Freddie Gray

A friend of mine, a woman a little younger than I am and also white, is reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  This week, in the wake of the indictment of six Baltimore cops for murder or manslaughter in the death Freddie Gray, she asked me, “What should we do?”

She meant ‘we’, ‘white people’, and, I think, when she said, ‘What should we do?’, she didn’t just mean, ‘How can we help?’ – she also intended the harder, subtler question, ‘What am I supposed to do with my anger about this? How do I understand and cope with how desperate this makes me feel, especially in light of my own complicity?’

During the winter, I go to the gym most days after work.  The TVs over the treadmills are usually set to CNN, and this is pretty much the only the network television I watch.  During the past few months, I have run while, each week, it seems, CNN covers another murder of a black man by the police.  Lately, as we all know, there have been videos of these deaths, and I watch while these men are killed over and over and over, and all I can think, ‘We should all have known that this was happening.’

There are a number of systems failing in these videos, many policies indicted in the facts of these deaths: the expansion of police powers, the war on drugs, entrenched, multi-generational poverty.  There are more evils at work here than simple racism.

But simple racism is there: there are fewer consequences for killing blacks than there are for killing whites, and police across the country have been exploiting that difference for a long time.  Black lives matter, but they matter less than white lives.  This is an empirical truth and a moral catastrophe.

This problem has not gotten worse recently: the police did not just start killing black men this year.  The national media did not finally develop a racial conscience; white people are not more aware, more sensitive, than we were in 2005.  So what changed – why are we talking about this now?

Because now there’s video.

Everyone has a camera now, smartphones which feel like an extension of their arms, and their own personal social media platforms.  The situation is exactly the same, but now there’s proof.

I feel crushed by this fact: black Americans have, for decades, insisted that they were the victims of police brutality.  Most white people didn’t believe them, and even those of us who did, who believed that, yes, stop-and-frisk was racist, that blacks were systematically harassed by police, we didn’t imagine, didn’t really understand, that they were being routinely murdered by the police.

At least, I hope we didn’t.  Because the other possibility is that we did, and we just didn’t care.

But they were – they were being killed by the police, and we might have done something about it much sooner if only we had believed what we were told.  Unfortunately, and indisputably, the word of the black community is insufficient: they must have video corroboration, even in cases of their own deaths.

Truly, we had no good excuse for not believing the charges of racial violence made against the police.  In the entire history of black-white relations in America, every single time a system could victimize or disadvantage blacks, it has.  After slavery, after Jim Crow, after civil rights, when the black community said, ‘We’re scared of the police,’ where on earth did white people find the gall to disregard them?

It’s well past time to accept this: black Americans and white Americans occupy different countries.  Our experience does not delimit theirs, and the fact of the difference in their experience is not grounds for us to dismiss it.  It’s time for the white community to treat the testimony of black Americans as equal to their own.

If we had, perhaps we would not still live in a country where racist drug laws provide a thin cover behind which cops arbitrarily torture and execute an unknown number of black men.  If we had had a little moral imagination, we might have stopped this a long time ago – instead, we needed to wait for it to come out on video before we would even start talking about it.

So what should we do?

Here’s what we can do, for a start: the next time a black person tells us, ‘I can’t ever get a cab’, ‘They won’t lease us apartments’, ‘They treat me like I’m only there to shoplift’, ‘I was going the speed limit’, ‘I wasn’t resisting arrest’, ‘They kill us for no reason’, we can believe them.

Image taken from the New York Times

Eric Garner

Let us call a spade a spade.

Here, in the United States, a police officer can kill a black man without fear of serious legal repercussion.  Be the man unarmed, unthreatening, even if there are cameras rolling, a cop can kill him and walk away.

There are two problems here.  The first is that cops have too much latitude to kill people.  Being a cop is dangerous and important work, and so we, the people they serve and protect, have extended to them credit against our lives.  We have given them the benefit of the doubt, and granted them dramatically expanded rights of self-defense.  We have given them license, when vulnerable or afraid, to protect themselves and each other, with the weapons we suffer them to carry.

They have abused that privilege.  They, or some too-great number of them, kill with impunity.  That is outrageous, and it needs to stop.  Cops should not be allowed to shoot unarmed men.  Cops should not be allowed to taze non-cooperative people to death.  Cops should not be allowed to choke the life out of a man, ever.

This does not mean that police should forbear while people shoot at them.  If a cop believes that someone is about to pull a weapon on him, let him shoot.  But, if he is wrong, and there is no weapon, then let him stand for murder.  Don’t let him enjoy the protection of his fellow officers then, or the complicity of the prosecutors.  And if these police killings are the work of a few bad apples, then let their brothers in blue police them.  At the very, very least, the killing of an unarmed person should result in the automatic loss of a badge.  Cops are citizens among citizens – let them enjoy no more protections than we.

The second problem is that the black community has disproportionately borne the weight of these injustices.  This should surprise no one: the black community has been made to bear the weight of many, many injustices.

In this case, the problem is not only that blacks come under undue and undeserved pressure from the criminal justice system, but also that abuses of power which victimize blacks are less likely to be punished, less likely to be treated by the community as the outrages that they are.

The black community must contend with a police force that can harass, assault, incarcerate, and murder them – their ability to make meaningful protest is hampered by the danger the police pose to them.

The white community tsk-tsks and fails to indict – we have voted less with our feet than with our essential apathy.

And it must be apathy, for there is no excuse for disbelief.  True, people tend to believe the evidence of their eyes, and the white community, particularly the white community with power, has a different relationship with the police than the black community.  If I were going only by my own experience, I would have to conclude that the police in the United States are merely an armed concierge service.  But they are not.  And, given the overwhelming evidence, historical and contemporary, it would be absurd to doubt that the American government and populace are capable of systematically disenfranchising, terrorizing, or brutalizing black Americans.

There are self-interested reasons to care: if the police can trample on their rights, then they can trample on your’s.

But, more than that, the fact that people don’t look like you, the fact that their misfortune does not happen to be your’s, does not excuse you for turning a blind eye to a wrong done to them.

The police may not value black lives as much as white lives, but we should.  What would you do if Eric Garner had been white?  Would your outrage be the same?  Or would it be easier to imagine then that the next person killed might be your neighbor, or son, or husband?  Or you?  What would you do, if you really believed that the reality that strangled him might reach out and touch you next?  Would you remark how sad it all was, and then turn off the T.V.?  I don’t think so.

Image taken from Time.com.