Thursday, July 7, 2016

Two Killings-by-Cop Beg for Answers

Update 7/8/16:  See what I mean about waiting for more facts?  I need to do that myself.  New information reveals that Alton Sterling was not trying to mug the homeless man; it was the homeless man who was pestering Sterling for money.  Eventually, Sterling produced his gun and told him to leave him alone.  For some odd reason, the homeless man felt justified in calling 911 and reporting Sterling.
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As a white American male, I can only say one thing.

At least, that's how it feels after two black men were shot to death this week by white police officers.

And the only thing I'm allowed to say is that it's atrocious that black men continue to be killed by white police officers.

Which, of course, is true.  It's atrocious that our society has this recurring theme in which black men are being shot to death by white officers.  Yet to look at it another way, it's also atrocious that we have anybody of any race or gender being shot to death by anybody, period.

Killings should not be part of the American experience.  Neither should racism, or police brutality.  But they are, and we're not dealing with any of these topics very well.

Generally speaking, blacks say whites don't understand how pervasive racism is.  And whites say just because a cop thinks he has to shoot a black man, it's not necessarily police brutality.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a black male peddler named Alton Sterling was shot to death by two white police officers the day after July Fourth.  Two videos posted to social media clearly show that Sterling was on the ground, wedged near a silver Toyota Camry's front bumper, when the officers shot him.  It appears that the officers had Sterling under control, even though he seemed to maintain a semblance of a struggle with them.  But surely the officers could complete their arrest procedure without killing him, couldn't they?

I have to admit, from the videos, their shooting of Sterling looks wholly unjustified.

Granted, word is now coming out of some quarters that a homeless man had earlier called 911 and reported an attempted mugging by a man with a gun.  A man cops would soon identify as Sterling, which would explain how they figured Sterling had a gun.  It still doesn't explain why they believed they needed to shoot Sterling at point-blank range, but it helps create more of a context for why they were wrestling with him in the first place.

But here's the politically incorrect caveat:  We'll have to wait to hear more details about what happened before we'll know for sure what happened.

Meanwhile, last night in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot four times by a light-skinned police officer after reportedly being pulled over for a faulty taillight.  After he was shot, and was slumped motionless against her seat, blood oozing from his left side, Castile's fiance logged on to Facebook and live-streamed his dying and her grief in a video that has now gone viral. 

For many today, her video represents the sum total of what happened last night, and the court of politically correct public opinion has already rendered its verdict:  another black man needlessly shot to death by a white cop.

And no, it doesn't look good for the cop.  For one thing, is pulling somebody over for a malfunctioning taillight the best use of the public's law enforcement dollars?  Maybe the guy had been rear-ended earlier in the day?  Maybe he didn't realize something was wrong with his taillight?  I understand the popular "broken window" theory, but do broken taillights fall into that "nip it in the bud" paradigm?

According to Castile's fiance, he did what he was supposed to do, since he was licensed to carry a gun.  He told the officer that he legally owned a gun.  So the cop new that.  What happened next is currently hearsay, but ostensibly, Castile reached into his back pocket for his drivers license.  We can hear the cop, from outside the car after the shooting, while the Facebook live-stream was rolling, curse and say that he'd told Castile not to reach into his pocket.

Why would somebody tell a cop they owned a gun, and then reach into their back pocket to produce it and threaten the officer with it?  That scenario seems to be what the officer thought would happen.  I understand the need for police officers to anticipate dangerous situations, but is Falcon Heights the Wild West?

Then, after Castile had been shot (Four times?  Really?) and obviously incapacitated, why didn't the officer secure his own weapon, open the car door, and offer to help Castile - maybe apply a tourniquet to help staunch his profuse bleeding?  Why does it seem like forever before medical assistance was provided to Castile?  Was the cop in shock?

Clearly, at the very least, the cops in both of these situations seem to have had problems controlling their adrenaline.

But is that racism?  Or is it poor training?

As a white man, I'm not supposed to ask questions like that. 

That's one of the things I dislike about these officer-involved killings.  Now, I don't like it that cops shoot and kill people.  But I also don't like that so many people rush to judgment based on initial information - whether it's a photo, video, or eyewitness accounts - that we receive in the media.  Photos only capture a moment in time, not what preceded the photo.  It's the same with videos, although they usually can capture a sequence of moments in time, which provides a better context for what they depict.  And eyewitness accounts?  We've all heard how notoriously unreliable they can be.

At the same time, however, it also seems as though there's a pattern of black suspect and white cop shootings that won't go away.  Is it because social media makes these shootings more public?  Or is it more sinister, like the possibility that more and more black men are being left behind in our society?  If that is happening, is it because of racism against them, or maybe lackluster schools in black districts, or the notoriously high rate of unwed motherhood in black communities?

What about economics?  Frankly, I can't recall any black victim of a police shooting being an affluent professional.

Is it because black men are stereotyped as thugs?  Some folks complain that when a black guy is shot by a cop, the media usually can match their name with a rap sheet pretty quickly.  We already know that black men are incarcerated at rates disproportionately higher than their numbers in our country.  What systemic faults in our judicial system might be behind such rates?

Then too, why do we have all these white officers in minority neighborhoods?  Why don't black men apply in greater numbers to be police officers?  Do black men perform worse than white men while trying out to be cops?  Why are most police departments still mostly white?  Is there a culture of racism within police departments, even those headed by black chiefs?

We ask these questions whenever a black man gets shot to death by a white cop, but our attention span never seems to last long enough to press for answers.  Or maybe we don't want to hear the answers?

I suspect that even the most racist people among us are angry over these police-involved deaths.  Maybe for different reasons, but I doubt there are many Americans who think this is something that should continue.  People post sound bites, memes, and emojies on social media.  Some protest in public.  Politicians pretend to sound empathetic.  Yet maybe tomorrow, or next week, or six months from now, we'll all be back in this same place, saying this can't continue.

Although it does.  And it will, at least until our attention span on the subject lasts longer than the time it takes for the media to cover a few raucous protests in the aftermath.  Since it appears as though the disenfranchised males of America's black communities are the most common victims of police shootings, our country's better-connected social classes need to advocate first for the answers to basic questions like the ones I've asked above.  And then advocate for the changes that those answers indicate are necessary.

It sounds so simple, but in reality, we individually need to want to change.  All of us, both in terms of how we view people of races different from ours, and in terms of how much we value the moral enforcement of our nation's laws.

The Old Testament prophet Micah answers the question about what goodness is, and it's at once simple yet profoundly deep:  to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Obviously, not every cop is "rogue," and many cops complete long careers without ever firing their gun in the line of duty.  So I wonder if these officers might predominantly be ones who carry Micah 6:8 in their minds - and their hearts - every day when they go out on patrol.  And instead of trying to control their adrenaline, they try to remember that justice, mercy, and humility are the only ways to "do good" in our world.

Of course, it would be helpful if the rest of us - whether we're male or female, black or white, or polka-dotted - tried to remember the same thing.


The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives

and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,

the oil of joy instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord

for the display of his splendor...
 

And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God...
 

“For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing..."
 

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.

For he has clothed me with garments of salvation

and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness...
 

For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow,

so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness

and praise spring up before all nations.


- from Isaiah 61


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