I rarely comment on contemporary news. Usually we as the public have incomplete information, which often shows any immediate commentary to be wrong when the facts eventually come out (if they ever do). Unfortunately, by the time they do, the public has often lost interest.
But with the recent killing of a black man by police in my home city of Baton Rouge, I have a local perspective. It’s not much of a perspective mind you, since Baton Rouge is a moderately sized city and my personal exposure is very tangential. Indeed, for most of the week, only being at home or at work, my exposure was fairly non-existent, except what I saw in the news.
But Saturday I went for a haircut in the small town that I live in at the outskirts of Baton Rouge. The people in the barbershop (all white) discussed the recent week’s events. Everyone had pretty much made up their mind. The consensus there was that Alton Sterling was a troublemaker that got what he deserved. And that shooting in Minnesota? Well, hadn’t you heard? They were smoking weed before the cop came up, also obviously troublemakers. (Note: I haven’t heard anything about drugs in the news I’ve read or watched.) And that Obama, obviously he’s just trying to leverage the situation to somehow stay in power past his constitutional term.
After the haircut, I went to Walmart. There was a mix of white and black people there. It’s a sad fact of the south that white and black rarely mix socially outside of school or work, and things weren’t that much different there. But I was struck by some of the sullen stares between young black men and young white men. The usual indifference between different social tribes seemed to have changed to a sort of uneasy wariness.
When navigating my shopping cart around, at a certain point, I needed to get by the pharmacy line. An older black women’s cart was slightly in the way, but not in any way I couldn’t maneuver around. When she saw me starting to go around, she apologized profusely and moved her cart. I quickly told her that it was fine, that it wasn’t a problem at all. She asked me how I was today, and I said fine, and asked her how she was. We both smiled at each other. In this exchange, I thought I detected a deliberate attempt from the women to be civilized, to not let the recent events put up a divide. I appreciated it and was glad I could reciprocate.
The rest of my weekend was filled with a similar mix of experiences. One thing I was struck by is how few people are withholding judgment, how many have already made up their mind and locked their opinion in. Unfortunately, those opinions seem to divide mostly (although not completely) by the color of people’s skin or their political ideology.
It seems evident to me that, should the evidence eventually demonstrate that the police acted properly, most of the black and liberal activist community won’t accept it, will in fact assume that it is a cover up. But it also seems equally evident that should the evidence show that the police acted improperly, that they in fact committed murder or manslaughter, many conservatives will not accept it, will in fact assume that the police officers in question are being offered up as sacrifices to an angry mob.
I don’t know what happened in the shootings. As a careful skeptic, what disturbs me is how many people, including people who preach evidence based reasoning, assume that they do know what happened. But it’s worth noting how poor the angles were in the publicly available videos of Alton Sterling’s killing, and that we didn’t actually see the exchange between the police officer and Philando Castile, only the aftermath. If the police officers in these cases are guilty, then they deserve to go to prison, but only if they’re guilty, and they deserve careful due process in that determination.
But one thing that is painfully evident to me is that the black community has been discriminated against by police for decades, long after they were supposed to have been given equal rights, and that technology, in the form of cell phone video, is finally starting to provide evidence for it. It may be brutally hard to recognize right now, but on a broad scale, this is progress, and another benefit of the internet age.
Something that may not be evident from the news coverage, which often makes it look like the whole city is in meltdown, is that life here is mostly carrying on. The protests have generally been peaceful. I’ve driven by one of them and observed people with signs congregating in companionship.
Even in the protests where there were many arrests (over 160 last time I checked), things were mostly peaceful, with people being arrested for blocking the roadway rather than for violence. (Although there have been a few limited cases of violence, such as people throwing things.) The police have been scathingly criticized for these arrests online, but I can’t fault them for trying to maintain order. After all, what exactly are the police supposed to do when people try to block major roadways or have things thrown at them?
That said, it seems clear that, on a broader scale, the police have to change. Hopefully this has become evident to the entire profession. The systematic humiliation of a minority portion of the population is what lays the groundwork for these types of situations. It isn’t enough to be transparent in investigations when killings happen. (Although that definitely helps.) The automatic assumption of guilt for black people in day to day interactions must change in a sustained and consistent manner. Otherwise, we will just continue going from one situation like this to another.