On Saturday in New York City, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley reportedly shot and killed police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu while they were sitting in their patrol car. This tragic shooting has quickly become politically charged because it happened amid nationwide protests against police violence in the wake of several controversial shootings shootings of unarmed black people. Brinsley killed himself, so nobody can ask him why he did it, but there is apparently some evidence that he believed he was avenging those killings. The story is still developing.
I knew there would be people who would take Brinsley’s reputed motive and use it to smear protesters and activists who had spoken out against police abuse. I wanted to write about that, so I looked to one of my better sources of stuff to blog about, Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, and he did not disappoint. [Update: An earlier draft of this post included several examples of people smearing activists, but the post was getting so long that I deleted them, and through carelessness I ended up with this paragraph that basically calls Jack’s post a “smear,” which is a bit too far. However much I disagree with Jack, his post was a legitimate opinion piece. Sorry, Jack.] He has posted some observations about the shooting that I’d like to respond to.
1. The dangerous escalation of rhetoric and the persistent misrepresentation of facts by civil rights advocates, activists, journalists and pundits made this kind of episode nearly inevitable. You cannot flood the airwaves with constant references to “police shooting unarmed black men” as if there was an organized racist liquidation of blacks by police in the streets and not risk sparking violence from the hysterical, the deranged, the angry, the lawless and the desperate.
There wouldn’t be constant references to police shooting unarmed black men if police were not, in fact, shooting unarmed black men. Michael Brown, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Dante Parker, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley. All African Americans, all reportedly unarmed, all killed by police. (Police killed Parker and Garner by means other than shooting, and Rice was too young to be called a man, but neither of those things makes it better.) Some of the killings may have been justified, or at least understandable, but they were killings of unarmed black men nonetheless. It’s not like the civil rights advocates, activists, journalists, and pundits are just making stuff up.
2. The irresponsible “hands up” protests did not cause these deaths, but they probably helped create the conditions that led to them. The shootings of the two NYPD police don’t make the false “hands up” lie—which continues to assert that Michael Brown was executed when the evidence indicates he was not, and that there was racial bias involved, when there is no evidence of this at all—any more unethical, reckless or irresponsible than it already was. It was wrong from the beginning. It was wrong to assert these things before what happened in Ferguson had been investigated, and it was wrong to keep asserting them after it was clear that they were unsubstantiated or false.
Jack might have a point about “hands up” now. Although most witnesses do say his hands were up, there’s a reasonable argument that it was a posture of attack, not surrender. And since the grand jury declined to indict Wilson, suggesting that they found the shooting to be justified, it seems likely that they didn’t believe Brown was surrendering.
However, Jack’s assertion that Michael Brown activists should not have made accusations before the investigation was complete is hypocritical nonsense. He is making that assertion in the middle of a post in which he accuses civil rights leaders and activists of creating the atmosphere that motivated cop killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley. In other words, just hours after the shooting — long before the NYPD investigation could possibly be complete — Jack claims to know who the murderer was, why he did it, and the identity of the people whose anti-cop rhetoric supposedly influenced him to do it. Jack is doing exactly the same thing he’s criticizing others for doing. The next time a cop kills an unarmed black man, should we hold Jack accountable for creating the conditions that made the cop fearful?
I think the answer is obvious: Of course not. Jack is entirely justified in commenting on this incident. Vigorous discussion of matters of public interest is not just allowable in our free society, it is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic government. By discussing these issues, Jack is being a good citizen, as are the people who are criticizing the police.
3. The response to the shootings by those who have continued to suggest racist murder by police in specific incidents absent any proof, and in Brown’s death, in defiance of the known evidence, continues the theme. Al Sharpton, who is a prime offender, wrote..
“I am outraged at the killing of 2 police officers in Brooklyn. That is why we stress non violence as the only way to fight for justice.”
Despicable. “Justice,” in this context, suggests that the killings are in response to injustice, and that the injustice is the intentional and racist killing of unarmed black men.
How much do you have to hate Al Sharpton to get angry at him for denouncing the use of violence against police? Geez.
Sharpton’s use of “justice” of late is well-publicized: “Justice for Mike Brown, ” “Justice for Eric Garner,” Justice for Trayvon.” This phrasing, setting off the murders of the police with “fight for justice” continues the lies, misrepresentations and manipulation of public opinion, especially among African Americans. There is no evidence that Brown or Garner, or other shooting victims like John Crawford or 12-year old Tamir Rice were shot because they were black, except that they were black, which for Sharpton and others like Eric Holder, is enough.
This is not the first time Jack has criticized activists for claiming there was racial bias in the Michael Brown shooting when “there is no evidence of this at all.” Technically speaking, Jack is plain wrong. As Jack more-or-less admits, the simple fact that a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager is evidence of racial bias. It’s not very strong evidence, and it’s subject to interpretation and possible refutation by other evidence and testimony. But it’s still evidence.
In addition, shortly after Brown was shot, several alleged eyewitnesses claimed that Wilson shot at Brown’s back, and that Brown’s hands were raised in surrender. These witness statements are evidence too. They are subject to interpretation, impeachment, and refutation, of course, but remember that these statements were undisputed by any other public witnesses for months. (There were some accounts of witnesses making contradicting claims in private statements, but these were second- or third-hand, not on-the-record statements to the press.)
Granted, even if Wilson had shot Brown in the back as he was fleeing, that wouldn’t prove a racial bias — he could have murdered him for some other reason — but it’s not an unreasonable inference. More generally, just because Wilson wasn’t shouting the N-word while shooting a fleeing Mike Brown in the back and wearing a “White Power” T-shirt doesn’t mean that the incident was entirely free of racial bias.
Jack seems to be laboring under a common misunderstanding of what activists are complaining about when it comes to police treatment of black people. Activists are not accusing police of a coordinated conspiracy to murder helpless black people. And for the most part, they’re not even saying that the individual police officers who killed unarmed black men did so to fulfill their desire to murder a black guy. They realize that even the Ferguson police are not the KKK.
(Of course, some people have said these things — the world is full of people saying stupid things — but that’s not the thrust of the main activist movement. Likewise, there certainly have been cops who probably murdered black people out of racial hatred, but those aren’t the people that most police supporters are defending.)
The main accusation against police is not that they are racially-motivated murderers, but that as former FBI agent William W. Turner wrote in The Police Establishment in 1968, “Since its inception, the police establishment has conducted itself more as the agent of the power structure than the servant of a pluralistic society.” Here in the U.S., that tends to play out along racial lines.
In white neighborhoods, police see their role as protectors of the community, cracking down on criminals who would disrupt the peace and harm the good citizens. But in black neighborhoods, so the argument goes, police see their role as keeping the population under control. Thus black people have stories of being questioned while sitting on the stoop of their own homes, or of being stopped for walking with their hands suspiciously in their pockets, or of being ordered to disburse for daring to gather in small groups on the street corners. In the past few months, police in Ferguson arrested black people for stopping while walking on the sidewalk and tear-gassed black people standing in their own fenced-in yards.
Activists argue that this disregard for black people makes cops less hesitant to escalate the level of force. If Tamir Rice had been a white 12-year-old boy instead of a black one, would Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann and his partner have approached the scene in a way that gave them more time to assess the situation instead of driving right up to Rice and jumping out to shoot him? If John Crawford had been a white guy carrying a toy gun through Walmart, would the cop who shot him have given him more of a chance to explain himself and surrender instead of shooting him almost immediately?
If Eric Garner had been an overweight white guy like me instead of an overweight black guy, would New York police have taken his complaints about not being able to breath a little more seriously? If Michael Brown had been a white teenager, would Officer Wilson have made the same decision to chase him down the street, knowing that he would have to kill Brown if he resisted arrest? If Ezell Ford had been a mentally ill white man, would police have struggled to control him long enough for help to arrive instead of shooting him?
You don’t have to be a cop hater to think that in at least a few of these cases, things would have turned out differently if the cops had been dealing with white people. That is the essence of the general complaint about racial bias by the police. That is why protesters say black lives matter.
Each of these is also a separate case in which “justice” is a complicated mess of facts and law, with no societal conclusions to be drawn or clarified by considering them together.
That’s true for criminal cases, which must be considered in isolation. But it’s not true for broader concepts of justice when considered as a matter of public policy. In policy analysis, patterns matter. Medical science does not allow us to determine which particular cigarette gave a smoker lung cancer, but we know damned well that smoking causes cancer. Just because we can’t point to a specific cop who killed a black man and say with certainty that it is a racially-motivated murder doesn’t mean that we can’t observe the pattern of cops killing unarmed black men and say that there’s something damned wrong going on.
Similarly, Ferguson protest leader Deray McKesson tweeted…
“I do not condone the killing of the two NYPD officers today. I do not condone the killing of unarmed black people. I do not condone killing.”
Also despicable. He, like the alleged shooter Brinsley, is drawing a false equivalence between what may be legal shootings by police unrelated to color and the killing of the two officers, who were not black, in response.
Jack’s reaction to this is just unhinged. McKesson and Sharpton are both denouncing the killing of police officers. They are saying that killing cops does not serve their cause. And in Jack’s mind, this is linking the police killings to the cause in some sort of false equivalence.
Granted, the cold blooded murder of officers Ramos and Liu is a terrible crime, without question. But some of the things police officers are being accused of are pretty terrible too, even if they don’t quite rise to the level of first degree murder. As Jack points out, the police killings may in fact be legal, but then again, they may not be. (Officer Peter Liang, for example, looks like he might do time for killing Akai Gurley, although that crime doesn’t seem to have any racial component.)
And even if the killings are legal, that doesn’t mean they’re morally right. Lots of terrible things that people do to other people are perfectly legal and yet terribly wrong. This is an argument not that these things are acceptable, but that the laws should be changed.
Another point is that McKesson and Sharpton are not the ones who linked the cop killings to their cause. That was done by everybody from Governor Pataki to former Mayor Giuliani to the head of the NYPD union. Activists like McKesson, Sharpton, and the rest are responding to that by saying they oppose violence against the police as much as they oppose violence against black people. This does not seem like a bad thing.
5. The deaths of police officers in the wake of the ongoing, high-profile campaign to demonize police and the justice system for political advantage were predictable.
It’s always possible that rhetoric will incite crazy people to do terrible things. But censoring yourself because of how a crazy person might respond is a madness of a different kind. No one would ever be able to change anything if they took responsibility for how everyone in the world might react to what they say. That’s no way to live your life.
And if you want to talk about the consequences of rhetoric, the police union appears to have circulated a memo saying that the NYPD is now a “wartime” police department. Remember that the next time an NYPD cop shoots someone.
More such deaths are also likely, unless the rhetoric from civil rights and political leaders becomes responsible and fairly represents the facts and the law. Public figures, activists and journalists who continue the “hands up” lie or who link Garner, Crawford, Rice, Brown and Trayvon Martin in a manufactured conspiracy of the justice system to profile and kill unarmed black men are accountable for what happens next.
Jack, the activists are saying there’s systemic racial bias and injustice; you’re the one who’s created the strawman of a racist conspiracy.
Further, as with most social movements, unrest in Ferguson started at the bottom, with people from the neighborhood taking to the streets the evening of Michael Brown’s shooting. Sharpton and other national civil rights leaders didn’t show up until later. (A cynical person might even say that they saw a chance to get in front of something that they could use.) When you portray the protesters as blindly following the rhetoric of political leaders like Sharpton, instead of admitting that they might be reacting to their own lived experience, you are denying the agency of thousands of people. We saw the same thing in the 1960’s, when establishment apologists sought to blame black unrest on agitators and communists (really) rather than admit that millions of black people were angry because there was something sick about the way our society treated them.