In 2004, police in Kenosha, WI shot unarmed 21-year-old Michael Bell in front of 5 eyewitnesses, including his mother and sister, while his hands were cuffed behind his back and 10 years later the policeman involved is still on the force.
Michael Bell was a white male.
While all three officers were charged with involuntary manslaughter and one officer charged with an additional count of second-degree murder, none of them were convicted of any wrongdoing and, indeed, charges were even completely dropped against one of them.
Kelly Thomas was a white male.
On July 17 of this year, Eric Garner was confronted by police for the petty offense of allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes (colloquially called “loosies”) and the force used in the process of his arrest, including a choke hold used by one of the officers, resulted in his death. The coroner ruled his death a homicide and the confrontation was also caught on camera for the whole world to see. In the footage it is clear that Garner was not acting violently towards the police.
On December 3rd, a grand jury declined to indict one of the officers for any wrongdoing.
Eric Garner was a black male and the officers involved were white.
Let me get this out of the way now, racism still exists in America and, in regards to our legal system at the very least, it is systemic. People of color make up 30% of the US population, but make up 60% of its prison population according to the Bureau of Justice. One in three black males can expect to be imprisoned in their lifetimes as compared to 1 in 17 for white males. According to the Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests.
Even if, as the New York Daily News has reported, the supervising officer in the Eric Garner confrontation was an African American, this doesn’t change the fact that the system itself, not merely beat cops alone, is administered unfairly and, if evidence is to mean anything, this unfairness often falls upon African Americans.
But, with situations involving white victims, like those referenced above, looking so similar to Eric Garner’s and those of other black victims in the United States (which, again, happen at higher rates), one can legitimately ask whether police brutality is motivated solely by race or whether there might be something at play that transcends the issues of “white vs black.”
Are police above the law?
Michael Bell’s father points to as much in his recent piece at Politico,
Yes, there is good reason to think that many of these unjustifiable homicides by police across the country are racially motivated. But there is a lot more than that going on here. Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.
I understand that criminals exist and that in our society we have placed the responsibility of dealing with criminals, who are usually violent, in police departments. As a result, we expect them to use force when necessary for their own protection as well as everyone else’s.
For various reasons however, many Americans have taken an almost dogmatic stance to side with the police in every circumstance, whether for racist reasons or otherwise, and, in the process, have covered their eyes and ears to the possibility that police can make mistakes; that they have, in many ways, built for themselves an apparatus of protection from consequences should they overstep the bounds of keeping the peace into breaking it.
Michael Bell’s father describes how the District Attorney for Kenosha “had been endorsed in writing by every police department in the county” which are clear grounds for a conflict of interest when it came to an internal investigation; how the police cleared themselves of any blame for the incident in 48 hours despite the fact that they hadn’t taken any statements from key eyewitnesses or that none of Michael’s DNA or fingerprints were found on the police officer’s weapon even though he had claimed that Michael had reached for it; and how “in 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.”
The point should be clear, whether intentional or not (and surely we can assume that one county in Wisconsin is not an anomaly), America’s police have insulated themselves from consequences to a degree that non-police, perhaps even unequally among themselves, are not lucky enough to benefit from.
Corruption does not have to be illegal for it to be corruption all the same.
If Eric Garner can be killed in broad daylight, on camera, while putting up no serious (let alone violent) resistance and the police involved don’t even get charged with, let alone convicted for, a crime, then police aren’t simply benefiting from a lack of transparency; they are a protected class, plain and simple.
All of these protections, of course, feed into any police brutality that may exist and not only forgives it, but condones it. Without even touching on the militarization of police departments and the psychological effects of turning police into domestic soldiers in all but name, when police know that they can do almost anything without fear of repercussion, then they will act accordingly. They’re humans and humans respond to incentives – or the lack of them.
The Reality of the Nanny-state.
Furthermore, and we have a very visible example of this in the case of Eric Garner as he was initially approached for the alleged crime of selling untaxed cigarettes (taxes which exist to dissuade smoking), we must face the gritty reality of what a nanny-state looks like when you strip away all of the good intention rhetoric and campaign slogans.
Government is force. Even the trivial laws which are often viewed through the lens of their benevolent intentions have to be enforced by individuals whose ultimate recourse should someone evade a law, even the petty ones, is violence.
Frankly, if you support nanny state policies like the ones that prompted the police’s confrontation with Garner, then you have absolutely zero ground to stand on should you react to his death with disgust. If you see the video of his death, then don’t look away; pay attention and relish in the success of the policies you support. You may not want people to die over petty laws like cigarette taxes, but they do anyway. You’ve made your bed, now sleep in it.
Full fledged liberals in particular should do some serious soul searching in response to this tragedy. It’s very easy to say “racism” and pretend that all of the complexities of reality are consumed into one primal force of ignorance. However, a rational person can recognize that the real world isn’t so simple. Liberals are notorious for disregarding any negative outcomes for their policies with a simple claim of good intentions. The law of unintended consequences is simply lost in their worldview. With Eric Garner, we see a tragic example of an unintended consequence to a liberal policy.
These are the simple facts of the matter. People more likely to evade sin taxes, like the ones on cigarettes, are those with less income. African Americans are statistically more likely to have lower incomes. Therefore, African Americans are more likely to evade these sin taxes making it more likely that police, who will likely be white, will come into their neighborhoods and confront them. And if cops are racist to begin with, as many on the Left consistently claim, then the outcome of these confrontations will likely not be pretty for any African Americans involved.
What is most ironic is that when it comes to the drug war, liberals exhibit an understanding of this logic all of the time; correctly describing the drug war as racist. Yet, a cigarette tax creating an underground market for cigarettes is somehow different? Indeed, how is any regulatory statue really any different? Either they are honestly ignorant, or willfully so. Neither are an excuse for shirking their responsibility for the world they have helped to create.
Or, as Jonah Goldberg at National Review, of all people, put it,
This is something that libertarians understand better than everyone else: The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how “government is just another word for those things we do together,” but what makes government work is force, not hugs.
If you sell raw-milk cheese even after the state tells you to stop, eventually people with guns will show up at your home or office and arrest you. If you resist arrest, something very bad might happen. You might even die for selling bootleg cheese.
Everyone agrees: No one should die for selling bootleg cigarettes. But if you pass and enforce a law against such things, you increase the chances things might go wrong. That’s a fact, whether it sounds callous to delicate ears or not.
Or, as Reason columnist Robby Soave put it,
Look, police brutality has many underlying causes. One of them is undoubtedly racism; black people are disproportionately arrested and imprisoned. An encounter between a cop and a civilian is more likely to be unpleasant if the civilian is black. In fact, it’s more likely to occur in the first place if the civilian is black, because many cops racially profile suspects.
Another cause is the police incentive structure. Police have far more legal protections than non-police. They can get away with so much more. Indeed, while the cop who killed Garner evaded indictment, a civilian who recorded the incident on his phone was indicted on a separate weapons charge. It’s difficult—often impossible—to punish police for bad behavior, which gives the bad apples free rein to abuse people.
You know what’s also a cause? Overcriminalization. And that one is on you, supporters of the regulatory super state. When a million things are highly regulated or outright illegal—from cigarettes to sodas of a certain size, unlicensed lemonade stands, raw milk, alcohol (for teens), marijuana, food trucks, taxicab alternatives, and even fishing supplies (in schools)—the unrestrained, often racist police force has a million reasons to pick on people. Punitive cigarette taxes, which disproportionately fall on the backs of the poorest of the poor, contribute to police brutality in the exact same way that the war on drugs does. Liberals readily admit the latter; why is the former any different?
If you want all these things to be illegal, you must want — by the very definition of the word illegal [emphasis in original] — the police to force people not to have them. Government is a gang of thugs who are paid to push us around. It’s their job.
We simply have to stop assuming the answer to all of our problems is government. When a society believes its vices can be stamped out with violence, then confrontations over petty infractions are going to take the form of violence.
What Must be Done?
Of course, the only issue at play was not petty taxes. It is very clear that black Americans feel like the system is against them and for good reason.
But what is there to do?
Obviously, first off, elected officials who are directing policy and are racist or support any thuggish cop simply because he or she is a cop, should be booted out. But what about when the whole system has inherently biased outcomes, let alone racist ones?
Yes, partly. Wisconsin’s independent investigation law is a great first step and other reforms should absolutely be instituted.
However, the underlying problem isn’t simply a managerial problem, but a problem of power. If the American experiment is anything, it is an attempt to address this problem of power so that it doesn’t run amok. If founding a whole new, independent nation still wasn’t able to figure it out, then its solution is much more difficult than simply tinkering around the edges.
I’m not calling for revolution or anything, but we have to understand that the perniciousness of racism, or any negative “ism”, is directly proportional to the power backing it up. If power exists, then it can be abused. We have to take a long hard look at what we want the government to actually do, because the more we expect of it – the more power we give it – the more likely that that power will be administered by someone who doesn’t think highly of black Americans; and who is literally protected through the apparatus of the system itself.
In other words, what you can do is make racism docile by taking away its teeth.
If we want a society with no more dead Michael Browns or Eric Garners, or dead Kelly Thomases or Michael Bells, then we need to start by taking the power back.Published in