Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Considering the Deeper Meaning of the Brown Shooting

As is so often the case in incidents like this, the Michael Brown shooting has been politicized so fast, with different parties having such profound stakes in the results, that we may never know the full truth behind case (WFMY News, What we do know, without question, is that another unarmed black youth has been killed by an officer – who shot him multiple times (Autopsy Notes). There have been countless examples of this in the past, though we don’t have accurate information on how often it actually occurs (LA Times).

A few incidents from the past come to mind though, including the infamous Amadou Diallo killing (where a wallet was mistaken for a gun, he was shot 19 times and the NYPD officers involved were exonerated), the Kimani Gray story from last year (an unarmed Brooklyn youth shot four times in the front and side and twice in the back by police and killed), the Timothy Russell case (where 137 rounds were fired into his car, killing he and his passenger, after a chase – no weapons in the car), and the 2004 death of unarmed Timothy Stansbury Jr., who was shot by an officer who claimed to be startled by his presence in a stairwell (see a list of 20 such incidents here). We can, of course, add the shooting of the unarmed Trayvon Martin by the recently acquitted George Zimmerman and the fact that far too many of those committing these crimes, including the officers that beat Rodney King near to death, are later exonerated of any crime. Could it be the new form of lynching in the country, replacing families putting on their Sunday best and traveling from miles away to watch and participate in the live beating and hanging of black men and women, who often committed no crime at all? In just the past week, we also had an incident here in Los Angeles, where a 24-year-old mentally troubled young black man was shot by police while lunging for one’s gun (New York Times), and another unarmed man killed in a Wal*Mart in Ohio (Black Youth Project).

The issue seems to me to revolve around three troubling themes in American society: 1. The cost to African-Americans of systemic, institutionalized racism in schools, the media and among the police. This is not to argue that the police involved are evil or even terrible human beings. I believe it relates more to a culture where we are taught to fear young black men and thus be on guard in ways that too often lead to tragedy. This is arguably also the case in far too many of our schools, as white, middle class (and largely female) teachers engage in the “soft bigotry” of low expectations or creating an overly-disciplined, uncaring environment for youth of color. I have seen this consistently in my visits to schools in New York City and Los Angeles, with the teachers often largely unaware of their behavior, even with black and Latino youth in second or third grade. One could then argue that the media’s general portrayal of youth of color as thugs and dangerous gang members creates a pathology that streams across our culture, fed on my right-wing politicians and pundits and filtering down to the communities themselves, sometimes leading to a sense of self-hatred that can actually manifest itself in violence (see Stan Tookie William’s book or movie on the topic). 2. The outrageous level of violence in our country and our inability to pass any gun control laws or training to police officers about ensuring they don’t shoot innocent, or unarmed, men and boys. The culture of violence that seems to permeate every level of our culture involves a great irony – in that it is often young white males that are involved in mass shooting while young men of color are the ones who end up in prison or dead. Is there a way that a serious national conversation can begin on why there is so much violence, what can be done to stem its spread and how we can properly train officials to try to ensure that incidents like this stop occurring so regularly? One problem with this conversation is the NRA and right-wing media circus, which too often ends these debates before they begin. If tragedies like Columbine or Sandy Hook can’t elicit federal or state action, it’s hard to see what can. 3. The way in which officers and civilians are too often forgiven for engagement in these issues, by the police department, court system and media in general, speaks to how deep the pathology of fear toward black men reaches and how desperately we need to address this issue. Edward Said once argued that the key concern of contemporary society was how people with different religious and cultural beliefs and values could peacefully coexist in the world. That appears to be truer than ever.

Finally, considering the issue from the other side, as I did in a previous post, it is worth considering why there are no instances in recent memory of an unarmed white youth being shot by the police? If there is, I certainly don’t remember reading about it in the papers or hearing about it on television. One hopes that reason will someday soon intervene anew in the political and media arenas; for now, we are stuck within the tectonic pull of the spectacle and its endless supply of entertaining, well-packaged pabulum surrounding issues of life, death and our collective future.

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