The Slaughtering of Black Men: Rage is Not Enough.
(Originally published on April 1, 2019)
The past week alone must have been so violently traumatic for our country's black community that I can't begin to comprehend how they continue to put up with us. I, as a white woman, tremble in rage as I read the headlines. I am irate. I am sad. I am heartbroken. But this pales in comparison to the pain of those targeted by this violence. Black Lives Matter. Our country continues to make this phrase aspirational. Let's do something about it. On March 15, 2019, a hung jury was declared in the case of a North Miami officer who shot an unarmed caretaker of an autistic man. The caretaker, a black man, was lying on the floor with his arms out asking the police not to shoot his client because he was holding a toy truck, and not a gun. There are photos. This is clearly what happened. It didn't matter. It never matters. This black man, who was trying to protect another vulnerable individual and did everything in his power to show he was not a threat, was still treated like one and died for it. On March 23, 2019, a white police officer who shot a black teenager, Antwon Rose, during a traffic stop was acquitted. In that case, Antwon Rose--a passenger--was shot three times: in his back, face and elbow. Did he have a gun? No. Did he threaten anyone? No. But none of it matters, because he was a black male. On March 31, 2019, the body cam footage of Willie McCoy's execution was released. He was asleep. Asleep! In his car. Minutes after the police arrived, he was shot and killed. The official story was that Mr. McCoy had a gun on his lap and "reached for it." The footage doesn't show that. The footage shows a man asleep, who wakes up, scratches his shoulder, and 10 seconds after waking up is fired upon by six officers. Six. Mr. McCoy may or may not have had a gun--I don't know. But in a country where we have a Second Amendment, the mere presence of a gun should not lead to a death sentence. Unfortunately, however, being a black man continues to do so.
Every time another story hits the newspapers, I think: What can we do? Articles explaining that systemic structural racism is linked to higher rates of police violence provide some answers. They also provide some long-term solutions: end racism. However, they don't provide solutions right here, right now, so that this stops happening. This weekend I asked a legislator: What can we do? How do we stop this? I sat with those questions and pondered, trying to figure out what I would do if I had all the power in the world. The answer actually presented itself quickly, but I pushed it aside. I thought: "No, nobody would go for this. It's unworkable." Ha. That is cowardice. That is shying away from the hard work of social change. So here I am, writing it up because true change can only come from radical ideas. So, let's be radical. As an attorney, my mind had immediately gone to the standard. What is the standard by which an officer's actions are judged? The fact is that a police officer need only believe there to be a threat. That's it. If the officer says he perceived a threat, then it's enough for the murder of a black man to stop being a crime, "The key to both the legal standards--defense of life and fleeing a violent felony--is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's 'objectively reasonable' belief that there is a threat." Vox (Nov. 14, 2018).
You know what, that is unworkable.
The standard is maladapted to the country we live in. It is designed for well-adjusted populations. We are not well adjusted. In the words of J. Cole, referring to black Americans, "We coming from a long bloodline of trauma." And this trauma was inflicted by and for the benefit of White America. One of the results of this legacy is the impact of the "scary black man" narrative. We have not escaped it and it is costing the lives of innocent black men.
In this society, there are large segments of our population that continue to believe that black men are, per se, reasonably perceived as dangerous. They may tell themselves they are not racist. They may also not even they are doing it. But it is there. Don't take my work for it. Just peruse these articles: "The Problem With Being Tall, Male, and Black," published in February 2018. "Height means something different for black men," write psychologists Neil Hester and of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. "Height amplifies already problematic perceptions of threat, which can lead to harassment and even injury. For black men, being tall may be less of a boon, and more of a burden."
"Joe McKnight and the fear of black men," "white people can fear for their lives when they come into contact with African-Americans, and society believes in that fear." The examples abound and a cursory look at our pop culture confirms it. How many times is the thug or the gangster black? How many times are black boys used to depict an "ominous scene" in movies and series? So many times, I stopped counting.
So, if the standard in police brutality cases is whether police officers "believed" they were in danger and society, including some members of law enforcement, have an irrational fear of black men, isn't the answer to change the standard? What if we asked juries to determine whether police officers were actually in danger? I can hear the outcry, right now: law enforcement officers do a difficult job, law enforcement needs latitude, and these are split-second decisions. All true statements.
What I would answer, though, is that our society is too broken to continue giving this much latitude and that our society is too broken to use this standard. In a perfect society, or even in a less damaged society, it would be fine. But in our society it leads to catastrophic outcomes. It is not enough to simply rely on people's perceptions when we know that these same perceptions are profoundly flawed from the get-go. We need more.
So I say this: I urge legislators to work with law enforcement, prosecutors, members of the defense bar, civil rights attorneys, and members of #BLM to develop a standard that actually makes sense. Such a standard has to require a finding that a danger actually existed. To continue accepting fear as a justification for the killing of black men when we know that merely being a black man is perceived, by many, as inherently scary, clearly sets up our brethren for slaughter. In addition, I would urge police training to include a racial-bias determination. During shooting drills, if an officer shows a propensity to use deadly force if the suspect is black as opposed to white, he or she shouldn't be serving. Such drills are commonly used, and such testing exists. Let's use it for law enforcement training rather than just testing. Lives depend on it. Black men deserve to be safe. Black lives should matter. Black families don't deserve what we're doing to them.