Let’s say you trip over something and sprain your ankle. Your regular doctor can’t see you for a week and a half, for whatever reason there isn’t an urgent care clinic available, so off you go to the emergency room. At the same time you walk up to the registration desk, you see a person at the registration desk right next to you holding a wadded-up tee shirt over what appears to be a large wound on their neck that’s bleeding quite badly. Raise your hand if you expect the gushing neck injury to be seen by a doctor before your sprained ankle.
That’s what I thought. We expect the more urgent cases to be taken care of before the less urgent ones. When lives are on the line, it only makes sense to prioritize care and attention to make sure that the people in the most danger get helped first. Why, then, is it so difficult for people to understand the concepts behind Black Lives Matter?
I know, that was kind of a swerve. Bear with me, I’m connecting the dots.
Recently, President Obama took a moment from a trip to Warsaw (he was there for a NATO conference) to say the following (quote from NPR)
According to various studies — not just one but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years — African-Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over.
After being pulled over African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched.
Last year African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites.
African-Americans are arrested at twice the rate of whites.
African-American defendants are 75 percent more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums. They receive sentences that are almost 10 percent longer than comparable whites arrested for the same crime.
Recently, two separate black men were killed by the police. Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul. Sterling was shot by police – several times, in the chest and back – while officers were holding him on the ground. Castile was shot during a traffic stop while following an order from the officer to produce his identification.
This is the part where the “can we please find a reason why this was Okay so I don’t have to think about it anymore” set starts wringing their hands and pointing out that Sterling had a gun on him, and the police were responding to a 911 call of him allegedly brandishing it, and that Castile had just informed the officer who killed him that he was in possession of a firearm (one which he had a concealed carry permit for, and informing the officer as early as possible that 1) the firearm exists and 2) you have a permit for it is EXACTLY what authorities tell people to do if they find themselves in a situation where they are interacting with law enforcement). My point is none of that matters. If you look at the video of Sterling’s shooting (widely available on the internet, I am not providing a link here as it is shocking and disturbing to watch a man be killed, if you want to see it, Google is your friend), you can see that although Sterling is struggling, he is on the ground with two officers holding him down. He is neutralized as a threat. Still, though, one of the officers drew his weapon, held it a couple inches from Sterling’s chest, possibly to scare him into total submission, and then when Sterling continued to struggle, fired multiple times.
Not having had the benefit of a police academy education, I can’t say for sure, but I’m reasonably certain deadly force is not necessary when dealing with a person who is armed, but prevented from accessing their weapon by the sheer force of two police officers holding them down. One assumes that the more prudent course of action would have been to continue to restrain the subject, perhaps even with a less lethal method like a taser, without resorting to gunfire.
Castile’s killing was even less defensible. He was pulled over. The officer asked him to provide identification. Castile informed the officer that there was a firearm in the vehicle, informed the officer that he was retrieving his wallet from his back pocket to comply with the officer’s instructions, began to do so, and the officer opened fire.
The fact that Castile was carrying a concealed weapon should not be a factor in his shooting. Castile was granted a permit to carry the weapon in a concealed fashion. He was exercising his rights as a citizen. He followed the best practices given to him – always, always inform a police officer if you have a weapon, as early in the interaction as is possible, and narrate your actions – and followed the police officer’s instructions to provide his identification. He did everything he was told and was killed for it.
That’s two men killed in two days. Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota has gone on record as saying “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver and passenger were white? I don’t think it would have.” Gov. Edwards of Louisiana offered a significantly more hedged-bets comment of the usual promises of a full and transparent investigation, while carefully failing to mention the racial aspect of the killing.
But the hell of it is, it’s not merely being killed that black people have to fear from law enforcement – if you look at the statistics mentioned above, or speak to any of the untold millions of black families nationwide that have to sit their children down and tell them to fear the police, to be on their absolute best behavior when in public, to expect that they are going to be harassed by law enforcement, and how to survive it – it becomes clear that at every level, at every moment, black people are treated badly by our society.
We can whine and cry and wring our hands all we want about how ‘well maybe he shouldn’t have been carrying a gun’ or ‘if that Freddie Gray fellow hadn’t gotten himself arrested, he’d still be alive’ or ‘ALL lives matter, you know’ or (my personal favorite) ‘he wasn’t exactly an angel’, but the fact remains: Our bruised ego is a sprained ankle. The way we treat black people in this society is the gushing neck wound. One is more important to immediately address than the other.
Black lives matter.