Earlier today, the New York Times released the name of the officer in Ferguson, Mo, who shot Michael Brown. They also played their trump card in the case. Brown allegedly stole cigars from a convenience store approximately 15 minutes before he was fatally shot (murdered?) by Officer Darren Wilson. For some, this "smoking gun" will be the justification for accepting the status quo. Now we can blame the victim for doing something he ought not have done. Now we have a legitimate reason for the officer to have stopped Brown and his friend in the first place. We can understand why the physical altercation occurred. We can call Mike Brown a bad guy, and rest well knowing the cop was the good guy.
Only... that doesn't sit well with me. Hopefully, it doesn't sit well with you either. If you're on the fence, I hope I'll be able to sway your opinion in the following paragraphs.
We can start with the most obvious difficulty. Mr. Brown allegedly stole cigars from the store. He allegedly assaulted a police officer. He allegedly disobeyed an instruction from the police. In America, allegations of criminal wrongdoing are decided by judges. Police are not judges. Their job is to apprehend suspects and get them safely to the judge. You know... protecting... and all that.
If we assume the worst -- that Mr. Brown was guilty of all the alleged offenses, what ought to have happened to him? Well, in Missouri, stealing the cigars as a first offense is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year in jail and no more than a thousand dollar fine. What about assaulting an officer? Well, that's a Class A misdemeanor, too Remember that in America, we don't do "cruel and unusual" punishment? In the worst imaginable scenario, Mr. Brown ought to have spent a year or two in jail. And this assumes he was guilty. We don't know that. Because... judge.
But some may object that Mr. Brown was a big scary man, and he had proven himself violent by (allegedly) attacking the officer in his car and trying to get his gun. Again, let's assume the worst. Mr. Brown did not get the gun, and he ran away after the officer (allegedly) shot him from inside the car. So far, we can work with this. If the officer was in danger of losing his gun to an assailant, we can probably justify him firing his weapon. But Mr. Brown was killed outside the vehicle, while the officer had every reason to believe he was unarmed. If witness reports are to be believed, whatever remaining shots were fired resembled an execution, not an officer fearing for his life. According to the latest reports, at the time of the fatal shooting, there was another officer on the scene. Fleeing unarmed suspect? Two armed officers? As trump cards go, the Ferguson PD doesn't seem to have much. We can wait and see what else they may have, but really, what kind of evidence would justify killing an unarmed man with multiple rounds? What could Mr. Brown possibly have done outside the vehicle -- after already being shot -- that would give the officer the right to end his life?
(Oh, and if you are finding yourself still siding with the police on this, think carefully about which allies you're courting...)
Even if we give the police every benefit of every possible doubt in this case, we still have a much bigger problem to deal with. Before this incident, the nation was still reeling from the murder of an unarmed black man in New York by a police officer who suspected him of selling hot cigarettes. There were two other stories that didn't make national headlines, last month. That's 4 unarmed black men dead in a month. This is surely symptomatic of a much larger problem, right?
In a word, yes. There is a big problem with police murdering people in the U.S., and being black is a big risk on that count. Over a seven year period ending in 2012, white police killed approximately two black men a week. No, that's not a typo. Two a week. If that number upsets you, you'll really hate this one. The "two a week" number was derived from the 750 agencies who reported such things. There are 17,000 agencies. Only 4% of the police departments in the U.S reported for this study. So let's just say it: It's more than two a week. Even if we're being improbably conservative in estimating the rate of all 17,000 agencies, we must assume that the problem is much bigger than what's being reported. A grassroots anti-racist organization conducted their own study, and estimated that one black person is killed by police or security guards every 28 hours. Depending on which report you believe, between 44% and 71% of the victims were unarmed. Oh, and for folks who are thinking maybe cops are in a war zone, dying left and right at the hands of gang bangers? Not precisely. In 2013, 105 police died in the line of duty. That's all deaths, including traffic accidents, heart attacks, training accidents, and even drowning. Only 30 were from gunfire. And yes, that's all the agencies reporting. Not 4%. Oh, and it includes Puerto Rico, too.
Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg for black people and law enforcement. Pick a metric -- any metric -- and the numbers will bear out gross racism. Black people are profiled, stopped by police, arrested by police, and sentenced far more often than white people, and receive longer sentences to boot. These facts are absolutely undeniable, and the racist pleas of "black people shoot each other more often" ring hollow. Yes, urban areas with majority black populations are often dangerous places, but good social scientists will tell you that factoring poverty and social networks into the equation levels the racial playing field. No, it's not black people's fault. It's just not. Black people are victims of gross, inexcusable racism at the hands of law enforcement. It is systematic. It's not being reported, and police officers are not being punished. We cannot predict how the case of Michael Brown will end up, but if the past is an indicator of the future, the best guess is it will end with another dead black man and a narrative of regret from the police, but no action against the killer.