Saturday, July 9, 2016

This Week's Tragedy in Dallas and Beyond

As a record of what occurred this week -

Alton Sterling, an African American man, was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by two police officers during an arrest.  Witnesses and video of the incident indicate that the police were unwarranted in the shooting, that Sterling was upset but not able to resist - and the video definitely shows an immobile Sterling shot at point blank range by the officers.

In Minnesota, Philandro Castile, another African American man, was shot and killed by a police officers while reaching for identification while seated in his car with his girlfriend and a 4 year old child.  Castile's girlfriend live-streamed the video of what occurred to Facebook.  The video is available on YouTube and other locations as of this writing.

Thursday, 7/7, peaceful protests were scheduled in most major population centers, part of what has become known as #blacklivesmatter, a movement intended to draw attention to the unjustly assumed guilt,lives lost to police bullets, and the situation of African Americans in the United States in regards to overly violent responses of police especially in cases involving Black men and women.  

On Thursday evening, as the protest march drew to a close in Dallas, Texas around 8:45 P.M., a sniper began firing from the rooftops, striking 11 officers and killing five.  In the chaos, no civilians were injured, one man was briefly mistaken as a suspect and then cleared, and three wound up in custody and the/ a gunman was killed by police in the early morning hours of 7/8.

The sniper was targeting white officers, and details are still coming out about his background (but less, so far, about the three others held in custody).

To add to the confusion, the police used a remote controlled robotic device mounted with a bomb to approach and kill the gunman and bring the threat to a definite conclusion.

In short, it's been an awful week.

So much of what's been broiling within American culture, both very, very old issues and more recently discussed issues, came to a head - and decided to raise yet another ethical question with the use of a lethal robot on domestic soil.

The ripple effects of the magical computer devices we all carry these days has been that the public now has the ability to capture on video what police are actually doing during stops.  We're now able to review evidence frame-by-frame, opening up a new dimension in law enforcement, moving from "he said/ we said" confrontations between witnesses/victims and the theoretically impartial and trained police.   

And it's not just those magical computers.  We surveil our homes, police have dashboard cameras, unobtrusive security cameras pick up all sorts of things from all sorts of angles.  

At that same time, social media has provided a near infinite broadening of the bandwidth for getting material out to masses, which has - in turn - created networks of geographically disparate people and made those videos available to the general public.  Instantly.  Before those videos can be contained or re-contextualized or explained away.  And mainstream media has begun to take notice.

In some white enclaves, #blacklivesmatter is seen as anti-police.  I cannot stress enough how dissociative this idea is from a modern and an historical point when one considers law-enforcement's record among minorities in every day life and in major events.

What has frustrated many in Black communities has been not just the harassment that is understood as a part of life, but that when mistakes made by the police cost the life of an innocent or unarmed suspect there is very clearly an incentive to protect the police who pulled the trigger.  All too often the police who perform actions that end in the death of unarmed or disarmed suspects is covered up.

There's no question that the jobs we ask our police officers to do are incredibly stressful and that cops are underpaid for what they do.  Every minute they're on shift is a minute away from arresting someone and changing the trajectory of the suspect's life (and people tend not to like this), and they're always in danger of getting shot at themselves.

Like in any profession, from grocery store clerks to doctors to librarians, there are always going to be a few who people doing the job who are terrible at their jobs or terrible people.  Police and other first-responders are not immune from the problem.  But, obviously the issues piling up around poor performance and judgement increase when someone is given authority and a weapon.  And, in many circles, those police officers are given trust they may or may not deserve.  But in just as many, that trust has never existed.

But none of these factors impacting police is an excuse for shooting people dead at point blank range, shooting people in their car following orders, shooting 12 year olds kids playing on a picnic table, guys standing in Wal-Mart holding a Wal-Mart product, etc... et al.

The President has little power over local authorities and policy.  Congressional candidates run on "law and order".  As do local politicians.  Since 9/11 we've been arming our police like military units, and a sympathetic public has been okay with police tactics escalating to protect cops going into potentially dangerous situations - meaning a lot of "if you shoot first because you feel in any way threatened, we've got your back", from the department, on up to local politicians and juries.

Frankly, I think we should all have a problem with this.  Citizens are being killed for doing things like opening doors for police and following police direction to hand over their wallets.  The implications of supporting bad police policy are far reaching, and they disastrous for a democracy.

But nothing could be more reprehensible than the cowardly acts of a sniper taking it upon himself to kill police officers who are calmly monitoring a peaceful protest, ending not just productive lives and devastating the survivors, but endangering hundreds of people who did not agree to the act of violence.  I cannot stress what a step backward this is, and how antithetical it is to the successful work of the best of civil rights figures.

I don't use this site as a soap box often, but I am profoundly disturbed by the public's complacency in police killings and the sense of threat from #blacklivesmatter.  The deep rooted racism inherent in these stances speaks to an illness in society that I'm unaware how to combat except by publicly declaring my disgust with our current path and supporting politicians and policies that will work to rectify the situation and share the same rights we consider inherent to our place as Americans, and not just a privilege of those born with the "right" skin color.

I'm a white, 41 year-old male.  I'm even over 6 feet tall.  I'm the definition of privilege.  It's not my place to speak for anyone other than myself - but even that's a privilege, really.  What I can say is what I find unsettling, and I can dictate what actions I do and do not take.  And so while I won't turn a goofy movie, comics and pop culture site into my political pulpit, I want to keep track of history as it is made as much as what we see in books.  We're at a crossroads, and this is the direction I'll go.

On Friday the Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, a loathsome garbage person if ever there were one, demonstrated his inability to see any perspective but that of the Department Store suited privileged white male, perhaps the default view of authority in this country for the vast majority of its history, but not reflective of the promise of the United States or the march toward a better tomorrow.  Thankfully, our local police chief has called him on his statements.

I'll not argue the wisdom of the ownership of assault weapons here, but the variables at play in Dallas provide data worthy of consideration.  Further, I can both understand the decision to implement a remote controlled rolling drone on U.S. soil to end the threat provided by a motivated sniper.  But I'm also profoundly concerned by what this means for future suspects (hey, I've had friends' homes raided entirely by mistake because they had the same name as another guy and spend the night face down in cuffs til they figured out "oh, this isn't our guy".  So, no I don't want some Brazil-level type-o somewhere to mean I wake up just in time to see Johnny 5 rolling into my bedroom with a case of TNT).

There are better ways to do things, and they are hard.  But solving these problems is how we progress.  Challenge is the mother of invention.

We can do better.  If we don't, I fear that Dallas is just the start.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well thought out and written. And - I agree.