Monday, October 19, 2015
Diluting the Message
Absolutely, lives matter. Cops’ lives matter. There’s no justification for killing a law enforcement officer just because he or she is wearing a uniform. Likewise, lives of migrants in North Africa escaping brutal Islamists matter. Folks fleeing crushing repression, life-draining droughts and indiscriminate bullets and explosions in war-torn regions – death in its many ugly configurations – matter. And the woefully disproportionate number of black Americans dying at the hands of law enforcement officers matter. In short, lives matter. But that’s simply not the point.
When one particular group has a particular issue that, in their perception, addresses injustice directed against them, under our form of government, they have an absolute right to address those grievances under our First Amendment. They are indeed entitled to separate their perceived plight from parallel plights of others in their society or in societies around the world. If their message is blended with these parallel wrongs, then their individual complaints can get lost in the “other injustices” facing others. We all know that. The “fix” for the specific wrong then becomes elusive.
Each and every targeted group has a right to identify its unique issues, plead its case to the general public to generate redress and protest peacefully against the wrongs they feel directly target them. No one can truly condone chants like “pigs in a blanket” or suggesting that it is open season on police officers, even in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but likewise, it equally wrong for senior government officials to suggest that individual rights protests are only justified if their tenets apply to all human beings across the board, that individual groups cannot be morally sustained unless they champion all wrongful killings. What is the appropriate grouping or venue? The world or less than the entire world. Only the United States?
So it is with deep concern that I see an attempt to dilute an important message by minimizing the grievance of our black community – denigrating the message of the Black Lives Matter movement – by dismissing its message as irrelevant unless it addresses all wrongful killings. Take for example the statements of a Texas sheriff after a recent police shooting: “In Harris County, Tex., Sheriff Ron Hickman is in the midst of a difficult time. He's lost one of his deputies to a shooting at a suburban Houston gas station. And while the man arrested in connection with the shooting death of Deputy Darren H. Goforth has yet to provide law enforcement with a motive for his alleged actions, Hickman has provided one for him.
“‘Our assumption is that he [Goforth] was a target because he wore a uniform,’ Hickman told reporters at a news conference last week. ‘We've heard 'Black Lives Matter,' 'All Lives Matter.' Well, Cops' lives matter, too.’” That this statement was made in a state with voter ID laws and gerrymandering to dilute minority votes makes Goforth’s words more than insensitive, perhaps rising towards incendiary. Killing a cop without any provocation is totally and completely unacceptable, but a senior government official’s using that death to dismiss and dilute a legitimate grievance from a minority (African-Americans represent 13.2% of the U.S. population) is also unforgiveable.
The Washington Post (September 1st), illustrates the issue with hard numbers. Of the 385 people killed by police officers halfway through this year, 105 were black, a number that is literally double the rate of their proportion in the general population. “According to the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report, 31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the general population.” New York Times, October 17th. That statistical anomaly says it all, and most certainly justifies the Black Lives Matter movement, well above and beyond the litany of anecdotal evidence that has surfaced across the U.S., from Ferguson to New York. Police officers are now suffering a crashing and burning of their morale, and that’s unfortunate.
Why? We hate black Americans? Perhaps the reasons lie in attitudes that increase friction between police and the African-American communities across the US. It is logical that the more there is confrontation between blue and black, the higher the likely shooting statistics for that grouping. Add inadequate training and “us vs them” camaraderie among officers, and, well, the numbers follow. “Arrest data lets us measure this possibility. For the entire country, 28.9 percent of arrestees were African-American. This number is not very different from the 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims who were African-Americans…
“First, the police are at least in part guided by suspect descriptions. And the descriptions provided by victims already show a large racial gap: Nearly 30 percent of reported offenders were black. So if the police simply stopped suspects at a rate matching these descriptions, African-Americans would be encountering police at a rate close to both the arrest and the killing rates…
“Second, the choice of where to police is mostly not up to individual officers. And police officers tend to be most active in poor neighborhoods, and African-Americans disproportionately live in poverty…In fact, the deeper you look, the more it appears that the race problem revealed by the statistics reflects a larger problem: the structure of our society, our laws and policies.
“The war on drugs illustrates this kind of racial bias. African-Americans are only slightly more likely to use drugs than whites. Yet, they are more than twice as likely to be arrested on drug-related charges. One reason is that drug sellers are being targeted more heavily than users. With fewer job options, low-income African-Americans have been disproportionately represented in the ranks of drug sellers. In addition, the drug laws penalize crack cocaine — a drug more likely to be used by African-Americans — far more harshly than powder cocaine.” NY Times. In the end, it’s tough being black, particularly if you live in an urban enclave mired in poverty.
It’s also tough for cops dealing with society’s problems. Being a cop is undergoing a massive transition based upon the scrutiny from smart phone videos released to the public. Body cameras are increasingly becoming part of being a cop; Los Angeles is the latest city to embrace this technology. But even as police officers are asking for public appreciation of their risks – which are very, very real – the words of their leaders have ramifications well beyond morale issues, since they also reflect on societal priorities as well.
Janell Ross, writing for The Washington Post (September 1st) put it this way: “At points this year, [reacting to negative press, police officers in targeted cities] engaged in informal work slowdowns and other types of unofficial work refusal on the grounds that attention to alleged police misconduct made it impossible to do their jobs… Still, calling for equal and legal treatment for all Americans is not equivalent to sanctioning the ambush murder of police. Requiring officers to abide by the laws they help to enforce should not really be regarded as an extra and unnecessary layer of responsibility for public servants.
“And perhaps most notably, there is little to no evidence that suggests that news coverage of alleged police misconduct is making police work more dangerous. In May, the FBI released preliminary data showing that 51 police officers were killed in the commission of felonies in 2014. That's a marked increase over the previous year, when just 27 officers died the same way. But police killings also hit a 35-year low in 2013.
“In fact, between 1980 and 2014, an average of 64 officers were killed each year, making that 2014 increase in crimes that led to an officer's death no less sad or monumental for the officers and their families but well within the range of a sad normal in the United States that certainly predates the Black Lives Matter movement. You can look at the FBI data summary here and glean some of the details about the circumstances under which those 51 officers were killed last year.
“One major takeaway from the preliminary 2014 data: Six officers were killed in premeditated situations where they were ambushed and two during unprovoked attacks that are similar to what officers say happened at that suburban Houston gas station. The previous year, five officers were ambushed and killed, according to the FBI… These aren't the signs of some growing pattern or problem. They are almost singular and certainly terrible events.
“What we do know is that those who are arrested in connection with officer injuries or deaths are often convicted, face lengthy sentences and even capital punishment when caught. In at least one state, New Hampshire, causing a police officer's death is specifically identified as a death-penalty-eligible crime.
“The fact that the man who is allegedly responsible for Goforth's death was brought to court to face capital murder charges Monday morning, two days after Goforth's death, would also seem to affirm that officer killings not only matter, but remain a very big deal.” There is a very big difference between free speech from an aggrieved public, and the priority directives of those in government, who have themselves been asked to correct the injustices, attempting to minimize the their own past missteps and failures at an opportunistic moment. Police morale is not sufficient justification anymore.
I’m Peter Dekom, and when there is a clear injustice that has persevered for decades, minimizing that injustice rather than dealing with it cannot be the American way.