Last night at soccer practice, I was asked, “What are your thoughts on Baltimore?”
Since that question was posed, six law enforcement officers have been indicted in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black male, with a lengthy criminal record predominately littered with drug-related charges. Gray apparently made “eye-contact” with an officer and, for reasons known and buried with him, began to flee. He was pursued by at least three officers and taken into custody. To be charitable, there are conflicting accounts of what happened next, and I have less than zero confidence that the justice system as it were will ever determine exactly what happened. What is inescapable is that Gray suffered a severed spine and died while in the custody of law enforcement. Gray was buried Monday, and the City of Baltimore erupted in protest and rioting, which it must be noted are two distinguishable acts.
These events unfolded in the larger context of Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner and the rancid video of a black man in South Carolina being shot in the back as he ran away from a law enforcement officer. In Ferguson and in Eric Garner, law enforcement were exonorated from criminal culpability. South Carolina and Baltimore are still in the process of making a determination.
Police encounters are fraught with tension on both sides, and this is undoubtedly heightened when the encounter involves a black man and a white officer. This is not right, but it is true a significant percentage of the time. There are precious few black men that have not at some point in their lives been profiled by the color of their skin, and questioned or been otherwise treated in a less than honorable manner by a law enforcement officer, and even fewer that do not know a relative or friend that has as well. There is a line of thought that says, “do what the officer says, and things will work out for everyone”, which is probably a good idea, if you have not already been in a situation where things have not worked out for you, or your friend or your relative in the past. This prior behavior contaminates the encounter because there is no trust that a certain behavior will bring about a certain (safe) outcome. There is uncertainty, fear and an understandable desire for self-preservation on the part of the black man in this unpredictable circumstance.
As to the law enforcement officer, and particularly those that patrol high crime, high violence areas, there is a corresponding uncertainty to the encounter. The officer is often said to live by the credo “just get home tonight”, and this has a tangible impact on behavior. He is armed, and in moments of uncertainty, a show of force (not necessarily actual violence) often seems the safest way to “get home tonight”. The inexperienced officer is burdened by his lack of experience, and desire to prove his worth to more experienced officers, and even the experienced officer is burden by his own experience…moments where he was naive or simply deceived in a dangerous or potentially dangerous encounter.
In this tension-filled environment, mistakes and misjudgment will occur. While there is certainly advice and training that could mitigate and minimize the liklihood that these encounters end violently, we as people are too flawed to eradicate this problem. This is not to excuse the behavior, but to acknowledge its inevitability, and to advocate that when things go wrong, their must be accountability. This is the sting of BLACKLIVESMATTER. Too often in white police, black male encounters, there has been no accountablility for the officer’s contribution to the death, even second degree murder or manslaughter. As the indictments came down today, there exists in many, a festering distrust that actual convictions will follow. This mistrust, at its best leaves a residue of cynicism, and at its worst sucks dry the life blood of hope.
It is important to note that our justice system is not designed to find the truth. It is designed to obscure it. We have an adversarial system. The State prosecutor will fashion a one-sided story pounding its strengths and concealing its weaknesses to convince a jury to convict, while the criminal defense team will do everything possible, as it is their job to do, to cast light upon the weaknesses, explain away the strengths and ultimately create a doubt, reasonable or not. Death cases are particularly difficult where there is any degree of dispute regarding the facts because dead men tell no tales, and but for a few pictures will have little to no presence with the jury. By contrast, the accused will be before the jury everyday, their anxiety palpable, their love and affection with family and supporters tangible and their presence real. This has a way of making things difficult for jurors against the convuluted reasonable doubt standard, and contributes to some incomprehensible verdicts.
I would like to return to the life blood of hope. When the blood of hope flows, there is a sense that the individual and more specifically the actions of the individual matter. It is hope that drives peaceful protest. A hope that by turning up in the street in the wake of crisis, a voice will be heard, and eyes will watch what follows. Peaceful protest says that what is happening now matters, and by protesting, I believe I can positively impact the outcome.
Rioting is the result of hopelessness. My actions do not matter. My voice will not be heard. I will see only what serves me in the immediate moment. Rioting is reprehensible and undeniably wrong. It should be prosecuted and punished. It should also be considered in the societal sense that what has gone wrong in this community that has taken away hope in such great measure.
People are not born racist or born with any concern for the color of one’s skin, and they are not born without hope. Life teaches that color matters, and life takes hope away. It is only through honest reflection, and unbiased analysis that we can recognize the factors, policies and behaviors that contribute most to racism in our society and loss of hope. And as we will unlikely eradicate tragic encounters between law enforcement and black men, we will not eradicate racism and preserve hope for all, but we can behave in ways that mitigate and minimize its impact on our relationships.