How much is a (black) life worth?

I avoided writing about these issues of police brutality against black folk for a long time, because I was afraid that once I did, the chronic depression that lies latent within the black cultural consciousness would rear its ugly head — and it did. The names and “heartbreaking cases” seem endless, and posterity treats them as hashtags: #JusticeForTrayvon #MikeBrown #TamirRice, #EricGarner #ICantBreathe #Ferguson #Blacklivesmatter #Crimingwhilewhite #DariusLiddell — Because it’s only a matter of time until it happens to me or someone close to me, why should I be exempt? I take walks at night in middle-class neighborhoods — isn’t that precisely the crime Trayvon committed? I played around with toy guns when I was a kid, making shooting noises at people [1] — isn’t that what Tamir was doing?

What made Tamir and Trayvon, two unarmed human children, so unchildlike and so inhumane that a fully grown and armed police officer decided to shoot them down?

***

On the day of his death, Tamir Rice’s actions were not very remarkable or even rare: he was just another kid playing with a toy gun, whether on the lawn of his home or in the local park. According to the 911 caller, the gun was “probably fake but he’s pointing it at everybody”. Also, it was mentioned that he was “probably a juvenile”.

The dispatcher repeatedly asked (after the caller tried to evade the question) whether Tamir was black or white. Why did this matter at all? (For identification purposes perhaps, but how likely was it that the race would be needed in a case like this?). You can hear the entire call here.

The outcome of the Tamir Rice case literally leaves me speechless: Police shot him within two seconds of arriving on the scene; questions were not asked nor negotiations attempted. The abdominal wound proved fatal, and when his sister arrived at the scene to see what happened, she was tackled, handcuffed and shoved into the back of the police car. The full video is here. Tamir’s wounds were given no aid (afterwards of which it was obvious his gun was fake) and the ambulance took ~10 minutes to arrive — could this issue have been handled more poorly?

I wonder if the kid was white, would he still be alive or would anyone even have called the cops? Or what if it had been a little white girl toting a toy gun — would anyone have even blinked an eye? Some probably would have chuckled and smiled, even! But one thing is for sure, if the little innocent kid was white — because we all know Tamir Rice was innocent — there would be a lot more national outrage — about gun laws/control, about trigger-happy cops killing random people, and more generally, about America’s inevitable ascendency towards the militarization of the police.

But what about Tamir? Where is the outrage for him? His death was not an accident; no apologies were made. The City of Cleveland even went so far as to blame Rice and his family for his death.

You can’t make this stuff up. Little white girls from middle-class families are kidnapped and CNN follows them for days, aka The Missing White Woman Syndrome. Trayvon was 17, and the courts were able to convince themselves that he was on the verge of beating an armed grown man to death. Tamir was 12. How young is too young? When do boys become men?

***

The Trayvon ruling set an ugly precedent: an armed cop or “neighborhood watch guy” has a scuffle with an unarmed teen at night, kills the kid, yet is ultimately proclaimed not guilty because it was “self-defense”.

The Mike Brown ruling set an even uglier precedent: a cop can kill an unarmed teen in broad daylight with multiple (albeit conflicting) eyewitnesses present, and the case is deemed not even worthy of a trial.

Then along comes Eric Garner, who is blamed for his death because he resisted arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Several parties even went so far as to argue that Garner’s plethora of physical conditions (asthma, heart condition, obesity) means that he would have died anyway — in other words, if Garner didn’t have so many health problems to begin with, he would have survived the altercation. (Although the coroner’s report confirmed that Garner’s death was a homicide by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”)

***

How, really, is Garner’s case different from a public lynching? There were New Yorkers walking by as Garner died; some must have stopped to watch. Oscar Grant was shot in the back face down in a BART car. Face down.  He was no longer a threat to anyone, he was fully subdued — he could have simply been taken into custody. Why wasn’t he?

What is so frightening is that if a case like Garner’s and Grant’s can be explained away, what does it take for a police officer to be convicted for an obviously avoidable murder — and get a comparable sentence as would be accorded a civilian? (Arguably, police officers should actually get heavier sentences, to dissuade them from abusing their enormous power over civilians — power under the law and in the street — because they should be held to stricter standards than civilians, not more loose ones.) [2]

The power that is afforded police officers to kill with impunity is astonishing. Sure, even if you believe that most cops are good — even if they really are all good — the law would still allow cases like this to avoid a fair and thorough trial or have a trial wherein the officer is allowed to explain how his “split-second decisions” are totally justified in hindsight. Gail Sullivan says it best:

“But it’s not what’s on a video that matters so much under the law. Nor is it even whether the officer did or did not harbor racial prejudice. It’s what was going through the mind of the cop in the few seconds when he chose to use force that counts and whether his decision was “reasonable” under the circumstances at that time, not with the benefit of hindsight.

And “reasonable” is defined not by what the general public may think but what cops in a similar situation would think.

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has said. And that’s among the reasons it’s so hard to bring charges against cops when they use force — even lethal force.

All this gives police considerable leeway and if they testify before the grand jury, as Pantaleo did in this case, considerable potential sway since they have the opportunity to describe why what they did seemed necessary.”

Bottom line, if an officer happens to kill you, for whatever reason — he’ll be allowed to testify on his own behalf about exactly what his reasons were for acting in the situation that he did. He’ll be offered almost total leeway of subjectivity, simply because he is a police officer and for no other reason. [3]

***

Some say of Garner: “If he had just complied, he would not have died”.   This is a ridiculous argument because it assumes that no matter the charges police bring against you, you should never resist arrest under any circumstances. The brute facts are that cops don’t need proof of the charges when they arrest you — proof is what the verdict of the trial is supposed to ascertain. The police could have nothing more than hearsay, and you simply have to comply because they are wearing a uniform paid for by your taxes. How much power are we willing to give to a uniform?

Never resist arrest — because you might die, and even if the cops did get punished (which they probably won’t, at least not in any sense that a civilian would find commensurate for the crime), you would still be dead — so it’s not worth it in either case. Don’t sacrifice yourself for the petty pride of your conscience; subordinate yourself to the whims of the state (or whatever persons the state has designated worthy of wearing their uniform).

To make resisting arrest a crime lays the groundwork for a police state.

***

Honestly, all these suggestions about how to avoid getting killed by the cops seem eerily similar to how we advise women on how not to get raped by men. “If only you hadn’t resisted arrest (or said yes/no at the proper time with enough assurance); dressed in sagging pants with a hoodie (or in that skanky way at that frat party last night), talked with the utmost respect and deference towards the officer (or turned down his offer for just one more drink or bong hit), if only you knew how to read the minds of your police officers (and those of random power-hungry men) and could anticipate their next move at any and all times, then you wouldn’t have been raped/killed.” Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s an old story. The oppressed has to know the whims and peculiarities of the oppressor. The people and parties at the bottom or middle of the hierarchy have to learn the tastes of the ruling class in order to join it. You have to fake it ‘til you make it, essentially. For historical reasons, women have had to know men at a much deeper and more holistic level than vice versa. (Arguably, men have had to do the same but their motives were much different). I have to become acquainted with corporate culture to succeed in it, but no white person has to take black or Hispanic culture seriously in America — simply because we are not the dominant culture. To put it in crude, postmodern terms, I have to know ‘stuff white people like’ at a much subtler and deeper level than whites have to know ‘stuff black people like’. The bourgeois decides taste; there is only one real and true way to be sophisticated, according to the dominant culture, of which the first step is to articulate with proper grammar and structure (i.e. don’t talk like your black great grand-parents – you ain’t gone get no job like that). Being educated is nothing more than wearing the outer markers (dress, conversation, goals, etc) of the currently educated class.

***

But, let’s be honest, regardless of how you feel about any of these generic cases of “white cop kills black male (female cases abound — 10+ cases to get you started: here & here — but simply get way less media attention), you have to acknowledge that the outcome in all of them seems patently ABSURD when juxtaposed with the outcome of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Here are the highlights: James Holmes walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and killed 12 people and injured ~70 others. Everyone knew he was the killer. He was arrested without resisting and was taken to a detention center to undergo several psychiatric evaluations, while his lawyers continue to make “diminished capacity” pleas on his behalf.

But in the other cases we discuss, each black person was killed because they were perceived or suspected threats.  Holmes had already proved he was a threat by killing a dozen people and injuring many others… The evidence against Holmes was overwhelmingly clear, and yet his life was deliberately preserved! Excessive care was taken to ensure that Holmes was not hurt in any way, even after he had already killed a dozen people!

This is the pure, pure essence of white privilege. The treatment of Holmes versus any of our other cases cannot be justified under any circumstances.

***

In our time, it’s fashionable to disdain rage. In social dynamics, anger is perceived as a sign of weakness, a sign that you feel you’ve lost power, “lost control”. Anger is usually feared if it comes from the dominant party in the altercation, but pitied, ridiculed, or even ignored if it comes from the less powerful party. In our case, in order to deflect the great pains and horrors of any nuanced and honest racial discourse, we employ more acceptable ways to express/deflect rage, such as cynicism and irony, and transform it into laughter (and those who still become too angry are usually said to be overreacting, or in our case, “just another black person who needs to get over it”, “a race-baiter”, etc). But humor, sarcasm and cynicism are forms of coping; and as much as these methods have their place, their only true purpose is to incite change, and nothing will change as long as we use these tools to deflect our true feelings rather than empower them.

The most effective tool against racism is anger. The seemingly opposed movements of black power and nonviolent action both had the same element at the core: pure, unbridled rage.

[1] I was 5’8 at 13 just like Tamir was 5’7 at 12, so we both looked older than our age stature-wise, which would have made us both look “threatening”.

[2] It appears that it is incredibly hard to indict a police officer in cases where the civilian is severely injured or dead, because the court cannot prove that the officer did not have “objective reasonableness”. Check out the 1989 case of Graham v. Connor and a few articles (here, here, and here) detailing how the courts, the police, and the prosecutors somehow all manage to stick together when it comes down to it. (This is worth a whole blog post in itself)

[3] The black victims are always pitied in the same manner (or perps, as in every case, the cop was deemed the victim, and the still black body is always unfortunate collateral): “You know, It wasn’t supposed to be this way, I was following protocol.. I had no choice.. We make tough decisions sometimes, we didn’t want anybody to die”. It reminds me of the herd-mentality of the soldier or the employee… “I was just following orders”.

3 Comments

Filed under Race and Religion

3 responses to “How much is a (black) life worth?

  1. Hannah S

    Excellent post Darius. You raise so many key issues here. Thank you.

  2. Excellent work. I was recently discussing how to deal with traffic stops with a few new drivers I know–white, teenage girls–and I kept getting distracted by the voice in the back of my head that wondered, “I’m hoping these kids don’t get inconvenienced by an irritable cop–how do parents face the necessity of giving a similar speech that is a matter of life and death?” How would I send my children into the world each day, knowing that their chances of survival could rest on something as seemingly innocuous as skin color.

    Your blog post title is horrifying–that we even need to ask that question–but the simple facts are clear. If an alien were to arrive in our nation today, with no preconceptions or foreknowledge, and hear that question, observation would lead to one unavoidable conclusion: A black life is worth very little.

    We can say otherwise, and individuals certainly feel otherwise, but the news betrays us. We use black lives like paper towels. They’re useful, but ultimately disposable. We can deny it. Individuals will undoubtedly complain of my accusation, and I certainly don’t hold that belief myself, but as a society the evidence is pretty damned compelling. I know that I wouldn’t want to be black–it’s too awesome to be white, because when you’re white you can be a loser in a dozen different ways and still be a hundred times less likely to be murdered in the street like an animal.

    Your questions are important ones for which I have no good answers. Worse still, I see no immediate hope of change for the better. Protests fall on deaf and angry ears. Revolution is twisted by the establishment and used to sew contempt. Mainstream America thinks of Ferguson and Mr. Brown does not come to mind, except as an afterthought: they’re transfixed by fires and looting and sensationalist news reporting, they’re constitutionally unsuited to the empathy required to see the agony, frustration, and honest cynicism of long lost hope behind the outbursts of destructive anger.

    The current generations are lost. We’ve no chance of witnessing change, but there is a way: education and grimly determined aspiration. Our children, all of them but particularly black and brown children, must be educated and raised to aspire to leadership, from school boards to town councils, county boards to state legislative bodies to national government. The rightful power must be claimed rightfully, and righteously, and the laws must be changed to reflect a new vision of the future.

  3. Joe B

    Great post Darius. I’m with you brother.
    The biggest issue is hidden and even unconscious. Police perceive people with dark skin as threatening. Not sure what one can do about that.

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