by James A. Bacon
Before people go into conniptions over the politically incorrect thrust of this column, let me make something Hubble telescope clear: I do not condone police brutality toward African-Americans. When incidents occur like the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore, the death of Eric Garner on the streets of New York, and most horrifyingly the execution-style slaying of Michael Slager in Charleston, S.C., the facts need to be gathered and police need to be held to account. Police are human. Some make tragic mistakes. Some are no better than criminals themselves. Bad cops need to be demoted, fired or go to prison. And, yes, black lives do matter. All lives matter.
Nothing controversial about that. But someone has to tell another side of the story — an aspect of the story that has been, and I don’t use this word lightly, suppressed in the mainstream media. The fact is, the police in many inner-city African-American neighborhoods are not working with a docile, law-abiding population. While a majority of citizens are like those who, after the recent riot in Baltimore, showed up the next day to clean up the mess that the lawbreakers had made, or the feisty woman in yellow who bitch-slapped her 16-year-old son for throwing rocks at police, there is a significant hard-core criminal element that regards the police, especially white policemen, as the enemy. These criminals are armed and dangerous, and any encounter between them and the police has the potential to turn violent. It is not without reason that policemen regard every encounter as a possible life-and-death situation and approach it in a state of hyper-vigilance.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media is making matters worse — far worse. This is a country of 320 million people. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of encounters every day between police and the African-American population. Most are routine. But now that the Black Lives Matter narrative has taken hold, the media play up a tiny handful of encounters that confirm the narrative of omnipresent racism and ignore anything that might confound it. Thus, in recent months the media have magnified three or four incidents, playing them out in the headlines and news reels over weeks, as if they were somehow typical of the interaction between police and African-Americans.
In doing so, the media feeds the sense of grievance among African-Americans and encourages disruptive behavior like the Ferguson riots, the Baltimore riots and the New York shootings of two police officers. Yes, I blame the media for ignoring context, stoking resentments, and worsening the state of race relations in the United States.
Imagine, if you will, that the media were dominated by conservatives. And imagine that conservatives viewed race relations through the prism of black underclass criminality and violence. And imagine that such a media ran front-page headlines and led off national news broadcasts with stories of white policemen dying at the hands of black criminals, day after day… after day. Then, imagine that such coverage was shorn of any context, that evidence of police brutality and injustice were systematically ignored. That would be a right-wing analogue of what we see now.
Let’s throw out a few facts. Last year, 117 police officers died in the line of duty. Forty-eight were shot and 18 killed in “physical-related incidents,” according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Fund. Another 51,625 were victims of assaults, and 14,857 were injured in assaults. States the NLEOF:
Of the 50 firearms related fatalities in 2014, fifteen officers were shot and killed in ambush attacks, more than any other circumstance of fatal shootings in 2014. Nine officers were killed during disturbance calls. Eight officers were shot and killed during a traffic stop or pursuit and seven officers were killed while investigating suspicious persons or circumstances in 2014.
The NLEOF does not break down the number of police killed by African-American perpetrators, but if the percentage of killings is consistent with the number of crimes committed by African-Americans nationally, there would be enough shootings and ambushes for the media to cherry pick and keep one in the news every day of the year. If the media ran reality through a conservative filter instead of a liberal one, instead of discussing police brutality, we would be discussing the crisis of policemen under siege. But the media isn’t conservative. For the most part, reporters and broadcasters define the problem as poverty and racism, so the context of violence against policemen goes missing.
No one tracks the race of the police assailants, but I would hypothesize — that means I will not state it as fact but offer it as a proposition to be tested with real-world evidence — that a disproportionate number of police assailants are African-American. Why would I advance such a conjecture? Because African-Americans, as a result of their long and tortured history in this country, bear an outsized animus toward the police and other authority figures. Perhaps that animus is justified, perhaps it’s not — that’s a side point that does not change the reality that the animus exists and people act upon it.
An anti-police animus is integral to the sub-culture of gangsta rap, which embraces the term of “Nigga” as an assertive form of self-identification, revels in a hyper-masculine ideal of machismo, debases women as “hoes,” glorifies violence and the gun culture, voices continual defiance against white authority and specifically labels the police as the enemy. (View the YouTube compilation above of gangsta rap songs circulating this February; note the prevalence of guns in the videos and the aggressive, in-your-face style of the rappers.) Latinos have their own narco rap, but there is nothing comparable in the white underclass.
The reality of what’s happening in America’s inner cities is much more complex than the racism-and-poverty model. Insofar as people think of police as an occupying force, they will treat police as an occupying force. They will tend to respond more belligerently to police actions. In turn, police will respond in kind. While they may know that not all young black males are armed and hostile, they cannot know ahead of time who is and who isn’t. Not wanting to become one of those Officers Fund statistics, they will tend to treat every encounter as potentially dangerous, frequently responding more aggressively than they should. I do not say that to condone excessive force but to explain it in the context of a mutually reinforcing pattern of behavior between police and the criminal element.
Perhaps this interpretation puts the onus on police to emphasize community police, building bonds of trust in the inner city. Perhaps it means the police should halt tactics, such as stop-and-frisk, that feed the gangsta-rap narrative of police as occupiers. But this interpretation also undercuts the narrative of African-American hoodlums as victims in which every fatal encounter is presumed to be a reflection of racism. Only if we recognize the complexity of the forces of work can we ever hope to have an honest dialogue about race in America. A media fails to convey this complexity fails at the most elemental level to do its job.
Update: The original version of this post contained lyrics from a rap song. I have been informed that the lyrics were a parody. Accordingly, I have deleted the quote.There are currently no comments highlighted.