July 18, 2016 by cbbeard
Why do we despise one form of abuse, but rationalize another?
This is the question that lingers in my mind as the racial tension intensifies and tragic events continue to fill our news cycle. Yesterday, three more police officers were senselessly slaughtered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As I watched the news coverage, I heard East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux declare:
Until we come together as a nation, as a people — to heal, as a people — if we don’t do that and this madness continues, we will surely perish as a people.
Sheriff Gautreaux’s words are an alarm in a society that must put out the fire before we are consumed by it.
The reality of our collective crisis reveals that there are two blatant transgressions at the center of our struggle; two categories of injustice demand our attention and action: the targeted killing of police officers and the all-too-often occurrence of excessive use of police force, particularly against black men. Despite the scent of “conflict of interest” wafting from these two issues, they are actually quite congruent. Both are a blight on society, and one can demand justice for one without dismissing or ignoring the other. One can speak out against the murder of police officers without ignoring instances of police abuse, and one can admit that some police officers are racist and abusive without declaring that every man and woman in a blue uniform is a sociopath. In other words, you can simultaneously support #BlackLivesMatter (1) and #BlueLivesMatter.
But it seems that these two issues are NOT considered congruent by many. As I have observed various social media venues in the last few weeks, it seems clear that outside of a few extremist outliers, the public universally condemns the murder of police officers. Perhaps one of the most important voices in Baton Rouge yesterday was Alton Sterling’s aunt, Veda Washington-Abusaleh, who cried out against the police killings in spite of losing her nephew at the hands of police just a few days ago. But the reaction to the excessive use of police force in recent weeks is not so universal. Some people have indeed exhibited outrage at deaths of defenseless (2) black men which illustrate a larger systemic problem. But others have denied that there is a problem, vilified the dead, and shifted the blame and effectively declaring “disobeying the police” a crime that deserves execution without trial. To be blunt, these responses are irresponsible at the very least and on a larger scale are absurdities that contribute to a gaping racial wound in our culture.
To illustrate the audacity of these responses, let us substitute the abuse of police power for a more universally-hated abuse: child abuse. Consider these statements in that context:
“I’m not a child abuser, it’s not my problem!”
I am a minister and my wife is a middle school teacher, and both roles happen to be what is called a “mandatory reporter.” What that means is that if we suspect a child we have contact with is being abused, we are required by law to report that suspicion so it can be investigated.
I am a Christian, and as a Christ follower I am required by my God’s Word and example to stand up against injustice. It is my job to help bring redemption to every area I come in contact with, and sitting idly by while people are subject to racism and abuse not only violates God’s intentions for me, it makes me complicit in the problem. In other words, you don’t have to be a racist to be a part of the problem. Indifference is equally evil.
“Child abuse isn’t a problem. My kids and their friends haven’t been abused!”
No one would deny that child abuse is a problem in our society, and no one would dismiss that problem simply because they haven’t experienced it themselves. Yet that is exactly what I’ve seen happen in the previous weeks, particularly from white people. To assume you know how the world works for others based solely on what you have or have not experienced is not only ignorant, it is capricious. As a white, middle-class male, I believe the first responsible step in bridging the racial divide is for people like me to admit that skin color CAN and DOES result in different life experiences, and that black people in this country generally have a rougher go of it than I do.
“It’s not a CHILD abuse problem, lots of people are abused!”
It seems obvious that one of the major contributing factors to child abuse is that they are a vulnerable population. They are often abused by people who are bigger, stronger, and in a place of authority over them. But too often I’ve seen people proclaim that the issue of police brutality is not race related. First of all, let’s agree that any police brutality of any race is unacceptable, just as any abuse of any person is unacceptable. But to minimize the connection to race is incautious. One popular post I’ve seen on Facebook is the picture to the right, which is a screenshot of a CNN graphic. The accompanying commentary usually says something like “There were more white people killed than black people…this is NOT a race issue.”
There is another important stat that is missing however, and that is shown in the table below.
You see, while the CNN graphic indicates that there were a little over half as many African-Americans killed by police as white people in 2014, the reality is that there are over 5 times as many white people in the United States. Using those statistics, that shows that black people were 3 times likely to be killed by police in 2014 than white people, and that doesn’t take into account the 311 “Unreported Race” in the CNN graphic. It’s time to admit, it IS a race issue.
“That child had been in time out a thousand times, he DESERVED to be abused!”
Have you ever heard of the abuse of the child and the first thing you thought was “yeah, but did he misbehave a lot?” Of course not! Yet in the hours after the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile deaths, I saw multiple posts pointing to past crimes and sketchy details of their lives. The message may have not been explicit, but it was clear: “This was not a tragedy or injustice because these were not innocent men.” A person with a criminal past is just as deserving of their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights as a person with a squeaky clean past.
“If that child simply obeyed the adult, they NEVER would have been abused!”
Rational people realize that abusive people aren’t thwarted by submission. Yet, one of the most common responses I’ve seen to the deaths of Sterling and Castile is something to the effect of “If you don’t resist police, you don’t get shot.” There are a couple of problems with that take:
First, in the tense environment of a police confrontation, this is not always possible. (3) Instructions are not always clear, and the intensity of the situation can often be escalated by civilians and police alike. A recent video from the body camera of a police officer in Georgia shows how quickly a situation can escalate. In that situation, Patrick Mumford was falsely arrested and tased even after identifying himself and indicating that he was not Michael Clay, the actual man the police were searching for.
Second, if you are of the “just obey the police” mindset, you might have watched the Mumford video and said “see, if he would have just gotten out of the car and complied with the officer’s request, he wouldn’t have gotten tased.” Maybe so. But that does not excuse the escalation of that situation by the police. Oh, and by the way, it is actually LEGAL to resist unlawful arrest, and the law even allows physical force in the resistance. (Go ahead, read that again.) The Indiana State Supreme Court ruled in Plummer v. State, 135 Ind. 308, 34 N.E. 968, that a man who shot a policeman who was falsely arresting him had the right to defend himself in this manner. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Plummer v. State in John Bad Elk v. United States, 177 U.S. 529 (1900), stating that:
“the law looks with very different eyes upon the transaction when the officer had the right to make the arrest from what it does if the officer had no such right. What might be murder in the first case might be nothing more than manslaughter in the other, or the facts might show that no offense had been committed.”
In other words, it is the right of any American to resist with force an unlawful arrest. Now, I don’t suggest that ANYONE resist arrest. But to paint an over-simplistic picture in which all excessive force could be avoided if police are obeyed is Pollyannaish.
So why do we despise one form of abuse, but rationalize another? These irrational statements about child abuse are equally irrational when applied to police brutality. Not every use of physical or deadly force by police is abusive. Most police are public servants who have a desire to protect and serve. But we cannot deny that abuse happens. And the reality is black people are more susceptible to excessive use of force than I am as a white middle-class male, simply due to the color of their skin. The truth is that no one deserves abuse because they have a “rap sheet.” And we can say with certitude that blame for abuse should not be shifted to the abused simply because they are not fully compliant.
Abuse is abuse. Stop rationalizing.
For more thoughts on these issues: