We sure got here in a hurry. Just a few short weeks ago the nation was cheering the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team during their improbable run at the World Cup in Brazil. The political parties we were debating what to do about the sudden flood of illegal teenage migrants at our southern border. Most of us had never heard of the crime of selling loose cigarettes on New York City streets. Most of us couldn’t find Ferguson, Missouri on a map.
This weekend, it was reported that Amnesty International is sending a “human rights team” to Ferguson—a first deployment in the U.S.A. for the organization—to underscore “the lack of accountability for Michael Brown’s shooting.” Later this week, Al Sharpton and his National Action Network will stage a rally on Staten Island to protest the killing earlier this summer of Eric Garner, a black man, at the hands of the NYPD. The nation’s police are now in the crosshairs and we are on the edge of a racial crisis with the potential to tear the social fabric along predictably ideological lines.
How quickly we go from zero to 60 when the subject is race.
It’s odd that it should have happened now, on the cusp of Obama’s final act. For all the bitter partisan conflict of his presidency, Obama entered office promising significant progress on the racial divisions that continue to haunt us. In his campaign speech addressing the controversy over his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama sharply criticized what he called “a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” Wright’s inflammatory comments, the future president went on to say, “were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems.” That was six years ago. Given the riots in Ferguson and the disquiet in New York City, it’s hard to see exactly what Obama has done to help the situation.
But Obama is only the president. He is not the mayor of Ferguson or the police commissioner of New York City. It’s not necessarily his job to solve such problems, and we probably shouldn’t want him to. But he is an African American president—the African American president—and as such occupies a symbolic place in the still-unfolding history of our nation. Surely he could do something to heal the breach? In his first official statement on the riots in Ferguson, Obama urged both police and protesters to “take a step back”—a request they both promptly ignored. Surely he could do more? Surely he could do better?
Then again, maybe Obama’s right to stay out of it. He’s a politician, after all, and he’s been known to sow division in order to capitalize on it. In this case he may be content not to sow division, but at least to tolerate it. What we have, on the one hand, is a black community that feels itself targeted disproportionately and unfairly by the police. Theirs is a deep-rooted resentment, with multiple causes and no obvious remedy. But of all the options available in our wealthy, democratic, and politically free society (see: frequency of Amnesty International investigations in U.S.A.), rioting hardly seems the most productive means of grievance airing.
On the other hand we have the police and their defenders, in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere, who insist that their motivations are pure. Their officers are interested only in maintaining law and order, they say, not in aggressively and vindictively targeting young black males for incarceration. But of all the options available to the police in our wealthy, democratic, and politically free society, sending body-armored shock troops wielding rubber bullets to quell a peaceful protest hardly seems the best means of preserving credibility.
Would, as some maintain, better training have prevented the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown? Maybe. The problem is at once more complex and more basic. The complexity lies in the poisoned psychology of the charged relationship between black America and the police. Whatever the merits of tweaking and improving police training protocols, they are unlikely to be enough to reassure someone who is convinced to his core that the cops are targeting him because of his skin color. Perceptions inform realities and are not easily shaken off. African-American suspicion of the police goes back much farther than Ferguson.
But the more basic problem is this: What should the police do when someone—black or white—resists arrest? Crime and punishment always makes sense in the abstract, where actions and consequences align logically and consistently. But the police don’t work in tidy abstractions. The police work in environments where you might have seen something and you might not have. Police work in the kind of world where suspects lie. Sometimes they run. Sometimes they resist. What are the police supposed to do then? The law says that, as a suspect, you must submit to arrest. You have the right to an attorney and you are afforded the presumption of innocence, but you must submit to arrest.
The facts of what happened between Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown are murky, but the confrontation between the NYPD officers and Eric Garner was caught on video and can be analyzed. On the tape, the cops accuse Garner of selling loose cigarettes—a violation of the law—but he argues with them, accusing them of hassling him for no reason, and makes it plain that he will not submit to arrest, telling the officer not to touch him. He does not get violent with the officers, who remain calm throughout the confrontation, but he is also not cooperative. He is demonstrative and defiant. Perhaps he has good reason to be upset—he claims they have “harassed” him before. It goes on for some time before the officers decide to force his compliance with their orders. During the confrontation, Garner dies when one of the arresting officers puts him in a chokehold, which is prohibited by NYPD policy.
Clearly, death is an excessive and unwarranted punishment for the crime of selling loose cigarettes and the police should not go around choking those they suspect of such petty infractions. But is a forcible arrest only valid if the underlying crime rises to the level of something that would, on its own merits, justify a violent response? If so, what should the officers have done instead? Should they have kept talking to Garner? For how long? Perhaps they should have considered his pleas of innocence and let him go with a warning. But they claim they witnessed him breaking the law. Should they have let him get away with it? Why?
We say we want the police to enforce the law fairly and consistently—without prejudice. But, at the same time, we say we want them to be compassionate and sensitive to circumstance; we want them to exercise good judgment and not get carried away with their own power; we want them to demonstrate a level of patience and capacity for empathy that is rare even among the general population; we want them to be resistant to provocation and immune to pettiness. Above all, we want them to sense when their struggles with a suspect could end with the use of deadly force and pull back before it does.
In short, we want our police officers to be something like kindly, perfectible robots. That’s asking too much of them, just as its asking too much of President Obama to swoop in and patch up the situation in Ferguson. There are limits to what can be achieved in an environment of stoked fear and mutual mistrust. The middle of a riot is no place for a national conversation.
Maybe Obama was right. Everybody does need to take a step back. When we do, it might be a good time to ask ourselves just what it is we want from the police.