Obey the Law

The other day a Facebook post showed me a white police officer with the quote:

“It’s really simple–obey the law, and we’ll get along just fine.”

We do like our one-liners and hashtags when we talk about culture and politics in America. But anything that distills a complicated social issue down to one line is inherently ignorant, brushing aside facets and facts to make a punchy point.

I don’t think we should settle for ignorance, even if it sounds cool.

For example, on obeying the law, there’s a viral video showing what happens when two men legally carry their AR-15 rifles in public.

In case you don’t watch it, here’s the story:

The first man (average Joe white guy) is walking with a couple friends, all recording what comes next. A policeman shows up, exits his vehicle, approaches and asks for their IDs. The man says, “No, you have no need to take my ID, I’m not doing any crime.” The officer accepts this and begins questioning why the man is walking with an AR-15. The man replies, “Just exercising my rights as a legal firearm owner.” While the officer isn’t happy with this, the camera fades and we see nothing else after that.

The second man, who the video description calls a black man, walks down a street with his AR hanging at his side, untouched. His pregnant wife follows behind, both recording everything that happens next. A policeman stops in the street, steps out of his vehicle, draws his weapon and yells, “Get down on the street.” While the man lays in the street, he explains what he’s doing. “I am a legal firearm owner, exercising my rights to open carry, are you detaining me, sir?”

Not only is he detained, his wife is too. She is ordered (at 7 months pregnant) to sit on the curb while all this is sorted out. More police arrive, first one with gun drawn, then another car, then two others and still another. The police calmly approach and remove the AR, then search the man despite his protests and refusal to consent to search. He is led off to the sidewalk, his gun is taken (presumably for a check against some database), and a K9 unit arrives.

Both men obeyed the law but experienced a very different situation. One man was able to challenge the officer and flat out refuse to comply. One man’s life was threatened immediately for an extended duration.

Should I still believe it’s as simple as “Obey the law, and you’ll be fine” then?

But the sword of ignorance cuts both ways. There’s more to the story than the viral video suggests (go figure).

The two videos were shot in two different towns, one in Oregon, one in Nevada. What are the crime rates and demographics of those towns? We don’t know. From the video’s limited view, they do appear to represent two different economic levels. Is violent crime more prevalent in one than the other? Several factors can affect how police respond.

Both men set out to make videos about open carry rights, not anything race-related. The “black” man is actually a Hispanic Filipino. Certainly other minorities also can endure disparate treatment, so I’m not saying that to downplay the ridiculous difference in responses.

Supposedly a report was filed about the second man brandishing the weapon, but the video (and the longer original version) shows proof he did no such thing. Still, that report might partly explain a much more aggressive response.

The point is, an argument that chalks everything up to race might miss some key points. More importantly, I’m concerned by what seems like misleading and inaccurate presentation by this group claiming some kind of fair experiment where the only difference in the two clips is skin color of the gun owner.

In the process of writing a novel about racial tensions, I took time to research others’ experiences as well as what drives our reactions to race. I believe race is a factor in how we respond to one another on an unconscious level. I believe it because there is scientific proof.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink goes into this snap-judgment mechanism that helps our mind process myriad flows of information on a subconscious level. His book shows how this can be good in some cases, detrimental in others. In making his points, he presents examples of properly conducted scientific and sociological experiments. He addresses how our minds deal with the many emotions and notions we bring to the subject of race.

The end result? Turns out we’re all pretty racist, on the subconscious level. Thankfully, most of us control or resist those feelings very quickly, because we believe it’s wrong to judge someone on skin color. Yet experiments prove there’s still a delay between our conscious better reasoning and our unconscious first judgment.

Most of us–even the enlightened and progressive, even the cops–respond differently at first to the darker skinned person in cornrows than to a lighter skinned man.

Knowing that means we can think about it, talk about it, recognize it and work to reduce how long we operate off that misguided initial snap judgment. And then we can also talk about all those other factors and sides of the story that influence race relations.

That conversation won’t be simplified to a one-liner, and we can’t be satisfied with attempts to do so, regardless of which viewpoint we support.

2 thoughts on “Obey the Law”

  1. You make some interesting points but surely, if society is to move on, those who uphold society’s laws should be the ones challenging the prejudice by attempting to treat everyone equally? Shouldn’t that be part of their role rather than just enforcers of law?

    In either case isn’t it a little scary that anyone – regardless of race – can legally walk down the road with an assault rifle?

    1. Yep, I agree that there’s a burden on the officers to uphold the law fairly. They need to be above reproach. Measures like body cams are proven means of improving police-citizen interactions. And we need to enforce the law on those who enforce the law; those who abuse their authority have to face punitive measures appropriate to their violations. That’s why I laughed at the idea that “well if you just obey the law, everything will be fine.”
      My feeling was That’s too simple an answer, and my concern is sort of a “who watches the watchmen?”

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