Well, they do, damnit.
Obvious, isn’t it? They’re lives. They matter.
Hell, there aren’t any lives that don’t matter. How did we get into such a fucked-up situation that people have to be reminded? How did we get to the point where police training spends 80 hours working on deadly-force and less than 6 working on de-escalating conflicts?
How did we get to the point where people see someone coming down the street and feel fear solely because of the color of their skin? How did we get to the point where people see someone coming down the street and feel fear solely because of whether they’re wearing a uniform?
And most crucially: How did we get to the point where that fear of uniforms is justified by unarmed black people being more than seven times as likely to be killed by police as unarmed white people?
The recent answers? Well, any student of political science – and I mean science, not just a course in the hogwash of just gaming the political system we happen to have in a particular place at a particular time, could have looked at the situation in about 2000 and told you we were in serious trouble. The gap between rich and poor was getting wider, and social mobility was failing. Being born into poverty or otherwise disadvantaged was becoming a surer and surer indication that you’d die that way. That’s the sort of environment that breeds civil unrest. When people don’t get a chance to participate in the good things about our civilization, they have less and less motive to preserve it or cooperate in ways that allow it to run smooth.
By about 9 years later than that, we were screwed. Start counting up a couple of big futile wars largely waged over issues that elevate religious (and racial) conflict into political causes. Put a lot of angry vets, enormously trained in the application of violence, who feel like their country betrayed them, back into those poor neighborhoods. Have a big goddamn financial meltdown where the richest in the nation get caught flat-out stealing more money than the people in those neighborhoods can even imagine, give those thieves a slap on the wrist while you’re sending the relatively petty crooks from the ‘hoods to jail for life, and then throw even more gobs of money at them with a ‘bailout’ paid for by punitive taxes on, guess who? The poor people, that’s right.
On the ground people who’d never missed a credit card payment found their interest rates jumping from 7% to 29%, while ‘quantitative easing’ meant these same people saw on the news where the crooks who’d just double-dipped ripping them off were borrowing money at a prime rate that was damn near interest free. Many of them lost their houses, their cars, and their jobs. Many of the ones who managed to hold onto their houses found that they owed more than twice the equity value of those houses. No matter what your race, it’s sucked really hard to be poor in the US for about the last decade. Not just because you were poor, but because it became crystal-clear that the people who weren’t, were maintaining their position by stealing undeserved wealth that they’d never earned. And if you were poor, you learned that it was because they’ve been stealing it from you. You can’t tell someone who lived through that meltdown and saw how the bailout worked, that they ever had a fair shot at anything. Everything they ever worked for and struggled at, from the clothes on their back to the homes they were struggling to live in, was just the building blocks of financial empires that went to people who stole the money.
You can’t blame people for being angry. But if you happened to live in a black neighborhood, it was even worse. Take a bunch of kids who are poor, whose prospects in the legit economy aren’t very good, and jam them all together in segregated, impoverished neighborhoods, and let them be separated by the social barriers between races from pretty much everybody who’s got prospects or hope. Surprise, surprise, you get an intensely localized, brutally powerful and ruthless criminal class. I’ll say it again, any student of real political science could have seen that coming. There are more historical parallels than anybody can deny.
And more to the point, you can see why it makes sense. I’m not saying it was ever a good idea, I’m not saying people don’t bear responsibility for their life’s choices. I’m saying you can understand why people might mistake those life choices for good ideas, because bluntly the alternatives that the USA was giving them at that time, and continues to give them today, are all pretty bad too.
Now, you get these neighborhoods with intensely localized brutal, powerful and ruthless criminal classes, and of course you’re going to have to have your law enforcement people spend disproportionate time on trying to deal with crime in those neighborhoods. These neighborhoods being pretty uniformly the same neighborhoods that have been separated by racial boundaries from those with prospects, wealth or hope, they’re going to be black neighborhoods.
Once you have law enforcement spending a highly disproportionate amount of their time and effort on crime in these relatively small areas, you have law enforcers developing a stereotype in their heads of what criminals are like. And it’s understandable that if their biggest crime problems are in black neighborhoods, their notion of who’s likely to be a criminal becomes more than a bit racially biased. Once again, I’m not saying that it’s right or fair, only that it’s understandable. It’s a mistake to see black skin and jump to a biased conclusion about whether someone’s likely to be dangerous or criminal. But you can understand why they start making that mistake.
And then you wind up here. People who are disenfranchised from the system, who have little in the way of money, power, or legitimate prospects in society, who get virtually none of its benefits, don’t regard the officers who enforce its norms as their friends. The officers, for their part, facing ruthless, brutal opposition from a locally powerful criminal class, are first scared because these gangsters do in fact sometimes pull guns and just start shooting at unexpected moments, and second have the misperception in their heads that black skin makes someone more dangerous, and third have developed their culture while they’ve been protected by the indifference of whites to violence against blacks.
But that’s only the last decade or so of the story. Why are these black neighborhoods so damn segregated from the rest of the cities? Why do black people and white people never seem to be in the same social groupings? Why are they so seldom neighbors, and when they are why do they almost never have a damn thing to say to each other? We can explain all that too, in terms of the history of how it evolved. We can talk about segregation laws, miscegenation laws, redlining, covenants and restrictions in real estate contracts, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement, and the American Civil war. That was actually a damned rude war, and it was fought primarily over chattel slavery of black people based on race. And every one of those more recent issues I mentioned contributing to the segregation of black neighborhoods from white, and therefore to the current ‘black lives matter’ issue, grows directly out of it.
Chattel slavery is the absolute rock bottom in terms of race relations; go any further than that and what you have isn’t relations any more, it’s genocide. And that is the bottom of the hole we Americans dug for ourselves and which we’re still trying to dig out from.
Here’s another thing that a political scientist could have told you; Economic retrenchments such as our recent mortgage meltdown are bad for race relations. And religious tolerance. And a whole bunch of other things, mostly because when a generation of people is less able to build a better life than their parent’s generation, they look around for an “other” to blame.
The answers, in fact, go back so far into history that it’s impossible to pin full-on blame on anyone, let alone anyone now living. They go back to centuries before America gained its independence, to wars in Africa where the victors started selling the losers as slaves to mighty whitey. They go back to the Barbados around 1650 where the roots of the particularly vile slave-owner culture that eventually transferred itself to the southern states of the US got started. Hell, the answers go back further than that.
But the future isn’t written. While the past influences it, the past doesn’t determine it. At any given moment, like now, the future is determined by individual people, making individual choices, one day at a time.
So, to the police, I say: You’re looking at crime when people shoot officers and you’re looking at law enforcement mistakes when officers shoot people unnecessarily. Solve the crimes and work really hard on reducing law enforcement mistakes. Both of those things are your job. To solve crime you have to understand it. You have to understand why people don’t perceive you as their friends and why they don’t see benefits from the society you preserve by enforcing its laws.
It’s time to de-escalate where possible, it’s time to spend training effort on avoiding and resolving conflict without deadly force, and so on. You are protectors, not attackers. Everybody’s telling you that much. And the role of an unwelcome protector is very hard, and I think everybody knows that.
But I’m here to tell you one more thing. To end this you need to stop being unwelcome. You need to stop being seen as enemies of the people in those neighborhoods. So it’s up to every officer to make sure that ordinary people actually GET benefits from law enforcement regardless of race, both for your acceptance in the neighborhoods and, in the longer term, to dis-empower those criminal organizations that flourish among groups that don’t get that benefit.
That’s the only way this de-escalates in the long run.