At the end of Part 1, I mentioned Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, who had recently been killed by police in Tulsa and Charlotte. I am sorry to exploit their sad deaths, but the videos and sound recordings of these two police attacks strongly spotlight a consistent theme that could be the portal into this plague of violence.
When Michael Brown was shot down in Ferguson two years ago, beginning the current wave of protest against police violence, failure to comply with police commands was frequently asserted as a just cause for killing. “Compliance” filled print and cyberspace as both the recommended procedure for the prudent citizen to survive contact with our police, while even minor deviation from following shouted commands in tense circumstances was cited as justification for police violence. That was the part that knocked me out. Apparently large numbers of respectable citizens were comfortable with what they acknowledged to be armed, uniformed mercenaries roaming our streets, who might shoot people for not complying with their screamed instructions, and walk free from a homicide without even charge using a justification that nobody but a cop could get away with.
Americans boast about the special degree of freedom they think they have, but found this okay. Maybe they feel comfortable with the quotation from that great public intellectual Rudy Giuliani, “Freedom is about authority.” Probably like Mayor Nosferatu himself, they translate that into a badge, a gun and violent confrontation. Ugly ideas, more suitable for a military occupation than a civil society, but largely due to BLM waking us up, there are some signs of improvement. Not actually in the killing fields yet. The spree goes on. The Washington Post reports 715 killed by police so far in 2016, of whom 194 are African American. This is up 13 since Blue on Black pt. 1 was published, September 21, so about 1.3 per day.
Compliance was a fine statement of the authoritarian/paternalistic view of society, an atavistic stance that says, essentially, power is right because it is power. We need more power over us. That gives many Republicans and the Trumps of our political asylum the opportunity to offer us their overlordship.
Black men were recommended to comply with police at all times, usually in condescending tones by white people. They have a point, of course. Compliance can have a percentage advantage as a near-term survival strategy. But as some jurists have recently said, police killings are now like lynching. Accepting the conditions that enable it is like accepting slavery.
Police and their authoritarian supporters would blandly say, the victim did not comply with police instructions, so we killed him. Besides, he was a criminal who had committed first degree shoplifting and once peed in an alley.
It is hardly credible that anyone who felt himself at risk of lethal police action would support this madness. We are in that Jane Elliott realm where people acknowledge that they know what is going on; they do not want it nor would they accept it for themselves; but they are happy enough for others to be the victims of the bad idea they support.
Increasingly we are seeing that compliance has a more sinister significance. It is the common theme linking the incidents of police unnecessarily shooting down citizens, generally in completely unnecessary escalations, sometimes in completely unnecessary confrontations. Compliance is a trigger implanted in the brains of police engaged in confrontation with civilians.
A sad paradigm case is Officer Betty Shelby killing Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. They are both victims of this nightmarish policy, which has now even elicited open condemnation from the United Nations, usually hesitant to criticize its most powerful and fractious member.
In recently released audio recording we hear Ms Shelby shouting in a tense, anxious tone, “He won’t show his hands! He won’t show his hands!” We can hear a whole drama of information in that. She will have issued an instruction, drawn her gun and dropped into aggressive shooting crouch, instantly turning the instruction from any chance it had of functioning as eye contact communication between two humans into a death threat. She has drawn an ineradicable line of deadly enemy status between Crutcher and herself. Its psychological impact is probably stronger on Ms Shelby than on Crutcher. He was wandering back toward his car. Maybe he thought he was supposed to spread his legs and lean against the car.
Or maybe, even worse, Terence Crutcher was just resigned. Perhaps he knew what happens when white cops pull guns on black men.
In her cry into the radio, we can hear that Betty Shelby is responding to a training instruction that must be implanted like a latent virus in the minds of thousands of police. “Show your hands!” Ms Shelby may be talking to her command in a kind of despair. If she thinks he is not complying, her trained response would be to shoot. Imagine that she can see the horror of that, but feels that she can’t find the choice to stand down, to de-escalate, without permission..
When a cop shouts “Show your hands” in a confrontation, he has already declared the other person a deadly threat. Evidence? Frequently none. He or she just has that “feeling.” Later on, they say, “I was afraid for my life.” When Darren Wilson said that in the Michael Brown investigation, I did not believe him. Now I do. He had been taught and trained that non-compliance with his commands by anybody endangered his life. That mad misreasoning makes some police on some forces dangers to all our lives.
The compliance trigger can quickly turn an inquiry into a showdown. The recording suggests that that is what happened to Betty Shelby.The status is no longer citizen and citizen. With police in this mode, it won’t matter that the citizen is unarmed; the cop has entered fight or flight mode, and the police must dominate. Must win. The other option is disorder.
I question whether in that moment, in that narrow focus, the notion of “unarmed” has any relevance to the police officer. The concepts of threat to his or her life and compliance have merged. Non-compliance equals deadly threat.
The authoritarian tendency views this setup as a social law as ineluctable as physics.
But we also know, and we can hear it in Betty Shelby’s voice, that many police are almost always ready to be afraid for their lives, not because they are cowardly or more anxious than anybody else, but because they are told to be. They are trained to it and reminded of it continually by their superior officers and trainers.
And I am ready to take a shot that I can’t prove: thousands of Black men know this pattern as well as they know anything in our society. As soon as they see and hear it, their instinct tells them they are targets. Subsequent behavior comes from a set of defense mechanisms. Raise your hands, “assume the position,” freeze, duck, run, hide. They know with resignation that none is reliable. When an American cop has decided to cross that thin line from a simple stop to an armed confrontation, to narrow the focus of exchange from communication to the muzzle of a gun, the rest of your life may be unlikely and reasoned thought may stop. We don’t get to discuss those last thoughts with murder victims, so we won’t ever know.
Before I have to hear the “ you just hate the police” refrain again, we also know that thousands of police do not want to be like this, but in confrontation, some of them may not be able to overcome it. The video of Officer Eric Casebolt going berserk on the pool party kids shows other cops trying to talk him down. Watch the video of the shooting of Paul O’Neal in Chicago: one cop draws and fires at the rear of the car. Hearing shots, others draw their guns. One of the officers reaches over to the first one to lower his arm. The cops around are caught in conflict between the situation turned violent, their training, their team spirit, their perception and their instincts. There is no clear commander who can say like General Honoré, “Lower those weapons!” Once the “comply or die” pin has been pulled, it is pretty much over.
Notice that I am saying American cop. Police talking to you does not go down like this in European countries that I know. Probably not in any of them. Even in Belfast in the 1980s, with a virtual civil war on in Northern Ireland and London, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary a militarized, heavily armed force, bombing, shooting and shooting back an almost daily occurrence, incidents like these causing death of the innocent by police or army nervousness were exceedingly rare. Members of the RUC killed and got killed, but they knew who they were shooting at. In post-enlightenment civilization, the police killing spree of unarmed civilians in random stops is a particularly American crime, officially protected – at least until now.
The Massachusetts High Court’s ruling that flight is not sufficient evidence to presume guilt to justify shooting could be the beginning of a turn toward civilization.
But maybe not. Chris Hedges, who is pessimistic about the survival chances of anything approaching a free society or a return of democracy under corporate capitalism, says that police violence has bigger objectives than racism. Hedges says that corporate capitalism having destroyed the traditional social stabilizers – reliable employment, decent wages, interesting consumerism, labor unions – cohesion has been fractured like a car window, and force is being set up to maintain order. The essential function of police will be to suppress dissent. Against the background of this idea, police violence against Black men and women dying now could function as field practice for when they have to turn their guns and urban tanks against the rebellion of the victims of corporate robbery. The 99%, in Occupy idiom.
We are tamed by foolishness: it’s the Mexicans; it’s the immigrants; it’s the Muslims; it’s them; it’s the lizard aliens. It’s the idiots that make trade deals, the fools that try to deal honorably with Iran. Iran should be treated, they believe, with the same disrespect that America treats some Arab countries (even if that is what generates the terrorism that allows them to churn the weapons economy and attack . . . and so on, as Vonnegut would say.)
Some correctly point out: police violence does not stop at black men. They shoot white people, too. Not at the same per capita rate and maybe they do not register on the compliance screen through the same filter, but they do. The problem is not that police do not kill white guys, it is that white people have not perceived police violence as a threat. Many even support it. They do not think it is about them. “All Lives Matter” has turned into a white supremacist group. Two years ago in Ferguson, when BLM’s profile rose above the parapet, it looked like the forces of Law and Order, the code phrase handed down from Nixon to Trump and even his lackey Giuliani, might crush it. But there is a decent chance it isn’t going that way.
A reminder of the scale of the problem. A database called the Government Terrorism Database says the number of Americans killed by acts that would call terrorism from 2004 to 2013, ten years, is 80. (I don’t know whether they are counting Orlando. I would take that out.) If you go back farther and include 9/11, you get 3.066. So the Twin Towers plus 80.
The best count of the police death toll, according to FBI Director James Comey – who is not fond of that fact and has now moved to compel police forces to report every police shooting – are the Guardian newspapers: 2015 – 1,146; 2016 to date, 814. Comey is telling us that the numbers are under-reported, but to be conservative, to play it very safe, let’s say 10,000 over the ten years.
The ratio for the period is 10,000: 80, or if you want to shift the time frame to include the Twin Towers, you get 10,000 v. 3,000.
To compare to another country, Germany: 15 in the 2010/2011 period, so 75 estimated for ten years. Population 80.7m v. US 330m, so at the most conservative possible estimate, US police kill civilians at a rate over 32.5 times higher. Probably at least 40 times.
Some of the election bombast may be entertaining. Some of us laugh at the BS, some are excited by the fear they are mongering. But if you are among those still hoping to stay tuned to reality, give ISIS a few minutes’ break in the red herring box. You are many, many times more likely to be killed or brutalized by our own cops than by by an Al Qaeda or ISIS oppo.
Anybody reading this is infinitely more likely to be a victim of police brutality than a beneficiary of it. Do what you can to help cure this thing. It’s not hopeless. Police violence is not a law of physics; it is a product of human decisions. Change the program, you can change the outcome. Some police chiefs, influential officials in the justice departments and some enlightened judges are now openly down with ending this product of ignorance. Let’s support them.
Despite the reflex whining of some chiefs, and backlash states like North Carolina digging their heels in to let police continue to hide, we will value police and benefit from them much more when they join the people. When “protect and serve” supersedes “comply.”
Next up is a percolating story about the ethics case against John Deveney in his role as an HDLC Commissioner; and the HDLC, while we are there; and how Deveney got himself into this. What Chris Costello, former president and FMIA and neighborhood tyrant manqué, had to do with that, and is the current incarnation of FMIA dealing successfully with the Costello backwash.
It is part legal case about conduct in public office, and part domestic drama and personal tragedy. What is right when love and rules collide? I am going to have to reach deep to search for my inner Truman Capote.
© NOLAscape October 2016