In this several-part series of posts, I address a few of recurring misconceptions that serve as the foundation for much of the mouth-foaming going on out there. These are the false assumptions people take for granted as “real” and “true” when they insist that the problem with Ferguson is not with the misappropriation of law enforcement but with the residents of Ferguson themselves. This is a response to popular “reasonings” used by Caucasian police apologists that I have come across browsing Facebook and online news articles’ comments sections. I focus on white people because I am “white” and it is not up to me to lecture people of color about racism. Also, white people in general, seem to have a weaker grasp on the notions of racism or socio-economic privilege than people who are not considered white, so they need this conversation more than others.
FALSE ASSUMPTION: Justice is colorblind but the police have no choice but to go after blacks, many of whom are criminals.
REALITY CHECK: What nobody wants to admit is that the police are afraid of black people, black men in particular. Very, very afraid.
Many people siding with the Ferguson police are saying that it is a tough job and that the officer who shot Michael Brown had a hard decision on his hands and will have to live with this burden for the rest of his life. This is a very reasonable argument and does apply to countless officers who put their lives on the line and have to live with all the psychological trauma of the consequences of having to make these impossibly difficult judgment calls on the spot. Those officers deserve our support and appreciation because they go through private hell most of us know nothing about.
I cannot say I believe this is the case here because, instead of treating it as a tragedy, the police are arrogantly defending their right-ness with zero regard to the personal and social fall-out. Even if Officer Wilson had every reason to fear for his life and shot Michael Brown in absolute self-defense (though that does not at all look to be the case here), he could still be really, really sorry about it, he could be human about it and appeal to the community by sharing their grief, by acknowledging how unfortunate and heartbreaking the event had been – even if he had no other recourse but to use lethal measures.
But that is the thing: neither Officer Wilson, nor any of his colleagues seem remotely broken up over taking the life of the boy. They don’t seem to perceive him as a human child whose life ended too early. They appear to think of him as street vermin that had to be put down. This could have been an opportunity for all of us to open a dialog about how to better handle “suspicious” individuals, especially teens, and, more importantly, take an honest hard look at what constitutes “suspiciousness” in the first place. The fact that race is a factor (a very complex one) must be acknowledged in no uncertain terms, before actual progress can be made. Instead, the Ferguson Police Department is sticking to their guns, so to speak. They show no remorse or intention to build bridges with the people of Ferguson, only hyper-defensive hostility, backed up by demonstrated willingness to use more violence and do more damage to the already suffering community.
Officer Wilson may sincerely believe he acted out of duty by killing Michael Brown because he genuinely felt THAT MUCH threatened by him. And if you don’t think that race was a defining element in this, well, you are, unfortunately, a part of the problem, no matter how “good” a person you may be otherwise. The jarringly sad truth is: the American police are TERRIFIED of black men in a way they are not threatened by any other social demographic.
Unarmed white people do not get weapons discharged into them nowhere nearly as frequently (and without consequences) because “white people” as a category are not deemed an unequivocally intimidating, unpredictable bunch. Likewise, white people congregating in large groups, no matter how drunken, obnoxious and violent, are not perceived as inevitable trouble the way a gathering of black people, especially black male youths, is interpreted.
When we look at the psychology behind what happens in white police vs. black men stand-offs, a hellish catch-22 emerges. By and large, the American police are afraid of black men and those who are the weaker-willed of the crop, compensate for their cowardice with pronounced abuse of power.
Now, personally, I have never seen anyone take racist disrespect and belligerence more stoically and gracefully than black Americans. I’ve seen white people swarm a person of color like a pack of rabid possums, foaming at the mouth, hissing something hateful, finger-in-face — and this person just stands there with this zen calm, speaking in a very restrained, measured way — or completely keeping silent, as if engaged in meditation or internal dialogue, impervious to indignity. Dissociation is the defense mechanism nature “gifts” to those who have been violated again and again…
But yes, okay, not all young people have yet mastered hiding their contempt towards arrogant and pushy police officers (patience and proper etiquette with cops is something expected a lot more of black teens than their white counterparts who get away with taunting the police all the time…) Having grown up under the suspicious and hostile gaze of the law enforcement, feeling increasingly fed up with being singled out, some young black men will act provocatively towards the police. Or just not be terribly “cooperative”, which is enough to infuriate the bullies among their interrogators. The negativity escalates, resulting in every kind of misinterpretation of motive, which can lead to rash, reactive behaviors, with lethal consequences for the non-uniformed party. (If you ask me, the messed-up cultural conditioning known as “toxic masculinity” is another major culprit here, but that’s a can of worms best left to be opened in a separate post.)
Enough with justifying police brutality already: the endless loop of fear and damning stereotyping must end – and the ball is in the court of the police!! They must, to begin with, acknowledge their preconceived biases — and those deeply ingrained attitudes as a problem to solve, not a “whoops” to deny. The responsibility with mending public trust and initiating the healing process rests with the police.
Unfortunately, this would require a massive paradigm shift in how law enforcement is done in this country. We would have to overhaul the entire police training system for an entirely new set of priorities, attitudes and boundaries. It is time to put the Wild West behind us already and cultivate a whole new generation of public servants sincerely invested into the well-being of their people, and rid the system of state-sanctioned goons with guns harassing the poorest and most powerless members of society.
For more MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FERGUSON posts, see:
PART 1: CONFUSING PROTESTERS WITH RIOTERS
PART 3: THE VALUE OF PROPERTY VS. HUMAN LIFE