I am currently reading a fascinating but disturbing book titled Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende. It is a historical novel set in Haiti during the 1700s. In one scene, a white plantation owner and a white physician have a debate on whether black slaves are less human than whites. When asked her opinion on the matter by her master, the slave girl replies, “A being who is not human has no opinions.”
This haunting exchange encapsulates the ugly mindset that made the cruel practice of slavery possible. And it seems to be the attitude that compels white police officers to use lethal force in order to subdue a black suspect.
How else to explain the recent deaths of three different black males – Michael Brown of Ferguson, a 12-year-old boy with a fake gun, and Eric Garner, whose death from a police chokehold was caught on videotape. In each case, the suspect was unarmed. In each case, witnesses reported that the suspect raised his arms in surrender (although this has been disputed by other witnesses in the Brown case). There seemed to be a visceral reaction on the part of the white officers when confronted with a black male.
I realize that police officers put their lives on the line to protect the public. But it is still their duty to act with restraint. Even if Officer Wilson felt threatened by Brown, he could have done other things – called for backup before approaching him, for instance. At the very least, he could have shot to wound and not to kill. In the case of the 12-year-old, the officer shot him within seconds of confronting him. There was no apparent attempt at dialogue or trying to get the boy to relinquish his weapon, which was later found to be a look alike gun. Finally, in Garner’s case, he was barely resisting arrest. Why attack him with a chokehold?
In the aftermath of the Ferguson incident, and again when the grand jury declined to indict Officer Wilson, some of the public reaction revealed the ugly racism that still lurks in the hearts of so many. For example, someone posted a photo of a pair of work boots with the quip, “Don’t worry about these getting stolen,” implying that the mostly black residents are lazy and shiftless, an enduring stereotype from an era when whites thought it was okay to own, use, and abuse human beings because they were black.
There needs to be a sea change in the way law enforcement officials approach potential suspects. Clearly, having officers wear cameras to record their encounters is insufficient since in the Eric Garner case, the videotaped incident failed to yield an indictment by the grand jury – this despite the fact that the medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide by chokehold.
It is normal to harbor prejudices, and anyone who says they don’t is not being entirely truthful. But police officers, who are authorized to use deadly force, need to be more circumspect in checking those prejudices against the reality of the situation.
To paraphrase a Biblical quote, for those to whom much is given, much is expected. This should certainly apply to our men and women in uniform.