A New Missouri Compromise: Compassion in Place of Fear
Like many others, I was outraged but not surprised by the Grand Jury decision on the shooting death of Michael Brown. Another senseless, preventable death of an unarmed black man in another act of violence meted out by an official sworn to protect and serve his community. No punishment can ever replace a life, and given many recent court decisions in similar cases, the common law suggests there would have been no conviction had the case gone to trial.
Such is the essence of legal nihilism that furthers a disturbing, growing trend in America; that of a gradual withering away of the value of a black man’s life in its institutions of justice. It is alarming given the Courts’ role as arbiter of substantive moral questions in American democracy. When it comes to the lives of black men, the justice system increasingly defers to the implied moral rectitude of police authorities, even where it is clear the series of events from an officer’s initial provocation to a man’s tragic death are racially motivated and involve criminally grave errors.
I used to be in law enforcement. I wasn’t a cop in uniform patrolling the streets, but I had a badge and enforced laws of parliament. I know what it is like to have an enforcement mandate aimed at keeping the peace and compelling respect for the laws of a country. When you engage those who may be breaking laws you don’t have the luxury of knowing the level of threat you’re dealing with. I worked with enough police to know how thankless and dangerous the job can be. Every time there’s a story about a police officer using excessive force against a black man, knee-jerk outrage is tempered by an understanding of the threat and fear police must work with day by day.
The workplace of police is often textured by violence, especially in the United States, where citizens are passionate about their weapons of destruction. It’s a police officer’s job to engage in situations where there is little doubt about the violent intentions of those they encounter. There is little room for error, and possibly fatal consequences if they have to second-guess their authority to employ lethal force if the situation escalates to an unacceptable level of threat. While that may be, it is also obvious, the risks incumbent in the job combine with racial biases that lead too many American police officers to ascribe higher degrees of threat from non-compliant behaviours in black men. The thresholds to justify their use of force, especially lethal force, are much too low in these cases.
It is an outrage to have to say this in the twenty first century, but black men in America must find a way to contain their anger when engaged by a white police officer given the divergent world view they bring to the job. This almost certainly involves a disreputable narrative of black men they carry from a childhood largely devoid of regular, meaningful contact with black peers.
A black man competes with a mental image engraved in a white officer’s mind by years of adverse conditioning. It renders him deaf and dumb to your protestations, to your calm, elegant appeals for reason. It makes him misconstrue all your actions as indicative of escalating threat. It is best if you silently capitulate to their commands or risk inciting the wrath of an official drunk with delusion about the expansiveness of their power and authority.
This doesn’t justify cops who kill when a subject fails to comply with police orders. Anyone trained in law enforcement knows that non-compliant behaviours – yelling, clenching fists, uttering verbal threats – merely justifies enhanced measures to engage a subject; the use of pepper spray, batons, or tasers to subdue a person, place him in restraints, and sit him down in your vehicle for quiet reflection. The mere fact of non-compliance does not justify an officer’s drawing of their weapon, unless there is a clear indication a subject aims to use a lethal instrument themselves.
The drawing of a weapon is a de facto statement of intent to use it, and those grounds need to be as justifiable as the death arising if events subsequent to it spiral downwards. The officer’s reasoning should always be tested in a court of law if there is a death, especially when the dead is unarmed. All the facts must be laid out to confidently rule out criminal errors in the officer’s judgement and afford the dead a chance to rebut the officer’s self-serving assertions to justify his needless taking of a life. In America, the courts are supposed to be the ultimate judge of who is a thief, a drug dealer, or even a suspect, not a cop on the street; the punishment the law prescribes for said crimes is not death.
The fact black men must make their case in the street with guns pointed and adrenaline drowning out a man’s reason, when everyone else gets their day in court, is an insidious aspect of American police culture that black men cannot wish away. It must be heeded to ensure the worst in a police officer’s street justice you experience is an escalation of your righteous indignation. Your pride may be wounded, but at least you’ll be alive.
If a black man demonstrates anger at being unreasonably stopped by police it will amplify the inference of threat the cop believes you already present; which informed their reasons for engaging you in the first place. Every gesture you make will confirm the hypothesis, fueling a perception you’re reaching for your putative weapon. So breathe, do what it takes to be silent and still, and obey the commands. Learn the positions law enforcement in your area are trained to understand as giving them total tactical advantage and know how to assume these positions calmly.
These are tragic words for a black man such as I am to concede. I am lucky compared to American blacks. I grew up with my mother and her white family in Canada, a nation whose racist zeal is largely reserved for Aboriginals. My maternal grandfather was born to a Massachusetts establishment family who were of Quaker descent and among America’s founding colonialists.
I did not have any contact with my African-American father or any part of my black lineage, so I am merely a distant witness to the indignities of black American existence. I feel possessed at times by conflicting emotions pulling at me from both sides whenever racial tensions are aroused. I think ‘it could have been me,’ and then I become fearful and angry on a purely existential level; the idea certain whites, none of those I personally knew as friends or family, would be capable of such wickedness and cruelty simply because of the colour of a man’s skin. The colour of my skin.
My entire life I have been a student of America’s political and racial history, keenly aware of my blood ties to both sides of the divide. I’ve witnessed those in US history who look most like the only people I’ve ever loved enslave, persecute, murder, and oppress people who I more closely resemble, but do not know. To gain a sense of black identity growing up in the seventies and eighties, I was captive to what was a clearly racist media bias. From the time I was eleven, my understanding of blacks came mostly from the US network television feeds that came into my city from Detroit. I know perfectly well what any white person not growing up alongside blacks would have gleaned from watching Detroit news.
Myself and my white friends and family saw crack house raids, gang-land murders, drug dealers, pimps, and domestic violence. There in our Canadian living rooms, we’d be left shaking our heads at the never-ending acts of iniquity those dispatches from the black ghettos provided. There would have been no shortage of evidence to make inferences about black delinquency if that is what we were inclined to believe.
It is not difficult for anyone to imagine the impressions about blacks a white rookie cop who grew up in a US white enclave would bring to their job; how that might play in his comportment toward those in a black neighborhood. There would be a felt need to assert their authority as police officers; their bias telling them blacks possess an inherent disrespect for law and order. That would be easily deduced from all the unflattering media depictions laid before their judging eyes since childhood. The inference would be reinforced in the attitudes they heard in comments by parents, family, or other influential adults in their upbringing.
The contact with “reputable” blacks – teachers, doctors, those in their parents’ social network – to sway them from their prejudiced view would have been minimal. That is what happens when nations balkanize; the solitudes exist within the narrow realities of their racial stovepipes. The communities don’t really know each other at all, in spite of how closely their lives are weaved together in society; their toleration for the other remains fragile, weakened by apprehension and mistrust, mired in mutual fear and hostility.
A young white cop in the US would have little personal context for the disrespect and ambivalence they may experience some blacks display toward them. They would have grown up with cops in their neighborhood who were regular good guys that, at worst, busted up a raucous party. As a man, he would not accord much intellectual weight to the sociological phenomenon of black crime; that, to the degree it is higher than other ethnic communities, it is more a function of inter-generational poverty and disenfranchisement than it is to an innate tendency for delinquency. It would require an incredible amount of will and concerted mental effort to dispense with all the negative conditioning about blacks to form an enlightened sense of what they see day-to-day.
Given this, the habit of a white cop would not be to de-conflict or stand-down in their engagements with those perceived – even if sub-consciously – as lawless thugs. Their learned biases kick in, and they are compelled to provocatively assert their power and authority. The lack of common ground between these two total strangers is the catalyst for a tragic misunderstanding. A black man takes umbrage with his perceptions of police abuse, a cop construes this as a lethal threat, and the black man gets killed.
Outrage quickly yields to resignation about the sad reality the Ferguson shooting has laid bare. America is a country over-run by a fear so endemic that it’s even robbed police of the mental faculties to compel proportionality in their conduct. Regular citizens see enemies everywhere, carry concealed weapons to fend off all manner of threat, real or imagined, and ready themselves to make war against their fellow citizens. In other words, the people mirror the behaviour they witness among their law enforcement authorities.
Writ large, all individuals, lawmakers and citizens alike, view the right to employ violent means as paramount; to subordinate a life to their own fear and to react in anger for the insecurity it breeds. It is obvious, the fear of powerless black men is profound in America; so much that the laws of the land readily condone violent, angry repudiations of their humanity in the most despicable way for a civil society: by police, in the streets.
I can empathize with how much these incidents diminish the hope for real progress in the wider black community. There is obviously anger about this reality, which increases the odds conflict will escalate with police in encounters provoked by them on the flimsiest legal pretense. The mistreatment is so widespread, so systemic as to smack of genuine persecution; very similar in nature to the tactics of police officials in military juntas.
If I were a white cop, I’d be more self-reflective about my conduct toward the citizens in a black community. It may be unfair to put this on police officers, but excesses in their conduct not only diminishes their authority but it also weakens perceptions of the legitimacy of the state that allows their misdeeds to go unpunished. It is vital to a democracy that citizens’ trust and faith in lawful authorities is maintained, otherwise widespread belief in the corruption of its institutions takes root, and civil society is severely undermined. The very legitimacy of American democracy requires that no more of these deaths goes unpunished; that legal remedies are enacted to address gaps preventing the application of justice to these cases.
The site of the Ferguson shooting reminds me of a quote by a US President:
This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of racism, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of racism itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest. (Source: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=lincoln;cc=lincoln;rgn=div2;view=text;idno=lincoln2;node=lincoln2:282.1)
I’ve substituted ‘racism’ where ‘slavery’ once marked the words of President Abraham Lincoln, the excerpt above from a speech in Peoria Illinois in 1854. The poignancy of his message denouncing the indifference to the expansion of slavery proscribed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 is relevant to the indifference toward the obvious racist underpinnings of the Ferguson shooting and of so many similar deaths across America.
The rhetorical hand-wringing in mainstream, reputable media of extra-judicial killings of blacks by police shares a common theme with many other political developments in the US. Voter registration laws, gerrymandering of black electoral districts, mandatory sentencing laws, repealing or proscribing of mandatory minimum wage laws, opposition to universal health care, and the slashing of social security benefits are spawned from the same tolerance for covert racism. They directly target the community of slaves brought against their will to build the country, who were supposed to have been free to enjoy prosperity alongside their fellow Americans, but have been willfully kept disenfranchised for generations since by the most conspicuous weapon of violence democracies possess: racist legislation.
The world is a grateful benefactor of American ingenuity, innovation and perseverance, as well as to the democractic principles advanced in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. These are treasures in the human endeavour that rightly win admiration throughout the free, industrialized world. That is why the stridency with which so many Americans and their leaders deny racism, espouse racist policies, and condone wicked, racially-tinged actions by institutions at the heart of the nation’s democracy irrevocably tarnishes its reputation. It is a sad renunciation of the great spirit America was founded upon, and is by equal degrees the source of its declining moral suasion in global matters.
It is a state of affairs that renders President Lincoln’s words all too prophetic, another prescient example of his status as a luminary in American history. As he foresaw, the zeal of racism in spite of widespread American denunciation, has indeed robbed the nation of its just influence in the world. If there is anything to be salvaged from these terrible tragedies, one hopes it is the will to reflect on the massive gulf between the goodness Americans extol in themselves and the realities in the maligned existence of the powerless and vulnerable among them. It is a shameful come-down for a nation with such enormous prospects.
The desire to reclaim the noble aspirations upon which America was founded cannot come to fruition unless the cowardice of fear as a unifying principle is dispensed with for political gain and compassion is made to stand in its place. If there is to be no just compromise following this Missouri tragedy, if there are more Michael Browns in American streets, if there are more rhetorical flourishes to cultivate tolerance for acts of covert racism, then fear will have won and American interests advanced by appeal to what is morally just and right will be dismissed as insincere shibboleths around the world. They will seem like words as hollow as the promise of justice denied to powerless Americans who suffer, and need it most.