police officer—this time in North Charleston, South Carolina where an officer was videoed shooting down a man in the back who was running away—local prosecutors had no choice but to charge the officer with murder to avoid even worse bad publicity. TIME magazine has taken the time to devote a cover story to the mantra “Black Lives Matter.” I ask myself: What does that mean? In what context? Compared to whose life? Is it all politics? Do black lives “matter” to the 90 percent of the killers of blacks—who also happen to be black? Does it only “matter” if the perpetrator—whether out of fear, self-defense or a subconsciousness of prejudices and stereotypes—is not black? 

Perhaps it is demanded of us that we  think of black lives in the same way we think of white lives. What does that mean?  Is it a reaction to what is thought to enter white people’s minds when a black man murders a white person? That the victim more societally “valued,” the victim of a mindless beast whose contempt for civilized norms means he shouldn’t be left to occupy the streets where the god-fearing expect to live in peace and safety? Of course the media doesn’t discuss it, but the idea lingers in some people’s minds. They just act like they are not “prejudiced” when they encounter a black person, because they fear if they don’t, they may get “hurt” too. They prefer to let the police take care of that other business.

Let’s see if we can answer some of these questions by first looking at the statistical data. According to the Bureau of Justice, black males have by far the highest homicide victim and perpetrator rate than any other demographic, by over 40 per 100,000 in both instances. Of course, such numbers can easily be “misinterpreted.”  This essentially means that one out of every 2,500 black males that you may encounter over a given year will either die of homicide, and another be the perpetrator of a homicide; you can interpret that as a “lot” or not. Thus the possibility that you will be killed by a black man if you are not black man is even more unlikely than that; if you live in “good” neighborhoods, you probably won’t ever encounter the happenstance of such violence in your lifetime, except on television.

The reality of poisonous relations between minorities and police didn’t start with the recent shootings that have caused national outrage in the media, or at least the way it is being reported makes it seem so. It would, however, be instructive to ask ourselves what did that incident a few years ago here in Seattle when a black teenage girl felt free to strike a white police officer in the face after he stopped her for jaywalking tell us? The officer showed relative “restraint” in the matter, if by that we mean he didn’t pull out his service revolver. But obviously egregious cases of police misconduct like the South Carolina incident are being treated like the “norm,” which they are not. According to CDC statistics, homicide is the number one killer of black males 15-34, accounting for 40 percent of all deaths (accidents were second). Who are the vast majority of the perpetrators? Not police or “white Hispanics,” but other black males. Is that supposed to be “OK”? 

So while the Seattle Times and the national media reports on every instance where a black is shot by police, incidents like the questionable shooting of a Hispanic farmworker by police here in Pacso, Washington go largely ignored by even the local media.  Last year, a Sheriff’s deputy in Santa Rosa, CA shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez. He was shot eight times. The incident was ignored by the national media. Also in 2014, David Silva, a father of four, died after being beaten while hogtied after an arbitrary detainment for public intoxication. Seven Sheriff’s deputies and two California Highway Patrol officers were involved. Witnesses who videoed the encounter had their cell phones confiscated, but they testified that police unleashed a dog on him and then took turns hitting him with clubs and kicking him.  A coroner’s report claimed that Silva’s death was caused by hypertensive heart disease. The officers involved in the beating were not charged with any crime. 

I covered here the case of Daniel Adkins—a developmentally-disabled “white” Hispanic who was out walking his dog when he was shot dead by a black man, Cordell Jude; this occurred almost the same time as the Trayvon Martin shooting. There was almost no local, let alone national acknowledgement, of the Adkins shooting. The few mentions there were of it in the context of the Martin shooting lamely suggested there was no “similarity” in the two cases. I agreed; the Adkins case was far more egregious in character and “self-defense” never entered into it. Because these victims were not black—thus not subject to “outrage”—the national media ignored these incidents.

Blacks are not the only people killed by police, in fact less than one-third of those killed by police in the course of an arrest or detainment are black, according to both DoJ and FBI statistics. Admittedly that number is about 2.5 times their rate by population, but should this really be that surprising, given the crime and perpetrator rates among blacks? Or the fact that unlike the “old” days when blacks had to watch what side of the street they were allowed to walk on, or what drinking fountain to use, or where to sit on a bus (rules that “Mexicans” were also expected to abide by at one time in the southwest and California), we see that among an angry minority there is less willingness to abide by the “rules” of the majority?

Let’s return to the question what does “lives matter” mean in context. Should we start at a base that assumes that every life is “precious” even when one suspects that the “precious” life in question has utter contempt for the life of another “precious” life? Or should we just say that the vast majority of humans on this Earth just want to “get along,” regardless of their race, creed, color or gender? Sometimes this means they just want to be left alone, sometimes it means they want to treat people any way they wish without pushback.  Mostly, they just want to live in an acceptable level of comfort. They don’t want someone else to deprive them of the fruits of their labor, however little that may be. They don’t want to have the walk around being concerned that strangers will approach them intent on some malicious mischief. 

And in the main, the vast majority of people who wish to avoid trouble will likely do so in their own lifetimes, with maybe one or a few “close calls” because they forgot that their own behavior can be “misinterpreted.” By and large, we live in a world of ships passing in the night, rarely acknowledging the existence of other people except in general terms, based on prejudices and stereotypes if thought comes at all. Yet even people one might know “well” does not mean that their lives are “precious” in the vast expanse of the universe. Of course, if a death occurs in one’s own family, this means something because that person is a part of your own “blood,” and a reminder of your own mortality. 

But it is different in other circumstances. At a temp job I worked recently I was surprised to discover that an office employee had died, shot, I was told by one person, by his uncle. “What a crazy world this is,” we agreed. But I did not sense that anyone there was really moved by the event; things went on the way they always did—nobody even talked about it. There was no expression of collective grief or even individually; everyone had their own lives to worry about. Life “goes on.” 

How “precious” was this life? Certainly more “precious” than some hulking thug who made his “living” strong-arming and robbing pint-sized convenience store clerks, and then scuffling with police. Or maybe not; we find apparent incongruity in what the media considers more “precious.” More often it is a white female life, but the media also needs to appear to be “socially conscious” when it comes to black lives. But I couldn’t help but to observe that this death of a white person didn’t even merit a mention in the local newspaper’s police blotter; while the Michael Brown incident made national news for months and was even investigated by the Justice Department.

Perhaps we shouldn’t even be asking the question of whose life is more “precious” or whose life “matters.” People make their own lives “matter” by living according to the rules of civilized society. If they vary from that, they must take into account in whose company they do so. It is one thing to hold “discussions” with police (as I have) so long as you don’t make them feel “threatened.” It is another thing that some people forget that police are not only armed with a lethal weapon, but are prone to use it if they feel threatened by anything above looking at them wrong. Thus a list of blacks who have been killed that TIME gives us doesn’t mean much, because nearly all of the victims did something that caused their assailants to fear for their own safety; if the latter were killed first, it is as possible as not that they would be just put down as another statistic in the homicide perpetrator rates of black males. On the other hand, one has to admit that when the one killed is a police officer, it is played as if the President was assassinated—something which I also find tough to stomach.

Black leaders provide societal and economic “excuses” for all of this, while the media acts as if this is happens so often it is no longer worth talking out in terms that are useful. We are told to forget about the largest number of victims of homicide who are so by the hand of their own race, and go mad over the ones who are killed by people representing the law. We are told that many of these victims are “unarmed,” choosing to ignore the fact that bashing someone’s head against a concrete sidewalk or repeated kicks to the head—or even in a local case where a black male, responding to a summons for “help” from some female “friends,” slugging an older white man in the head—can be the occasion of homicide. 

Unfortunately, we are inundated with wall-to-wall coverage of a few relatively isolated incidents. In the case of the North Charlotte shooting, it is plain to see that the officer in question was “traumatized” by the idea that this man was showing contempt for his authority by fleeing him rather than obeying him, and in his temporary madness sought to “stop” him by the most “reliable” means at his disposable; I guess we can say that he didn’t feel like running after the suspect. Thus is the questions we should be asking is why there is this disconnect between respect for police authority and the way (some) police react to it? Why did this man run away?  Did he actually believe he was going to “get away?” Did he believe that the officer wasn’t going to shoot him in the back in a wide-open space in broad daylight with witnesses present? 

Or maybe he did believe that the officer might shoot at him; in the excitement of the moment perhaps some bizarre wish fulfillment to become some kind of “symbol” was being played out. Surely he was not unaware of the national scrutiny of police shootings of black men; if he thought he was making a “statement,” he surely did in making the cover of TIME, albeit posthumously. 

But it is also a fair question to ask are we giving police an “impossible” choice of carrying out their duty, and letting suspects get away because they are afraid of the publicity that might be derived if they use their firearms against “unarmed” persons? A few years ago the shooting of Native American woodcarver and serial inebriate John T. Williams by an SPD officer was a cause celebre in Seattle and was the catalyst for a DoJ investigation. The reaction of SPD officers to federally-mandated reforms tells us that forcing them to give up their “right” to “protect” themselves from even unarmed civilians seems to suggest that police feel this way. Still, I cannot help but think that the police have brought much of their problems on themselves in their “us against them” mindset, and failure to “police” themselves when given the opportunity to do so.

But the media and so-called civil rights activists also have to admit that if those who draw the attention of police, no matter how it angers them, have done nothing wrong, what do they have to fear from “clearing up” any misunderstanding? It is one thing to become “hostile” verbally; we all have the right of “freedom of speech” regardless of what the police think; it is quite another to react with physically hostile intent. Even running away from a uniformed officer whose authority you are supposed to “respect” when he stops you implies “guilt” whether we like it or not. Naturally we can then ask what is an officer’s legitimate course of action. It is then we can question why all too often they have been led to believe by predetermined inquest hearings and internal reviews that accountability is just a minor inconvenience.

Then there is always the questions “Could these shootings have been prevented? Did they have to happen?” Of course not, but we can’t keep suggesting that something happens for no reason. For every action there is a reaction; that is the law of nature. Sometimes this can manifest itself in simply ignoring another person’s entreaty, which that person may take as a deliberately calculated action. Or someone doesn’t like the way you look; of course you can’t help the way you look, but even when it is clear by your clothing that you don’t fit some “gangsta” stereotype—I recall a scene in the Coen Brothers’ film No Country For Old Men where a white woman was left speechless by the sight of a “Mexican” wearing a suit and tie (she had never seen that before); one might accuse such a person of trying to be something he is not. 

The point of this is that human actions and reactions are complicated and sometimes difficult to predict. Would a black suspect act differently when confronted by a black officer, because they are “brothers” and “understand” their presumably shared cultural mores? If that is the case, then maybe more black officers should he hired to deal with black suspects, because there is too much inherent “bad blood” between white police and black civilians that is the occasion for “tragedy” and accompanying media circus. Or would we see no real difference in police/suspect encounters?  How would we interpret black police officers shooting black suspects? 

We could go run circles around this issue if we wanted to, because it isn’t as “simple” as it is being made out to be. I do know how the vast majority of law-abiding blacks feel; I served seven years in the Army, I have a college degree and have worked hard my whole life, and yet I still find myself embittered by the racist ignorance of many people I encounter (not all of them white). The discussion shouldn’t be about do black lives matter; obviously they do matter if they can be used to advance one issue and ignore others.

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