Making Lives Matter

Last Saturday, players of the Minnesota Lynx, a Women’s National Basketball Association team, warmed up wearing dark shirts with white lettering. On the front, “CHANGE starts with US” was in bold above, “Justice and Accountability.” On the back, “Philando Castile” above, “Alton Sterling,” above the Dallas Police Department shield, above “Black Lives Matter.”

As reported in the Minnesota Star-Tribune, team captains Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen had appeared at a pre-game news conference, where Brunson had explained,

“In the wake of the tragedies that have continued to plague our society, we have decided it’s important to take a stand and raise our voices. Racial profiling is a problem. Senseless violence is a problem. The divide is way too big between our communities and those who have vowed to protect and serve us.

“ … Racism and unjust phobic fear and disregard of black females is very real. I’m scared for my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, my future son or daughter.

“I’m scared I can’t teach them to stand up for themselves, to be young, proud, strong people.”

League MVP Maya Moore had emphasized,

“We do not, in any way, condone violence against the men and women who serve on our police force. Senseless violence and retaliation will not bring us peace. … One aspect of our team’s culture is accountability. It’s kept us strong over the years. We, as leaders, try to hold ourselves and each other accountable as an organization.

“We as a community, especially our leaders, have accountability in owning our weaknesses and really humble ourselves to realize the conviction that we must improve the realities of justice, freedom and safety for all people. This is a human issue and we need to speak out for change together.”

The sentiments do not seem controversial, but the Star-Trib also reported that four Minneapolis police officers working off-duty as security immediately walked off the job. Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the local union later said, “I commend them for it … If [the players] are going to keep their stance, all officers may refuse to work there.”

In the late 1970s, I read a Washington Post article in which a black motorist was stopped by Prince Georges County police, and thanked them for not shooting him. While driving to and from a meeting on Monday, July 11th, I listened to discussions of police shootings on the Diane Rehm and Kojo Nnamdi shows on WAMU radio. Nnamdi interviewed Chief Hank Stawinski of PG County Police, who talked a good game about community policing, but claimed that video alone was not enough to really know what happened in either case. In Nnamdi’s next segment, people were obviously believing what they saw in the video.

During Rehm’s show, Washington Post reporter Kimberly Kindy asserted that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had been killed for no reason, while Criminology Professor David Klinger insisted that Sterling was resisting arrest, though admitting that that wasn’t, by itself, justification for being shot. Klinger also is a former patrolman, a senior fellow of the Police Foundation, and author of Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force.

Ta Nehisi Coates noted that most people think of this as an issue of good or bad policing, while the deeper question is: why it is that the police are the major instrument for dealing with the African-American community? Coates feels that with armed police responding in place of social workers, health care workers, etc, bad things are bound to happen. Klinger agreed with that.

Coates’ point reminded me of Economics Professor Mark Blyth’s assertion that with neoliberal austerity politics, the British working class has become a group to be policed. “And you make that move and you basically take the bottom 30% of the income distribution and you say, We don’t care what happens to you. You’re now something to be policed. You’re now something to have your behaviours changed. … They’re there to be policed and excluded in their housing estates, so that you feel safe in your neighborhoods, …”

Except that in America, blacks have been a group to be policed in both good times and bad. Claiming Black Lives Matter has led to the furious counter assertions that All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, meaning of course, “Our tribe matters more than yours.” The system is set up so that police can detain, choke, rough up and shoot black people virtually at their discretion. The patrol officers learn it from their sergeants, who learn it from their lieutenants, and it is reinforced by judicial decisions. Having black police, black officials, or even a black President hasn’t changed that system. Only widespread use of video has made it obvious, which is why police urge that we not believe what we see in the video. Even though it makes their jobs more and more dangerous, and as seen in Dallas makes them targets, they will continue to follow orders that are never captured on video, and perhaps never even spoken, only learned by experience.


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