How to respond to common cop-killing defense arguments
Michael Brown is dead. John Crawford is dead. Eric Garner is dead. None of their killers, employees of the state, will face criminal trials.
In any case where a black person is killed by a police officer, some common points emerge to justify the crimes. If you find yourself grasping for evidence to oppose such claims, I hope that the following responses—more specifically tailored to the Darren Wilson case—can help.
The evidence showed that Wilson acted in self-defense.
Brown died over 150 feet away from Wilson’s SUV, a fact that the police lied about for more than 100 days until St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch admitted it in his grand jury announcement. Daily Kos journalist Shaun King had argued long before that Wilson fatally wounded Brown at about five times the 35-foot distance police originally stated.
Furthermore, as a PBS NewsHour chart demonstrates, 15 witnesses claimed that Brown was running away from Wilson when fired upon while only five stated that he was not. Only two of 29 witnesses said that Brown did not have his hands up, and over half of the statements affirmed that he did (the others did not answer).
By declining even to bring charges against the officer, McCulloch and the grand jury concluded that no possibility of wrongdoing exists in the death of an unarmed teenager half of a football field away from his killer.
Grand jury indictments are far from rare, according to an analysis by Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight. In fact, of 162,000 federal cases prosecuted in 2010, only 11 did not return an indictment. That’s .000068 percent. Granted, those were federal cases, and the most common exception on indictments at the state level has been police shootings. The refusal to indict Wilson and the killer of Garner, caught on video applying an illegal chokehold under no threat, is revealing of how little investment the legal system places in protecting black people from police violence.
Why don’t we ever see mass protests over black-on-black crime?
Black people do protest black-on-black crime, which is a silly term in the first place, since most people commit crimes against people of the same race. Ta-Nehisi Coates offered several examples in a 2012 blog post for The Atlantic.
State violence is also different than violence between individuals. I’m not making an argument here that is remotely new, so hop online and read anything by Coates or dozens of other commentators.
At best, the black-on-black crime argument is well-intentioned but misguided. At worst, it is an intentional distraction from the fact that police are at least 20 times as likely to kill a black man as they are a white man. Sometimes, as in the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the “men” killed are actually young boys—or teenagers, like the 18-year-old Brown. We must also not erase the experience of women who have suffered abuse from cops.
Protesters shouldn’t have responded to the non-indictment with rioting and looting.
And San Francisco Giants fans shouldn’t have thrown glass bottles at police cars, set fire to the streets, climbed atop cars and shot two people after their team won the World Series.
But seriously, it is disconcerting and frightening to see walls of businesses bursting into flames and windows shattered. Most people don’t like it, and that includes protesters, who have self-policed throughout this movement—while cops have acted as an occupying military force. I protested in Shaw the night of the grand jury announcement, where demonstrations were completely peaceful. At one point a little before 11 p.m., a marcher hurled an object through a glass window of a business on Grand Boulevard. Other protesters immediately cried out in disapproval and restrained the aggressor, who caused minimal damage.
Regardless of our attitudes about the more violent protesters, let’s focus on the issues that have caused their anger. Ferguson has treated its black citizens as piggy banks, with police officers disproportionately stopping them for traffic tickets and contraband searches. Our nation incarcerates more people than any other in the world and has created a prison system built by more disproportionate targeting of blacks. Yet it suddenly remembers its commitment to the standard of probable cause only when defending killer cops.
Michael Brown is just one name out of hundreds, and until we get serious about implicit bias training, decarceration, reducing income inequality and demilitarization of police, there will be hundreds more. And there will be hundreds of more columns and soliloquys bemoaning black-on-black crimes and riots—without any earnest effort to prevent them.