Last night we sat in the living room of some friends who had their TV on right after the grand jury’s decision was made regarding Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. We watched footage unfold of looting, rioting, arson, vandalism, violence, and unchecked rage spill out over the city streets (there and in Chicago, and other cities as well I’m sure). We watched in silence, our heads shaking back and forth, there was talk of injustice, horrible news coverage with anchors apologizing when profanities made it past their cut-off sound bites, the awkward coverage made by white newscasters obviously out of their elements (anyone’s element, really), and discussion of the attorney’s shrug/that’s the way it goes take on the whole thing. One of us said, “I wish it was possible to watch a news broadcast on an African American channel to get that perspective”… which was way more poignant than he meant it to be, I am sure.
I felt sick. The cynical side of me said something like, “of COURSE that cop got off”. We’ve seen this a dozen times in these years and we all know the law is written for everyone, but sometimes it’s written in different ink for certain people. What if the cop had been black and the victim white? Would it have made news? Probably not much. Looting? Riots? Definitely not.
Then this morning when I woke up, I saw a blurb from CNN that posted transcripts of the officer’s time on the stand. The transcript is mostly complete but for some redacted names and is frustratingly selective in terms of action. In some cases, it indicates when the officer moved his hands to demonstrate a motion he describes and in other cases, it’s an empty narrative without much visual to understand how it all went down. I was left guessing on a lot of it. The wording caused me to think that they were trying to in some ways trip him up (repeatedly and sporadically asking which hands were on which weapons again, or which hand made contact with which cheek, etc) and in other cases, lead his phrasing to indicate particular responses. It seemed fishy to me, only later in the day did I read more thoughts on it and found that in fact, my attorney friends were horrified at some of the ways questions were asked and statements made by the attorneys to the grand jury. Even the Bar Association thinks it’s crap. There was no way evidence was being presented by both sides fairly (mostly because one side is dead and some of the witnesses had to be discounted).
But I put the laptop down and took a breath and thought one singular thing. A thing that is at the very root of all of it. Before race, before socioeconomic disparity, before violent troubles in a certain part of town. The one thing that is at the root of this entire exchange on both sides is this:
People don’t trust cops.
When I was in grammar school, a police officer came to class to talk to us about safety. As they do. The one thing he told us was that if we ever are in trouble and need help, to find a cop. Find a cop and they would help us. They’d keep us safe. They’d take us to (or away from) our parents. Cops are our friends.
Now, I realize that growing up in the shadow of Chicago politics and operations, I cannot help but see the world with a certain cynical view. For instance, the way our minds work here is that anyone in power is probably corrupt, the cops are no different and that’s how it all goes in an endless cycle. Any knights in shining armor will soon get their asses handed to them and be replaced by the new boss, same as the old boss. There have been dozens of news stories that broke wherein an off duty cop got into it with a civilian, someone got hurt, everyone gets angry and then magically the whole story disappears and is forgotten. Sometimes the non-cops win but not after many hearings and changes in trial. The whole system is amazingly dirty and out to serve very few but those who also happen to enforce the law.
Of course those two guys walking down the middle of the street didn’t stop when the cop asked them to. Of course they acted like dicks to him, they’d seen those cops act like dicks to their community their whole lives. There was no respect to pass back and forth. The only difference is that the cop had a protocol to follow and the kids didn’t.
This is an ongoing problem. THE ongoing problem. How can you have people in power who they themselves are above, beyond, and disregard the law? How many times do we see cops roll stop signs or use maximum force when minimal will do? Shoot instead of tase or restrain? Kill instead of injure?
Yeah, yeah, not all cops are bastards blah blah. I had friends that wanted to be cops and it just so happened they were also racist, bullied-and-now-they-must-bully types. I have a friend who spent a night in the county prison and wasn’t given an opportunity to get out or make a call until the cops there were done with him. I know a few that are great people, but those people labor under the delusion that they must justify poor behavior, or if not justify, then defend it. That whole “brotherhood” thing is very real. One goes down, they all go down together. That means that there is almost no transparent honesty among them, and rarely will a cop stand up and say, “Yes, sometimes our people react poorly and wrongly. The system blows for a lot of folks. Officer ___ is a douche and an asshole with an axe to grind, and never should have _____. He sucks, he’s fired, we’re sorry”. Do you know how far that would go? Not far enough to keep all this from happening again, but it would buy a little respect for a group that doesn’t realize how badly they need to earn it back.