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“Nobody’s Symbol, But Somebody’s Mother”: Toya Graham Simply Doing What Mothers Do

A few thoughts about Toya Graham, just in time for Mother’s Day.

You may not know her name, but you probably know what she did. You’ve probably seen the viral video of Graham, during last week’s unrest in Baltimore, using some rather pungent language and some open-handed smacks upside the head to pull her 16-year-old son out of the riot zone. She told CBS News he had gone there in defiance of her orders. When she saw him, dressed for mayhem in a black face mask, rock in hand, “I just lost it.”

In so doing, Graham, a single mother of six, has inadvertently become enmeshed in the ongoing shouting match between left and right. She has become a symbol — though neither side can agree on what she is a symbol of.

On the right, where many observers seem just a little too giddy over the image of a black boy being smacked, Fox “News” contributor Ben Stein called her “Rosa Parks for 2015.” It was an inane observation that minimized the legacy of Rosa Parks, but it was perfectly in line with the conservative view that says our most pressing concern in Baltimore’s unrest is “behavior” — i.e., the need to rein in lawless Negroes smashing windows and setting fires in the city.

Fact is, behavior is, indeed, our most pressing concern: but it’s the behavior of police in dealing with African-American citizens. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whom police arrested for carrying an illegal knife — a charge that is hotly disputed — somehow wound up with a partially severed spine while in their custody and died. Death seems to come with jarring frequency to unarmed black men who interact with police, something that ought to trouble us all.

The fact that some knuckleheaded black kids used the protest over Gray’s death as a pretext to riot — in other words, to behave as knuckleheaded white kids do after sports victories, sports defeats, and during last year’s pumpkin festival in Keene, NH — makes that no less true.

On the left, meantime, there is a tad too much dewy-eyed hand wringing over Graham’s resorting to violence to drag her son off the street. While conceding that her actions were “understandable and maybe even reasonable” under the circumstances, Eliyahu Federman, a columnist for USA Today, nevertheless wants you to know her parenting style was not “ideal” — whatever that means.

“Shouting and insulting teens just doesn’t work long term,” he writes. “You are more likely to positively modify teen misbehavior by calmly and maturely discussing the consequences of the misbehavior.” One struggles to imagine how a calm and mature discussion with a willful teenager might have played out at ground zero of an urban riot.

Look: that video — the hitting, the cursing — is not a pretty picture. Such tactics would never be endorsed by Parents magazine. On the other hand, the largely white and middle-class readership of that magazine likely does not live where Graham does, nor struggle with the challenges and fears she faces.

Every pundit, yours truly included, has the sometimes-regrettable habit of reducing people in the news to symbols of our own social and political concerns. But if we want to understand what she did, it might help to concede that Graham is nobody’s symbol, but somebody’s mother. As she said, she “lost it” because she feared her son might end up like Freddie Gray, another tragic police “oops.”

For most of us, that is a distant and unimaginable fear. But for some of us, it is a fear all too close and all too imaginable, a night terror that gnaws at sleep. Understand this, and that video becomes less of a mystery. When she saw her son in danger, Toya Graham waded in to save him from it — at all costs and by any means necessary.

Is that not what mothers do?

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, May 6, 2015

May 7, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore Riots, Black Men, Police Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Hideous Indifference To Lives Wrongly Taken”: Cops Who Let Their Unarmed Victims Die Should Be Punished, Too

The police killing of Eric Courtney Harris, who was shot to death in Tulsa by a 73-year-old “reserve deputy” who had meant to tase him, raises several baffling questions. Why was Robert Bates, an elderly insurance executive who served one year as a police officer back in the 1960s, involved in a dangerous sting operation? Why are amateurs apparently allowed to buy their way into the Tulsa force? Why was this pseudo-deputy allowed to carry a gun? And how could he confuse it with a Taser?

To be sure, these questions require answers. But the video of the killing, which was recorded by an officer’s body camera, raises an equally important question that applies to a number of high-profile police killings of late: Why didn’t the cops help Harris after he was shot?

In the video, Harris is shown talking to police about the gun sale they’ve arranged. When he realizes that he’s being ambushed, Harris runs, and from the officer’s body-cam we see him taken to the ground. Bates announces he is going to tase Harris. We hear a gunshot, and then Bates, realizing that he has just executed an unarmed man, apologizes: “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.”

Harris is incredulous. “He shot me!” he says. “Oh my God!” But the officers, instead of suddenly springing into action to help the dying man, begin to swear at him. “You fucking ran!” shouts a cop. “Shut the fuck up!” Harris moans that he is losing his breath, to which an officer replies: “Fuck your breath.”

“Fuck your breath” is a telling reply to the “I Can’t Breathe” slogan adopted in the wake of Eric Garner’s chokehold killing by a New York cop. It reflects a hideous indifference to lives wrongly taken, and it’s not just a lone officer in Tulsa: after the Garner protests, NYPD officers counter-protested with “I can breathe” hoodies.

That indifference is reflected not just in their words, but their actions. In several recent videos of police killings, officers fail to provide medical attention to the victims they’ve wounded. Instead of switching from crime-stoppers to caregivers the moment a suspect is injured and harmless, as any compassionate human being would do, officers often either berate the suspect or stand idly by as the victim dies.

After Cleveland police officers shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, they spent their time handcuffing his terrified sister. (This type of neglect is apparently not uncommon for Cleveland police; they have been the subject of dozens of civilian complaints for instances in which they made injuries worse or refused to let the injured go to hospitals.) The Garner video drags on for minutes after his final “I can’t breathe,” the officers standing around while Garner lies motionless on the ground. And Michael Slager, the South Carolina officer who shot Walter Scott in the back, handcuffs the dying man instead of trying to help him.

There may be a temptation to blame these incidents on rogue or incompetent police officers. After Slager was charged with murder, the North Charleston police union said it wouldn’t tolerate officers who “tarnish the badge,” and Mayor Keith Summey said, “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”

But the more of these videos that emerge, the less believable the rogue theory becomes. After all, consider the behavior of the actual cops surrounding Robert Bates, the Tulsa reserve deputy, after his fatal mistake. He’s facing a manslaughter charge, and surely he deserves to be punished. What his colleagues did, though, was far more cold and intentional. Those who shoot the unarmed may be negligent killers or murderers, but those who stand idly by while the victims die might as well be accessories after the fact.

 

By: Nathan J. Robinson, a PhD Student in Social Policy & Sociology at Harvard University: The New Republic, April 15, 2015

April 17, 2015 Posted by | Law Enforcement, Police Shootings, Police Violence | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“How Long Can This Go On?”: There’s No Such Crime As ‘Driving While White’

The shooting of Walter L. Scott in South Carolina prompts the question:

When is the last time you heard of a white man in a Mercedes-Benz being pulled over for driving with a broken taillight?

It has probably happened somewhere, sometime, but there’s a better chance of your car being hit by a meteor.

Getting shot dead during a minor traffic stop also isn’t a prevailing fear among white males in America, no matter what type of vehicle they own.

Scott himself didn’t imagine he was going to die when he was pulled over. Unfortunately, he happened to be a black man driving a Mercedes, which is what got him noticed. He was behind on child-support payments and probably didn’t want to go to jail.

Something happened at the scene, Scott got Tased and then tried to run away. Officer Michael Slager fired eight times, hitting the unarmed 50-year-old in the back. The killing was caught on cellphone video by a bystander.

Slager told the dispatcher that Scott had snatched his Taser, but the video shows the officer dropping an object that looks just like a Taser near Scott’s handcuffed body. Slager has been charged with murder and fired from his job.

The shooting was shocking to watch, as the whole world has, yet the sequence of events leading up to it is sadly familiar to black men in this country. They can’t afford to drive around as carefree as us white guys.

In September, a South Carolina state trooper shot and wounded another unarmed black motorist after pulling him over because he allegedly wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.

I’ve got white friends who rarely buckle up, yet I don’t know of one who has been ticketed for it, or even stopped and warned. Maybe they’re just lucky.

The black comedian Chris Rock uses his Twitter account to record his traffic-stop encounters. In a recent seven-week period, he was pulled over three times (once as a passenger).

It’s possible he and his friends aren’t very good drivers. It’s also possible they’ve been targeted merely for “Driving While Black,” an unwritten offense that still exists in many regions of the country, not just the Deep South — and not just in high-crime areas.

The odds would be fairly slim for a black man driving a luxury car not to be pulled over at least once on a road trip between, say, Utah and North Dakota. Even in a ’98 Taurus he’d need to be watching the rear-view mirror for blue lights.

Generalizing about traffic stops can be problematic. The numbers often spike in certain neighborhoods at certain times of day, and a small number of officers can account for many incidents of racial profiling.

Still, the evidence that it exists is more than anecdotal.

Using a “Police-Public Contact Survey,” the U.S. Justice Department analyzed traffic stops of drivers aged 16 or older nationwide during 2011, comparing by race and weighting by population.

To the astonishment of hardly anyone, black drivers were about 31 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, and approximately 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than Hispanic motorists.

A series published by the Washington Post in September reported that minority drivers had their cars searched (and cash seized) at a higher rate than white drivers. That jibed with the Justice Department’s conclusion that vehicle searches occurred substantially more often when the driver wasn’t white.

Another unsurprising fact: Compared to other races, white drivers were most likely to get pulled over for speeding. Black drivers were statistically more likely to be stopped for vehicle defects or record checks.

Which is what happened to Walter L. Scott in North Charleston.

Never in almost five decades of driving have I been pulled over for a busted brake light or a burned-out headlight, even though I’ve had a few.

It didn’t matter whether I was in a Dodge, Oldsmobile, Jeep, Ford, Chevy or even, for a while, a Mercedes SUV.

The only thing I’ve ever been stopped for is, like many impatient white people, driving too fast.

And every time a police officer walked up to my car, I knew exactly why he or she wanted to chat with me. It was no mystery whatsoever.

That’s not always the case for a black man behind the wheel of a car in this country. This is not just a perception; it’s a depressing reality.

If it had been me or Matt Lauer or even faux Hispanic Jeb Bush driving that Mercedes-Benz in South Carolina, Officer Slager wouldn’t have stopped the car. Not for a busted taillight, no way.

Which prompts another question: How long can this go on?

 

By: Carl Hiaasen, Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, April 14, 2015

April 15, 2015 Posted by | Police Shootings, Police Violence, White Privilege | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It Might Be Fox-Proof But It’s Not Foolproof”: The Video Of The Walter Scott Killing Has Silenced Fox Critics

The video that Feidin Santana took of Michael Slager, a white North Charleston, South Carolina police officer, allegedly shooting and killing Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, is Fox-proof.

The three-minute-plus video shut up the inevitable police apologists who’d always find a way to blame the black guy for his own death by saying he acted in a threatening manner. But now, even Fox News folks are saying it’s right and just that Slager has been charged with murder.

“This is not Ferguson,” Andrew Napolitano said on Fox & Friends on Wednesday. “In Ferguson, there was a bona fide fight over the officer’s gun and the officer won the fight. This is [sic] two disparate cases. This is a victim running away from the police, shot in the back. This is what some people said Ferguson was, but it turned out it wasn’t.”

Dr. Ben Carson, Fox’s favorite black GOP presidential candidate, called it “an execution.”

(UPDATE: You might think that the dash-cam video released last night showing the traffic stop and Scott running away would trigger a Fox instinct to reverse course and blame the victim. But, so far, that hasn’t happened. Sean Hannity said last night that Scott “was not a threat to anybody” and that it’s “irrelevant what happened leading up to” Slager shooting him. And this morning on Fox, conservative radio host Lars Larson said he still believes “the officer committed murder.”)

No, the Fox line seems to be that now that Slager is sitting in jail without bail, justice has been served, the system works. So let’s move on, folks. And, oh yeah, it’s not a race thing. Greg Gutfeld on Fox’s The Five claimed, as if channeling the “color-blind” Stephen Colbert, “I didn’t see a black man killed by a white cop. I saw a man shoot another man in the back.”

That’s funny, because the video is incredibly detailed and definitive. Arguably more definitive than the videos showing the death-by-chokehold of Eric Garner in New York, or the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland shot by police for playing with what turned out to be a toy gun, or the unprovoked shooting of an unarmed man, Levar Jones, by a South Carolina state trooper, or the brutal beating of Rodney King that set off the Los Angeles riots in 1991 after the officers were acquitted. They are all shocking videos, and they led to various degrees of punishment—or not—for the police involved. But the Walter Scott video is the most overwhelmingly convincing of them all.

While it’s always possible for video to be misleading or confusing, Santana’s isn’t. We don’t have to wonder what’s not in the picture.

First of all, it’s long. It’s true, the video doesn’t show the very beginning, when Slager stops Scott for a broken tail-light and Scott reportedly runs into a nearby grassy field. That’s where Slager used a taser on Scott and claims that the motorist tried to wrestle it from him; the officer told authorities he “feared for his life.”

It’s at that point that Feidin Santana, a young man walking his regular route to his job at a barbershop, began recording the incident on his cell phone. As Scott runs away from him, Slager is seen firing at Scott’s back eight times until he falls to the ground. After cuffing Scott, who is possibly dead at this point, Slager goes back to pick up what appears to be the stun gun and drops it near Scott’s body, as if to frame Scott as a very dangerous man. (The video also appears to show that none of the police who soon arrived administered any life-saving measures.)

Secondly, the video is shot in the middle distance—not so far that people look like blurry dots, nor so close or narrowly framed that vital information is missing. (The too-close classic: footage of people tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after the American invasion. They looked like a passionate, American-welcoming mob—until later footage zoomed out to reveal they were a small group of people who needed help from an American military vehicle to actually take the statue down.)

Santana’s video is choppy and shaky, surely because he was nervous, but also because he was moving with the action. “I witnessed it with my eyes and let the video do the recording,” he said in one of his several MSNBC and NBC interviews. Toward the end of the video, Santana still more bravely walks closer to the officer and Scott’s body. Widely called a hero, Santana said that early on he considered erasing the video because he feared for his life. But after reading the police report that made it seem that Scott was the aggressor, Santana gave the video to the Scott family.

The worst thing about the video is that it surfaced by pure chance. “A gift from god,” the Scott family lawyer, Chris Stewart, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “A person happened to be in the right spot at the right time to see this incident, and be quick enough to pull out that phone and record it. And not only that, that probably happens all the time. Right now somebody is probably filming an incident that if they stepped forward it would help that person, but they’re going to keep driving or keep walking or say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get involved,’ or feel threatened or scared.”

Walter Scott’s younger brother, Anthony, put it best. “I hate that it had to be a video to prove to take it to this level. Because we have fallen brothers all the time, and they just fall for different reasons in different parts of the country, and they’re just not investigated or taken to this level. And I think it should be looked in deeper.” He’s hoping for justice, he said, but “I won’t be satisfied till I hear a guilty verdict.”

Indeed, this video might be Fox-proof but it’s not foolproof. Nor are the increasing number of body cams and dashboard cams used by police departments throughout the country. They can absolutely help—North Charleston has them on order, and if Slager had been using one, it’s reasonable to wager that Scott would still be alive.

Cameras, however, whether wielded by bystanders or police (or with the help of apps that film and upload to YouTube with one push of a button), don’t get to the root of police corruption and systemic racism.

But video is now a matter of life and death, crime and punishment, and all too often it’s the only way that white people and white media will believe what black people have to say.

 

By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, April 10, 2015

April 14, 2015 Posted by | Fox News, Police Violence, Walter Scott | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Expansive ‘Warrior’ Mindset”: Police Shouldn’t Ask If A Shooting Is Justified, But If It’s Avoidable

Every time a police shooting gets national attention, the difference in the conflicting attitudes that civilians and law enforcement have toward the use of force is glaring. That conflict drives much of the tension between police agencies and the communities they serve.

When cops evaluate a use-of-force incident, they ask whether it was justified, focusing on the legal rule set by the Supreme Court in the 1989 case Graham v. Connor. The Court held that officers may use force so long as it is “objectively reasonable.” To determine whether a particular action was objectively reasonable, the Court held, judges must view the situation through the deferential lens of “a reasonable officer on the scene.”

When civilians evaluate a use-of-force incident, they ask whether it was avoidable. They want to know whether the officer could have done something—anything—else.

The tragic shooting of Tamir Rice last November puts the difference between “justified” and “avoidable” in stark contrast. Officers responding to call that there was a “man with a gun” in a park drove to within about ten feet of their suspect. One officer jumped out of the car and, within two seconds, fatally shot the 12-year-old. Was it justified? Probably, if one narrowly considers the officers proximity to an apparently armed man. Was it avoidable? Almost certainly, when one acknowledges that the officers could have—and should have—parked at a safe distance and approached cautiously by using cover, concealment, and communication.

Why do most officers, charged with serving and protecting their communities, persist in asking whether a use of force was justified rather than necessary? I put a great deal of blame on the expansive “warrior mindset” that has become so highly esteemed in the law enforcement community. To protect themselves, to even survive, officers are taught to be ever-vigilant. Enemies abound, and the job of the Warrior is to fight and vanquish those enemies.

That’s not the right attitude for police. Our officers should be, must be, guardians, not warriors. The goal of the Guardian isn’t to defeat an enemy, it is to protect the community to the extent possible, including the community member that is resisting the officer’s attempt to arrest them. For the guardian, the use of avoidable violence is a failure, even if it satisfies the legal standard.

Society invests a tremendous amount of trust and responsibility into our police officers. Policing is a difficult job, not least because of the potential for violence that cannot be predicted or, in many cases, prevented.

But in the long run, it would be safer for everyone if officers saw their role as guarding the community, not defeating enemies.

 

By: Seth Stoughton, Professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law affiliated with the Rule of Law Collaborative. He served as a city police officer and state investigator: Opinion Pages, Room for Debate, The New York Times, April 9, 2015

April 13, 2015 Posted by | Justifiable Homicide, Police Shootings, Police Violence | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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