Right in the midst of the most frightening, frustrating and freaky presidential campaign in modern history, another story about police comes into public knowledge and pours lemon juice on the wound of my backing the blue, loving and respecting my brother as a career cop, and being a firm believer in the constitutional right to free speech.
I suppose, once more, I’m a holder-on to the 1960s/70s notion of, do what you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone. I’m also a free-speech absolutist, though I am painfully aware that free speech often hurts people. The freedom to express oneself, no matter how hateful or repugnant is sacrosanct. This does not mean that I believe that free speech comes without consequences. Yes, your private citizen boss can fire you if you say something that embarrasses his company, but free speech is in danger this year more than ever.
I recently had a doctor’s appointment with my primary care doctor. He’s been my doctor for many years, and I am almost always very late leaving his office because he loves to talk politics, and he loves to taunt my husband and me for our liberalism. But on this day I happened to be wearing a “Back the Blue” t-shirt, a month or so after the shootings of police officers in Dallas, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and others. He asked me about the shirt, and I mentioned my brother’s long career as a police officer, and how horrible I thought the recent killings of police officers was. He agreed, of course, as any reasonable human being would. But then the conversation took an unfortunate turn, when I had the nerve to admit that neither side is always right, or always wrong. And this is a deep personal conflict of mine. His response was to get a little louder, and exclaim that he will always pick the police over some thug. I knew he had other patients waiting; I also knew that to get to his definition of “thug” would take more of my early day off work than I cared to spend, especially when I knew just how fruitful this conversation would be. (Not at all.) But in the next few minutes he did manage to bring up some of the dramatic incidents of recent years, especially Michael Brown (eighteen year old black man from a St. Louis, MO suburb, whose killing was ultimately deemed justifiable by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. I also reminded him who hired that attorney general, since he is no fan of President Obama.)
I hear lots of white people claim that more white people are killed by police every year than blacks, which is technically true. However, when the numbers are broken down, adjusted for percentage of the population, an unarmed black man is 40% more likely to be killed by a police officer. While 50% more white people were shot by police last year, most of them WERE ARMED.
Anyway, more recent events have brought this very hard topic back to the forefront for me. The quarterback of the American football team, the San Francisco Forty Niners, is a man of mixed race named Colin Kaepernick. In protest of police brutality in communities of color, he has decided not to stand for the playing of the national anthem at football games. As is his right under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This “horrible” display has triggered all kinds of white outrage toward Mr. Kaepernick, which has spurred a movement of athletes all over the country to kneel in support of him, and others to burn his jersey. Military veterans have voiced support for him based upon the risks they have taken to guarantee his rights to be preserved under the US Constitution. But the country’s largest police union has threatened not to provide security at Forty Niners’ games because of this protest. Police unions have made the same threats against other celebrities, including Beyonce` and Quentin Tarantino for daring to criticize police. This stand diminishes the officers who stood and protected civilians in Dallas on July 7, 2016 when a sniper opened fire on police at a Black Lives Matter rally. They said that they had taken an oath to serve and protect the public, and some of them died doing it. In a conversation with one of Mr. Kaepernick’s white disdainers it was said to me that because he was adopted and raised by a financially stable white family as a baby, he has no idea what he is talking about, and should get clear about what he is protesting . He added that Mr. Kaepernick is a wealthy, spoiled professional athlete, he should be grateful for what this country has given him. Getting me started on our country’s celebrity worship, and our skewed priorities regarding pay for professional athletes is a topic for another day. Laughably, the person who said that to me is a HUGE sports fan, so coming from him it seems a little disingenuous. But personally I believe it is a sign of nobility to stand up for people less fortunate than oneself. So on this one, I stand with our troops. The military veterans are right about what freedom of speech means, and the police should review their oath of honor, which I’ve included below.
So, here’s what I know about some of the deaths in custody, and police shootings of recent memory. I’ll start with Sandra Bland. The last time I wrote about this subject I acknowledged that cell phone video is untrustworthy simply because it never starts filming until after an incident has begun. Cell phone video is, by definition, out of context. But Sandra Bland had her video shooting from the time the officer stepped up to her car. Now, I haven’t been pulled over by police in a few years, but in my entire life, every time it has happened, as soon as I opened the window and addressed an officer I was greeted with, “M’am, do you know why I pulled you over today?” For whatever reason, the officer stopping Ms. Bland never bothered to tell her why he pulled her over, though she repeatedly asked, resulting in her being yanked from the car, taken to jail, and being found days later hanging from a rope in her cell. (Where did that come from?) That minimum level of respect, just telling her why she was pulled over, may have been all that was necessary to prevent a terrible tragedy for Ms. Bland, her family and friends, and an entire community.
Philando Castile was a twenty-eight year old man who worked in a school cafeteria, had a concealed carry license for a fire arm, and had been arrested 12 times for traffic violations for which someone else would have received a ticket. But the thirteenth time he was pulled over, he wound up dead. Now, he did not act correctly when speaking to the police officers, but he did not resist, nor did he threaten them in any way. All he did was tell them that he had a firearm, a license to carry, but the death penalty offense was reaching for the license. He should have said the exact same words he did, but left his hands in the air and let the officers pull his ID out of his pocket. The police were not entirely wrong in this case, but he did not deserve to die that day, in full view of the entire country, lying back in the car, his chest covered in blood, in a live streaming Facebook video.
Another man the same week, Alton Sterling, was also killed by police. His name was Alton Brown, and police were called to a convenience store because of a “man threatening people with a gun.” Now, no one can know what happened before Mr. Sterling was killed, but before his body was cold he was being referred to as a “convicted felon” by the local news. From the video made available to the world, it appears that he was shot in cold blood by one of the officers whose knee was firmly planted in the man’s gut before he put five bullets into the man. Again, what we see in the video cannot possibly be taken as definitive because the incident was nearly over when our viewing begins. Was Mr. Sterling even the guy police had been called about? Did he have a gun when one of the officers, who also had his knee in the side of the pinned down man yelled, “He’s got a gun!” Don’t know. But referring to the victim of the shooting as a convicted felon is utterly discreditable and unscrupulous. The press frequently does this quite simply because history is written by the victors, and access can be denied to the press if they offend their chiefs of police. Many times in recent history the press has taken up the mantle of the “powers that be” to denigrate someone who questioned the natural order. When Ralph Nader spoke the truth about the Corvair, the auto corporations had no facts to back them up, so they attacked his sexuality. The press equally vilified Jane Fonda’s antics in North Vietnam, not by condemning the war, but by joining the “military industrial complex” in condemning her character. They still repeat the charges, even though she is now in her seventies, and has apologized for her “youthful misadventures.” Here’s the thing about Alton Sterling’s characterization as “a convicted felon;” he was not in jail. So whatever felony he committed was clearly not a death penalty conviction; he had done his time, been paroled or finished his sentence, and to keep referring to him in that way sends a message that the press may not realize they are sending; that there is no “serving my time and moving on.” Once a convicted felon, always a convicted felon no matter how rehabilitated a man may be.
So, the issue of police shootings and who is wrong or right is still not clear to me. What is overwhelmingly evident to me, again and again and again, is that no one side is always right or wrong. And both sides need to consider in their quiet moments, what all of this means. I was horrified and appalled that the two shooters who killed the police officers who were simply doing their jobs in Dallas and Baton Rouge were black. It is hard enough to keep the message honest in these events. And while I realize that both men had military training and documented mental issues, I wish that for just a moment as they planned their assaults that they would have considered that their actions, and those of others who have shot police officers while sitting in their cars, or pumping gas, or responding to an active shooter or domestic disturbance call, will only serve to increase the fear on both sides. There was absolutely no purpose served in what they did, except that they both ended up dying. And if they ever had a point to make, it died with them.