“Black Lives Matter” has been the mantra repeated by the people protesting the killing of two young black men. Michael Brown and Eric Garner were both killed by police officers who thought they were doing their duty. In both cases, a grand jury declined to press even manslaughter charges. Enraged at what looked like injustice, mobs of protesters have disrupted traffic, blocked freeways and delayed public transit. Vandals travelling with the protesters have scrawled graffiti, damaged store fronts and looted store contents. Trash can fires were ignited by some marchers. Some people threw objects at police.
To who are these protests directed? Is the general public guilty of either murder? If not, then why are so many innocent people being punished by the disruptive actions of the protesters? Shouldn’t the protesters have confronted the police forces or the politicians in charge of the police?
Perhaps the reason for directing protests at the general public is to motivate the general public to call for just punishment of the police officers and reform of police practice?
What is the extent of the responsibility of the general public for these killings? What guilt does the general public have for the killings, or for the allegedly bad police practices that caused the killings?
Well, I sure did not pull a trigger and I didn’t demand that police officers use deadly force without provocation. Whether or not some people did make such demands, it is true that the general public did authorize police to use deadly force when confronted with a deadly threat. Few if any of us want to tell the police not to defend themselves.
The message I get from “black lives matter” is that racist attitudes of ”you white people” are what caused the killings. The general public is being told that white attitudes have determined that, in a confrontation with police, a victim will often be seen as a deadly threat just because he is black. The implication is that had the victim not been black (and the officer white), the confrontation would have been resolved without anyone getting killed.
It’s arguable that the white police officers had been working within a culture in which black people, particularly young black males, were expected to be criminals and likely to constitute a deadly threat if confronted.
OK, so if the police were racists, how does this dump guilt onto me and the rest of the general public? Do the protesters have any justification to accuse not just the police, but the entire general public of being racist? Did racism give the protesters the right to disrupt our businesses and our transportation? Or was blocking buses and freeways more convenient for the mob to accomplish than to protest directly to the people who were guilty of the killings?
Well, before I start wallowing in righteous victimhood, perhaps I should look a little harder for any bad public attitudes which might have made the killings more likely.
One such attitude is the knee-jerk tendency, among white middle class people especially, to take the side of the cop. Nearly all stories of people getting shot by a police officer include some element of confrontation, and often a struggle between the cop and the victim. It is thought that anyone who gets into a fight with a cop should expect to get shot.
Another bad attitude is the belief that any victim’s hesitancy in following a police officer’s orders, especially any indication that the victim might have been about to bring out a concealed weapon, is justification for the cop to shoot.
Also, anyone displaying any object that appears to be a real weapon, especially if he points it at an officer, is taking a big chance on getting shot.
Underlying those attitudes is prejudice against black people. An enduring legacy of slavery and the US Civil War is the notion that, because black Africans let themselves get enslaved, they must be stupid, not capable of holding a good job, not able to behave responsibly. And, because blacks resented being enslaved and later, after they were set free, blacks resented suffering economic discrimination, blacks have accumulated a bad attitude toward the rest of society, so that blacks are more likely to commit crimes.
Even those of us who think we were not brought up to be racist are still affected by those beliefs about blacks. When I hear about a robbery on the streets of my neighborhood, my first expectation is that the perpetrator is a black man. Especially at night, I tend to be apprehensive when encountering a black man on the street. When riding a bus, my impression is that the fellow riders who evade paying the fare, sprawl over extra seats, talk loudly or play loud music -- are going to be black.
If the general public carries these attitudes, many police officers are going to carry them too.
Some police officers will cite their practical law enforcement experience that black people really do commit more crimes – and carry a gun. There are some statistics to support this, but not enough to support the assumption that any black man is a criminal.
Black people should resent it being assumed that all of them, especially young men, are criminals.
The general public should resent it being assumed that the public is all racist, eager to support police killings of black criminals.
The bad attitudes described above are deeply ingrained in white society. Resentment is deeply ingrained in black society.
So what can be done? How have bad attitudes been eliminated in the past, in other situations? The only thing that really works is giving people a good example, by the public behavior of leaders, by portrayals of good attitudes in literature, on TV and in the movies. Gently applied, a little humor also helps. These things can bring about a solution, but it looks like it’s going to take a long while.
I’m not sure that the protesters are part of the solution. The repeated accusations of guilt and especially the actions of the vandal faction may cause a backlash, at least in the near term.
But protests do raise consciousness. It sure worked with women’s right to vote and with civil rights. Perhaps the current protests will eventually bring about long-term change, not just provide an excuse for some people to act out.