I would like members of the “just vote” crowd to ponder if they, given the chance, would say the same to the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor if they met them face to face.
Despite what they may mean as catalysts in the push for change, the murders of Floyd and Taylor are tragedies. The victims are gone (at least in corporeal form) and no amount of “justice,” retributive or otherwise, could hope to bring them back. Accountability for all those involved and meaningful reform are only some measures of consolation.
In Floyd’s case, the four officers at the scene were charged and face an eventual trial, though at this writing, cameras have not been approved for use in the courtroom. Lest we forget, it wasn’t until the Attorney General’s office stepped in that prosecutors levied charges with teeth against these police in the first place. In Taylor’s case, the city of Louisville reached a $12 million settlement with her family and planned reforms, but no one has been arrested. As many critics have agreed, Breonna’s family deserves that much money and more, but that is not true accountability or justice.
What else do the deaths of Floyd and Taylor have in common? They occurred in jurisdictions led by Democrats. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey and Minnesota governor Tim Walz are members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, not to mention both state senators. Louisville mayor Greg Fischer and Kentucky governor Andy Beshear are Democrats.
Beshear, Frey, and Walz may get some of benefit of the doubt having only started their tenures last year or in 2018, but Democrats have held the gubernatorial seat since 2011 in Minnesota and have controlled the Minneapolis mayoral seat since 1978. It’s not as if there hasn’t been ample time for action, even if we’re accounting for assumed Republican resistance to reform (and let’s not let them off the hook either).
Eric Garner. Rayshard Brooks. The list goes on. These people were killed at the hands of police despite living in places run by Democrats either at the municipal or state level. This is not to say that elected officials should be held accountable for every act of violence that happens on their watch. That said, their responses in these situations merit scrutiny, and regardless, that police brutality is so pervasive independent of party control flies in the face of the “just vote” mentality.
This is where I reassure the reader that, despite my misgivings, I believe fundamentally that everyone who can should vote. A free and fair vote is the cornerstone of any representative democracy (how free and fair it is merits further discussion, but I am speaking purely in the abstract) and elections matter, often increasingly so the more local they get.
Lord knows I have been told as much repeatedly by Democrats and other staunch defenders of Joe Biden. This presidential election is of utmost importance. I would tell you that “it’s the most important election of our lifetime,” except people always say that and, even if it’s true, I feel like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse by repeating this line. You probably don’t need convincing on this dimension.
Indeed, I don’t take issue with voting or, for that matter, who one votes for. I might tell you your vote is ill-advised, especially if you’re voting Republican, but that’s your choice. It is specifically the “just vote” mentality as a means of dismissing legitimate concerns that I seek to admonish here because it fails to appreciate the magnitude of struggles for marginalized people and because it gets weaponized against progressives as a means of quelling dissent within Democratic Party ranks.
The examples of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are extreme, though salient, topical, and illustrative of how ingrained injustice is from a racial and socioeconomic perspective. Expanding the conversation beyond police violence, the theme yet applies. San Francisco, despite a reputation for liberalism, has been the site of high rates of homelessness mediated by a pronounced housing shortage. Seattle, likewise regarded for being more liberal, has suffered its own homelessness crisis.
Independent of the affiliation of elected leadership, widening income and wealth inequality underscore the hardships faced by so many Americans. The pandemic has only intensified these woes, exposing the fragility of our way of life after suffering a shock to the system like a global health emergency. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, for some reason asked to speak at the Democratic National Convention, referred to COVID-19 as a metaphor in a nod to this theme. Strictly speaking, if this all is a metaphor, someone forgot to tell the virus because it seems pretty real to me. That said, it does put existing societal ills under a microscope such that their existence and pervasiveness are easily visible.
Over 200,000 people have died in the United States as a result of COVID-19 infection, and more states than not are headed in the wrong direction in terms of the rate of increase of positive tests. Meanwhile, congressional leadership is fretting about the price tag of a second round of stimulus checks and politicians are extoling the virtues of “affordable” health care, including a vaccine which is still in its testing or theoretical phase. All the while, the richest among us are making bank off this health crisis. Our suffering is their opportunity. It’s downright deflating, but not surprising under a system in which capital is prized above all else—plant and animal life, people, the planet itself.
This is the world “just vote” has given us: a world in which engagement dies after the votes are counted and people wear their modest civic participation around like it’s a major achievement. Privilege that it is, voting should be an afterthought and not the sum total of one’s efforts. It is not a panacea. The party loyalists who insist otherwise seeking a return to normalcy and the ability to go back to brunch or back to sleep are standing in the way of progress, plain and simple.
Adding a new wrinkle to the sense of urgency surrounding the 2020 presidential election is the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Though anytime someone is regarded with iconic status, our recollection of that person tends to be rosier than their full record perhaps warrants, the “Notorious RBG’s” advocacy for women’s rights and personal crusade against gender-based discrimination can’t be ignored when discussing her legacy. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a veritable trailblazer when it came to her service on the Supreme Court and she earned her place in history.
For the “vote blue no matter who” crowd, Bader Ginsburg’s seat was already a key component of their cajoling of uncommitted left-leaners into electoral acquiescence. Think of RBG! Think of the Supreme Court! In fairness, this is one of the more compelling arguments they could make. A strong imbalance on the court in favor of conservatives could endanger any number of human rights, notably reproductive rights. Coincidentally, Democratic causes and candidates have raised more than $100 million since RBG’s passing, and one might imagine a number of these donations were made with the fate of Roe v. Wade in mind.
That congressional Democrats and Joe Biden appear to be taking a stand against Republican efforts to try to ram a replacement through the confirmation process is encouraging. Though no one in their right mind would have wished for Bader Ginsburg’s death, that her passing could be the spark for a unified front by the broadly-stated “Left” communicates the sense that there is something worth fighting for within the Democratic Party structure. In a year that has been all but a bust for progressives on the national stage, this infuses the march to November with a new energy.
Of course, these gains won’t last forever and even if Democrats regain control of both the White House and the Senate, their feet will need to be held to the fire. We know “just vote.” We’ve seen it, heard it, and lived through it. There’s a better way forward. Our very future depends on it.
Admittedly, I am sometimes reticent about opining on movements like Black Lives Matter and the types of protests set off by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of uniformed police. I feel that black activists should be in the lead on advancing the national conversation on issues relevant to BLM, and moreover, I realize I am not the most educated and certainly not the most qualified to speak on these matters, my experience grounded in middle-class, mostly white suburban life.
All these things considered, and under the premise that “silence is violence,” I feel as though I have to say something, to take a stand. Over the past two weeks, I have had numerous conversations with friends, family, and co-workers regarding the protests and riots that have swept America and have even manifested in other countries where disproportionate brutality against blacks is very real. Some of the responses were illuminating, to say the least, and suggest to me that we need to keep (or, in some cases, start) having uncomfortable conversations about race, class, politics, social issues, and every intersection therein.
The following are some thoughts on topics related to the wave of protests we’ve seen. These thoughts are mine, meaning I take full responsibility for them, though I acknowledge that people with more complete perspectives have helped influence my views as they currently stand.
George Floyd was murdered.
Not killed, murdered. Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes, with Floyd indicating at various points that he couldn’t breathe and numerous observers noting that Floyd wasn’t resisting (a common defense of police officers in situations like these which clearly doesn’t apply). Chauvin should’ve gotten at least a second-degree murder charge and the officers accompanying him likewise deserved their aiding and abetting charges for doing nothing while Floyd was being effectively choked to death.
I don’t give a shit about Floyd’s medical or criminal history.
So what if Floyd had underlying health conditions that contributed to his death. So what if he had a criminal record, and no, I don’t know anything about whether he does or doesn’t have one. The man had someone kneeing on his neck for close to nine minutes. That’s why he died.
I also don’t care if he was apprehended for paying with a counterfeit $20 bill. If Dylann Roof can shoot up a church in a racially-motivated attack and walk away with his life, it’s ridiculous to invoke Floyd’s reason for apprehension. George Floyd shouldn’t have died as a result of that encounter, full stop.
There’s no way Amy Klobuchar should be considered as a vice presidential nominee.
I feel like this goes without saying now, and even before the revelation she failed to hold Chauvin accountable for his role in prior incidents as Hennepin County attorney, Klobuchar was arguably a weak pick given her poor standing with voters of color and the idea that she wouldn’t have much to offer in the way of policy ideas to buttress a campaign in Joe Biden’s that has been largely devoid of specifics. With what we now know, picking Klobuchar for VP would feel downright suicidal.
Looting is not violence.
I get that people see looting and have strong opinions about it. I mean, who wants to have their things stolen or destroyed? Also, there’s the matter of not all businesses/structures being the same. If the target is, ahem, Target? I’m not very sympathetic. If people are looting a small business, especially a minority-owned business? That’s more deserving of sympathy.
To the extent that some individuals might be using these protests as an excuse to purely wreak havoc, I can’t say I support their actions. That said, looting is still a form of protest against an unjust system, one that has thus far resisted peaceful attempts to promote reform. Furthermore, property can be rebuilt or replaced. Human lives cannot. For this reason, equating looting with police brutality is a false equivalency and anyone wielding this argument in bad faith should be summarily dismissed.
Who has been responsible for most of the violence since these protests began? The police.
In video after video, the scene is set: Protests are peaceful until the cops come or decide to intervene. Whether it’s beating people with batons, pepper spray, rubber bullets, tear gas, or simply going out of their way to push, kick, drag or otherwise physically abuse civilians, uniformed police have frequently been among the worst agitators and perpetrators of violence of anyone involved. Even when there has been provocation, such as throwing bottles or rocks, often there’s a clear disparity of power and resources at work. These officers will be equipped with riot gear and weapons against otherwise unarmed protesters. If it comes down to it, that’s not a fair fight, and it’s not even close.
In one particularly egregious example, Aaron Torgalski, a member of Buffalo’s police department, intentionally knocked a 75-year-old man to the ground, whereupon he hit his head and started bleeding profusely. Not only did most officers not immediately rush to help the man, however, but some officers either walked past him or seemed to barely notice him lying motionless on the ground. To make matters worse, Buffalo PD tried to claim the man tripped and fell, when video evidence clearly indicates otherwise.
At this writing, the victim (who was white, not that it should matter, but just in case you were thinking this was purely about race) is thankfully stable but in serious condition. Regardless, this kind of unprovoked attack is reprehensible. It should be noted too that protesters aren’t the only ones who have felt the wrath of police brutality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Numerous journalists have been arrested, beaten, shot at, or otherwise intimidated by police despite clearly identifying themselves by their profession.
In one instance, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez was arrested on live television by Minnesota state police. Sure, there were apologies following this incident, but it’s absurd that it even happened in the first place, and journalists shouldn’t have to be afraid of doing their job. These examples of police violence against journalists are part of a disturbing global trend of increased violence against journalists. So much for the constitutional guarantee of a free press.
No, Senator Cotton, don’t send in the troops
That President Donald Trump would seek to invoke the Insurrection Act to send the military to states and quell protests unsolicited is enough to give one pause. That he would be echoed by sitting members of Congress, meanwhile, is unconscionable.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who indicated on Twitter earlier in the week that he would support offering “no quarter” to rioters (which, to be clear, is considered a war crime), penned an editorial titled “Send in the Troops,” which ran in The New York Times Opinion section on June 3. That the Times would even run this piece railing against antifa and “insurrectionists,” let alone have its inclusion later defended by editorial page editor James Bennet, has prompted a sizable backlash from the public and staff alike, notably for its potential to put black people in danger.
Cotton’s editorial, which the Times eventually said in a statement did not meet the publication’s standards for editorials, has been labeled as “fascist” by several critics. Whatever you call it, Cotton should never have written it and The New York Times should never have published it. Shameful.
Antifa is not a terrorist organization
It’s not even a real “organization,” lacking formal leadership. Either way, anti-fascists haven’t been responsible for any killings here in the United States. Police forces, on the other hand, obviously have.
The “outside agitator” narrative is BS
One last thing: Claims that “outside agitators” were responsible for destruction and looting in various cities have long been used to undermine protest movements and were cautioned against by Martin Luther King, Jr.
They discredit the ability of protesters to organize effectively, they distract from the central issue of police brutality, they downplay the spiritual connection of these protests, they are designed to make protesters’ cause look unsympathetic, and on top of all this, they can be used to justify violence against protesters because they communicate the sense that these are not our fellow constituents who are being beaten and harassed. You are advised to regard this narrative with skepticism, especially if the source appears suspect on this issue.
As always with mass protests like these, the question of what to do next is a pressing one. To act like we haven’t tried to formulate answers prior to George Floyd’s death, though, obscures the efforts of activists to design and implement interventions meant to reduce deadly police violence. As part of Campaign Zero, a campaign created in the wake of Ferguson protests after Michael Brown’s killing designed to end police violence, its organizers have outlined eight ways police forces can modify their use of force policies to produce better outcomes.
Failing to require officers to de-escalate situations.
Allowing officers to choke or strangle civilians.
Failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force.
Failing to restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
Failing to develop a Force Continuum (which limits the types of force and weapons that are used in situational responses).
Failing to require officers to exhaust all other reasonable means (before deadly force).
Failing to require officers to give a verbal warning (before firing).
Failing to require officers to report each time they use force or threaten the use of force (on civilians).
A review of 91 of the 100 largest cities in the United States revealed no police departments of those surveyed employing all eight interventions. Fewer than half required officers to de-escalate situations (#1), outlawed the use of chokeholds/strangleholds (#2), required officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force (#3), restricted officers from shooting at moving vehicles (#4), required exhaustion of means before deadly force (#6), or reported all uses of force including threatening a civilian with a firearm (#8). Minneapolis, in theory, requires officers to intervene in cases of excessive force. Until very recently, it did not ban choking or strangling civilians. Whatever the rules at the time, on both counts, the officers culpable in George Floyd’s death failed their duties, demonstrating the notion guidelines must not only be created, but enforced.
As noted, restricting the use of force is just one part of Campaign Zero’s agenda, which also involves ending “broken windows” policing, community oversight and representation, independent investigation/prosecution, expanded use of body cams, training, an end of for-profit policing, demilitarization of police forces, and fair police union contracts. Calls for de-funding, if not abolishing police forces, have been widespread. In light of the short shrift community social programs seem to suffer in so many cities at the expense of soaring police budgets, the former, at least, seems overdue.
These are common-sense reforms. As protests continue across America, what is vital in preserving momentum for enacting real change is having the uncomfortable conversations we need to have and should’ve been having with those around us who don’t approach these matters from a progressive bent and who conceivably might be allies in the struggle to recognize that black lives matter. We can’t keep refusing to talk about politics and social issues because it is awkward or upsetting. We have to rip off the proverbial bandages and examine the deep wounds in our society for what they are if we ever hope to heal as one people.
George Floyd’s killer and his accessories have been charged. The winds of social change are blowing. Long after these riots and protests subside, however, and outside the scope of ending police brutality, there is much more work to be done to address systemic racism in our world and widening income and wealth equality that threaten to swallow the lot of us whole. This includes stepping outside our bubbles and challenging the views of those not yet committed to a better future for all.
We all have a part to play in this. Whose side on are you on?
In the interim before Donald Trump was sworn into office, no one was quite sure what to expect when the orange-faced one with a predilection for comically long ties would take the reins. He was, by most accounts, long on rhetoric and short on defined policy goals, such that when he finally was made official as the 45th President of the United States of America, observers were keen to look for any signs of possible shifts in our country’s approach to various economic, political, and social issues. In the early going, the White House’s official website proved to be quite the good indicator of where the Trump administration stands on key topics. Before we had even gotten to February, Trump and Co. had purged the site of pages referring to climate change, civil rights/LGBT rights, and regulations.
Obviously, these were symbolic gestures, but given how swift and specific the changes were, as well as the weight they took on considering they were coming from the leader of the nation, they spoke volumes. More than half a year since these alterations went into effect, Pres. Trump has since pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement—a symbolic device in it of itself—has vowed to roll back Dodd-Frank, backed by Paul Ryan and his pro-business lackeys in Congress; and has issued a directive to ban transgender people from the United States military, with apparent intentions to remove protections for the LGBT community within the Affordable Care Act and having communicated a position that favors the ability of businesses to discriminate against homosexuals all in the name of “religious freedom.” In short, it was evident early on in Donald Trump’s presidency that this was a new day and age for the U.S.A.—except that it was a return to previous positions marked by a deliberate reversal against progress we’ve made over the years and decades. We were “making America great again”—two steps forward and five steps back.
Perhaps the most notable change made to the White House’s official website, however, particularly in light of how Donald Trump started his campaign, was the removal of Spanish-language content from whitehouse.gov. As you’ll recall, Trump began his political ascendancy by essentially boiling down the entire country of Mexico—one with a rich culture and history—down to a haven for crime, drugs, and rape. You know, with some decent folks sprinkled in. As Trump stayed more than relevant in the polls, his message grew no more nuanced regarding his characterization of our neighbor to the south and his potential policies to be enacted, with calls for a costly, ineffective, imprudent, and literally divisive wall to be built growing ever louder and threatening to start a row between the countries with the insistence that Mexico pays for the wall after the election. Or, if you’re former Mexican president Vicente Fox, that f**king wall. Guy likes his expletives—what can I say?
Heretofore, that bleeping monstrosity has yet to be constructed, but an appreciably different tone has been taken toward the issue of immigration—both legal and illegal. While the Obama administration was responsible for its fair share of deportations, the increased vigor with which ICE agents have gone after undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they have committed violent crimes has evoked greater feelings of fear and a heightened sense that these deportations are being carried out as a measure of deliberate cruelty. As for the legal immigration aspect, so too does a shift seem to be underway regarding white supremacists’ notions of empowerment and entitlement following Trump’s electoral victory that would see America reject an international mindset and multiculturalism as detrimental forces to the country. To those who are willing participants in what is termed as a “culture war,” this is a conflict for the very soul of the nation. As protracted conflicts go, so too does collateral damage, and one need look no further than the violence in Charlottesville to see just how much people believe this ideological clash to be one worth physically and emotionally fighting.
The latest turn in the ongoing saga that is Donald Trump’s America vs. Mexicans, Muslims, and other people of color, is related to his pardoning of a figure central to the issue of immigration. A figure that, to call him controversial, would be akin to calling water wet. With Hurricane Harvey barreling down on the state of Texas and much of the United States duly distracted, President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, known to many as “Sheriff Joe.” Arpaio was facing a contempt of court charge stemming from his willful disregard of a federal court order from 2011. The original complaint was filed in 2007 when his department detained a Mexican man with a valid tourist’s visa for nine hours. Arpaio and the rest of the MCSO were found to be in violation in this instance and others, stopping motorists based on racial profiling and effectually trying to enforce immigration law out of their jurisdiction (immigration law is a federal issue, not a state matter). Joe Arpaio, though, not one to go gently into that good night, openly defied the order, even going as far as to tell local news media he wasn’t going to abide by the court’s mandate and lying under oath to misrepresent the fact his department was still profiling and making immigration-based arrests. So, in 2015, Arpaio, still Maricopa County sheriff, was charged with civil contempt of court, and last year, when a U.S. District Judge assessed that Sheriff Joe still wasn’t doing a very good job of not doing the feds’ job, she found him guilty of criminal contempt and set sentencing for October 5. That’s when President Trump swooped in and pardoned Joe Arpaio, no longer head of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office after losing in his re-election bid this past November.
OK, so maybe the Artist Formerly Known as Sheriff Joe was a bit zealous in wanting to uphold immigration law as well as that endemic to Maricopa County. One would imagine he is not the only lawman to feel this way, and Arizona does possess its own unique challenges within the immigration sphere. Moreover, as Arpaio’s supporters would allege, this trial was, above all else, a “show trial.” The man was working with the federal government to help them in their pursuit of those who had failed to abide by the law. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? You’d really put an octogenarian in jail for up to six months? If it were just about giving the federal courts the proverbial middle finger, perhaps one might be tempted to agree with Joe Arpaio’s fervent champions. Might, I stress, might.
Thus far, however, we have only scratched the surface of how Joe Arpaio became one of the most hated sheriffs, if not the most hated sheriff, in all of America. Michelle Mark, writing for Business Insider, profiles the litany of policies enacted under Arpaio’s watch that human rights activists would find more than disagreeable. He removed salt and pepper as well as coffee from the meals at county jails, of which there were only two a day. He held inmates outside in “Tent City” in extreme conditions in summer and winter with limited amounts of cold water during the former and meant no heaters or jackets during the latter. His office was regularly cited for use of excessive force, including use of pepper spray and restraint chairs. He approved of “random” searches of cars for people suspected of being illegal immigrants (which, often enough, were Native Americans instead of Hispanics/Latinos), and supported Arizona SB 1070, also known as the “Papers, Please” law and ratified in 2010, which essentially allowed uniformed police to harass and intimidate people within Arizona’s Spanish-speaking community. For all his bluster about being America’s “toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office were sued an inordinate amount of times from the families of those convicted of crimes, alleging police brutality. What makes this all especially egregious is that the Justice Department knew full well of the scope of Arpaio’s use of racial profiling and other misdeeds, but let him off with little more than a slap on the wrist. Democrat Janet Napolitano, prior to becoming governor of Arizona, led that investigation. So, naturally, whose endorsement did Napolitano seek and get in advance of her first gubernatorial election victory? Joe Arpaio’s. Politics is great like that, huh?
But, wait—it gets better. And, of course, by “better,” I mean, worse. Reporters like Michelle Mark and pontificating bloggers such as myself speak about Joe Arpaio’s transgressions from afar, but the powers-that-be behind the Phoenix New Times, a free local newspaper, have had a front row seat to the kind of bullshit Arpaio and his former department regularly pulled in the name of “law and order.” In an epic series of Tweets, the periodical’s official Twitter account provided additional context for how Sheriff Joe ran the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Here are some of the, ahem, “highlights”:
Going back to that Tent City business, Arpaio unapologetically referred to his creation as a “concentration camp.”
Inmates in his jails died at a disproportionate rate to other such facilities, whether because they took their own lives or as a direct result of harsh treatment by their jailers. Often, the MCSO had no explanation for these fatalities.
One time, as a publicity stunt, Arpaio had Latino inmates marched into a segregated area with electric fencing.
He also ran, before its ultimate cancellation, a “Mugshot of the Day” feature on the MCSO website where the public could vote on pictures of prisoners for their enjoyment.
The department failed to investigate scores of sex abuse cases, but had enough time to send a deputy to Hawaii to try to procure Barack Obama’s birth certificate. (Yup. He was/is a birther.)
Following the official finding by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow that Arpaio had been profiling Latinos, he hired a private investigator to investigate the judge and his wife. He also attempted to destroy evidence specifically requested by the judge.
Arpaio had a “Sheriff’s Posse,” one of whom was brought up on child porn charges, and according to the New Times, the Sheriff’s Office was “responsible for countless fiascos” like a “botched SWAT raid, where deputies set a puppy on fire.” That doesn’t exactly sound like serving and protecting, if you ask me.
It is with a hint of irony, then, that Joe Arpaio’s supporters talk about court proceedings against him being a “show trial” and that Arpaio himself derides it all as being a “witch hunt” when he has exhibited all the signs of being a showman—even when countless lives stand to hang in the balance. That Donald Trump, a consummate showman and strongman in his own right, would pardon him sends a clear message about where we are in the state of American politics, and it likewise clearly communicates to his core supporters that the fears and prejudices of white America will be held sacrosanct above the rights of all others. Justice for all? Not by a long shot.
The debate over whether or not Joe Arpaio deserved his pardon unfortunately can invoke the kind of conflicts which denote the existence of the phrase “Blue Lives Matter.” Arpaio was a lawman, and I imagine he and the MCSO were responsible for their fair share of apprehending legitimate violent criminals. This does not, however, and should not exculpate him of what would appear to be a long list of offenses against the civil rights of inmates in Maricopa County jails, not to mention those who suffered physical harm, psychological distress, and/or death as a function of being housed in these “correctional facilities.” Simply put, two wrongs do not make a right, and that Arpaio might’ve gotten six months in jail for criminal contempt of court would have realistically been getting off light in light of the destruction he has encouraged in Hispanic/Latino communities. I’m not a religious person, but if Hell exists, I firmly believe Joe Arpaio may have earned himself a spot there—if only temporarily. Moreover, by characterizing Sheriff Joe in this way, I am recognizing that those sworn to uphold the law may abuse their privileges, but I am not condemning police forces and uniformed police wholesale. I believe most individuals who wear the badge do the right thing and want to do so because it is the right thing. Some, on the other hand, are bad actors, as with any profession. At least from where I’m standing, rather than reacting defensively to any outside criticism, those police should want to know when one of their own has been irresponsible or derelict in his or her duties. That is, the universal fraternity of policemen and policewomen has its limits.
Returning to an earlier notion and somewhat of a devil’s advocate distinction, Arpaio is not the only sheriff who has been accused of approaching law enforcement at all levels with—shall we say—extreme robustness. Still, he and others like him shouldn’t be celebrated or pardoned by the President of the United States, much less have their latest book plugged on Twitter. Such was the case when Donald Trump took to his favorite medium to hock Sheriff David Clarke’s book and to cheer him as a great man. There’s any number of problems with these sentiments coming from POTUS, not the least of which is that, based on what we know of Mr. Trump, dude doesn’t read all that much, so how he can recommend something he almost certainly has never cracked open? Besides this, though, Clarke, sheriff of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, is a notorious figure in his own right. As with Joe Arpaio, David Clarke and his office have been the subject of numerous lawsuits alleging abuse and neglect of inmates, even to the point of death. Plus, while we, ahem, shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I’m not immediately sure why cowboy hats should be a thing in Wisconsin. Is this standard issue or does Clarke just wear it because he’s the “Sheriff?” This is the Midwest, not the Wild West.
We like to subscribe to the black-and-white narrative in the United States of America that all police are of exemplary character and, conversely, that all people behind bars are deserving of their fate because of some character defect. The reality, of course, is much more complicated, and as literal issues of black and white go, matters of race factor heavily into why. The seemingly never-ending tally of black suspects being murdered at the hands of police despite relatively minor offenses (see also “driving while black”) demands accountability of the individual officers responsible for the escalations that lead to these deaths as well as that of the departments which assign and train these arms of the force. Racial profiling and disproportionate apprehension/sentencing of people of color are critical to understanding the systemic racism inherent in our modern-day prison-industrial complex. Joe Arpaio’s pardoning at the hands of Donald Trump was a symbolic gesture, but this is not to say it doesn’t resonate deeply with Americans of differing demographics and ideologies. It is basically the President of the United States thumbing his nose at Latinos, liberals, and those who would reject a “tough love” approach to law enforcement in this country, and pouring more kerosene on the Republican Party’s burning bridge between white America and people of color. It sets a terrible precedent, and should not be sanctioned by neither the left nor the right in the name of common decency.
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.
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.
These days, with cameras on every cellphone and the proliferation of online content and social media such that content is easily shared and thus highly visible, not much that we as human beings do goes unnoticed. The NFL, of course, one of the most successful organizations in professional sports today, is no exception. That’s why when running back Marshawn Lynch took to the sidelines and enjoyed some celebratory Skittles once upon a time, or quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to sneak a bite of a hot dog while as the quarterback of the New York Jets, or when Sanchez, still with the Jets, um, picked his nose and wiped it on his teammate’s jersey, word got around, and because the Internet remembers everything, these athletes will always be linked to their less-than-private moments.
It is no great wonder, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions and comments concerning police brutality against African-Americans and the overall treatment of blacks in the United States have caused such a firestorm of controversy. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback—though whether or not he will actually remain on the team has been in question even before he started gaining attention for his political and social stances—has caused a stir among casual football fans and even those people who don’t follow sports for his decision not to stand up for the playing of the national anthem before the start of a recent preseason contest. Here’s what Kaepernick had to say about his very public, ahem, stand on the issue of race relations in America:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Colin Kaepernick is not mincing his words here, and I am of the belief that he shouldn’t with respect to a subject of such relevance today, necessitating talk of expanding the use of body cameras within police forces and activism on the part of Black Lives Matter and other like-minded groups. Certainly, though, others disagree with his viewpoint, not to mention the form of his protest, and made their objections to his silent refusal very vocal indeed. Former New York Giants running back and current CBS Sports radio show host Tiki Barber, for one, voiced his displeasure with Kaepernick’s actions, saying this:
I agree with his desire to continue the narrative. There are issues in this country. That, you have to commend him for. But I don’t commend him for sitting and not honoring this country and our flag.
Barber, for his trouble, was roundly criticized for aiming to lecture someone on their behavior when he, among other things, ditched his pregnant wife for his 23-year-old blonde “sidepiece,” but at least his argument was a more nuanced one. Others were more unequivocal, with athletes from other sports such as John Daly and Tony Stewart going so far as to call Colin Kaepernick an “idiot.” And lest we envision this as merely a black-vs.-white controversy, instead of a red, white and blue one, former NFL player and sports personality Rodney Harrison had to recently apologize for comments he made in anger that Kaepernick isn’t really black (Colin was born to a white mother and raised by white adoptive parents). Clearly, not all current and former players support Colin Kaepernick, and perhaps fittingly, there aren’t clean divisions of opinions along racial lines regarding the biracial quarterback’s protest.
However seriously football players, athletes and other critics are taking Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, for those who disagree with it, the same types of comments seem to predominate, and I think each is worthy of dissection on its own merit.
“He should respect the flag.”
Jerry Rice, whose legacy among the greatest wide receivers ever to play in the National Football League is unquestioned, is among those who believe not standing for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner equates to disrespecting the American flag, and by proxy, I guess, America. To say that Colin Kaepernick, by staying seated, it is disrespecting the flag, however, may be to make a faulty assumption. The Supreme Court has affirmed twice within the past 30 years that flag desecration, in particular burning, is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution as “symbolic speech.” Granted, one can’t just go taking other people’s flags and burning them all willy-nilly, but like it or not, people can burn the flag however they want, barring context-specific restrictions. In Kaepernick’s case, he is merely refusing to stand, and certainly not bringing flames into the situation. Literally speaking, the QB isn’t doing anything to make a demonstration against the Stars and Stripes.
“He’s disrespecting the men and women who serve our country.”
In his explanation of the reasons behind his actions, there’s nothing to suggest Colin Kaepernick is showing a disrespect toward or protest against members of the United States military, let alone those who serve and protect the public faithfully as officers of the law. Kaepernick’s concerns are with systemic bias and prejudice against blacks and other people of color in America, and accordingly, reflect frustration with racial inequality rather than specific individuals. Either way, again, he is not making any pointed attacks against our servicemen and -women, and is simply showing his discontent for the status quo. Moreover, it is not out of character for him, as he frequently posts civil rights-oriented material on social media.
Such is apparently the state of today’s hyper-patriotism where any perceived slight against our soldiers or against the United States, whether this takes the form of choosing not to stand for the playing of the national anthem, criticizing the endless War on Terror (and bear in mind, this is a knock on the mission and its parameters or lack thereof, not the troops themselves), or not wishing to throw piles of money at the Department of Defense, is liable to earn someone of an opposing viewpoint a harsh rebuke. However, it is not as if our veterans would necessarily think raging against conscientious objectors to standing for the Star-Spangled Banner is the right course of action. Going back to 1989 and the notion of flag desecration, before United States v. Eichman reaffirmed flag burning is protected as free speech, President Bush signed into law the Flag Protection Act of 1989, and who protested by lighting cloth aflame? It was Vietnam veterans, furious in thinking they put their lives on the line so that future generations could have fewer freedoms. As they would have it, they fought for the sanctity of the Constitution, not for a piece of colored fabric that costs $20 or less at the local store.
“There’s a time and a place for that kind of protest.”
This paraphrases the thoughts of Alex Boone, an offensive lineman now with the Minnesota Vikings, who admittedly has a bit of a personal connection to the Stars and Stripes and to our Armed Forces with a brother who served as a Marine in deadly combat situations. Here’s some more of what he had to say when interviewed by reporters and asked how he would’ve handled the situation if he were still playing for San Francisco, in his own words:
See, I’m a very emotional person. So I think if I had known that, my emotions would’ve been rolling—I think we would’ve had a problem on the sideline. And I get that he can do whatever he wants. But there’s a time and a place. Show some respect, and that’s just how I feel.
With all due respect to showing respect, Alex, what exactly is the right time and place for such a protest? At 3 AM in his living room—with no one around him? This is the big problem I have with people suggesting there’s a time and place for a protest. I think if it were up to people like Boone, such a show of dissent would never occur, at least not in this country. Often enough, when people offer some pointed criticism of the United States that is judged by others who are self-appointed arbiters of patriotism as borderline heretical, they will offer something along the lines of, “You don’t like it here? Why don’t you leave?” Presumably, these angry defenders of America’s virtues would be apt to point the original critic to Canada, or Europe, or some other region assessed to be a home “for pussies.”
Barring the logistical difficulties of suddenly relocating upon request, this kind of thinking, despite the “best” intentions of the jingoist expressing herself of himself, is the most un-American expression of them all, in that it tries to squelch those opinions the expresser doesn’t like, thereby ironically limiting expression. It is thereby antithetical to our American ideal of the “home of the free.” In modern-day political and social theory, a mindset outside of black-or-white thinking seems to be one of a dying breed, such that one must agree or disagree with a political candidate, ideology or party in sum, or else risk looking wishy-washy or whiny. Speaking of black and white, as we must keep stressing, Colin Kaepernick is sitting out the playing of the national anthem because of the need he feels to express his anguish at seeing African-Americans get routinely shot and killed by police, a sentiment that already has been co-opted by the kinds of people who see Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization and inherently anti-cop or anti-white (see also All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter). Now throw a perceived slight toward past and present members of the military into the fray, and there’s no way Kaepernick’s message can survive over the shouting. Or, as Dylan Hernandez, writing for the Los Angeles Times put it, “A well-meaning Colin Kaepernick starts a conversation that, sadly, seems headed nowhere.”
As you might imagine, not everyone has been critical of Colin Kaepernick, though it should be noted few public figures have fully embraced him, either deferring to the idea “it’s a free country,” or saying they feel his message is important without “approving of his methods.” Hall of Famer Jim Brown says he is behind Colin 100%, though for him, the top issue is young black men killing other young black men. Perhaps the best defense of Kaepernick’s stance, meanwhile, comes not from a civil rights attorney or even a fellow football player, but rather a basketball player. Like Brown, this man carries quite a bit of clout as a legend of his sport, as well as someone very politically engaged on a personal level. In an recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflects on how our response to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand reveals more about what we think and how we express our patriotism than it does him (Kaepernick). From the beginning of Abdul-Jabbar’s essay:
During the Olympics in Rio a couple of weeks ago, Army Reserve 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks was sprinting intently in the middle of his pole vaulting attempt when he heard the national anthem playing. He immediately dropped his pole and stood at attention, a spontaneous expression of heartfelt patriotism that elicited more praise than his eventual bronze medal. Last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand with his teammates during the national anthem. To some, Kendricks embodies traditional all-American Forrest Gump values of patriotism, while Kaepernick represents the entitled brattish behavior of a wealthy athlete ungrateful to a country that has given him so much.
In truth, both men, in their own ways, behaved in a highly patriotic manner that should make all Americans proud.
The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the “most patriotic” label. Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty.
Kareem goes on to say that Kendricks’ and Kaepernick’s actions carry meaning because they involved sacrifices; for Sam Kendricks, he broke concentration to salute his country, risking poor performance. In Colin Kaepernick’s case, he made a stand knowing full well this could jeopardize his place on the team and in the National Football League, as well as cause sponsors to bail on him, and yet he did so anyway, vowing to continue his protest as long as he deems sufficient. Both seemingly small gestures are much bigger than the sum of their physical requirements.
It also should be recalled that Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not the first of its kind in sports. Basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, some 20 years ago, sat during the playing of the national anthem for a game in opposition to America’s “oppression” and “tyranny,” a decision which was instrumental in the demise of his NBA career. In Major League Baseball in 2004, Carlos Delgado did not take the field for the playing of “God Bless America” over political objections, for which he caught his fair share of heat, too. Going back further in time, there are a number of salient examples of political protests in and out of sports. The flag-burning at the hands of Vietnam vets has been discussed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likewise touches upon it in his editorial, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “Black Power” salute in the 1968 Olympics, and obviously, Rosa Parks’ historic act of “sitting down to stand up” is alluded to in the title of this article. Colin Kaepernick is no Rosa Parks, but his stance on police brutality is important, particularly because this is 2016 and we still have so far to come in this country with respect to race relations. If we can put aside our emotions and prejudices long enough, we might be able to use this event as a springboard for an authentic discussion about race and other related issues. With the NFL regular season soon to begin, however, and with a presidential election not far behind, I worry that larger discussion will be quick to get swept under the proverbial rug as a function of the calendar year and the 24-hour news cycle, and that is indeed a shame.
For people who don’t favor the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seemingly have a problem with African-Americans existing in some form or another, there are explanations for why blacks in any given situation are wrong. It’s not Black Lives Matter—it’s All Lives Matter. They don’t care about reforming a broken criminal system or ending disproportionate violence towards minorities—they only advocate killing cops. That girl in the classroom slammed to the ground for refusing to leave class? She should have listened to the cop! Eric Garner? He shouldn’t have been selling loose cigarettes! Trayvon Martin? He shouldn’t have been wearing that suspicious hoodie! All those black characters dying in The Walking Dead? They should have known what happens to black people in horror movies and TV shows! OK, that last one was meant to be kind of silly. Kind of.
Time and again, in cases in which black suspects are injured or killed at the hands of the police, two major criticisms will be lobbied at the person who is, by many accounts, the victim, but only ostensibly so, as far as others are concerned. As I see it, they are:
1. “They shouldn’t have been resisting.”
OK, let’s deconstruct this idea as viewed through the lens of a recent shooting, of which I’m sure you’ve heard by now. From what we know or have read, 37-year-old Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5. Reportedly, he was approached by a homeless man asking for money in a persistent manner, whereupon Sterling showed him his gun and said something to the effect of “I told you to leave me alone.” Sure, we might have preferred if Alton would have treated his solicitor in a, shall we say, more Christian manner, but who among us hasn’t been abrupt or less than charitable with someone begging for even pocket change? Or called them “bums?” As John Oliver puts it, referencing a quote from Ivanka Trump with respect to her father, Donald Trump, pointing to a homeless person and saying “that bum” had $8 billion more than him, owing to his debt at the time: “That really shows you the indomitable spirit of Donald Trump. To fall to his lowest point, and in that very moment, still find a way to be kind of a dick to a homeless guy.” We may shake our heads—and in Trump’s case, start researching the logistics of moving to Canada should he win the presidency—but this is no crime, and certainly not an offense warranting death.
Whether he felt legitimately threatened or not, the fateful events leading to Alton Sterling’s demise, according to a CNN report by Joshua Berlinger, Nick Valencia and Steve Almasy, were precipitated by that homeless man calling 911 on his cell phone (let’s table any sidebars about a homeless person having a cell phone for the moment, shall we?) and reporting a man “brandishing a gun.” This necessitated the intervention of police, though apparently, Sterling was not immediately aware of why he was being confronted by officers. In a video included within the CNN report, a “pop” is heard, and Alton is told to get on the ground, but given little more than a moment to react, he is pulled over the hood of a car by one officer and slammed to the ground, whereupon he is helped by a second officer to keep him down. Seconds later, someone yells that Sterling has a gun, whereupon the two officers frantically pull their weapons. Not soon after, the fatal shots are delivered, with horrified onlookers reacting viscerally to what they witnessed.
Could Alton Sterling have been more physically still in this scenario? Sure, although when you’ve just been body-slammed by a large police officer, and you’re not completely sure why you’re being accosted in the first place, you’re probably not thinking all that rationally. Either way, I don’t know that I would be considering his actions or motions resisting, and moreover, outgunned and outnumbered, even if he were resisting, was he genuinely in a position to react in a way that made the officers’ use of deadly force appropriate? Put another way, is this the only way that scenario could have played out? Could Sterling have been subdued by a Taser or other means of incapacitation rather than bullets being spent?
These questions are, to varying extents, rhetorical ones, but let’s not demean the notion that tough decisions based on judgment have to be made by police in these situations, and that their own personal safety is at risk. Nonetheless, as trained, uniformed defenders of the public’s safety, there is some level of assumption of risk in the line of duty, and I submit, an onus on the officer or officers to act responsibly. That Alton Sterling’s detractors would be so quick to deflect responsibility onto him seems patently unfair, if not understating the capabilities and discretion of the officers. We spend so much time building up the men and women who serve and protect the public interest, and often justifiably so, but let’s put accountability where it belongs all the way around.
2. “Well, he was no saint.”
OK, so this hypothetical argument is at the heart of my post here, and while my concerns are very real with respect to the role of the police in the course of interactions with potential criminal suspects, from an outsider’s perspective, arguments about the background and possible criminal history of someone who dies at the hands of officers, in my view, utilize a fundamentally flawed logic. Not soon after the events leading to Alton Sterling’s death, Jessica McBride of Heavy authored a post advertising his “arrest record, criminal history, and rap sheet,” which may have been phrased in this way for dramatic effect, but is notably redundant; a “criminal record” and “rap sheet” are the same thing, and this appears to serve only to either generate more hits for this article or lead the reader into believing he was some sort of degenerate.
The post, which includes an exhaustive display of the physical documentation of his relationship with the law prior to, as some see it, his “lynching” at the hands of uniformed police, ticks off the evidence which apparently lends itself to portraying Sterling’s troubled history with the boys and girls in blue. As McBride outlines, per an affidavit of probable cause from 2009, Alton Sterling was involved in a “wrestling match” with a police officer after resisting arrest, an event in which he (Sterling) was in the possession of a semi-automatic weapon. Sterling was also a registered sex offender after being convicted of “carnal knowledge of a juvenile”—Louisiana’s seemingly antiquated way of saying “statutory rape”—in 2000 and serving four years in jail. Lest this seem especially egregious, Alton was only 20 at the time of his conviction, so while this is not meant to exonerate him, it does give context to the notion he may not have been all that mature and well-developed with respect to his regard for obeying the law. There are other offenses highlighted in the Heavy piece, too, including Alton Sterling’s conviction in 2011 for “knowingly and intentionally possessing a firearm while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance,” in this case, marijuana, a drug many contend should be legal, and domestic battery in 2008.
These violations of the law are all well and good, but any insinuation that Sterling “deserved” his fate suffers from one or more serious errors in logic. Firstly, the bulk of the offenses referenced in Jessica McBride’s piece on happened over five years ago. This is not to excuse Sterling’s behavior, mind you, but it does provide context to his criminal history. Since that time, perhaps Alton Sterling had changed. Perhaps not. Regardless, we’ll never know now, and it’s a little disingenuous to assume he hadn’t. Secondly, as the CNN report above makes explicit, there’s no evidence that the officers who responded to the 911 call knew of Sterling’s criminal history. So, while this may help frame some people’s understanding of the situation better according to the narrative of crime perpetrated by blacks that they would like to believe, this doesn’t necessarily mean Alton Sterling’s past was a factor in this incident. Thirdly, and most importantly, it shouldn’t matter what Sterling did or did not do prior to the events at the convenience store. Whether the suspect is black or white, sex offender or not, protocol should be followed. To stress, I respect that police offenders should be on high alert in the case of a weapon, as their personal safety and life may hang in the balance. All this aside, firing shots should be a last resort, and yet you get the sense in this shooting that the officers at the scene were all too ready to pull the trigger. If a supposed “Ferguson effect” exists, it didn’t appear to manifest itself here.
It seemingly gets worse in consideration of Philando Castile’s track record prior to his being gunned down at what should have been a routine traffic stop. Hmm, who could we trust to provide us with this historical documentation and information? Why, no other than Ms. Jessie-on-the-Spot herself—Jessica McBride! Castile, stopped for a busted taillight and fatally shot after attempting to make it clear to the officer that he had a gun on him (legally) and was trying to get his wallet to produce his identification, had numerous traffic offenses on his record. Aside from these relatively minor infractions, though? Two drug incidents, in which the charges were ultimately dismissed, and no felony or violent criminal record. I don’t care if Philando Castile were green and had tentacles for arms—it’s a hard sell to insist the lethal force used on him was appropriate.
I started planning out and writing this piece after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and before the killing of five officers in Dallas and the injury to more. Suffice it to say, this event in it of itself is a tragedy, and their assassin is not only clearly wrong to bring more death to this world, but a coward on top of it for sniping unsuspecting victims. Certainly, there is a point to be made about the prevalence of guns in America as a factor in all these cases, though I don’t feel the gun control issue should predominate the conversation. I also don’t wish for what happened in Dallas to overshadow what I believe were the wrongs done in Louisiana and Minnesota.
The officers in Texas were killed in cold blood by a madman, recluse or whatever term you feel you want to use; while we’re delving into people’s criminal records, it’s worth noting the shooter had no criminal record and served his country as an Army reservist. This is undeniable. But Castile and Sterling were murdered in their own right, and in their case, it was those with badges who perpetrated it. Because it must apparently continue to be a refrain, this is not a blanket condemnation of all police. Most officers, I believe, do the right thing. Some do not, however, and when the criminal justice system and law enforcement officials conspire to deflect blame and shield those who did wrong from criticism and due consequences, those officials and systems are not above their own criticism and scrutiny. For those who would supplant Black Lives Matter with the insistence “Blue Lives Matter,” I agree those who serve the public interest should be lauded, but not deified. Again, if anything, we should be holding them to higher standards.
I wouldn’t wish what happened to the slain officers and their families on my worst enemy. Theirs is a loss I couldn’t even begin to try to comprehend. That said, if this collective violence of the past few days provides them with a broader perspective on the pain so many Americans feel right now—especially within the larger black community—these killings won’t be for nothing. In 2015, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that black Americans are four times as likely to describe violence against civilians by police officers as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem, and that, while more than 80% of blacks say police are too quick to use deadly force, two-thirds of white respondents label police use of force as necessary, and six out of ten white respondents believe race is not a factor in the use of force. These are huge disparities, and suggest we have a long way to go before we can say we are having an authentic conversation about race in the United States today. If “all lives matter” as much as we might insist, we need to realize the issue of violence related to encounters between civilians and police is a shared human burden. Seven citizens died in much-publicized ways this past week, and that is the essential notion here.