Once again, another minority suspect is dead and portions of another American city have burned. These would seem like important issues. Yet when I checked my usual news sources the day after, what is it do I find that that our leaders and media executives want me to think about? Answer: The “issue” of whether it’s appropriate to call people who riot, loot and burn “thugs.”
This word has become, I am assured, the new “n” word. The Rev. Jamal Bryant told CNN, “These are not thugs, these are upset and frustrated children.”
No, Rev. Bryant. They are thugs. It’s incumbent upon society to stop them, get them off the street and then hold them appropriately accountable—not to make excuses for them, and certainly not worry about their hurt feelings. We have a right for our leaders to support us in this. But what do we get? Baltimore’s mayor, who should be worrying about protecting her city from criminals, found herself spending part of her day apologizing to them for having insulted them. Yes, we have now arrived in a world where citizens are expected to show proper deference to the delicate sensitivities of those who destroy their homes and businesses. It is a topsy-turvy world.
Let me be clear: The peaceful protesters are not thugs—and vice versa. After the first skirmishes, many black voices in the community were urging the media and residents not to refer to rioters, looters and arsonists as protesters. They understood the difference between the two groups, and they were right to point it out. Protesters call for change. Thugs call for mindless destruction—and among the things they destroy, or at very least undermine, is the cause for which the protesters are fighting.
And let’s be clear about something else: the protesters’ cause is just. Increasingly, law enforcement is going off the rails. When a suspect dies at the hands of police for no good reason, that is one symptom of the dysfunction. When a person on the street is treated unfairly because of race or socioeconomic status, that’s another. But the largest failure of all comes in cases like Baltimore and Ferguson, where police were rendered impotent by their own actions, and were left to do nothing more than stand there with their fingers up their noses and watch as the thugs came out and wreaked mass havoc, as the thugs always do in the face of weak or nonexistent law enforcement. It doesn’t take a racial incident for that to happen. Thugs will play any time police are away or neutralized. They’ll do it in a power failure. They’ll do it after a storm. And I’m sure if there were to be a Zombie Apocalypse, they’d do it then, too—no excuse or “provocation” needed.
How did we come to this? In Ferguson the explanation became that police and the city administration were disconnected and distrusted because those in authority were mostly white, while those being policed were mostly black. It’s been interesting to watch liberal columnists in particular try to reconcile that narrative with the reality in Baltimore, where the racial makeup among those in authority is very different. Another popular Ferguson narrative was that the police were responsible for the rioting because they showed up in riot gear. In Baltimore the police didn’t show up, period. The city burned anyway.
Yet it’s impossible to believe there is no common denominator here. What is it? One issue that got very little attention in Ferguson provides a clue, and it’s this: Why was officer Darren Wilson not armed with a taser? Tasers do not work in all situations and one may or may not have prevented his encounter with Michael Brown from turning fatal. But why did Wilson not have that option available? He told the grand jury that he found stun guns to be large and uncomfortable. So the decision about whether some future encounter with a citizen might take a life turned on a point of Wilson’s personal convenience. Did his superiors or anyone else along the line stop to consider the implications of that casual rejection of this
non-lethal option? Doesn’t this say something about the way police in that department view those they encounter on the street?
I submit that it does. And really, it should be no surprise. Not too long ago it was considered perfectly okay for police to shoot and kill unarmed fleeing suspects. The thought was, if you don’t want to be dead, don’t run from cops, and society largely was fine with that until a Supreme Court ruling ended the practice. That happened just thirty years ago.
As a TV news director, in 2007 I got a forceful reminder of the approach some (most definitely, not all or even most) law enforcement officers take toward the safety of certain members of the public, and how those in authority close ranks to support them when a suspect turns up dead. Collier County, Florida deputies learned that a known gang banger named Muszack Nazaire might be driving without a license, and tried to stop him. Within minutes Nazaire was deceased. Deputies explained that officers had tasered Nazaire during an on-shore struggle after the fleeing suspect had emerged from a drainage canal. After that, they clammed up, slapping a lid of secrecy down on the autopsy results and fighting my station’s public records requests for months.
And here is why: The initial statement that Nazaire had died on shore was false. A deputy had tasered him while the man was several feet offshore swimming. The autopsy report that officials had kept buried for as long as they could showed that Nazaire had then drowned. The sheriff admitted that investigators withheld the autopsy in part to shop it around for a second opinion, hoping someone would say Nazaire died of excited delirium due to cocaine in his system. And indeed, he sort of got his wish: Although the official report did state that Nazaire drowned to due having been incapacitated by an electrical current, it also managed to blame cocaine intoxication and chronic asthma.
I personally feel that having your lungs full of water at the same time you’ve been paralyzed by an electric jolt sort of trumps those other considerations, but that’s just me. In any case, the state attorney declined to prosecute the deputy. Why? In their official release prosecutors wrote that deputy had not intended to kill Nazaire, and had been trained to believe that the use of a taser even in wet conditions was perfectly safe.
Even if true, think about this for a second. What typically happens when someone gets tasered? The shock fells the target like a mighty oak. What did this deputy think would happen to a man who was swimming? Was there any thought that he would not flop face-forward into the water, unable to hold himself up or even hold his breath? The prosecutor’s report was silent on that point.
But law enforcement’s level of regard for the safety of suspects in cases like this is the point. It actually would be comforting to be able to say that the deputy deliberately killed the suspect, as appears to have happened recently in North Charleston. You hustle the bad cop off stage, prosecute him, and be done with him. Problem solved. But systemic cultural indifference within cop shops to the fate of those under arrest is much harder to attack and much harder to root out. It is difficult to examine the facts in the Nazaire case, the Freddy Gray case, and yes, even the Michael Brown case, and believe similar forces were not at work.
Sorry, but “we didn’t mean to kill him” is just not good enough as a standard for police conduct. Not by a long shot. Eradicating such attitudes and replacing them with tactics that work better for our society, while preserving officer safety, is the issue on which we should be focusing our efforts and our discussion. And while we’re at it, we should be re-examining who we’re putting in jail, under what circumstances and for what reasons, to make sure what we’re doing is just and serves the public interest. What a great opportunity for our elected and community officials to step forward, show some leadership, and help move us forward.
Or they could just point at something moving off screen and yell, “Squirrel!”
Forrest Carr is a former TV news director and radio talk show host who now lives in Tucson, where he writes The Bashful Bloviator blog and pens novels.