For weeks I have left the topic of Michael Brown unconsidered, and later also the case of Eric Garner. But there is much to say, much that still goes almost unmentioned in the mainstream debate, so the time has come to address it. Before I do, though, there are a few disclaimers to avoid unnecessary anger. This post will not in any way suggest that what either of these policemen did was right, or that their victims in any way deserved to die (which would be nothing less than ridiculous). It will not even claim that the judges were right to make the decisions they made. It will merely criticise the way the movement evolved, because after all, no movement is perfect, especially not one that involves so many people with so many different experiences.
The first thing to consider is how much the way the media reported on these cases has shaped our beliefs, opinions and knowledge about them. Before writing this, I spent about half an hour looking at commentaries and videos on the cases that were made in their immediate aftermath. Back then, we condemned the police officers much less, and many arguments were brought up that have now been forgotten. Instead, we’re left with a very single-sided view of both debates, in which, just to name some, it seems to be taken for granted that Michael Brown held his hands up and in which it often seems to be suggested that Pantaleo actually intended on killing Eric Garner.
Because of that, we cannot view the legal cases and the social uprising as fully connected. The social uprising deals mainly with race, in combination with police violence, and it views the cases only from one point of view. The juries, on the other hand, were presented with all the evidence, and were faced with much more than just race. In fact, the colour of the victims’ skins played no role at all there, because how can you ever prove that things would have gone differently if the victims were white? Sure, we can look at statistics and conclude that black people are more often victims of police violence than white people, but as much as that is relevant for a social debate, it says nothing about the individual case of either of these killings.
Again, that doesn’t mean that I agree with the jury’s verdict (nor that I necessarily disagree). I am simply not mentioning the many arguments in favour of starting a trial, because we already know those, so repeating them here would only make this post unnecessarily long. In the end, it’s the arguments that back the jury’s decision that are left neglected.
This is important particularly because it causes polarisation, something that is rather undeniable in the current situation. The public completely ignores the point of view of the police, and because of that, arguments in defence of the police are left unrefuted. After all, we’re not even addressing them. This creates a situation in which the police, with complete justification, feel like their arguments are not being heard, and therefore they can continue to believe that they are right. The police are people too, and when you discuss a topic with “people”, the only way to convince them is to have some kind of common ground. Right now, all we have is anger and opposition, with no real dialogue going on.
There is one other consideration that needs to be mentioned: the problem does not lie with Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo. It is a systemic problem that can be traced back to many factors in society, ranging from racism to gun laws to the fact that police officers use choke-holds on a daily basis. To punish the individuals will not help solve those systemic problems. It might satisfy some feelings of revenge, but since I have just finished reading Wuthering Heights, I can assure you that revenge does nobody any good. What we need is systemic change, and that is going to come neither from violent protests nor from jury decisions.
That doesn’t mean that I am able to tell you how we do bring about that change. There are so many factors, so much interwoven and secured by various parties and laws, that it will take years, if not decades to get rid of them. But at least we need to start the debate rather than the fight. Distrust of the police is not only a result of police misbehaviour, but it also a cause. Being a policeman in the US, after all, does not only mean being hated by a large majority of the people around you, but it also means knowing that everyone around you could have the power to end your life in an instant, that you have no better weapons than they do, that your uniform makes you a more noticeable target than anyone else, and that on top of all that, rather than hiding from the danger, you have to go in search of it.
Who in their right mind would go for a job like that? The answer, perhaps, is that you either have to be very devoted to doing good, or to be very much into violence, and unfortunately, the latter is not so uncommon. But solving that problem is not as simple as some might want it to seem.
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