Practically every day lately we hear of another black man killed by police, another video disproving police claims, another city in uproar, another call for calm and peaceful protest while the power structure gets to the bottom of another tragic incident.
Again and again and again and again. This is America the Exceptional. And indeed, no other developed country has the American level of police violence and murder, nor does any other country have the American level of incarceration. These are two signs among many that the vaunted American Way isn't working all that well.
There was another police killing in Pasadena yesterday. A black man in crisis had himself called 911 for help. Right there, of course, was a mistake. By now it should be clear to nearly every one that calling 911 for help with a black loved one or one's black self is calling for an almost automatic death sentence. They'll be helped all right, right into the morgue.
That's the American Way, and if people haven't figured that out yet, I wonder what they have been paying attention to instead. These incidents are not aberrations. They're routine.
No, not every person in crisis winds up dead. But a black man acting erratically is liable to.
I watched the video that El Cajon police released yesterday of the execution of Alfred Olango, and very little but the broadest outline of what happened was visible in what was shown initially.
Contrary to one news report of what the videos show, Mr. Olango is not in the street, he is in a parking lot off of one of the main streets. He is pacing and is being followed by a police officer. It's not clear whether the officer has his gun drawn. His left hand is down at his side and his right had is gesticulating.
Mr. Olango appears to have one hand in his pocket, but again that's not clear from the washed out and indistinct video that was released (a video of the broadcast of the video that was projected on a screen.) As the officer approaches closer and closer to Mr. Olango, they mirror one another's actions. They step right, they step left, and the officer gets closer and closer. Another police car drives up from the side. When the first officer is perhaps four feet from Mr. Olango, the second officer gets out of his car and approaches. In the initial video release, one cannot see Mr. Olango raise his arms and assume a "shooting stance." In fact, the still that was previously released by the police that shows him in that stance might have shown something that lasted only one frame -- in which case, it would not have registered on the consciousness of the officers.
At any rate, in one of the released videos, Mr. Olango falls to the ground. In the other -- the one from which the still is allegedly taken -- four shots are heard, Olango falls to the ground and a woman screams.
In both videos, a woman who I assume is the same one who said she was Mr. Olango's sister and who had called three times for help is seen at the left, following the officer with the gun, getting quite close in fact, and after the shooting she is seen running away. I assume she is the one who is heard screaming on the cell-phone video, but there are reports that it was actually the woman who took the cell-phone video who did so.
At any rate, later clearer and more contrasty versions were published, and it appears that the first officer does have his gun drawn in his left hand during the whole -- very brief, mind you -- encounter. Mr. Olango is backing away from him the whole time. At no time is he seen to make any threatening motion toward the officer. When the second officer arrives, he seems to be momentarily disoriented, but the "shooting stance" visible in the still frame the police released is not visible in either of the videos that were released. If it happened at all -- and I'm assuming it did -- it was extremely quick, and I would argue it was not intentional.
See for yourownself:
Why is this important? Police have been justifying the latest rash of street executions on the threat (quote-unquote) posed by the crazy or otherwise disobedient black victim. But as we see in video after video, the threat is largely or completely imaginary. The black man may be disobedient, and he may actually have some kind of weapon in his hand -- or maybe not -- but at no time (repeat) at no time does the victim pose an actual threat to the officer. According to convention and law, however, that doesn't matter. All that matters is that the officer perceives a threat. As those of us who have been following these matters learned long ago, that perception is almost a given whenever an officer is in confrontation with a crazy, disobedient black man -- or in some tragic cases, in confrontation with any black man at all.
In other words, according to some police conventions, any black male is a potential existential threat, and must be regarded as a threat until and unless proven otherwise. In some cases, there is literally nothing that a black man can do to disprove the threat he represents in the eyes of the police: comply or don't comply, it doesn't matter. Be armed or unarmed, it doesn't matter. Be polite or hostile, it doesn't matter. Sometimes the police don't even give a black male the opportunity to respond before firing away. By now, there is no mystery or surprise about these things. It's obvious as sin. Police see an existential threat to their own lives and the safety of others when they see a black male. (To go Godwin for a moment, this was much the same situation in Nazi Germany when Jews and other despised minorities were encountered by police; sometimes they would be killed on the spot, and it was always because of fear for lives and safety. The very presence of a Jew or other despised minority could trigger the killer-cop to act violently or lethally. And this was happening well before the Final Solution was implemented. Much the same happens in Israel and Occupied Palestine today whenever Israeli police or military are in confrontation with Arabs or Palestinians. Summary execution is routine -- and the excuse is that the Arab or Palestinian male (especially) is inherently an existential threat.)
These actions may or may not be due the inherent racism of the individual officer, but it is certainly an induced racism that comes from intense training and conditioning. (Black officers suffer from the same training and conditioning, and they can kill black victims just as easily and with almost as little empathy or compassion for their victims as white or Hispanic officers will.)
Of course these killings have been going on in this country forever, and from time to time execution squads have been organized to go around assassinating particularly troublesome black men. It's part of the hidden history of the USofA. Let's not forget the lynching era, either.
Some of the black people I correspond with see the current spate of police killings as an evolution if you will of lynch law. Nowadays police take it upon themselves to execute blacks rather than await the mob. But the rationale is essentially the same as if a mob had done it.
There are two important factors: it doesn't matter if the victim is guilty or innocent of a crime (as that's never adjudicated); and the victims are essentially randomly and arbitrarily chosen though the rate of killing is fairly constant. To be clear, black victims are not the only victims of this New Lynch Law, but they are victims far out of proportion to their population percentage as was true back in the day as well.
A common thread found in the recent spate of street executions is mental illness, disability, or psychological/emotional crisis of some sort. In each case, disobedience is a trigger factor for the ultimate execution, but it's not the only factor. Being black and male is just as strong a trigger factor if not stronger.
It's as if police believe it is their "job" to execute crazy Negroes on sight. Well, maybe it is.
Here's the thing. Police officers are not operating independently in a vacuum. They are part of a system and culture of policing that takes orders from commanders (police chiefs, sheriffs, etc.) who in turn are taking cues and orders from... whom?
I find I have to make this point over and over again because so many people either don't understand how police departments operate or they are being deliberately obtuse. Police departments, like the military, are hierarchies. Officers receive orders from their supervisors who in turn receive orders from their commanders. Officers must then carry out their orders. If they carry them out they are rewarded. If they don't they are disciplined. In some cases, they will be dismissed. That's a very simple outline, but that's how it works. Officers on the street are not independent (ie: "rogue") agents, at least not usually. The "bad apple" argument depends on these "rogues" running wild, but that's not how police departments operate.
No, they have chains of authority, orders, and a cultural/historical perspective. Many people have pointed out that modern police forces are in many cases (all?) descended from slave catchers and semi-private militias sent out to bring "Law'n'Order" to the frontier and keep the Negroes (and Indians and Mexicans and Asians) in their place.
Organizationally, police forces are semi-military -- like the militias of yore -- but they are highly bureaucratized, too. In a sense, like public education, they're being administered to death. In other words, the seeds of their own institutional collapse have long been planted.
The recent killing spree is not really new; what's new is the sight of all these killings via video -- some of it from the police cameras, some of it from citizens, some of it from pervasive surveillance cameras. People may or may not have known it was going on before the advent of universal cameras, but in fact there has never been peace between civilians who are designated "Others" and police.
Despite the frequency of police killings -- average three a day -- statistically, there are far fewer now than in eras past, just as far fewer police are killed by civilians than in the past. We are actually living in a relatively bloodless period, though it doesn't seem like it. Because we didn't see so many police killings on our teevees back in the day, it didn't seem like there were so many, but there were.
Police killings are almost always justified by two things: fear, and the actions (or failures to act) of the victims.
"Comply or Die" is not just a catchphrase, it is the operational theory of much of modern policing. In other words, in confrontation with police, the civilian has no rights which officers are bound to respect. Obedience and compliance are the only acceptable responses to police command, and often they are not enough. Swift and sure punishment can be applied at the discretion of the officer whether or not the civilian complies and obeys. This punishment can include the use of lethal force but it doesn't have to. Whereas 1,200 or so are killed by police every year, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands are injured, sometimes gravely, by police in the performance of their duties. They are not counted yet, so we really have no way of knowing how frequently people are injured as opposed to killed by police.
Understanding how police departments operate and knowing the principles by which they operate is part of the key to changing them for the better.
Proviso: some police departments are not reformable (Chicago comes to mind but there are many more just as bad or worse) and should be abolished.
Reform has been implemented in some cities with remarkable reductions in the number and rate of police killings. In fact, over a period of two or three years, the number of police killings in New York City was reduced 90%. In other cities, the number has been reduced by half or more in a very brief period, largely by changing the rules of engagement and use of force, and by a key factor: issuing the command from the top to STOP THE KILLING.
Strangely, or maybe not, officers obey.
I use Albuquerque as an example because that's the city I'm closest to and that's the one I've been most recently involved in activism against police violence. At one time, the kill-rate of APD was proportionately the highest in the nation. Albuquerque police were killing as many as two a month, which doesn't seem like a lot, but given the half-million or so population, it was huge. Many, too many, of these killings were simply outrageous. Mentally ill and suicidal individuals were being shot and killed routinely. People who were not armed, not threatening, who were running away or surrendering, you name it, they were being shot by police and killed over and over. Sometimes they were caught on tape, but even when they weren't the reports were horrifying. The Deputy County Manager's son was killed by police. A Valencia County judge's daughter was killed by police. A suicidal man who was not threatening anyone but himself was shot by a police sniper. A homeless schizophrenic surrendering to police was shot and killed. On and on and on, the bodies kept piling up. Albuquerque was getting a reputation for police wilding second to none in the nation.
Activism against this police violence had been going on for years, but nothing seemed to affect police conduct, not even the tens of millions of dollars the city was paying out to survivors of loved ones killed by police. And then... it changed. Practically overnight, the killing stopped.
A number of factors went into it, of course, including a scathing report of "unconstitutional policing" from the DoJ, but key was the order going out to STOP THE KILLING. (Another factor may have been the incident in which a police supervisor shot up one of his undercover officers in drug sting gone bad, but we'll never really know...)
For almost a year, APD killed no one, and ever since, the rate of killing by APD has been very low. Three, maybe four a year, compared to dozens in the past. You wouldn't know this though because there has been no coverage by the media -- not even locally -- of the change in the kill rates by APD, nor has there been any investigation into why. For the record, there have been three killings by APD so far this year.
It's as if blinders went on as soon as the killing (almost) stopped.
But other cities, such as Las Vegas and Oakland, also experienced steep reductions in police killings when the order went out to Stop. And their reductions have received at least a little bit of coverage in the media.
The point is that police killings don't have to happen. The killing is a choice made by departments, not an immutable fact of life and death or "split second decisions." It's always a choice, and in my view, based on my study of hundreds of killings by police and the experience of cities where police killings have been reduced significantly, 90% or more of police killings are simply unnecessary -- regardless of whether they are ruled "justified."
And in the cities where police killings have been reduced, it doesn't take years of "dialogue" and "conversation" -- it can happen almost overnight if the order goes out from the top to STOP.
I think we're almost at the tipping point where police departments have to stop. They simply can't keep killing like this and preserve any legitimacy with the growingly restive public. The recent spate of killings has been gawd-awful, and the efforts by police departments to hide the evidence, to lie and spin these killings in their own favor, to taint the investigations and sway the public by selective release of snippets of information and evidence, and particularly to blame the victims, just isn't working any more. The lies, the false narratives, the withholding of video evidence, the refusal to be open and transparent with the public, the arrogance, all lead the public to delegitimize the police, and once that happens it's all but impossible to restore confidence in an institution that is seen as an enemy of the people.
I have hope, I always have hope, that this situation will change for the better, sooner rather than later, but I've been an activist against police violence for decades. It's seemingly never-ending.
But change can come, and I'm not about to give up...
For the record: When Yelling Commands is the Wrong Police Response