The main problem I have with the grassroots refrain that “Black Lives Matter,” is the whitewashing of the facts of these cases make us seem like hypocrites in the eyes of whites and others. It is not the marches or the protests in and of themselves that damage our claims, but our insistence on fitting these victims with halos to prop them up and make them seem more innocent and, therefore, more deserving of our outrage over their deaths.
This was the advice, captured by the mic of University of
Cincinnati Police Officer Phillip Kidd’s body camera as he and
several other officers secured the crime scene where U of C Officer
Ray Tensing fatally shot Samuel DuBose, 43, an unarmed black man,
whom Tensing had pulled over for not having a front license plate on
his ’98 Honda. Kidd’s recording captured Officer Tensing twice
claiming he shot DuBose because he was being dragged by DuBose’s
car, and Kidd is heard on the recording confirming Tensing’s
account, “I saw that, I saw that.” But Tensing’s own body camera
provides a very different account, where DuBose is seen attempting
to close his car door with his left hand after restarting his engine
and shifting the car into drive with his right. Tensing is shown, on
camera, firing the fatal shot almost immediately after DuBose closes
his car door. The car itself is not moving when the shot is fired,
and Tensing appears to stumble back as a result of the pistol recoil
as the car rolls downhill, DuBose dead at the wheel.
There is, evidently, no question this was yet another unwarranted shooting by armed black police on an unarmed black suspect, but claims by DuBose’s sister that, “…my brother was absolutely innocent” undermine the very social justice she seeks. As I’ve ranted about previously, the main problem I have with the grassroots refrain that “Black Lives Matter,” is the whitewashing of the facts of these cases make us seem like hypocrites in the eyes of whites and others. It is not the marches or the protests in and of themselves that damage our claims, but our insistence on fitting these victims with halos to prop them up and make them seem more innocent and, therefore, more deserving of our outrage over their deaths.
DuBose was in no way “completely innocent.” He was clearly, I mean, on video, intending to flee. I have no idea why or even why he thought that would be a smart move. All Tensing had to do was call in DuBose’s plate, and other officers would have picked him up within blocks. I have no idea at all why Tensing thought it necessary to pull his gun; he was not being threatened in any way. I can only assume he pulled it to menace Dubose and order him out of the vehicle, but his finger likely slipped on the trigger instead. Past that, I can’t imagine why, given the charged political atmosphere surrounding white cops and black suspects, he thought assassinating this man for the crime of not having a front license plate was a good idea.
Please understand: I’m not excusing the cops. What I’m saying is Black America is lying, yes lying, when we flail and scream and riot and burn stuff down with our outrage over police brutality and corruption without admitting our own faults. Admitting Mr. DuBose’s license was suspended or revoked would take absolutely nothing away from the fact of Officer Tensing’s misconduct; why do we have to paper over DuBose’s faults in order to accuse Tensing? DuBose fearing arrest, panicking, preparing to flee, only makes him more human. Claiming him to be “completely innocent” only provides ammunition to those who are predisposed to demonize all blacks no matter what. It’s impossible for us to demonize institutionalized hypocrisy so long as we ourselves practice it.
Say Her Name
The same principle applies to Sandra Bland. Again, we have an
unarmed African American person being subject to a police officer
who appeared to be racially profiling and perhaps overly aggressive
in the execution of his duties. Failure to signal a lane change is,
come on, a pretty lame excuse to pull somebody over. It is one of
those excuses—like dirt on my license plate cover or, once, a claim
that I changed lanes while passing through an intersection—cops use
to pull people over they deem suspicious in some way. It seems
obvious, to me, Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia wanted to pull Bland over for some reason, and the lane switch simply
provided him specious grounds with which to do so.
However, Ms. Bland bears some responsibility for what happened from there. None of us will ever know, for sure, what specifically occurred or what motivated those actions, but Ms. Bland was clearly being uncooperative—if not verbally abusive—to the officer. From that point forward, the Black community’s efforts to paint Ms. Bland as a martyr are endemically flawed.
This is my main problem with our community’s reaction to the spate of obvious abuses by law enforcement upon African American citizens: our dishonesty. We do what white conservatives do, ignore our own culpability and replace a stoic, imperfect reality with some fairy tale legend of saintly innocents being harassed by evil cops for no reason.
With few notable exceptions (the tragic, unreasonable and indefensible shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice for one and, certainly, the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin), in virtually each of these cases the black victim was either behaving criminally or acting out histrionically rather than simply cooperating with the police officer. This behavior immediately throws the officer's conduct—no matter how obviously extreme or criminal—into contention because the suspect was obviously being uncooperative and that lack of cooperation could and likely will be characterized as threatening. For police officers, fear is their ultimate defense: a police officer in fear for his life is legally permitted to use deadly force, and only the individual officer can determine whether or not his fear was rational or justified. Literally all he need say is, "I was afraid," and he is exonerated. Our yelling and cussing and flailing about, slamming doors, walking away, jabbing fingers, creates an atmosphere that is open to interpretation, whereas calm, stoic cooperation does not. In many of these cases, it was the victim who escalated the tension. This is certainly not justification for the police's overreaction, but the black community's pattern of glossing over these salient points undermines our case against police misconduct.
Any misconduct on the part of the officer could and should be addressed formally through the legal and or political process. Instead, we fly off the hook and try to fight The Man right in the moment, there on the street, where no justice can be done. Disobeying the lawful command of a law enforcement officer is a crime. You can be rightfully and legally locked up for that. Flailing about, running away, or attacking an officer can get you shot; it amazes me that we either don’t know this or refuse to accept it as fact.
None of which is intended to justify any errant or stupid behavior on the part of police officers. I’m just making the point that, by arguing, resisting, throwing down in the street, we usually lose our case in court. Cooperating with a cop—even a bad cop who is way out of line—leaves all of the bad behavior clearly and evidentially on the side of the police officer. The place to battle police abuse is the courtroom. But many of us never make it to the courtroom because of our culturally-bred lack of emotional discipline; our community’s overwhelming tendency to give in to histrionic emotion rather than use our intellect.
I grieve for Sandra Bland. I don’t know what happened to her in her jail cell. Electronics can be easily manipulated. Cameras can be turned off (there was a motion-activated camera outside her cell; it could simply have been switched off). I just can’t imagine the motive any cops or guards would have to assassinate this woman. What threat did she pose? What message were they sending?
The subsequent histrionics—the shouting the marching, the demanding—and the ludicrous claim, by Dupage AME’s Reverend Theresa Dear, that Bland had, “…found her voice,” that she had, “…found her purpose in social justice,” simply further erodes the black community’s power to effect real change or address legitimate wrongs. I grieve for her, but Ms. Bland was a documentedly troubled young woman. Trying to spin this tragic and deeply saddening episode into some sort of civil rights triumph not only does a disservice to Ms. Bland but to the entire cause of social justice.
Every time we gloss over truth in an effort to construct a more convenient social justice narrative, we betray the very values our protests claim to espouse and we trample upon the memory of those who suffered and died in the very name of the principals we now exploit by papering over inconvenient truths. Social Justice is a tough nickel; we need to stop running to street corners screaming racism before all the facts are in, and we need to be honest about those facts inconvenient to us if we are to point fingers at anyone else..
Christopher J. Priest
2 August 2015
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