Over the past year, multiple shooting deaths involving white police and black suspects have ignited riots from the black community demanding justice and restarted a conversation about race relations in this country. It all began with the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in August 2014, whose death, although found justified based on the circumstances, pointed out the gross abuses and racial bias practiced by the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. Based on a separate Department of Justice investigation, blacks in Ferguson, even though they make up 67% of the population, accounted for 88% of cases where a police officer used force. This was just the tip of the iceberg, however, as the non-indictment of the officer who choked Eric Garner for illegally selling individual cigarettes shortly after Brown’s death sparked a even bigger protest, one focused around the phrases, “Black Lives Matter”, as well as Garner’s last words, “I Can’t Breathe”. The latter phrase became so popular and ubiquitous that multiple celebrities, including the likes of LeBron James and Derrick Rose, wore shirt with those words inscribed on them, causing households everywhere to address and form opinions on the topic. The strength and political power of the protests has only grown in recent months, as deadly shootings in South Carolina and, most recently, the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore because of perceived police brutality have now shown an almost endemic failure in our police system to function properly.
As the popularity of this movement increases, it raises many questions about how to change policing techniques in response to these infractions and how to quell mistrust in the public. Already, police departments around the country are implementing or debating the idea of body cameras for police, a technological improvement that could be used to better flush out racism and hold both criminals and law enforcement accountable. In the Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, both this new technology’s benefits and drawbacks are discussed, with promises that Obama’s administration will continued to fund research into these budding industries to improve policing. In another vein, the report also mentions that, “The need for realistic, scenario based training to better manage interactions and minimize using force was discussed by a number of witnesses” This statement presents a slippery slope that comes with this perfectly valid proposition, one that argues that, under increased scrutiny from the public and other elected officials, officers will now be more wary in their encounters with potential fugitives, especially if the participants are mixed racially.
This can lead to what police call “deadly hesitation”, where the potential backlash of a action prevents the official from doing his job. In a very interesting NPR article I read recently, a poignant example of this was shown in the encounter Officer Jesse Kidder had with Michael Wilcox, a white male suspected of murder who was potentially armed at the time of the incident. The video from Kidder’s body cam shows the officer’s desperate pleas for Wilcox to get his hands out of his pockets and surrender, even as the suspect yells at Kidder to shoot him. The CNN footage goes on to praise Kidder for not firing and honors his “valor”. However, I see many problems that this type of passiveness could have produced. First, despite the suspect advancing on the officer with questionable intent, Kidder doesn’t even fire a warning shot, instead simply backing up and choosing not to fire his weapon, an action that leads to him at one point falling down. The officer, at that point, has failed to do his job. Here is a dangerous man who has already killed someone, is resisting arrest and, if he was so inclined, could have attempted to gain the upper hand on the fallen officer, endangering the lives of innocent people. It is important when trying to change and improve policing that the very nature of officer’s job is factored in, as it can involve dozens of complex decisions and also exposes them to life-or-death situations at times and they are required to react accordingly
Besides calls to demilitarize and retrain police, the many riots and protests of this movement leave us, once again, questioning the fairness of our country and its policies. It serves as a reminder of the ugly resemblance that society today bears with the past and that old habits, no matter how ignoble, die hard.
Image comparing Baltimore Riots from 2015 over Freddie Gray’s death (Upper) to the 1968 ones over MLK’s. (Lower)
Through the use of social media, those around the globe could mourn the dead, debate the circumstances, and try to enact change, all while comfortably sitting in their respective safe havens, far away from danger in some cases. While many of their efforts were in some ways more successful than the physical demonstrators, the personality of the movement and public sympathy for it is harder to obtain and cultivate across a computer screen than the real-life conditions and actual “faces” on the streets. That being said, the violence and destruction that these protests caused, even if they had been started peacefully, spiraled out of control and forced police to maintain safety. In Baltimore, for example, protests became so bad that the schools were closed and the Orioles had to play a closed-door game against the Chicago White Sox. A rightful reason to protest does not, in any circumstance, warrant harmful side-effects because of it. Also, once the events during the protest become violent, public opinion turns sour and has a chance to not embrace the movement as much, something significantly lessened when people protest on social media. Over the long term, the actions of those online, while not as dramatic as the thousands rioting, will be more persuasive, as this type of protesting can be done at any time and requires little effort, unlike forgetting responsibilities and taking to the streets. The future of public demonstration is here, and it uses hashtags instead of signage.
“America’s Game” played in spite of Rioting (Source: Getty Images)