Daily Archives: August 28, 2014


Cycles of Violence: Police, Black Men, and How to Fix the Problem 1

US Federal Protective Service Police officer w...

US Federal Protective Service Police officer with a riot shield. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Definition of an Ignorant Opinion

I was reading an article by E.J. Dione today. It’s an otherwise very thoughtful article, so this particular paragraph sort of blew me away:

Also noteworthy is that many whites have yet to form a view of the police response in Ferguson: 32 percent said the response has been “about right,” 33 percent said it has “gone too far” — and an astonishing 35 percent declined to express an opinion. 

What astonishes me is that basically two out of three people have an opinion. . . based on what, exactly?

Like every single hot air spewing “journalist” going on about it, I have no idea what happened. Yes, we know that an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown was shot by a police officer named Darren Wilson. We also know we live in a world where sometimes cops gun down unarmed teens, and in a world where sometimes unarmed teens do idiotic things like try to grab for the gun of a cop giving them a hard time for a minor traffic violation. Finally, we live in a world where a police officer might think someone is trying to grab his gun, panic and draw that gun, and then the other person might think he’s about to get gunned down in cold blood, panic, and make a grab for it. In this particular case we simply don’t know what happened yet, beyond a probably-preventable tragedy, and having any specific position on it is, well, by definition an ignorant opinion.

The Problem is the Cycle

All that is secondary, anyway, since the specifics of it don’t matter, except to those directly involved: This was going to happen, and it will happen again, because the entire situation is primed that way.

See, if you’re a young black man in the US (or anywhere), you’re going to be unfairly scrutinized by police officers at some point, and you’re going to resent that, because of course you will. Who wouldn’t? Sooner or later, you’re going to see police officers as the enemy, or at least be a little bit more leery of them than the average person.

Obviously, I’ve never been a black man. But I have been poor, and lived in poor neighborhoods, so I have experienced the fun of being automatically assumed to be up to no good by police, because, you know, what else would I be doing not living in a nice middle class neighborhood? There is another side to this, though, and that’s what makes it such a problem. Simple problems have easy solutions.

If you’re a police officer, you’re going to be predisposed to look suspiciously at young black men, because of course you are. And I do mean you. And me. Even if you’re black, even if you voted for Obama twice. Even if you really believe in equality. If you became a police officer, you would eventually be predisposed to be suspicious of black people. Maybe you’d overcome it, maybe you wouldn’t, but the underlying drive to be that way would exist. After all, as you go about your day, you’re going to regularly experience young black men being more surly and less cooperative than basically everyone else, on account of how they are predisposed to see you as the enemy, because you’re predisposed to be suspicious of them. At some point you’re going to expect it. You may even understand and commiserate with it, but that won’t change the fact that you’re going to be just a little more likely to expect trouble.

Now, in a perfect world, everybody would go in with a neutral outlook, or even a desire to be friends. However, humans aren’t wired that way; we’re wired for survival. Our brains are all about identifying threats and reacting as quickly as possible. So, you end up with a situation where a black man and a police officer are interacting, and the police officer sees every other black man that’s given him extra trouble when he was just trying to do his job, while the black man sees every cop who was ever a jerk to him when he was just minding his own business.

It’s a charged situation. Play it out a few thousand times and sooner or later someone is going to overreact. Play out a few thousand of those overreactions, and someone’s going to be lying dead on the cold ground.

The sad and frustrating part is that it is cycle; you arrive back here when you plug someone new into the system. Take a starry-eyed young police officer without a single racist bone in his body, who really, really, believes in “Protect and Serve” or a young black man who’s on the fast track to being a doctor or a lawyer or some other pillar of the community, and they are going to need to actively fight heading down this same road. They are going to need to face this hostility over and over, and find a way to not return it. That’s a tall order.

Fixing the Problem

We do need to have a conversation about race in this country, but it needs to be a little less about what’s wrong (we know, already!) and it needs to be a lot more about what we can do to fix it.

I do have a few ideas in that regard, at least as far as the police issues are concerned:

  1. We need to get cops and the community seeing each other as people again. That means lots and lots of community meet and greets. That means assigning cops to boring days in community centers, churches, and schools. Maybe one work day a week not doing cop stuff and just interacting with the people they’re supposed to be working with. We tend to see police only at the worst of times, and they tend to experience us at our worst as well. That’s not a recipe for understanding or empathy. We need to rack up more time when we can just people together.
  2. We need to demilitarize police, and we need to make sure they stay that way. In my own relatively short lifespan, especially the last ten or so years, police forces have all started looking and dressing like they’re auditioning for the Waffen SS, and I don’t think that’s doing any favors for anyone on either side. Maybe the next round of police uniforms should be neon pink or day-glo orange. It’s hard to act like a swaggering jackass when you’re wearing pink. Also, if you get a disciplinary note on your file, you have to wear matching pink rabbit ears for a week. Maybe that’s too far.
  3. We need to stop painting all cops as the bad guys. You want to know how to prime someone to just up and shoot someone someday?
    Have the walk around trying to help people while getting called a fascist, or a pig, or spit on, etc. This kind of goes back to the earlier bit about community meets and greets. Most cops are good people doing good work, especially here. It annoys me to read all the social media posts making blanket declarations about how terrible all cops are, because we both know if someone started breaking in to your mom’s basement ten seconds after you clicked “post” you’d be dialing 911 so fast your fingers would make little sonic booms.

The point is, this is a cycle, and you need to break it on both sides, or it’s just going to perpetuate itself. Luckily, we’ve got some pretty simple and workable ways to move towards fixing things. I’m sure other people have ideas as well. We need to get past the anger and move on towards getting something productive done.

Feel free to share your own thoughts on the matter in the comments section.