Friday, May 29, 2020

A Centrist View of Police Violence and Race

A few years ago I made a case that there's actually not much gap between mainstream left and mainstream right positions on guns and abortion. But I was referencing private positions, not public ones. Big difference! If only each side would talk straight with the other - rather than posture and lie in reaction to extremists on the opposite side - these issues wouldn't be so intractable.

The hot topic of police racist violence offers similar common ground. The problem, as always, is that amid all the heat, few are willing to stipulate, out loud, truths they well know to be true. Anger inhibits the ability to access extenuating truth. Just as we learn to steer into skids, we must aim to remain deliberately connected to our full corpus of knowledge and rationality when it conflicts with our emotional momentum.

I will stipulate below some points most people might privately concede, but would never say out loud at moments like this. The first is an exception. It's a crucial point that not everyone knows, and is crucial to bear in mind.

1. Police in America, at their worst, can be shockingly and systematically racist. It's far worse than white people realize, though we're beginning to see it now thanks to cell phone cameras. I once travelled to LA with a black band, and while none of my colleagues were meek, they not only refused to jay walk at deserted intersections, they throbbed with fear at the suggestion. LA cops were notorious, at least among black people. White people, however - including white Angelenos - had no idea. This wide gap of experience helps account for the profound disjoint between black and white reactions to the OJ Simpson acquittal.

2. Policing is dangerous. Cops run toward gunfire, and that requires a certain type. It's a high-testosterone job, and while we expect them to act fully professional - to switch off their adrenalin and physicality when the bad guy's caught, downshifting immediately into calm administrative dweebs - human beings don't always work like that. You don't work like that! Society needs  thousands of law enforcement officers, so we don't have the luxury of selecting only freaks of immaculate emotional control, which means there will always be imperfect control of police violence. If we want police, and we do, we must accept this (while finding ways to vigilantly watch the watchmen).

3. Cops need to be able to shoot and even kill people entirely by accident once in a while. We offer this latitude because we expect them to run toward the gunfire, and they have wives and kids, and they deserve to stay alive just as you and I do. Their service is heroic, and we owe it to heros to tolerate rare mistakes or overreaction.

4. A mistakenly shot/killed civilian nationwide every few weeks isn't an abomination. In a nation of 330 million, with 700,000 law enforcement officers, it's a statistical likelihood. In fact, I'd say they're doing tremendously well.

5. Racist and corrupt policemen shamefully use #3 and #4 as a shield to justify bad-faith acts and flagrant atrocities up to and including murder. We need to get as close to zero tolerance as possible...while recognizing that they're a slim minority.

6. The rest of the police are conditioned to look the other way, due to a culture of solidarity that serves useful supportive purposes but makes it damnably hard to detect and expunge bad cops.

Fighting this institutional issue will require fresh solutions (outrage just tightens the blue line). For one thing, I'd like to see a channel for anonymous dialog with everyday cops-on-the-beat, most of whom are true public servants. Not a tattle line, but a way to hear their candid suggestions for improving the system (they aren't loving this, either).

7. When you turn on the TV and hear that "another" black civilian was hurt or killed by police, and you immediately draw conclusions, you are doing the same stereotyping and pre-judgement you're condemning. WE ALL KNOW WHAT THOSE GODDAMN COPS ARE CAPABLE OF. The antidote to a pattern of harsh pre-judgement isn't reciprocal harsh pre-judgement. It's calm, smart, competent action.

The excesses of the anti-cop mob - reflexive condemnation of every cop who gets it wrong and agitation for punishment before facts are known - are maddeningly similar (though thankfully less lethal) to the excesses of police violence itself. If we destroy a good cop because we mistake him for a bad one due to our predisposition about cops, haven't we committed the same injustice we oppose? Should our visceral feelings toward police affect our responsibility to be fair-minded? If we demand punishment before the wheels of justice have fully turned, aren't we favoring gut-level summary judgement and extrajudicial punishment?

Will we human beings ever learn to react to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism?

No comments:

Blog Archive