I haven’t commented in-depth about the police shootings in African American communities on this blog. However, for today’s post I don’t think I can “escape” from that world, as I thought about the footage from Oklahoma’s and North Carolina’s shootings.
I did a post a few months ago about some questions I get asked as an American living abroad, and one of the things that British, Europeans, and Africans do not understand is our gun culture and hence, gun violence. They see the two as explicitly linked (available guns = mass shootings), and while I have given some rationale for our gun culture, I cannot find a positive rationale for police shootings of unarmed victims. This is when the discussion goes beyond the topic of gun culture into State-sanctioned violence.
There is wide use for this terminology, however I am specifically speaking of the legacy of police-community relations in African American neighborhoods. The relationship between law enforcement and Blacks has always been tense, so what we are witnessing in 2016 stretches to at least a century ago. The same White Supremacists (Ku Klux Klan members) who would burn crosses on front lawns or perform other acts of terror in Black neighborhoods at night, would dress up in law enforcement uniforms or suits in the day, to work at the police station, city hall, attorney’s office, or at the court. In other words, the same people who swore on a bible or in front of the flag to protect the citizenry and uphold the law, were the same ones who would commit these acts under the cover of darkness. This reality is less than one generation ago.
Today, the movement of #AllLivesMatter claim that this construct has been abolished and that specifically pointing out that “Black lives matter,” is racist. Just to be clear, the entire statement is “Black lives matter (too)”; as it is not about elevating the life of a Black person above anyone else, but raising awareness to a very critical issue that the people who are sworn to protect us, are killing us. Who can we trust? And yes, this system of “terrorizing and policing” Black communities that was historically constructed, is still in place. The tactics are more subtle, but the rhetoric of the “infinitely dangerous or threatening Black man” is used as a justification for lethal force.
So why do I use this term “State-sanctioned violence” ? Other than having race, class, gender, and manner of death in common; after the shooting, the victims also did not receive life-saving first aid. Huffington Post wrote a great article and this is why the phrase “Black lives matter” is important and should be shouted from the rooftops of every house. It is terribly unbelievable to think that a terrorist, who placed many bombs all over New York City and New Jersey last weekend, was shot but received life saving treatment, and will live to stand trial to defend himself. However in direct contrast, a Black man whose car was stranded on the side of the road, or the other Black man who was pulled over for a traffic ticket, or the 12 year old Black boy playing with a toy gun in the park never made it home. Not just because of a gun-shot wound, but because the officer, and surrounding officers, did not administer first aid or call for an ambulance immediately.
Thus, what is the rationale that an “armed and dangerous” ISIS-inspired terrorist gets to live, see his family, and do all the things that a law-abiding father of four will never get to do? For the record, I am glad that Ahmad Rahami received treatment and was treated with dignity as each human deserves. But why weren’t any of these men too?
This is the key link to why we can see this historical legacy perpetuating itself. Even after the victims were shot, many were denied immediate first aid after the “threat or danger” ceased. However, mainstream society and the main discussion of police-involved shootings, have not addressed this phenomenon. The Black community has suffered disproportionately from social ills (high unemployment, under-housed, health disparities etc…) and thus as a group has faced marginalization. Police shootings are a part of this larger scope. Thus, the “lack of caring or concern” to provide humane medical treatment is a product of decades of State-sanctioned violence, where power relations constructed in this realm has made violence against African Americans plausible. In other words, there is no “outrage” when violence of this nature happens, because in a way, we expect it to; nor do we expect the first responders (usually other officers) on the scene to help neither.
The phrase #BlackLivesMatter, which raises awareness of unfair policing practices, speaks to the dehumanizing of a Black life. No individual would say that one life is less valuable than another; however as a society, we collectively stopped seeing Black “suspects” or “perpetrators” as human beings. We have dismissively rationalized the deaths of Eric Gardner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, or Walter Scott as “guilty thugs”, rather than critique the system that wields so much power over us behind a badge. A system that is flawed and insular, and has rarely been challenged by mass society to change, innovate, and respond to the dynamic needs of the public.
The training standards of law enforcement has to become universal across the country, there are multiple DOJ investigations into these shootings; however, the reports that came out on Ferguson and Baltimore policing practices, reveal that while the ideology of White supremacy is dying, officers still “police” differently in Black neighborhoods than White areas. Rookie officers are trained to view encounters in Black communities differently and the insular nature of some police districts prevent fellow officers from coming forward when his/her colleague breaks the law. Officers are also first responders. This means anyone that needs medical help (including the person that was shot by the officer) should receive immediate first aid and a 911-call for an ambulance. However, the problem again is training, not every police force is trained to perform first aid and protocols for officer-involved shooting varies.
The federal government has a role in this; a task force was set up to review police standards and provide meaningful solutions. However, these recommendations are up to individual police units to decide if and how these recommendations would be implemented. Thus, there is no enforcement or universal mandate for local officers to wear body cameras or use conflict diffusion measures. Americans of all race, class, gender, orientation, and background also have a role in this, because this isn’t just a “Black problem”– it affects everyone. Every community deserves safer policing practices, stronger law enforcement-community relationships, and officers that are accountable to the public that they serve, not “police”.
The only thing deadlier is silence.