Black Lives Matter: Where Are the Reforms?
Motivation Behind Black Lives Matter Movement
Questioning Journalistic Interests
Years ago I watched a documentary about photojournalist Kevin Carter. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a photo he had taken in Sudan of a small emaciated child being stalked by a vulture. He primarily did work involving the often violent Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa. He and many other photojournalists and war correspondents documented the violence that took place during this period. While I believe the work of journalists does us a great service, and is an essential part of any democracy, I was struck by something that was said by one of these war correspondents. After Mandela had won the presidency and peace was restored, the journalist said of herself and fellow journalists, “people got depressed”, “It was anti-climactic”, “everybody’s adrenaline levels just dropped”, “everybody was depressed and listless”. This stayed with me. While I understand this form of melancholy is not uncommon after such intense experiences, I had the realization that for emotional and financial reasons, some journalists may find it serves their interests to perpetuate conflict.
AL Sharpton Front and Center
Al Sharpton has branded himself as an advocate for black people. Any time there is a possibility that a black person’s civil rights may be infringed upon, Al Sharpton makes himself very visible as a representative for the alleged victims. If a business does not appear to have enough black employees, he will threaten a boycott, or call an “emergency meeting” to address it. It has been common practice over the years for him to organize a march on behalf of any black person that may be a victim of discrimination. In short, Al Sharpton will instigate strife on behalf of black peoples’ civil rights. I believe in some cases this has served to cause strife. If a black person may be a victim of civil rights violations, the moment Al Sharpton appears as their representative, it becomes a divisive issue in the eyes of many Americans. From their point of view, he is essentially invalidating the importance of civil rights for anyone else but black people. Many Americans also become defensive because they believe he often makes accusations of discrimination before there is enough information available to do so.
Unequal Standards of Exposure
On July 27, a black woman named Raynette Turner died in jail. She was arrested for shoplifting, and while in jail, complained that she wasn’t feeling well. The police took her to a nearby emergency room and she was cleared two hours later to go back to her cell. The next day she was found dead. There is no evidence that the woman’s civil rights were violated or that her death had anything to do with discrimination, but Al Sharpton reached out to both her family and the State Attorney General to insure there would be an investigation. The Governor has granted special powers to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate civilian deaths at the hands of police, and this will be his first such case. There have been several stories and updates written concerning this case. Meanwhile a 19 year-old unarmed white man named Zachary Hammond was shot and killed on July, 26th at what appears to be “point blank range” by police. The police had apparently set up a drug buy to entrap the victim’s 23 year-old date. It appears the victim attempted to drive away and was shot in the process. The 23 year-old suspect was arrested for 10 grams of marijuana. There was no call from Sharpton, there has been very little press on this story, and thus far, zero outrage. On July 18, an unarmed white man named Troy Goode died after being hog tied by police. He had gone to a concert and was under the influence of an unverified controlled substance. Police claim he was “acting strange and uncooperative”. He was strong armed by police, hog tied, and later died at the hospital. There has been very little coverage by the media, and no outcry from Sharpton or the public.
Not Enough Support for Reforms
A poll found that 86% of Americans support some form of police reform, yet by creating public perception that this is a black civil rights issue, many Americans find themselves unconcerned, unwilling, or downright defensive about acting on it. This has caused most of the bills and policy changes that have been proposed to be left unmoved. After the events in Ferguson Missouri, out of 65 bills filed, only 1 has passed. Al Sharpton organized marches for Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner. Many Americans are indifferent or even hostile, in response to these incidents. Only 13% of Americans are black. If you are a non-black person witnessing the same images of black victims associated with police violence, you may find it easier to detach from the issue, and find the conversation tiresome. Some Americans may even feel as though they indirectly are being accused of racism. If 87% of the population share this sentiment to some degree, it may be difficult to really affect change beyond headlines, talking points, and hashtags. If one can’t easily relate to the victims, action can easily give way to inertia. This is why it is critical to show all the faces affected by police violence. This issue concerns us all.
What is the Goal?
Al Sharpton has become publicly involved in cases involving black people, but is completely silent when other ethnicities are involved. I’m beginning to wonder if he is interested in changing police policy, or if he is interested in forcing the public to validate the existence of discrimination. There will always be discrimination, people will always carry biases. There will always be some Americans that just don’t like black people. Black people have been and are currently often treated unfairly, but I think we are past the point where we can stage protests and marches to fix this. The question on the existence of discrimination is not up for debate. Of course it does, but we have gone about as far as we can in our ability to legislate it. If the goal is to see policy changes and find pragmatic solutions, the approach has to be broad and it must include everyone. Not doing so has the opposite effect. Americans that see this being branded in such a one sided way become obstinate when it comes to even acknowledging there is a problem. Police become defensive, and dare I say, even more antagonistic. So the question becomes this: Is it more important that the black community receive validation on the existence of systemic racism? Or, is it more important to gain the needed support to implement policies that reduce injury and death at the hands of police?
Are We Being Played?
Stories featuring the possibility of discrimination incite strong emotion. Websites that feature these stories get more traffic. Conflict is lucrative for the press, and journalists are given purpose in the midst of reporting it. If there is peace there is less traffic to online news stories, there is less work for journalists. When there are speeches, protests, marches, and fires there is plenty of work to go around. The media is inciting division and civil unrest by keeping black victims front and center at all times, searching to find any case with even the slightest possibility of police involved violence against a black victim, and over reporting it as much as possible. At the same time police incidents involving non-black victims get buried. The vast majority of us want peace, we don’t want another Ferguson or Baltimore, but there may be some journalists who do, and whether Al Sharpton realizes it or not, he is complicit in widening the divide that is responsible.
Changing the Narrative
It isn’t too late for us to regain control of our own narrative. We need to bring all of these victims together regardless of skin color and demand changes. Gloria Allred is an attorney that specializes in cases concerning women. She has been the person responsible for trying to bring a law suit against Bill Cosby for alleged rapes. She has found dozens of women and encouraged them to come forward. She isn’t just representing the black ones, she isn’t t just representing the white ones, she is representing as many as she can, regardless of skin color. Prior to her involvement, the allegations against Bill Cosby went largely unnoticed. By assembling as many alleged victims as possible, she has made this case impossible to ignore. We need a Gloria Allred to take up the cause of police misconduct.
What About Good Cops?
There are a large number of police officers doing an exceptional job, but they are being scrutinized unfairly and there seems to be no real reward for them when they perform well. I think we should change that. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote an excellent book called “Thinking Fast and Slow”. From his book I learned the term “loss aversion”. It basically means that people are more motivated to hold on to what they have versus gaining rewards. In an experiment, teachers were given a 10% bonus which amounted to about $8,000 at the beginning of the year, and if their classes did not meet the required standards at the end of the year, the bonus had to be paid back. The teachers that were given the standard bonuses at the end of the year performed significantly worse than the teachers who had it given at the beginning. One idea would be to start a program that grants new police officers and officers with clean records a significant bonus. Some conduct by police may be within the bounds of the law, but still be discourteous, and borderline abusive. Officers who are found to conduct themselves unprofessionally and officers with too many complaints will need to pay back portions, or all of that bonus in accordance with the severity and number of complaints by the end of the year. This will not only encourage and reward officers that exceed expectations, it will discourage officers who may be tempted to abuse their authority. There has been a significant loss of public trust and many police officers are feeling unappreciated, this could help bridge that divide. Body cameras would be integral in verification. Millions of dollars are being paid in lawsuits because of corrupt police officers, it would be only fair if some of that money could go to reward exemplary ones.
Needed Policy Changes
There has been nearly universal support for body cameras, so it is time we require them on a national level. This will serve to document misconduct, as well as protect officers from false accusations. There is also clearly something wrong when officers almost NEVER get indicted much less convicted of beating or killing civilians. Not only are prosecutors reluctant to make enemies with police they work so closely with, but they are aware of the unlikelihood of getting a conviction. This lies mainly on the biases of jurors. The way the laws are written, officers can use any means necessary to defend themselves and all that is required is for them to claim they feared for their safety or the safety of others. It is very difficult to prove that a police officer didn’t fear for their life when they shot someone or used excessive force. Law enforcement is a dangerous job, there is always a possibility for an officer to fear for their life. We need to rewrite the laws and the standards. Fear of safety is not sufficient enough reason for an armored trained professional to open fire and kill people. This is the change that is being met with the most resistance. It is going to take the full effort of citizens and lawmaker to make some sort of compromise that makes all of us safer. The current standard is unacceptable.
We need to come together instead of allowing ourselves to be divided. We all have an interest in reducing police fatalities. There is a movement to pit us against each other, and we can choose not to fall in line. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, it was about unity. It was about fairness for everyone. It was about all of us coming together to support one and other. Despite what the media may depict, not all of us are divided. Americans are more than capable of coming together for a common purpose. It isn’t too late for someone to unite these victims, and the public, on the much needed changes in police policy.
The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club (2004)
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 978-0374275631