Poor, Black and Talking Back

Last Saturday, April 4th, a man named Walter L. Scott was shot and killed in North Charleston, South Carolina. He was shot from behind as he fled.
The perpetrator happens to be a white police officer and the victim—once again—happens to be an unarmed black man. The incident was caught on video, and the officer is being charged with murder. What should be apparent by now to everyone is that the use of excessive and lethal force against American citizens is not the result of a few bad apples. It is the result of systemic problems not just a handful of individual bad actors.

Those of us who view the actions of the police from a safe distance may find it difficult to relate to their attitudes and actions. We may at times rush to judgement too quickly. The difficulties many of them face while carrying out their daily duties are unimaginable to many of us. We expect our peace officers to be just, calm, collected, impartial, temperate and even wise. But more often than not, they are afraid, angry and defensive. But the police must remember that they have a great responsibility to us, the people. They exist for our benefit, not the other way around. They do not exist to choose winners and losers, to oppress or to control. They do not exist to further the ends of politicians, or to raise money, or sustain their own institutions by generating revenue. Their purpose is to serve us, and when they become injurious to that purpose, then they must be stripped of their authority.

I do not condemn all police officers, but I do condemn the system that results in this violence. I hope the individuals who have taken lives so
needlessly are brought swift and thorough justice. But even after Officer
Slager has been removed from society, what then? Surely if the system is not altered, the same types of incidents will continue to happen. What is the root cause of all this violence and confrontation between citizens and police? Is it only about race or is that just one factor in a more
complicated problem?

It’s obvious Officer Slager had little respect for the citizen he was confronting. The police officers whose actions resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the many other black
citizens who have been killed in recent memory didn’t respect those they were engaging. They probably despised them and most assuredly they feared them. Being poor is bad. Being black is worse. Being poor and black is loathsome. Being poor, black and talking back… that seems to be a capital offense.

There are several ways we could work to improve the situation.
They seem obvious to anyone willing to imagine alternatives, but we will have to demand these reforms. City governments won’t bestow these commonsense remedies without being compelled to do so.

First, we must demand an end to violent enforcement of non-violent crimes. Speeding is not a violent act. Neither is jaywalking, having a broken tail light, selling unlicensed cigarettes, or failing to pay child support. Neither is buying, selling, possessing or using drugs for that matter. Unlike firemen and paramedics, police are often seen as enforcers, bullies and
petty tyrants, rather than as selfless public servants who come to our rescue when we need help.

The simple unspoken fact is that minor traffic violations such as the one that initiated the deadly string of events with Walter L. Scott, are not issues of public safety. They are a mechanism by which city governments
generate revenue, and go fishing for larger violations. The same is true of the myriad minor infractions governments deploy against citizens in the drug war. Rather than being servants of the public, police are deployed against one group of citizens by another. Regardless of the individual officers’ intentions, police are used to divide and conquer us. They are being used as instruments of control, not as protectors and defenders of their own communities.

Perhaps police officers should be trained and required to disengage and de-escalate if the source of the confrontation is any misdemeanor or non-violent crime. Reason, convince, impose a fine, send a letter, but don’t
beat, don’t tase, don’t shoot. The same police officers who write traffic tickets are expected to subdue and apprehend the most violent and dangerous offenders (in addition to the mentally ill and those under the influence of drugs and alcohol, who are also often violent).

Perhaps what is needed is a whole new class of public officer that isn’t armed. This works in many other countries and it can work here. Mindless fear is the only thing preventing us from trying it.

Second, police should actually represent their communities. Far too often police do not know, respect or interact with the communities they serve.
North Charleston has a police force that is 80% white, while whites make up only 37% of the population. Our communities have little or no say in who their own policemen are. Police are imposed on communities by outside elements: city and state governments. County sheriffs are elected in Oklahoma, but municipal and state police are bureaucrats and do not answer to the people. Perhaps this should change. Perhaps community policing should stop being just a buzzword and should be embraced fully.

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