The recent attempted assassination of two police officers in Ferguson has brought out the usual collection of media gadflies producing the normal, disappointing chatter we’ve come to expect. Perhaps the Worst in Show winner for this round of the competition was found in the unbelievable response from the New York Times over the shooting. (Which was ably torn apart by Heather MacDonald.) In case you missed it, the Gray Lady essentially used the incident as an excuse to bemoan how the attack might set back the progress of the protesters. (Those of you following along on Twitter are invited to use the #HeadDesk hashtag at this point without penalty.)
Heather had a longer piece at the New York Post where she discusses how the “Hand Up Don’t Shoot” theme has clearly been put to bed, but the “Black Lives Matter” marches will no doubt continue unabated. These are observations which those who are concerned with growing anti-cop bias and hatred will find familiar and yet alarming. But seeing this tragedy play out in the press, it seemed worth wondering if I was missing something. While pondering all of this I was directed to a piece by conservative radio host Michael Graham who is obviously approaching the line from the other end of the field. He asks the question, What is the Right Getting Wrong About Black Lives Matter?
There’s a lot to unpack in Michael’s essay, but a few points in particular deserve attention. He begins by positing a hypothetical black citizen who is not particularly active in politics, doesn’t follow the news all that much, but takes notice of this story line.
You see a news story about an unarmed guy getting shot by a cop. The guy is black and the cop is white. Part of you says “I wonder if this is racist” but part says “Hey, I’m no dummy—there’s a crime problem in my community. I’m going to keep an open mind.”
A few weeks later there’s another shooting with the same elements: Unarmed black guy, white cop. Within five days, there are THREE such cases, part of a string of these stories. In Atlanta, a police officer kills a black, unarmed, naked Air Force veteran. Unarmed…and NAKED? Where did the cop think he was hiding a weapon?
Once again, you’re an American and you get that cops have a tough job and that the black crime rate is a problem. But c’mob—even Martin Luther King, Jr would be struggling to show a charitable spirit at this point. It looks to you like there’s at least evidence—some would say overwhelming evidence–of a problem with the way your fellow black men are treated by police.
But being an open-minded, “consider-all-sides” sort, you decide to check out conservative, Republican media for their take on the story: Talk radio, Fox News, the blogs. And here is what you find:
THE COPS DID NOTHING WRONG! THE PROBLEM IS BLACK PEOPLE COMMITTING CRIME!! EVERY ONE OF THESE DEAD PEOPLE GOT WHAT THEY DESERVED!
First of all, I’m not sure how many of the people who are actually marching in the streets or even considering the implications of the various Cop Kills Black Guy stories are all that politically agnostic or uninvolved. But leaving that aside, I would give a nod to the optics of these stories when being read by minority voters, while still taking issue with the conclusion of the above section. Note the three sentences in ALL CAPS with the generous sprinkling of exclamation points. The first two are arguably what some sympathetic observers will read into the coverage as portrayed in most of the media, but the generalizations step over the line.
I rarely see a case where anyone is being callous enough to imply that a shooting is a perfect outcome. And I can assure you that you won’t find a cop on the streets today who hopes for that outcome. But even when it could have ended much better for all concerned, yes, it is proper to say that a police officer being tried in the pages of the New York Times DID NOTHING WRONG if the suspect put them in a situation where their other options looked worse in the heat of the moment. And if someone is offended by the idea that a police shooting was somehow precipitated by somebody – of any color – committing a crime, then your outrage is going to be met with some cynical looks in many quarters. These things don’t apply to all of the cases in the news, of course. Some are just tragic, such as when a child is playing with a toy gun or a mentally disturbed person runs afoul of the law when it could have been avoided if someone had been caring from them properly. But a lot of these cases do begin with a crime at some level or another.
As to the last ALL CAPS statement, I don’t recall hearing even the most vocal of serious conservative commentators screaming that they “deserved” it with all the implications that carries. What I do see is people – including yours truly – saying that if you bum rush a cop, try to take away his gun, threaten him with a weapon or engage in any of several other types of mayhem in a tense situation with armed law enforcement officers, bad things are going to happen. The difference may seem subtle, but there’s some cold, hard truth underlying the statement.
The second observation Michael makes which deserves a look is this:
I happen to think there’s a real problem with law enforcement in America. From the militarization of police forces to unnecessary (and sometimes deadly) no-knock raids to the use of cops as revenue creators for court systems. I also believe that black males get treated by cops in ways that none of my fellow Tea Partiers would put up with for a minute.
While I disagree with the rather overused trope about the “militarization of police” in an era when they increasingly need near military level equipment and tactics to deal with crime, that’s not to say that there isn’t always room for improvement. Better training in a number of areas could help with problematic police / citizen relationships across the nation and it would be foolish to ignore such opportunities. But at the same time, addressing Michael’s nod to the perceived disparity of treatment between whites and minorities, the attention of the police is drawn to where the crime is happening. Crime undeniably happens with greater frequency in areas of lower income, higher drug / alcohol use and all the other symptoms of decay and despair. And whether we like to admit it or not, these are frequently (though absolutely not entirely) the conditions found in low income communities of color.
Having spent what was likely too long on those aspects of the discussion, I need to move on to the meat of the matter. Michael concludes with this:
At best, it sounds like conservatives could care less how many black people die at the hands of cops. At the worst, it sounds like conservatives are cheering the cops on.
Even if you honestly believe that the police should always be trusted and that they never misbehave (an astonishingly non-conservative attitude, by the way), surely you can see why black citizens of good will would have legitimate concerns. And surely you can see how callous many conservatives must sound as they offer their rabid, foamy-mouthed defense of the police and/or attacks on the protesters. Can’t you?
Why can’t—let me re-phrase that—why WOULDN’T small-government conservatives be leading the movement to discuss law enforcement reform? Why wouldn’t we be at least as full-throated in our criticism of bad cops as we are in our cheers for the many good ones?
If I were a black American listening objectively observing my conservative neighbors, i’d assume that they don’t give a damn about me.
There are two issues being raised in those paragraphs, and I strongly object to the implication that the two are mutually exclusive or should in any way be connected while debating this subject. First, conservative support for a strong system of law enforcement and maintenance of the rule of law in a civilized society does not preclude criticism of the government if and when such agencies go astray. It is further not at all unnatural for small government conservative observers to want to give the benefit of the doubt – at least initially – to law enforcement in some of these more controversial encounters until all the facts are known. The basic reason for this is the obvious evidence supporting such an assumption. How many tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of police officers are there in the country? And how many of them never wind up in situations such as those under discussion in Michael’s column? The numbers are on the side of the good guys.
But the final question being put forward here is whether or not we’re doing something wrong and why minority observers shouldn’t be dismayed and distrustful of the conservative response as presented. I would submit the missing piece of the puzzle which Michael doesn’t touch on at all in his essay: the media. Yes, I know you’re tired of hearing about this, but that’s why I began this column with the reference to the New York Times “analysis” of the recent police shootings. This is not an outlier in the media marketplace. It is the norm, and it is feeding the ongoing narrative that conservatives don’t care, that they must hate black people and that the police are evil. It shows up in print, online and on cable news Every Single Day. It’s a lot to battle and I freely admit we’re losing that fight, largely owing to a lack of media ammunition to counter it. When these biased descriptions are fed to the public – particularly minority viewers – day in and day out, that’s a tough argument to win. But when commentators on the Right start accepting those narrative journalism attacks and asking things like, are conservatives doing it wrong?
Well… the battle is pretty much lost at that point.