aNewDomain — Why is Walter Scott dead?
The simplest answer to the question is this: because he was black.
The complexity of the issue increases the longer one examines the question but that basic fact never really changes. Walter Scott encountered a police officer, and that officer shot him in the back because Scott was black.
Ultimately, the complex answer is, because we are cowards.
Did Mike Slager feel threatened? Did Scott reach for his TASER? Was there a struggle?
Did Slager initiate the violence, through a racially-motivated confrontation (a black man in a Mercedes? Must be stolen …). As in the Ferguson case, here we have one officer going it alone, meaning if violence ensued there was neither backup nor accountability. Meaning the first and only recourse for the violence is lethal force.
Was this part of a broader pattern of racial abuses perpetrated by police specifically and our government and society more generally? Again, the Ferguson case suggests quite strongly that systematic racial abuse is present, if not common or even endemic. It seems unlikely that Ferguson was the only place in America where people of color and therefore of poverty were being used to financially prop up government systems long deprived of tax revenue, particularly as other places than the American Midwest have longer and more-storied histories of overt racism.
The thing is, we don’t know. We have an idea that black men are more likely to be shot by police than White men, more likely by a large margin. But this is theoretical data from experiments, like the implicit bias project. The trouble here is we don’t collect data on police shootings. In other words, we can point to the few counties that voluntarily report but we really don’t know how many people our police actually kill each year, never mind the racial demographics.
We have the feeling it’s a problem. We watch the news, after all. And maybe we follow CopWatch, a citizens’ organization devoted to providing the accountability armed agents of the government really need. But without data, what are we to do with our feeling that the police have unduly militarized, and that both this militarization and mass incarceration have unduly affected people of color and poverty?
We are afraid. We are afraid to demand a full Ferguson-style inquiry into the practices of our own local, county and state police organizations. Because we know what we will find, and we will be responsible for that. Our continual willingness to vote for tough-on-crime policies and politicians created the war on drugs and the war on the poor. And our own implicit bias created our blindness to racial profiling — turning it into an excuse or a punchline rather than something we need to be really concerned about.
We are afraid to investigate, to really demand to know how many civilian citizens are killed in interactions with the police. The limited available data tends to confirm what we see on television news: that this is a problem, an increasing trend. That we all have reason to be afraid of cops. And if we found that out, that when we traded our freedom for security we just moved the threat away from criminals and to law enforcement, what would that mean for us? Something scary.
We won’t look at our own racism, either. When there is endemic violence among black youth in Chicago, we just say that’s a racial problem, a responsibility problem. Even Liberals get it wrong, blaming the violence on access to guns. This is a racial problem, though: a White racial problem, a racist problem. With no jobs to get, no business to start, what are people to do but turn to the only available economy — the illegal, shadow economy? In prohibition, White folk were the gangsters and the hoodlums. In similar conditions of depression and where black markets for drugs, guns and prostitution exist, the results are predictable.
If we can’t look at our own racism, we can’t do a thing about it. But we are afraid to look at it. To say, Yeah, I might be a little bit racist. I might cross the street if failing to do so might take me past three black guys in Raiders jackets on a Summer day. And I don’t like that about me, I want to change that about me. Denial, though, makes things worse by cutting off the avenues for making things better. So, because we’re cowards, we just don’t look at it.
We won’t look at our social policies. The way we fund education, for example. We want our taxes to go directly to services we are using personally, not to moochers and freeloaders. We want to pay just for our own schools. Our own health care. Our own unemployment insurance. Our own medicaid. We can’t tolerate the idea that this might be unfair, fundamentally: that people with a history of poverty are prone to poverty because we refuse to share. In the wealthiest country on Earth at its wealthiest, we let people go hungry. We let children go hungry, deny them medicine, because of the circumstances of their birth. If we looked too hard at that, we might find ourselves wanting.
I can make you this promise right now: Walter Scott is not the only person, not even the only black person, we are going to find out about being cut down by a police officer this year. Other cases are going to surface. When you see a cockroach, call an exterminator. Because the one you see was just luck. The rest are hiding in the walls.
You don’t fail to call the exterminator because you’re afraid you might learn the truth: that your house is infested.
But that’s what we’ve been doing. Every time a black man is murdered, we go through the same cycle. Blame him. Grant the officer benefit of the doubt. Say yeah, he might have been at fault, but he doesn’t represent the force — most cops are good. Yeah, the department was corrupt, but only a few individuals. OK, it was endemic — but it’s just one precinct.
Scott is dead because we’re cowards. We need a systematic review of the law, and of law enforcement and a systematic audit of our own selves.
I haven’t seen a roach, I’ve seen a whole mess of them. And it’s time to call the exterminator.
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.