How Not to React to Stories about Police Shootings, from One White Person to Another

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Did Keith Lamont Scott (left) and Terrence Crutcher (right) have to die as a result of their encounters with police? Your answer may have more to do with the color of your skin, and the color of theirs, than you’d like to admit. (Image retrieved from rinf.com.)

Unfortunately, it seems that all you have to do nowadays is to wait a week or two, maybe a month, and soon enough, you’ll have news of another fatal shooting of a black person at the hands of police reach the national consciousness. Yesterday, it was Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Today, it’s Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Though the pain for the black communities of Tulsa, OK and Charlotte, NC, respectively, is nothing less than the kind experienced by African-Americans and other concerned citizens in Baltimore and other cities, regrettably, for many Americans watching, instances of this sort of scenario are becoming old-hat. Black individual (most likely male) is stopped as part of “routine” police business. He is shot and killed by police, or otherwise subdued in a lethal fashion. The exact details of what transpired during the incident are debated. One or more people involved with the arrest-turned-fatal is put on administrative leave and later arrested themselves. Seemingly more often than not, those who face trial are legally absolved of their role in their proceedings. Frequently, as a result of the initial violence or the ruling which acquits the accused officer(s), there are vocal protests and/or more violence which threatens the lives of those in affected communities, not to mention the surrounding buildings and other property. It’s an awful set of scenarios, but sadly, it’s not one we haven’t heard before.

Likewise unfortunately, many of the same reactions we have heard from the likes of critics of the deceased, a good number of them white, conservative and/or Donald Trump supporters, are well familiar to us by now. With my use of the word “unfortunate” in this context, it’s obvious I am making a judgment about these critical reactions, and one the intended audience for this post is unlikely to absorb because a) not many people follow my blog to begin with, and b) my liberal attitudes would likely dissuade them from reading further. I also fully understand, as an average white dude with no formal basis in African-American studies, anthropology, or a related field, I am not the most qualified person to comment on these matters. All of the above notwithstanding, allow me to add my 47 cents (two cents, adjusted for inflation) and opine as to why so many self-righteous attackers of the victims in these situations and uniform defenders of uniformed police are, well, wrong. In doing so, I will try to consider multiple angles and the “broader picture,” which, in a writing-oriented context such as this, is usually advisable. So, here goes nothing.

First things first, stop saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.”

If we’re going to have an honest conversation about race relations in the United States and the broader aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re going to have to get past this “all lives matter” nonsense. First of all, the very notion of “all lives matter” actively seeks to negate the fundamentally most important word in the original phrase: “black.” As John Halstead, writing for Huffington Post, argues, this alteration only serves to betray white people’s discomfort with blackness and black cultural identity. Moreover, the use of the phrase “all lives matter” speaks to an attempt at racial colorblindness, a theoretical concept which only white people can hope to benefit from owing to the reality whiteness is treated as the cultural default in American society. We can only pretend not to see black people, their trials and their tribulations for so long. Many people of color, meanwhile, can’t help but see how differences in skin color matter, because they’ve experienced some degree of prejudice or animosity against them. In other words, to insist “all lives matter” because “race doesn’t matter” is to suffer from a serious case of white privilege.

Besides this bit of sociological theory, when it comes to simple logic, the concepts of “black lives matter” and “all lives matter” shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. After all, if all lives truly matter, there should be no problem admitting that black lives, as a subset of all lives, matter in them of themselves. Saying “black lives matter” doesn’t mean you believe that black lives matter more than others. It means you believe that black lives should matter as much those of whites and other races, which is clearly not the case, because if it were, there would be no need for a movement called Black Lives Matter in the first place. Black lives matter. Say it. If you can’t, we already have a problem.

Black Lives Matter is not all about killing police.

The vast, vast majority of people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are opposed to violence against cops as well as violence against everyday citizens at the hands of the police. I obviously can’t speak for the organization or for black people in general, but I tend to think most African-Americans have respect for individual officers of the law, and activists who criticize police departments are interested in bringing only those who abuse the badge to justice, as well as dismantling the prejudicial systems that facilitate bad behavior within their ranks. To put this another way, protests by black activists, by and large, do not cause violence—but rather expose it. Calling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist” organization or “hate group” is a blatant attempt to de-legitimize the movement because it doesn’t fit a certain narrative—or worse, is designed specifically to silence the truth.

Not all protesters want to burn buildings, loot stores, or smash windows.

Just as very few African-Americans encourage hostility and violence against police officers, it is the worst among them who show their frustration at brutality against their brothers and sisters in the form of rioting, violence and destruction. Certainly, most people within the black communities affected by unrest like that experienced in Baltimore and now Charlotte would condemn this sort of behavior, and I don’t excuse those actions. Still, even if the logic behind expressing one’s rage by lighting a car on fire is faulty, you can understand the raw emotion behind it, can’t you?

Well, if you’re white, maybe you can’t. Whatever your level of sympathy, viewing violent protests through a biased lens—that is, viewing looting and rioting as an inherently “black” phenomenon—is faulty in its own right. I mean, in 2011, following a Game 7 loss by the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, there was a riot in the city of Vancouver. In Canada, for gosh darn’s sake! If a bunch of riled-up hosers can tear shit up, anyone has that potential—black or white.

Barring one or more outstanding warrants, personal histories don’t matter when it comes to why someone is stopped by police or why they end up shot and killed.

Almost immediately after news breaks of a shooting by officers of the law of a black suspect, the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd and vigilante social media “thug” police set upon providing reasons why the men and women with the badges were unequivocally justified in their response, and why the deceased, in all likelihood, deserved it. As a function of what frequently amounts to character assassination, this sanctioning of police brutality is viewed through the lens of some criminal past of the victim’s, as if to say, “He wasn’t exactly the most law-abiding citizen. Why am I not surprised he reached for his gun?”

Stop. Unless the person gets killed had outstanding warrants for his or her arrest necessitating pursuit or influencing the judgment of the police officers involved, any criminal history is irrelevant. Alton Sterling pulled a gun on a homeless person who kept asking him for money. Did he deserve to die for it? Philando Castile had numerous run-ins with the police for traffic violations. Did he deserve his fate too? In so many cases of police brutality and shootings, and of police interceding in general, a critical element of why African-Americans and other people of color are stopped is the color of their skin. It’s called racial profiling, and I’m sure you know the term. Police forces say they don’t do it or encourage it, much as we white people might say we aren’t racist against blacks, but to that, I say they totally do it, and for all of us melanin-challenged individuals, here’s another term for you: implicit racism. Look it up. You might actually learn something.

Besides, if we’re invoking people’s personal histories and legal troubles, there’s a chance the same preceding logic of “they were probably guilty” can be used the other way around. In the case of Terrence Crutcher, Officer Betty Shelby was arrested for manslaughter for her role in the shooting. Shelby, as it turns out, was mentioned in a Tulsa PD November 2010 use of force report, has been involved in several domestic incidents in her adult life, and by her own admission, used marijuana recreationally as a teenager. If we’re applying the same conduct standards to Betty Shelby, then she’s lucky she’s on the “right” side of the badge, because she might as well have been shot in that moment. For her sake, all that’s important is what Shelby and witnesses say happened leading up to and including Crutcher’s shooting, what the evidence of the crime scene bears out, and whether the reports and the evidence match. Unless you’re already doubting her judgment just because she’s a woman (I, for the record, am not), and that’s another proverbial can of worms I don’t care to open in this space.

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Betty Shelby was cited in a 2010 use of force report by the Tulsa Police Department and was involved in multiple domestic incidents in her adult life. By some people’s logic, doesn’t that mean she’s probably guilty in her own criminal case? (Photo Credit: Tulsa County Jail)

Black people are allowed to have guns in an open-carry jurisdiction.

I’m no jurist, but um, I believe this is true. If everyone in a particular state is allowed to carry a gun, as an extension of our vaunted Second Amendment rights, then in theory, all things considered equal, an African-American suspected of wrongdoing should be viewed as no more hostile or a threat than an individual by any other skin color. And yet, we know this isn’t the case. Despite evidence cited by John Halstead and others that blacks shot by police are no more likely to be an imminent lethal threat to officers than whites in similar situations, they are disproportionately fired upon by officers of the law, and it has nothing to do with them being “violent criminals” or even being apprehended in a “violent” community. The predicting factor is their race. And I’m not even going to go into a diatribe about the disproportionate number of African-Americans targeted as potential perpetrators of crimes or arrested and jailed for committing certain crimes, notably drug-related offenses—even though there is plenty, ahem, ammunition on this front.

What this all boils down to, essentially, is that there is a double standard for blacks and whites carrying guns in the United States of America, as there is with any number of individual liberties. Bill Maher recently discussed this subject on Real Time, arguing, among other things: 1) there is a double standard for gun carry and ownership in this country, such that “open carry” apparently only means “open carry for white people” (on a related note, Maher suggested that, evidently, only white people like Donald Trump are justified in their anger, whereas black protestors and Black Lives Matter activists are treated as agitators or advocates of violence against police/whites), 2) that police should not automatically be “emptying their clips” at the first sign of something that “makes them nervous,” and 3) that officers like Betty Shelby should be better trained to handle a situation such as the one involving the death of Terrence Crutcher, and if they are still as nervous as Shelby appears to have been during their fateful encounter, they shouldn’t be doing their job, or at least not in such a capacity that they could potentially end someone’s life at a routine traffic stop. Granted, people like myself and Bill Maher don’t know what it’s like emotionally and physically to be involved in such an altercation as the one Betty Shelby faced from the officer’s point of view, but just the same, I don’t feel police officers and their departments should be above scrutiny on the use of force. Not when lives hang in the balance.

If an official video recording of a shooting exists, in the interest of transparency, police departments should want the public to see the footage.

You know, unless there’s something they don’t want the public to see—though that won’t necessarily stop the truth from eventually emerging, especially not in this day of cell phone ubiquity. What has struck me about the rather defensive reaction from a number of local police unions, police departments, and even supporters of the men and women in blue after fatal shooting events is that these groups seem to have forgotten that the police work to serve and protect the public—and not the other way around. Of course, this does not mean we should encourage police to walk into dangerous situations without the requisite defenses. Many good people have lost their lives in the interest of preserving order. At the same time, however, if protocol is being observed and a reasonable person would be able to observe that the apprehending officer or officers acted responsibly, there should be no reason forces shouldn’t want us to see the footage. Even if one or more officers involved unknowingly violated established guidelines, given the gravity or peril of the situation, they could be afforded some administrative clemency, or some sympathy from the general public. Likewise, when there is evidence to suggest that failure to comply with laws/rules manifested, as in the case of an officer “going rogue,” the powers-that-be in police departments should want to know this information. After all, these departments, as part of a larger and valuable societal institution, should strive to remain above reproach, and in theory, should be thankful to those that point out wrongdoing within their ranks.

Instead, as noted, the prevailing sentiment seems to be one of contentious resistance to criticism and scrutiny of our uniformed police. Black Lives Matter and other black rights activists protest the use of deadly force when it is seemingly unwarranted, only to be painted as would-be cop killers and ingrates. Colin Kaepernick kneels to acknowledge there is injustice in America’s criminal justice system today during the playing of the National Anthem. He, too, is branded disrespectful and a traitor, and is angrily told that if he doesn’t like it, he can kindly move to Canada or some other country. Beyoncé pays homage to the Black Panthers during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Police threaten to boycott her shows. Indeed, while not exactly a uniform response, too many uniformed police have met well-founded objections and calls for justice with, to be honest, fairly childish attitudes. It is, in fact, possible to still show respect for officers of the law and want to see proper procedure followed and offenders brought to justice. Money and privilege shouldn’t exempt people from prosecution, and neither should the badge.


There’s much more on this subject upon which to expound, but I’ll leave it to the people truly qualified to wax philosophical on what is the right course of action going forward for the country. Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ll have ample opportunity to revisit these same themes in the near future. Another shooting. Another community in grief. Another dash of salt in a deep wound that divides our nation, black and white, as well as though who see there is a problem versus those who think people are merely “playing the race card” and trying unduly to invoke a sense of white guilt. This issue is not going away, and with people continuing to take sides and becoming more entrenched in their belief the other side is wrong, or even what’s wrong with America, it’s evidently not going away anytime soon.

The larger significance of tragedies like the shootings of Terrence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I submit, is that if more accountability is not demanded of those who serve the public interest on behalf of African-Americans and people of color—be they elected politicians, executives of publicly-held corporations, officers of the law, or other individuals in positions of influence—this moves us all dangerously further along the path to wide disparities of power between the public and those who represent it. Congress is already disliked by a vast majority of Americans for being beholden to special interests and generally proving ineffective in authoring substantive public policy. Numerous corporations over the years have violated the trust of their customers and shareholders in the quest for short-term profits and maximum gains. If police forces continue to operate all but unchecked, their actions sanctioned by juries of shooting victims’ peers and certain task forces resembling miniature armies, those apocalyptic visions of the future we have seen in sci-fi movies, in which cities and whole countries are ruled as part of a police state, might not seem so far-fetched down the road after all. I may seem like I’m being overdramatic here, but many of us probably thought a Donald Trump presidency was a joke or a worst-case scenario—and yet here we are.

In short, wake the f**k up, White America. People are being killed in incidents that objective observers have likened to lynching. Real, flesh-and-blood human beings are dying in the street, in instances in which deadly force likely could have been avoided. And if we keep trying to deflect blame and reason away this fact, we all risk having our civil liberties infringed upon and our overall sense of freedom curtailed at the hands of larger forces. Until we realize that the deaths of American citizens like Terrence Crutcher and Keith Scott affect us all, we’re not ready to make real progress in the United States. Not by a long shot.

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