Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reflections On The Michael Brown Incident

Clearly, there is a problem in the United States that needs to be addressed urgently and jointly because it is now threatening to shatter the fabric of this society and bring with it far-ranging consequences—it is the menace of a mercenary, trigger-happy, brutal, rights-trampling police force. The stats have simply become alarming and something needs to be done urgently before popular discontent boils over into the kind of unrestrained outpouring of violence that hastens societal implosion.

First of all, as anyone might have noticed, the police force is increasingly becoming militarized. It seems that every police department in this country is being supplied, nay saturated indeed with increasingly sophisticated and terrifyingly destructive mass killing gadgetry. One suspects that as certain military equipment leave US military arsenals, they invariably wind up in police stations around the country. The effect is there for all to see: there has been a precipitous increase in police brutality and senseless civilian casualties especially in black communities. The cases are out there and in alarming proportions too— it seems the police force, for what reason I cannot exactly determine, are increasingly becoming trigger-happy, law-stomping, blood-thirsty hooligans who have forgotten that their primary responsibility or duty is to faithfully serve and protect the public. Only someone who is willfully ignorant or completely disingenuous would dispute this.

A popular adage suggests that if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Nowhere is this truer than in the way the police force has morphed over the years especially in the way they approach their duties. You get the nagging suspicion upon watching some of these police drills, that many of them actually carry themselves like they are supposed to be soldiers and secondly, that they are above the law and can indeed take actions including the careless termination of civilian life without fear of reprisal or reprimand. Could it be that many officers in the force need to be retrained and specifically instructed on other non-lethal means of conflict resolution? For that matter, do we need to psychologically profile prospective applicants to law enforcement to weed out unsavory and unprincipled elements who possess destructive, conflict-seeking personalities? Do these police departments really need all these heavy, scary, advanced military machinery (with full military battle regalia) to effectively discharge their duties to their respective communities?

What needs to be done before the growing number of senseless casualties at the hands of overzealous police officers (over incidents that could have been properly handled), and the rising numbers of police brutality cases, reaches a critical mass capable of sparking a bloody civilian backlash? How about the idea that police officers should be kitted with cameras on their persons to document their actions out in public? Those cameras and their recordings can serve as indispensable teaching/instructional tools for the police force on how to properly handle situations as well as function as an effective deterrent to police ego trips, dereliction of duty or the contravention of established laws or rules.

Now, I wish to make a caveat here—one which I ordinarily should not be making save to silence would-be knee-jerk critics. By no means am I alleging that I think blindly that ALL police officers are guilty of gross negligence or that all police officers have become incompetent, knee-jerk purveyors of death. I am certainly aware that the profession is inherently dangerous and furthermore that many men and women have lost their lives serving as police officers. There are numerous instances that a police officer's quick response was the difference between their own life and death. Nevertheless, this does nothing to diminish the larger point which is that despite the presence of honorable men and women in the police force who discharge their duties conscientiously, there is a creeping and troubling uptick in the number of police brutality cases and in the frequency of avoidable civilian deaths at the hands of their own colleagues. It is like the proverbial oily finger that soils the rest.

This brings me to the whole Michael Brown Incident.

I resisted the urge to comment early on the unfortunate shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson because I wanted to give the facts of the case (and other incidental background information) an opportunity to filter through and sift into the collective national consciousness before making my conclusions. I certainly do not want my attempt at a dispassionate and a cogently reasoned analysis to be overtaken by cynical charges of partisanship or of reflexive emotionalism. Now that the police officer responsible for this has finally given his own version of the events, we must step back now and analyze this issue to tease out pertinent lessons.

A) First of all, I have to say that I take issue with the fact that this grand jury has come out with a determination that an officer who killed an unarmed teenager by multiple gunshots even when said teenager had his hands up in surrender,  was not worthy of as little as an indictment for this extreme behavior. I am not privy to the information that informed their decision save the much that have become public knowledge since this travesty occurred. I also cannot tell how much the prosecutor bungled this case that something as grave as this extrajudicial murder was deemed so piffling that a mere indictment was thus not necessary.

It is necessary to realize that an indictment was simply going to be just an accusation of wrongful conduct or criticism. Nothing about being indicted implies that you will ultimately be convicted. In other words, since we know that usually, police officers involved in actions similar to this often end up walking free of whatever accusations were leveled, it is not far-fetched to surmise that were this issue to have gone to court, officer Darren Wilson would have characteristically come out with a "not guilty" verdict. He would have been absolved of the charges, pronounced free from all punishment or jail-time and allowed to continue at his job. But at least, if they had gone this route, they would have given the appearance of upholding the course of justice even if they were only pretending. To publicly see that officer be indicted and then go through a trial even if with a reliably pre-determined outcome, would have gone to great lengths to provide an outlet for a collective, societal catharsis and ironically quelled the specter of civilian protests and violence.

It is precisely because a grievous error such as the vicious murder of an unarmed citizen—which have usually gone unchallenged by the public—has earned the culpable officer less than a slap on the wrist that the public is so enraged. At the very least, this action deserves an indefinite suspension from police force, an indictment and a very public trial that is seen to be transparent and fair. This officer would then be allowed to prove his innocence and exonerated if not found guilty—or to state it differently for people who want to split hairs, this officer would be prosecuted and freed if the prosecutor could not demonstrate his guilt. So, please keep your objection to the effect that people are innocent until proven guilty. I am not saying anything different except that the non-indictment flies in the face of justice based on the facts established so far for this case.

B) Michael Brown may not have been a saint or the perfect law abiding citizen but his faults notwithstanding, the proportionate response for his actions should never have been for the officer to shoot him and that repeatedly till he ensured that the teenager died. This is where concerns for police training comes to the fore. The officer claims that he was afraid for his life which was why he felt he needed to use his firearm. This only provokes more questions than answers. Check this out: Michael Brown and his friend were walking on their own, minding their business and more importantly, they were unarmed. At this time, the officer was not aware of the robbery incident that had happened and was clearly not out looking for someone that fits Brown's profile.

So, if all that Michael Brown and his pals were doing was that they were walking in the middle of the road like they should clearly not have been doing, why was a verbal order not enough? Surely, they would have complied if this was the case because from a very tender age, black youth know all too well how quickly any action on their part that might be misinterpreted as "resisting arrest" or "failing to comply with police orders" is often the pretext or the reason given for a disproportionate police response.

C) But for the sake of argument, let's say that Brown and his pals refused to comply, or did not comply promptly when they were ordered to do so. What should a well-trained, conscientious police officer (who is not on an ego trip) do to manage this situation?

 Well, let's see.
  •  1)   He could physically come out of his car and attempt to make an arrest using his handcuffs.
  •  2) He could radio for backup  assuming he has sized up the challenge and realized that he alone couldn't physically effect an arrest.
  •  3)  If Michael Brown had grown even more belligerent despite the officer calmly pointing out what he was doing wrong ( a highly unlikely scenario for someone who just robbed a store and might reasonably be looking to avoid all contacts with the police), since he was unarmed, when the cops got to the scene, they could have effectively physically contained the situation. Four or five officers could have handcuffed him no matter how hard he might have resisted arrest. They could have used their batons, or mace or even their tazers to subdue him and all these would have been perfectly justified.
 Besides, the boy would still be alive today and perhaps in jail for his actions. Why, for crying out loud, was the cop's instant reaction to have reached for his firearm? It is precisely this unthinking, automatic resort to deadly force as the choice means of conflict resolution that has morphed into a very worrisome problem. This is because it betrays  a fundamental disdain for the very rights of the citizens that an officer is supposed to be protecting. Worse, since many of these officers go with nothing but a slap on the wrist even for cases of extrajudicial murders, it emboldens these actions and consequently a feeling of invincibility on the part of officers. Therefore, anyone (especially a black male) who dares question their decisions, legal authority to effect an arrest or their tactics, or perhaps attempts to clamor for his/her personal rights in such encounters has to be subjected to unnecessary cruelty/brutality in a naked power play. The sad thing though is that many times when these police actions are later analyzed, there are glaring instances where they clearly overstepped their authority or clearly broke the laws. Unfortunately, for many black people, such a person might by that time be lying in a hospital bed or in the morgue.

D) As this case raged on, to check against the possible public conceiving of an unblemished image for the victim, we were informed that the 18 year old Michael Brown had earlier stolen some cigarettes from a local store. It was a most disgusting thing to have surfaced in the media because it was altogether unrelated to this unfortunate shooting death!

But here we are: Michael Brown isn't exactly your model teenager at least behaviorally. He was a 6'5 tall, heavy set black kid who according to the officer was walking right in the middle of the road on the yellow dividing line contrary to traffic rules. It was this action that struck the officer as odd and which prompted his intervention. At any rate, before we look into the details of the officers actions, it is saddening to recognize that those attributes (physically imposing, black and teenager) unfortunately were enough in many parts of this racially divided country to justify his murder. This should never have been the case.

E) Eyewitnesses say that there was some kind of tussle with the police officer while the officer was in his car. They also narrated that after this scuffle, Michael Brown started running away. A visibly enraged officer emerged from his squad car, and fired upon the retreating Michael Brown. At that point, the boy knew the game was up and then turned around and faced the police officer with his hands up in the air, a sign of surrender, whilst imploring the officer not to shoot. All of those entreaties apparently fell on deaf ears since the officer proceeded to shoot multiple times even when the boy started to slump to the ground. One of his final shots hit the boy's head as he was already falling or perhaps on the ground already. He died promptly from about 10 bullets that struck him. And he was unarmed.

After what seemed like an eternity, with public tempers flaring, and people openly wondering why this unfortunate event had to go down this way, the police officer has come out with his own version of the events. In his interview, he says he was afraid of his life and felt he had to use deadly force. Pardon me, but I feel that he was coached to say all he said. It is not entirely surprising that he'd have a version of events radically different from what was captured by witness video. But if we might ask: Why did he feel that he had to reach for his gun when he was still in his car? Why did he feel like he needed his gun when a verbal order would have sufficed? At any rate, in his account, he says that Michael Brown reached over and swung at him and landed some blows on him. He further alleges that Michael Brown saw him (Wilson) reaching for his (Wilson's) gun to shoot and then attempted to prevent that action. He still got off a shot anyhow.

This sounds quite incredible to me. First, since Brown had no weapon on him, why would he feel a need to start attacking a police officer who had clearly wanted to know why they were breaking the law by walking in the middle of the road? Secondly, is this consistent with the actions of an inner-city black youth who only a few hours earlier was involved in a robbery? What would suffuse him with so much confidence that he would indeed start trying to assault an officer? It makes sense to think that some unspecified action by this officer may have caused Michael Brown to want to resist the officer and that whatever happened quickly escalated when Brown noticed that the enraged officer had grown murderous and was immediately making moves to fetch his firearm. It was perhaps when Brown saw how dangerously things had gotten that reflex took over and he instinctively fought to prevent the officer from getting off a shot. That action however proved abortive since the officer was able to fire off one shot while they were in the car.

Brown, realizing the futility of this action, began to beat a hasty retreat from a precarious situation. At this point, the police man says he had to act to prevent Brown from getting away. Let us grant that his training dictated that he had to give chase. But once again, it is important for all to realize that Brown was not armed, was not holding any weapon of any sort and thus was not making any moves that might lead a reasonably well trained 6-foot tall police officer to be afraid for his own life. It is also important to realize that he could have given a foot chase  or attempted to use his taser or mace or indeed anything to prevent him from escaping while radioing for backup. Such an action on the officer's part would have been perfectly sensible given the facts on the ground. It is really important for this distinction to sink in. If Brown had been armed when this was happening, I doubt that there'd be the kind of outrage that we are currently witnessing. As a matter of fact, if that had been the case, I'd have been squarely in the officer's corner for acting promptly. The fact that this was not the case purely suggests that the cop in question felt slighted by this burly, felt he had to teach Brown a lesson and made up his mind to act with deadly force. So, he chased down Brown and shot him point blank over 9 times even when the boy had surrendered and posed no threat. That was not only cold, callous and criminal; it was also racist. Just think about it — unless you think that Michael Brown was "Magneto" who can bend away bullets, or "Ironman" whose iron armor is impenetrable by bullets could he have continued to advance towards the officer in an intimidating fashion according to his report.

F) This incident was a very regrettable loss of life. A mother and father has lost their son to unfortunate circumstances that could have been avoided. People are grieving this sad loss. If you are human and your mind/conscience is not bogged down by deep xenophobia or racist ill-will, your heart will go out in pity at least on some level to the parents of the teenager that was slaughtered for walking down the middle of a road—even if you feel on some level that Michael Brown had a hand in his own death. Therefore, I wonder what sort of public relations counsel this police officer was getting when  you hear the officer declare rather emphatically and without any tincture of empathy, that if these unfortunate circumstances were to unfold again in exactly the same way he would have done exactly what he did. In other words, he  stated unequivocally that he doesn't see how he might have reacted or conducted himself to achieve an outcome vastly preferable to the death of an unarmed teenager. If this is the case, it is not only sad and depressing, it is truly terrifying to contemplate. Basically, what this tells anyone who cares to ponder is that we have a  growing number of policemen who quite simply do not know how to interact with black youth without murdering them —even when such youths are unarmed! I understand that by declaring this, he might have been trying to allay suspicions to the effect that he might be feeling guilty about his possible misconduct. I further understand that he might have been saying that to remain consistent with his former statements on the issue. But was all this inflexible unfeeling aloofness necessary after a grand jury had basically declared that he was not even going to be indicted?

I do not think so. If he had admitted a degree of grief or sympathy about this sad and regrettable loss of life, and commiserated with Michael's parents for their unbearable loss, he could have humanized the Ferguson police department that has since been estranged because of this, won over many hearts and perhaps started the healing process for the millions who are deeply incensed about yet another unfortunate extrajudicial police murder of unarmed black youth. What indeed do they gain by pretending that this senseless death was not avoidable? It beats me, but whoever is responsible for their public relations image is clearly doing a shoddy job.

Finally, this will by no means signify the end to these sorts of deaths. As a matter of fact, there are even new stories of other people losing their lives to these trigger-happy cops. If we have learnt anything from the shocking decision not to indict, it is that actions like the senseless brutalization and extrajudicial murders of black men, other minorities or indeed anyone that manages to ruffle police feathers will continue to be rewarded. Our police force are receiving military training and gadgets and now their teeth are set on edge. It appears that police officers view some sections of the populace with the same lens as soldiers view enemy combatants, so it comes as no surprise that they have been trained, as it were, to reflexively shoot to kill first upon the slightest altercation. This needs to change however, I am convinced that until the outcry against police brutality and extrajudicial murder acquires the kind of overwhelming urgency and implosive force that rocks the very fabric of the society and the establishment, we will not see any positive change.

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