Friday, August 22, 2014

Protesting the Status Quo in Black and White

Yes, I'm gonna write about this.

It would be racist of me not to.

This is an old story, dating from earlier this year, in April.  But if you don't live in Los Angeles, you've probably never heard about it.

Yet, anyway.

On April 7, 2014, some guy in a posh West Hollywood apartment building went berserk, and threatened fellow residents with a knife inside one of the apartments.  The police were called, and when deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arrived, they knocked on the apartment door.  First, there was no reply, but then, two men opened the door and ran out, fleeing their knife-wielding neighbor who was still in the apartment.  Unfortunately, both of the fleeing men were shot by the cops, and one of them died.

John Winkler was a crime victim - killed by the cops.
Why no outrage?  Is it because he's white?
The guy who died was John Winkler, a 30-year-old television production assistant.  And he was white.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Winkler hadn't been stabbed by the man with the knife, but the other man fleeing the apartment had been, and was bleeding.  He exited the apartment first, followed by Winkler, and the deputies instantaneously presumed that Winkler was attacking the bloody guy.  And they fired.

Meanwhile, the guy with the knife, back in the apartment, never got shot, but he did get arrested.  He's being held on $4 million bail for attempted murder.

Winkler's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff's department for $25 million.

If all this is new news to you, why is that, do you think?  Is it because this is mostly a local issue?  Is it because we all know that cops can make awful mistakes?  Is it because so much crime happens everywhere these days, so not every death-by-cop can make national and international headlines?  Just within the past week, here in the north Texas area, there have been several cases of local police shooting - and killing - suspects.  And unless you live here, you probably didn't know that, either.  Until now.

So what makes Ferguson, Missouri, so special?  What makes the killing of Michael Brown so important to our national dialog?  Is it really about police brutality and over-zealousness in general, or is it mostly because of skin color?  Is Brown's death so much more news-worthy than Winkler's?  And is that because one of these shooting victims had black skin, and the other had white?

If that's the case, then the media, our president, and anybody who is grieving over a young, black shooting victim they didn't know, who was killed by a white cop, are playing the race card.  Right?

"Hands up - don't shoot."  That's the chant protesters have been popularizing in Ferguson during these past two weeks of marches, tear gas, arrests, arson, looting, political gamesmanship, vitriol against law enforcement, and incessant media headlines.  But it doesn't even sound like LASD's deputies had the chance to order Winkler to put his hands up, does it?  They shot first, and asked questions later.

Seems to me, Winkler's death at least opens the door - pardon the pun - to a legitimate debate over police aggression regardless of race.  Aggression, or over-reaction, or letting emotions and reflexes overtake one's professional law enforcement training, right?  Regardless of race!

Witnesses told LA's media that the deputies were shown a photo of the suspect when they arrived on the scene, so they should have been able to recognize that the men coming out of the apartment didn't really match the image they'd just seen.  Instead, isn't it kind of obvious that the deputies jumped to conclusions, over-reacted, and used excessive force before they knew what was unfolding in front of them?  Both of the guys who were shot were unarmed, just like Michael Brown was in Ferguson, so they shouldn't have been an imminent threat to the deputies.  It's just as hard to see why lethal force was necessary on Winkler, as Ferguson's police say it was for Brown.

On the one hand, Winkler's death may be due in part to the degree of volatility for which law enforcement professionals need to brace themselves in any given situation.  Cops need to anticipate a wide range of scenarios and variables when they arrive upon any scene, regardless of the neighborhood environment.  Maybe the demands of police work have simply passed the point of what normal people expect their police departments to endure.  There's been a lot of talk after the Ferguson shooting regarding the military-style response that various law enforcement agencies have deployed on West Florissant Avenue, the main staging area for most of the demonstrations.  If cops really face a war zone out there that most ordinary law-abiding citizens can't fathom, then we need to talk about that, don't we?

On the other hand, however, is the disappointing reality regarding the status of race relations in the United States.  For example, most white people don't fear their local police departments like many black people apparently do.  During the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I read article after article written by accomplished black parents who revealed that even in their affluent neighborhoods, and with their well-educated black sons, they worry about the safety of the young men in their families were they ever to be stopped by the cops.  I didn't realize beforehand that a lot of anecdotal evidence exists out there indicating that white police officers tend to presume the worst about every young black man they see, especially if they're young black men wearing nice clothes and driving expensive cars, two of the same things young white men from equally affluent families do.  But the white kids don't get stopped, or frisked, simply because of what they wear or drive.  Or the color of their skin.

That is a conversation we need to have, right?

What people don't want to talk about, however, is whether or not Michael Brown stole a $50 box of cigars from a convenience store.  Or whether he might have been on marijuana when cops saw him walking down the middle of a street.  Or whether he punched the officer in the face - the officer who reportedly suffered a fractured eye socket at some point during his confrontation with Brown.  Or whether the officer, having just been punched by a tall, burly black 18-year-old, who may have had marijuana in his system, couldn't see properly, and imagined Brown was coming back at him to punch him again.  Was the cop, already in distress from possibly having a broken eye socket, supposed to wait to be punched again before firing his weapon in self-defense?

These are questions that strike at the very heart - again, pardon the pun - of why Brown got shot to death two weeks ago.  They're questions that need to be answered, and the answers may need to wait for more facts to come to light.

But few people are that patient.  They're letting the media create a narrative in Ferguson that is stitched together with innuendo, supposition, hearsay, conjecture, notoriously unreliable eyewitness accounts, and flat-out racism.  Back in West Hollywood, there seem to have been a lot fewer variables, including the fact that we don't know the skin color of the sheriff's deputies, because the media hasn't reported it.  Apparently, it didn't matter, even though Winkler is white.  I guess police brutality is only a matter for national politics when it involves people of different skin colors.

Is that the fault of police departments, then, or our society?  Let the white folks file a $25 million lawsuit, but let the blacks riot in the streets, and burn down a Quick Trip?

Either way, nothing really gets fixed.  Maybe because... we're not focusing on what's really broken?

It's pretty obvious that we have a cohort of deeply angry young blacks who resent the fact that lots of people have lots of stuff that they don't have.  And not just tangible stuff, like $50 boxes of cigars.  During these past two weeks of rioting and demonstrations in Ferguson, our nation's first black president has been vacationing with his family on exclusive Martha's Vineyard, playing golf on exquisitely manicured courses, and partying with influential East Coast elites.

If you think about it, most white people cannot afford to vacation on Martha's Vineyard, and we have absolutely no access to those circles of wealthy power brokers, but we're not angry about that.  Frustrated, maybe, and jealous, perhaps, but not angry to the point of defying law and order.

I'm not going to pretend as though I have all of the answers for why whites aren't as eager to riot as some young blacks in Ferguson appear to be.  The pat answer for some is that whites have advantages blacks don't, but does that imply that Barak Obama won the presidency thanks to affirmative action?  Are those liberal socialites on Cape Cod partying with the most powerful black man on Earth because he's their puppet in Washington, or are they really as color-blind as they say the rest of us should be?

Hey!  Asking these questions and pointing out these differences isn't racism.  But might ignoring them be?  If we don't talk about why differences like these exist, then aren't we allowing the conditions that perpetuate these differences to continue poisoning our society?  And turning into conflicts?

Otherwise, we're saying that when it comes to suspected instances of police brutality, Winkler's death means less than Brown's does.

When in fact, they should be equally significant.

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