Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and our inability to deal with complexity

The public is talking about police, race, the justice system, and all the other issues raised by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Such conversations are not really conversations, because we end up with two polarized sides of the debate. Also, like most things, we are guilty of "isolated clamor" over these incidents even though things happen every day. Sometimes it's police brutality, sometimes it's suspect assaults on police.

Are you still reading? Probably not. Statistically speaking, most of you want me to write for your side. You either want me to condemn police for their brutality or praise them for their heroism without doing the other. Your chosen websites and cable news networks have trained you to look at me with suspicion anytime I point to something that doesn't help the case you want to build.

Unfortunately, the actual truth doesn't fit nicely on a placard. Nothing is true 100% of the time, and every situation has many factors involved, most of them hidden. Truth is always nuanced, peace is always elusive, and neither cause shall be furthered as long as we assume that each new incident is a repeat of the last one.

I suppose it's human nature to want to simplify things. The problem is that life isn't simple. We try to fit each situation into our preconceived narrative of how the world works, and we reduce conflict down to an isolated situation without considering the plethora of personal and systemic factors that led to and influenced the situation.

So, here's my contribution to the conversation. I don't have a singular or cohesive statement to make, I just feel the need to lay out some of the many issues and considerations I see that people on any given side of these debates may not be considering.
  • Police deal with the worst of society every day, and face danger that the rest of us want nothing to do with. In the time that passed between the incidents themselves and the grand jury decisions, 48 U.S. police officers, including one I knew personally, were killed in the line of duty, and many more have sustained debilitating injuries. Cops chase dangerous people that none of us want to deal with, and they never know when someone will jump out of their car shooting. The kind of restraint and critical assessment that we expect them to use in split-second situations may not always be realistic. Police departments place priority on officer safety, and rightly so. Former police officer Terrell Carter referred to policing as "the most stressful and dangerous job I've ever had." It's also a thankless job. They are yelled at, spit it, and who knows what else for doing a job that we as a society pay and ask them to do. During the protests in recent days, all the officers that showed incredible professionalism and restraint did not make the evening news. Police brutality happens, but I don't hear enough acknowledgment from protesters of the danger police face. Police are the ones with the authority and rightly have higher expectations placed on them, but the last thing your community wants is a police force that thinks twice about using their weapon when it is actually needed. 
  • Despite that reality, I hear some officers speak with a disturbing level of disdain for the people they work with. P.O.S. (piece of shit) and dirt bag are just some of the terms I've heard from officers, terms that stem from an "us vs. them" mentality. Would I be the same way if I were an officer? I don't know. Are they sometimes talking about people who have done heinous, unspeakable things? Yes. And I'm willing to accept that, for some, it boils down to camaraderie or a coping mechanism. But part of what such language communicates is that some people don't deserve to live. I've known a few cops to say this outright and/or speak with the same disregard for a criminal's life as the criminal had for others. I cannot square that with a Christian view of humanity that we are all created in God's image, nor does it show any awareness or sensitivity to the factors that have made some people the way they are. In an interview with the director of a correctional facility (whose wife is a police officer), he shared his belief that "there are no bad people; there are people who make bad choices." I'd like to think it's not impossible for others to see that. In the Ferguson community, the stark difference in their interaction with the local police department vs. the highway patrol is instructive. I am very glad we have police officers, but my experience with some of them has not left me confident in their ability to deal prudently with the people they arrest.
  • We have no idea what happened with Michael Brown. Two guys know. One is dead, and the other is trying to stay out of prison. PBS NewsHour put together a chart that summarizes the testimony of 29 individuals concerning what happened, including Officer Wilson. It's a good visual to help us realize how divergent the witness testimonies are. We have to choose who to listen to and believe, because on every point, somebody else said something different. Officer Wilson couldn't even get his own story straight. That's why it was troubling (though not surprising) that police advocates like Chief David Oliver of the Brimfield (Ohio) Police Department posted conclusions based on "widely available facts" of the case. The problem is that none of his "facts" had been established with certainty. But it is just as troubling that we have an entire national movement with the chant, "Hands up, don't shoot," an image based solely on the disputed testimony of some of the witnesses. Protesters all over the country, convinced they know what happened, are solidifying a narrative based on shaky ground.
  • We have some idea what happened with Eric Garner, and there should have been an indictment. This incident was caught on tape. Of course, we don't know what happened before, but in this instance we're dealing with some fairly clear cut facts including that Garner was not acting in a violent way at the time, and that the choke hold used by the officer, a procedure police are banned from using in NY, was the cause of death according to the coroner.
  • Garner definitely, and Brown probably, were uncooperative with police (but that doesn't mean they should be dead). There's good reason to believe that Brown was not cooperative with police when they asked him (albeit possibly in a rude way) to move to the sidewalk. Brown may have shoplifted (though this was never established to my knowledge and the release of the video reeked of a distraction attempt). The Garner video clearly shows him not cooperating with police, telling them to leave him alone. In both cases, they were being stopped for very petty reasons (and witnesses say that Garner had just broken up a fight), but you should always cooperate with police, especially if you are large individual who could easily injure them. It is conceivable that they would both be alive had they been compliant.
  • But we also have to recognize that there's a reason some of our black citizens respond to police the way they do. Racial profiling is real, and their frustration levels have boiled over. I'm amazed at the way some white people simply refuse to believe what black people say about their experiences. The same Chief Oliver I mentioned earlier posted a rant on Facebook in which he makes the ridiculous claim that those who continue to say that race disparities exist are making money off of saying so. Maybe his black friends are making money, but none of mine are. Here's the trouble with racism: it's hidden. It's buried deep in one's subconscious, and racists don't think they're racists. But it's still real; big time. In the year 2000, a creative worship team with whom I traveled was not allowed to visit a church in Virginia once they discovered one of our members was black. Former St. Louis police officer Terrell Carter, who also happens to be black, had this to say on the topic:  
I have experienced scrutiny from police officers my entire life.  I am now 40 years old, and still experience it...I regularly saw racial profiling by white and black officers. It was just a given. If you were a black male, you did not have a valid reason for being out after a certain time, driving a certain type of vehicle, wearing certain types of clothes, or being with certain people because it meant that you were up to no good. Many good, godly people have had their lives ruined because someone did not like where they were at a certain time. It is hard for me to believe that there are officers who honestly say that there is not a racial divide.
ABC's "What Would You Do?" show once ran an episode in which several actors pretended to steal a bike. Even though the white actor and the black actor were dressed in the same way and were doing the same thing, passersby were exceedingly more suspicious of the black actor. 
  • Michael Brown and Eric Garner are not the only cases relevant to this conversation. Most don't make the news, so we don't know about them. But there are even others receiving attention right now, like the case of 12 year old Tamir Rice who was shot dead by police when he was alone in a park playing with a toy gun. He was dead within 2 seconds of the officers arriving, and it has been revealed that one of those officers had been deemed unfit for service at his previous job. There are bad cops, and I think there's more police misconduct than police like to admit.
  • Yes, "black on black" violence is a problem (but so is that designation). When a black person is the victim of a violent crime, the perpetrator is quite often black as well. So when people call us to remember that the greatest threat to a black person is not a white police officer, they are correct. But white people have bumbled this conversation badly (if it's even our conversation to have). First of all, the designation "black on black crime" implicitly attributes the reason behind the crime to be the race of the person (there are many other more relevant factors, such as socioeconomics). Secondly, we have quoted the statistics about higher crime rates among black people without recognizing where those statistics come from. Crime rates are largely measured by arrests, and what black people have been contesting all along is that they are targeted for arrest more often than white people. For example, white young people ages 18-25 report a higher rate of marijuana use than black people of the same age, but the black users are arrested far more often.
  • The grand jury process in both cases was suspect. There's a saying among lawyers: "You can indict a ham sandwich." In the Brown and Garner cases, the grand jury hearings went quite differently than they usually do. Our uninformed public is learning the difference between an indictment and a conviction. Indictments have a very low burden of proof. The prosecutor, who is normally in the role of aggressively seeking charges, gives the grand jury only the inculpatory evidence, not the exculpatory evidence, and all they're trying to decide is whether there is enough evidence to merit charges. An indictment says nothing about guilt. But many observers have pointed out that these grand jury hearings resembled criminal trials and were not carried out in the way that the courts have established they must be carried out. At certain points in the Darren Wilson hearing, it sounded like it was Michael Brown (the dead man who can't defend himself) who was on trial. The system broke down. Why? Prosecutors and police officers are buddies. They work together all the time on putting criminals away. It's not surprising that when it's a police officer on the ropes, the prosecutor has trouble flipping the switch to aggressively seek an indictment against someone who is really a colleague. That's why I agree with Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights (and others) who argue that special prosecutors need to be called in when it involves a police officer. 
  • Rioting and burning are stupid (but most aren't doing that). No, rioting and burning don't help Ferguson's cause. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it's about the content of one's character, and there are some in Ferguson revealing that they don't have much character. But such acts are committed by a small minority. So stop calling the destructive people "protesters." Protesting is a lawful activity; looting and burning is not. In a press conference, Al Sharpton, who at other times has been an incendiary voice, clearly called out those who were being destructive and said they're on their own. 
  • Of course all lives matter; but that misses the point. The black community is not shouting "black lives matter" to the exclusion of other lives. Of course they're not saying that black lives matter more than anyone else's life. It is a rally cry and response (not the best chosen one, IMO) to the systematic racism they face (see above). They are saying black lives matter because of how often they feel treated as if they don't matter. Consider this: Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) by saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." You'll notice that no one stood up and interrupted him saying, "No Jesus, ALL lives are blessed!" That would have missed the point, just as the response "all lives matter" does.

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