But What About Ferguson? Returning to this question of “every 28 hours,” we ask incredulously, innocently, again: How often do police shoot unarmed black people? Is it surprising that the government keeps no statistics ? Recently, some citizen groups have been trying to find out: It turns out that the number of persons killed by police in the past decade – averaging about a thousand per year – has exceeded the number of troops killed in the Iraq War. In St. Louis alone, police had already shot 16 people in 2014, most of them black, before the Michael Brown killing.
[Update] Public pressure has had a certain impact. A record number of police were charged with killing people in 2015. But the mythological reality remains unquestioned: not a single officer has been convicted yet. And, despite the “Blue Lives Matter” claims, fewer cops were killed than in previous years.
But isn’t it about criminal behavior, not race? Not when we have multiple examples of white men pointing loaded guns at police (including the Cliven Bundy standoff) and not be shot? Tim Wise offers this example:
When a white man in…New Orleans can literally point his weapon directly at…members of the New Orleans Police Department, and when told to drop his weapon, answer back, “No, you drop your fucking gun,” and remain a breathing, carbon-based life form — as was the case this past April for Derrick Daniel Thomas — then you know you’re dealing with a two-tiered law enforcement regime hardly different from the ones that existed under Jim Crow. Google the NOPD and check out their history if you harbor any doubts about how such an act as Thomas’s would have gone down had he been black.
This is no isolated phenomenon. There have been at least eight recent cases in which white men pointed guns at cops and were not killed.
It is most certainly about race. Blacks suffer over five times as many non-fatal injuries per capita from the police as white people do. African American youth are six times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated for a first offense, even when their crimes are identical. Blacks are 4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for a marijuana possession offense, even though rates of usage are virtually identical across racial lines. Police in towns like Ferguson are almost twice as likely to stop and search black motorists as opposed to white ones, even though whites are nearly 60 % more likely to have illegal contraband on them when searched.
Fifty years later and white law enforcement officers are still behaving as if the ruling in Dred Scott (1857) — that blacks “have no rights which the white man is bound to respect” — were still operative…When a white man can shoot a police officer and kill him because he thought the officer (who was executing a no-knock drug raid on his home) might be a burglar, and not face charges, but a black man who does the very same thing in the very same state is charged with multiple felonies, what do we call it if not a sign of apartheid justice in America?
But do cops really get away with such discriminatory – and frequently murderous – behavior? Take my liberal, minority-led city of Oakland, where the NAACP reports that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black. None were white. One-third of the shootings resulted in fatalities. Although weapons were not found in 40 percent of cases, no officers were charged. (These numbers don’t include the Oscar Grant case).
Nationwide, in 2012, law enforcement ruled a total of 410 such deaths as “justified homicides.” The annual number has been steady for much of the past two decades.
It is not 1965 anymore. Perhaps in large swaths of the nation, at least among white, religious people older than age 50 – those most susceptible to the non-stop fear-mongering – it is no longer possible to be shamed into living up to America’s ideals. After 1970, and continuing since that time, conservatives have taken advantage of the old narratives of “othering.” They have once again convinced large segments of the population to identify as “white” rather than as workers who have common cause with people of color. A half century of shock-jocks, Fox News, Rambo superheroes, economic depression, Democratic collusion, racist televangelists and media caricatures of dark-skinned criminals have given them permission to flaunt their worst impulses, to stand proudly in their refusal to welcome the Other into the City of the Elect.
[Update] – Indeed, by 2015 anti-racist activists had given up on the “Hands up, don’t shoot” theme because it had, quite simply, failed to generate a moral response from the police, the media or the broader society. The more objective and provocative “Black Lives Matter” movement was born, and I shouldn’t have to remind you of the ignorant, reactionary responses it generated.
Even as I write this essay yet another video surfaces of six NYPD officers beating an unarmed Latino man.
Can we speak of “guilty pleasures?” Is it possible that, as they did in 1890 when they flocked to dozens of public lynchings, they – we – now enjoy watching the videos of cops shooting and beating unarmed men of color?
What do Americans think of all this? While 80% of African Americans say the murder of Michael Brown “raises important issues about race that merit discussion,” only 37% of whites agree. Instead, 47% of whites said that “race is getting more attention than it deserves” in the Ferguson case.
This discrepancy returns us to the question of white privilege. Half of all whites believe that blacks enjoy economic parity with them, 61% say the average black has equal or better access to health care than the average white, and 85% say that blacks have just as good a chance as whites do to get any housing they can afford – and all this despite the contrary views held by the vast majority of black people. This means that whites are privileged to say to blacks, in effect, “I know your reality better than you do.” It means that they have the privilege to determine who the Other is, and once they can achieve that, to know who they are.
This, in our demythologized world, is the primary definition and function of myth: stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to remind us – to reassure us and convince us despite our mounting doubt – of who we are.
The militarization of the police is clearly related both to the bogus war on drugs (in reality a war against poor people and people of color) and to the highly contrived war on terror. In 1980 tactical police units (SWAT teams) were deployed some 3,000 times across America. Now they occur 50,000 times per year, or 150 times per day. Such units are not just common in big cities: though nearly 90% of American cities with populations above 50,000 have them, so do more than 90% of police departments in small-to-medium size cities. It bears repeating that his huge rise in paramilitary police forces has occurred as violent crime levels have fallen. And most SWAT teams are deployed to serve routine drug-related warrants on private homes, often with disastrous consequences, using military equipment originally intended to be used in full-scale warfare.
And the militarization of the police is more than the result of mass paranoia; it is also related to good old American ingenuity and pork-barrel corruption. The National Database of Critical Terrorist Targets, established after 9/11, has grown to over 300,000 localities, and Indiana has grabbed more (over 9,000!) than California and New York combined. The department’s database of “vulnerable critical infrastructure and key resources” includes amusement parks, ice cream parlors, a petting zoo, a popcorn factory, a bourbon festival and a kangaroo conservation center. You get the idea. Curiously, the list does not include New York City’s Times Square.
Qui bono: follow the money.
Then consider how a small town with a police force of 25 officers received six free military Humvees from the federal government , or why the feds have dispersed twelve thousand bayonettes to local cops. And the equipment must be used within a year, or cities are required to return it.
It comes from the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which has provided $5.1 billion in surplus military equipment to local police since 1997, as well as grant programs run by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. The grants have enabled local law enforcement to purchase $34 billion in weaponry since 9/11/2001. The governments gives them the money, and they buy the stuff from arms merchants. At least if they buy it, they don’t have to use it within a year…
It is more than ironic that all this hardware is landing in local police stations all across the country even as we learn that ISIS is fighting its jihad with massive amounts of American military equipment seized from the ineffective Iraqi puppet government. Que bono? Who profits?
And if you are concerned that Ferguson swept Gaza out of the news, please note that in the context of the myth of American innocence, everything is related. Isn’t the sacrifice of 500 children in Gaza related to the execution of the unarmed in Ferguson? And the connection is not merely symbolic; it is quite literal: at least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson received training from Israeli security forces recently. Indeed, according to the Electronic Intifada:
Under the cover of counterterrorism training, nearly every major police agency in the United States has traveled to Israel for lessons in occupation enforcement, a phenomenon that journalist Max Blumenthal dubbed “the Israelification of America’s security apparatus.” Israeli forces and US police departments are so entrenched that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has opened a branch in Tel Aviv.
For more on this issue, see here.
Even though we bi-coastal progressives are horrified (our innocence punctured once again) when we hear of each new outrage, countless others find themselves unified in their denial. To deny something is to declare it taboo. And “taboo” (“kapu” in Hawaiian) means “too sacred to mention.” The sacred is a secret, and this is the secret: Americans are unified in their fear of the evil Other, and they (at least enough voting-age white Americans) will regularly declare their allegiance to a culture whose primary religious ritual is the sacrifice of this Other. He is sacred because for a while he takes our sins away. So far, for white people, the sacrifice – which, ironically, made Michael Brown sacred – has been successful.
This one hour documentary summarizes the situation in full, graphic detail.
Perhaps you still prefer to believe that the problem is a few “rogue cops,” that it is not deliberate and systemic. One whistleblower cop has revealed that Fellow Officers (are) Getting ‘Gang Tattoos’ To Celebrate Their Shooting Victims. “And some of them were commanding officers” of the Oxnard, CA, police.
So finally, we return to the question: Do Black lives really matter? Well, aside from the obvious moral understanding, I hope that you can now see that an accurate and practical response can only come from our mythological perspective. Black lives in America matter to the (diminishing) extent that Black people still participate in the economy of production and consumption. They matter to the penal-industrial-security-weapons complex. They matter to racist politicians who might otherwise have to attend to genuine questions of freedom and equality, but who can always play the race card. They matter in terms of the temporary, symbolic, Dionysian distraction that the images of Black entertainers and athletes offer to millions of young people and older couch potatoes.
But mostly, Black lives matter as the Other whom America is now proudly, publicly offering up as a human sacrifice so that it may in its desperation continue to avoid the ultimate confrontation with itself. The great irony, of course, is that such an event, painful as it will be in the short run, can be the sweetest and most liberating of healings for everyone. Way back in 1963, James Baldwin saw who we were and what we were doing: Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.
We Shall Overcome, sang Martin Luther King that same year, adding that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” May it be so. May it happen through nonviolence. May it still be possible to shame America into living up to its ideals.
But I think that well-meaning people should admit that things are going to get worse before they get better. (Oy vey – I wrote this before Trump decided to become President).
As Black militant Ramona Johnson Africa has said, Down with this rotten-ass system!