Lynching in the 21st-century: or, black lives matter

Posted on December 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

One of the cornerstones of a history education is civics. If we don’t understand how our government is supposed to work, and why it is structured the way it is, we cannot participate properly in our own government, and we can’t hold the people in positions of political authority accountable for their actions. We can’t define what justice is. We have no recourse when confronted with a crime against our proper form of government but to run into the streets as mobs, in brief and ultimately futile demonstrations that accomplish no long-term reform. So here’s our civics lesson for 2014 and beyond.

In the United States, the police are bound by the same laws they enforce. They are not above the law. They don’t have a separate code of law from non-police officers. They are government employees (at the federal, state, or local level) bound to obey the law just like other government employees. A police officer has no special waiver to break the law in dangerous circumstances; the police can use their judgment to decide whether force is needed to prevent a criminal from killing someone, but they are bound to use only so much force as is necessary to defuse the danger and take the suspect into custody alive.

Clearly, we haven’t been seeing this in the U.S. over the past few years. At the same time, it’s not a new problem. The police generally uphold the values of the majority in any country. In the U.S., the police have traditionally been white men (and this still holds true today), and they have generally upheld racial and sexual discrimination. They’re not the only ones, of course; the same can be said of Congress and most state and local governments. When we look back at U.S. history, we see that government officials and the police have often worked together to thwart the principles of our nation’s founding, and to pervert our democratic government. But one would have thought that since 1970, say, and a full century of civil rights progress and seemingly increasing enlightenment about race, sex, and sexuality, this would not be happening so openly and baldly today, in 2014. A leader of the New York police department on the radio this morning promised in-depth training and education for officers, basically to help them not respond to every encounter with a black man with deadly force. This made us wonder why, at this late date, and after so many decades upon decades of civil rights activism and education in this country, this “training” begins only now.

You have to take the long view on any current problem. When we do that here, we see that the police assaults on black men are just part of a larger problem that is not fully encompassed even by race. The real problem being expressed in these incidents is the militarization of our police and our culture. Somehow, in the last 30 years, guns have been made the hallmark of American freedom. Everyone must have one everywhere, despite their criminal record or mental stability. One of the outcomes of this is the regular school shootings we endure each year. Another is attacks on the police. For years now, we’ve heard about police being called to a domestic dispute and being shot instantly, either as part of a general shootout or as the end result of a deliberate trap. Police have been shot by people they pull over for speeding. In many states, people can carry guns around everywhere, at all times; this makes any interaction with them by the police potentially fatal for the officer.

The logical reaction to this by the police has been to up the ante: when you expect to be shot, the only way to defend yourself is to make sure you shoot first. It’s not surprising that police officers have begun to expect that every encounter they have could be fatal. And it doesn’t seem likely that any “training and education” will prevent further deaths when Americans continue to carry guns at all times—the police will still believe that the only outcome of every encounter is gunfire, from both sides. Add race to this, in the form of a black suspect, and death is almost a given. Even when it is clear the black suspect does not have a gun, extreme force is used to subdue him before he somehow injures the officer. Eric Garner was not shot like Michael Brown, but he was immediately put into a choke hold—an extreme action.

Darren Wilson’s perception of Brown as looking like “a demon” was not only an admission of his fear of being killed by a suspect, it was a shocking admission of racism that was so very like descriptions of black men during and after slavery in this country that we were left aghast. Describing black men as big, hulking, animal-like, amoral, dumb, demonic, and savage was boilerplate for two centuries in this country. Black men had to be “demonized” to justify slavery and then post-slavery oppression and… lynching.

Lynching has to come to mind here. We seem to have entered a new age of lynching in this country. Lynching is characterized not just by a violent death (by hanging, mutilation, torture, burning, etc.), but by one or two men making a lightning-fast decision about someone’s guilt and immediately acting on that decision to kill them. Originally, lynching in the West was done by whites to whites. No one described lynching more decisively and unflinchingly than Ida B. Wells, so let’s let her describe it here (from Lynch Law in America, published in 1900):

Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. The “unwritten law” first found excuse with the rough, rugged, and determined men who left the civilized centers of eastern States to seek for quick returns in the gold-fields of the far West. Following in uncertain pursuit of continually eluding fortune, they dared the savagery of the Indians, the hardships of mountain travel, and the constant terror of border State outlaws. Naturally, they felt slight toleration for traitors in their own ranks. It was enough to fight the enemies from without; woe to the foe within! Far removed from and entirely without protection of the courts of civilized life, these fortune-seekers made laws to meet their varying emergencies. The thief who stole a horse, the bully who “jumped” a claim, was a common enemy. If caught he was promptly tried, and if found guilty was hanged to the tree under which the court convened.

The key here is the speed of the judgment. If someone was caught committing a crime, large or small, or even suspected of it, he was immediately found guilty and killed. It could be done in 10 minutes. There’s no trial (later there would be nauseating show trials with a pre-determined guilty verdict), no testimony beyond “He stole that from me”, no chance for the accused to protest or prove himself innocent. Lynching is about pre-determined guilt, but it’s also about leaping over the lengthy process of criminal justice and fair trials to the instant gratification of death to the criminal.

That’s what is shocking about every instance of police brutality or deadly force. Instead of doing all he can to bring a suspect into custody where he can be tried, the officer makes a split-second decision about how much danger he himself is in from the suspect, and acts on it immediately. Afterward, this decision is validated by a claim that the suspect was resisting arrest. This is a claim so old and so reeking of our nation’s long history of injustice to minorities of all kinds that it’s difficult to hear it spoken today. Police officers are trained to overcome suspects resisting arrest in many ways; deadly force is supposed to be a last resort. But in our militarized and violent culture, it is the first and only resort for too many police officers.

We had already thought about this as a new kind of lynching when we realized that the head of the NYC police union is named Patrick Lynch. Here is his commentary on the Garner death as reported by NBC News:

“We feel badly that there was a loss of life,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But unfortunately Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest.”

—Don’t most suspects “make a choice” to resist arrest? Does anyone go quietly? We would wager that most suspects resist arrest, but only the large, black ones are put in choke holds. Does any police officer expect that no one he confronts will ever resist arrest? Aren’t the police trained in how to deal with someone resisting arrest without killing them?

He praised the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, as a good man, a mature policeman and an Eagle Scout who “went out and did a difficult job, a job where there’s no script, and sometimes with that there’s tragedy that comes.”

—But there is a script: it’s called police procedure. It’s police training. Is Lynch really saying that police officers have no idea what to do when someone resists arrest other than to use deadly force? The Eagle Scout reference we will pass by in disbelief.

“It’s also a tragedy for this police officer who has to live with that death,” Lynch said.

—It doesn’t seem like it should be a tragedy if, as Lynch maintains, no real harm was done. Someone resisting arrest got what they deserved. The warped idea that it is really the police officer, not Garner’s family, who suffers most is all too common in these statements.

He also praised New York police for their handling of protests on Wednesday night, when thousands who objected to the decision took to the streets. Lynch lashed out at Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said on Wednesday that the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges was “one that many in our city did not want.”

He suggested that the mayor was teaching children to fear police officers, and he said the lesson instead should be to comply with police officers, even if they feel an arrest is unjust.

—It is only possible to comply with police officers if their treatment of you as a suspect is constitutional and legal. If not, you are under no such obligation.

“You cannot resist arrest,” Lynch said. “Because resisting arrest leads to confrontation. Confrontation leads to tragedy.”

—Americans have the right to resist arrest. The police are obligated to take people who resist arrest into custody without killing them. Resisting arrest does lead to confrontation—but the idea that confrontation must lead to tragedy is so outrageous. Are we really to accept that if we resist arrest we will be killed? Shot, choked, tased, however it happens? Any act of defiance will be met with death? This sounds more like the totalitarian states the U.S. is constantly battling around the world than our own country.

We cannot allow our police force to become perverted. We cannot become a police state, where police officers have the right to kill if, in their own, split-second judgment, they are personally endangered. The first duty of a police officer cannot be to protect himself. We can’t have local city police suddenly driving around in armored vehicles, basically tanks, because they fear for their lives. We can’t accept this as the new normal. It takes bravery and a strong commitment to justice to be a good police officer. We need more people with those qualities to take on that job.

We also need to reform our society and put an end to our obsession with “protecting ourselves” with guns. For as long as a police officer has good reason to suspect that the people he encounters are armed, we will have nothing but escalating police violence.

And finally, we cannot opt out of our government system. We can’t eviscerate our government as unjust and wash our hands of it, deciding to riot or protest and then do nothing. We can’t change anything unless the people who are outraged by injustice do the long, hard work of changing the system. We can’t have people making the split-second decision that the police are corrupt, there’s nothing we can do about it, and we are thus free to hate and defy the police. That will not change anything. Everyone has to participate in our democracy to keep it working. Anger and outrage should fuel hard work, not self-righteous inactivity. It’s hard work to be free.

We’ve said many times here at the HP that every generation has to accept and commit to our nation’s founding principles of justice. Learn what those principles are, commit to them, and uphold them in your daily life to the greatest extent that you can, and never back down from them. It’s the only way to prevent lynching.


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