“What would you say if it were true?”
This is the question I ask people the most when they hear, for perhaps the first time in their lives, that policemen are only held accountable to their own justice. What do I mean by this? If a policeman is accused of unjustifiably using violence and even killing a fellow citizen, the only people who will decide their fate are the officers they work with. They control the investigation by controlling the crime scene. So when I tell someone that I saw people brutalized all the time by police for no other reason than those people had nowhere to go, people always ask “well what was that person doing?”
It’s a good question I suppose. When I tell them the person wasn’t doing anything, they don’t believe me. It’s hard to believe an officer of the city would do such a heinous thing. So instead of trying to convince them, I just ask “what would you say if it were true?”
It’s a very tricky question and you can see the reluctant look on their face. Are they denying the incident because they don’t want to believe it or because it’s not true? Am I telling them the truth? And if they knew on their own that my story was true, would they deny it …like they’re doing right at that moment. They realize all of these things at once.
“If I knew something like that were true, I’d at least admit it. It’s the only way I can do anything about it.” That’s what I tell them before they can even answer. Because it doesn’t matter if the particular situation is true. There are well publicized, well-known acts of police brutality all over the news and internet in America. We have a history of police brutality. One could even say our modern police (FBI) were reared on the idea of enforcing racial inequality. Even if police step out of line once, that’s one time they could be stepping on YOU. And that thought usually wakes people from their complacency. They can’t fathom someone hurting them, someone who’s supposed to protect them.
They might then nod and agree, but they understand that their agreement means they ought to do something. If they avert their eyes now, others will publicly know it. They now have a responsibility. They ought to read the story. They ought to learn what happened to the victim’s family, to the officers. They ought to ask “how often does this happen?”
And the person will usually arrive at this question sooner than later, but they don’t announce it in this way. Instead it comes out as a defense of this officer they don’t know, have never seen, and will never meet. He’s infinitely more trustworthy than what he’s accused of, more trustworthy than people they know, like me. “Well that’s completely rare,” they say.
“How do you know?” At this time I’m lightly provoking them to think about what they know about police. They have no idea how often these things happen, but they’re disturbed enough to deny it out of hand. If this happens often, if we believe that our police officers are capable of abusing the law in ways that end peoples’ lives, suddenly our police are no different than Russian or Chinese (our favorite villains) policemen TV — and THAT can’t possibly be the case, they reason. That image of policemen as friendly helpers begins to crumble before my eyes.
Silence usually follows. I’ll usually pat my friend on the shoulder. “All that matters at the moment, is what’s happening at the moment.” I might say. As it happens, a kid was shot and killed by police officers not long ago. This is the moment that contextualizes our conversation. A lone, young black teenager, days away from attending college, shot dead by several policemen.
We know the kid was shot 6 times, twice in the head. We know he was unarmed. We know policemen have to report the situation and their word is final. We know that non-whites are far more likely to be threatened with violence during an encounter with cops — even if unarmed and even if an armed white suspect is on the scene. The most popular case right now is this kid, but he’s reportedly 1 of 5 black men killed by police in the past month nationally. 5 in the same month across the nation. So much for isolated situations.
At a recent rally in the town where this happened, a police officer was caught on video threatening to kill a protester. Now …what are we to think of their attitude towards policing that community? It’s the one piece of evidence everyone will disregard, yet it’s precisely this type of thing that tells us about the people who murdered the kid.
Time for a story. I ran with two other young guys when I was a teen. We were all extremely poor. I stole a lot of things back then. Most of the time unsuccessfully. I’ve been to jail for it. I’ve had scraps with other people on the street and I’ve been to jail for that too. I have no police record. My hispanic counterparts (I grew up in a predominantly black and latino neighborhood) all have records with every single time they stole something or had a fight and were caught. We learned this when we tried getting place together. One of us got a huge break that helped me to get a job when I was 20. We’d all decided to get a house together after we got jobs. It took one of my friends a year longer to find a job (in fact he ended up working for a relative for a while) and the other eventually gave up and left, even when we begged him to stay anyway. I don’t know where he is today. Those jobs were life changing and the fact that some cop decided not to record my arrests is something I continue to benefit from today.
“It’s a real shame what happened to that kid …” my friend finally says, speaking on the police shooting. I can hear a “but” though it’s never spoken. Some part of them hangs on to the faith that our system of justice is equally available to all, that policemen protect us regardless of color or sex. I agree with my friend then casually bring up the recent arrest of a police officer who sexually assaulted six women. Well, 6 of them are known and it took the courage of just one woman to report it. All of the women are black. The officer is white. Some would dare say that race isn’t germane, but it’s equally, if not more relevant than the acts. He threatened to arrest them if they didn’t do what he told them. He usually assaulted them on the spot and raped at least 1 of them. If you were one of these women, your odds were horrible from the start. I mentioned earlier that a policeman threatened to kill a protester. Well that cop was later suspended without pay. The person he threatened was white. The cops who killed the unarmed kid? They got suspended with pay. Anyone could argue that these two facts are different and unrelated. But given the context and the information I’ve given you until now, why would you?
“…” is all I hear from them. My friend is speechless now and somewhat upset. How could they not be?
Most of us, and by most I mean 90% of us, know exactly what’s going on in our country. But it’s so awful that most of us don’t have the fortitude to face it. Some of us are able to lead blind lives, never reading the news, never knowing about these tales. That’s a privilege, one that I enjoy myself thanks a clean police record. We know our cops are racist and we have no shortage of sociological studies pointing out areas of concern. What we lack is the courage to face it. These things don’t happen because of ignorance. They happen because we know we don’t want to know, so we make an effort not to. When we use this deliberate lack of knowledge as an excuse to do nothing, that’s not ignorance. It’s malice.
This is 21st century society, a time of great cowardice and a time when courage is needed the most. There are solutions and ways forward, things we can definitely achieve and improve, but we’re a nation that can’t find the strength to acknowledge our problems. All the men who were killed the past month will be found guilty of provoking those policemen. That’s how these things usually go. The facts reported won’t match the evidence, as is usually the case. The cops will be acquitted of wrongdoing. Many will deny race was a factor. Some will even support these cops even though they violated their own procedures during the encounters.
No wonder everyone is fleeing to the internet. Real society has become a terrifying place.