Tag Archives: police brutality

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.

It is Not Finished, But It Will Be Soon

NaNoWriMo has kept me busy. When the WordPress app kept failing to update on my iPad, I found it too easy to blow off posting updates.

Because, hey, why waste words on blogs when I could be pushing toward that magic 50,000 word goal?

Now I’m sitting just past 41K with five full days remaining (plus my Tuesday night here on Okinawa). I have no doubt in my mind I can do this.

When I made a spontaneous commitment to this crazy effort, I had no plot in mind. But the news was full of Ferguson and Mike Brown, accusations and protests and justification on all sides.

I started reading blog posts and immersing myself in the voice of a culture and experience completely unfamiliar to me. And I realized how little time I’ve taken to listen or consider what it might be like to walk in different shoes or live in darker skin.

A story formed in my head, but I didn’t feel adequate to the task. So I hit the library and dug into books and websites documenting a variety of viewpoints and experiences. Beyond the Color Line by Henry Louis Gates Jr. offered me the wide range of perspectives I wanted.

Bloggers delivered some profound insights. My “favorite” blog post on the subject–not because of how it made me feel, since it positively wrecked me emotionally–is found here:

Teach About Mike Brown But Don’t Stop There

The link Ms. Wilson includes to a similar post about Sean Bell is equally challenging to those of us who haven’t had a conversation with our parents or children about how best to avoid getting shot by police.

That said, I also found gems like this post, called It’s Hard to Keep Caring, in defense of the difficult job and the unheralded but still heroic efforts of the many good and decent human beings serving their communities in police uniforms.

Basically, NaNoWriMo started (for me) as a fun project to see if I could be a better writer.

I’m surprised, humbled, and satisfied to think maybe it achieved something else: maybe it’s forcing me to become a better person.

I found myself writing a poem from the perspective of a hypothetical protester in Ferguson (or one of the other all-too-similar situations over the last few decades).

I don’t know that I’d find myself on a street holding a sign, or putting my hands in the air staring down a riot cop’s gun. But for a moment, I could expand my limited perspective and try to ask, “How would I feel? What would I say in these circumstances?”

Because on my various social media feeds, all I saw–on all sides–was a bunch of groups of “us” talking about “all of them,” vilifying and dehumanizing anyone who disagreed, anyone who looked different.

That’s my takeaway from this project. My goal in the story was to present the idea that black or white, rich or poor, maybe we’re not so different, maybe we all feel similar emotions, deal with similar struggles, and experience similar tragedies.

I doubt I hit the mark all that well. I’ll end up with a rough draft that will probably sit on my computer and go nowhere. Maybe I’ll self-publish.

But my coworker who inspired me to join reminded me, “NaNo is all about trying something new. Go for it, see where it leads.”

Who would have thought compassion and empathy are new concepts?

Judging by the news, I suppose maybe that’s not such a surprise.

My book isn’t finished yet. The book’s not closed on racial injustice and tensions either. Both are pretty rough drafts with some great moments and touching scenes, mixed with a whole lot of crap we’d all probably rather ignore.

But I can only hope that both will be finished, someday soon.

Here’s the poem. I welcome your thoughts:

The dam you’ve cracked could not hold back
A flood of fury, hurt and worry
The history of wrongs built up for so long
The strong walls of patience and appeasement
Burst and shattered, twisted and bent
By six shots fired in supposed self-defense
At an unarmed teen accused of violence
And they act like the evidence all makes sense
But we see right through all the police pretense
To the obvious truth of an innocent youth
So back off your sanctioned brutes in riot gear and jackboots
Your power was never meant to be absolute
You’ve awoken an army with hands up–Don’t shoot.