Two seconds after the police car came to a stop, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot. Two seconds is all it took to end the life of a child playing with a toy. In the initial reports the police officers claimed they asked Rice to put his hands up three times and that he didn’t comply. We know now, however, that their entire interaction took a total of two seconds, casting serious doubt on the officers’ stated justification.
A child shot down for no good reason and a plainly implausible cover story. Yet people, for the most part, will believe the implausible cover story. Why?
I can’t begin to know what it’s like to have someone close to me killed.
I also can’t imagine what it’s like to be black in a country that (a) was built on several centuries of enslaving and exploiting black people; and then (b) turns around and blames black people for the bad things which befall them.
I can read about this pernicious and destructive dynamic and I can understand it on an intellectual level, but the America that I get to experience is a totally different one than that which people who aren’t white males who make a decent living have to experience. And since I can’t imagine what that feels like, I haven’t spouted off too much about these sorts of things, even though I spout off about all manner of things throughout the day.
This doesn’t mean someone in my position can’t speak out about the specifics of the injustices in Ferguson and Cleveland and the public fallout of it all that is dominating the news this week. Many people in my general demographic category have, often eloquently. I just choose not to myself. I don’t offer much in the way of blow-by-blow of the incidents and the investigations and I don’t talk about the larger implications of the subsequent unrest. I don’t because I feel like most of what I would say about it all is naive, relatively ill-informed in ways that truly matter and that there are others who would do a far better job talking about the injustices visited upon Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and what it all means.
But since I am someone who comes from a safe and privileged background and since I live a safe and privileged life, I think I can offer some insight into the reaction many of my fellow privileged Americans have had to what has gone on in Ferguson and Cleveland. I can, I think, explain why many of my fellow privileged white Americans refuse to come to grips with the fact that bad shit goes down in this country and who refuse to believe that it’s racial and ethnic minorities, women and the poor who spend their lives looking down the barrel of that bad shit.
These are people who refuse to believe things like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice were shot and killed without justification and that the police are and should be held accountable for their deaths. People who latch on to every vague and often implausible account of hulked-up black men and ominous moves to their waistbands, nod their head and ultimately come down on the side of law enforcement in these all-too-common incidents, always.
It’s too simple to chalk it all up to racism. Sure, there are unabashed and crypto racists in your Facebook news feed right now talking about how the “thugs” had it coming, but there aren’t too many of them. Not as many as there were a few decades ago anyway. They represent a specific and non-trivial problem, but let’s ignore them for these purposes.
There are also a lot of people – an awful lot of people – who, while not themselves racist, are ignorant of the fact that they were born into and socialized by a system that is inextricable from America’s racist history. People who, even if they’ve applauded every bit of racial progress made in the past 60 years, are not totally conversant with just how thoroughly racism is ingrained in today’s America. How, even if slavery and Jim Crow are now things of the past, stuff like housing and educational and economic policies born in those eras still, quite shockingly until you actually read about it, carry on to this day. Privileged people who, however unwittingly, carry assumptions about how the world is in 2014 that simply aren’t true and which inform their beliefs.
But I’m not really talking about that dynamic either. It’s a critical dynamic to be sure, and one that causes a hell of a lot of the problems we have today, but it’s not the one that causes the immediate, knee-jerk defense of police officers like we’re seeing in the news of late and it’s not bolstering that certainty that everything that went down in Ferguson and Cleveland, however sad, went the way it had to go.
No, we can chalk that up to our fear of the horrifying and the power of denial.
When you, like I did, grow up in an ideal world with a mom and a dad and a good education and you don’t want for anything, there isn’t much room for the horrifying. There are anxieties and there are neuroses, but to privileged folks like me, the real horror of existence – of life and death and the possibility that it could very easily come to you at any second without justification – is utterly foreign.
Sometimes we get a peek of it. Maybe on the news, beaming images from thousands of miles away. We read about it. We hear about it second hand. But we don’t experience it. And on some level it’s so utterly out of our frame of reference that our brains work hard to deny its existence. To explain it away as something not real. I mean, think about the last time you saw some middle class white person on CNN talking about a tragedy they witnessed. What are the words they’re almost 100% certain to use: “I couldn’t believe it … it was … surreal.”
I’m not immune to this. I’ve never been involved in a shooting or a bombing, but I’m almost always quick to assume something that could be bad is not a worst case scenario. My son’s cough is nothing. That biopsy my mom is going in for is no cause for concern and, if it is, the doctor will fix it. That guy the guards are talking to by the courthouse entrance is not a security threat. My brain and the brains of people like me are not set up to grapple with awful things because I and people like me have not had to deal with truly awful things all that much. If things always work out just so – and for us, they usually do – you come to assume the existence of an orderly and just universe.
But it’s not an orderly and just universe. The universe is indifferent to our sense of justice. Mother nature and human beings can be downright horrifying. People kill each other for dumb reasons or no reason at all and a lot of people believe that some sorts of people are inherently inferior to others and act accordingly, often with force. Leaders let their populations starve while they themselves live like kings. Corporations calculate the acceptable number of people who should be allowed to die before going through the expense of fixing a defect in a product. There are a small handful of people who love and care about you, a great many who don’t give a shit and a select few who would cut your throat if there was something in it for them.
I’m not one of those folks who scream “wake up sheeple!!” and demand action against such horrors. Mostly because I think the horror of humanity is a feature, not a bug, and there’s not much we can do to fix it. Also because I do believe it’s possible for people to still get on with life in spite of these horrors and find a bit of happiness in our short time here even if the horror still exists. We’ve actually come a long way in learning to coexist with horror. It’s certainly better now than it was even 100 years ago.
But the horror does still exist and, I suspect, most people couldn’t get through the day if they were constantly reminded of that. No one is gonna brew the coffee, stock the shelves or analyze last quarter’s financials if they acknowledge that life, for many if not most people on this earth is nasty, brutish and short. Society works much better if they assume that everything happens for a reason and that reason is benevolent.
But then something horrifying happens that they can’t ignore. Say, a 12-year-old child is shot dead while playing with a toy.
When that happens, people have a choice:
- They can believe that we live in world where police officers – who, while always held in high regard, have become the subject of a virtual apotheosis in the tough-on-crime, hail-the-first-responders America of the 21st Century – can and do act outside of the law, be it out of fear, distrust, racism, incompetence or ego, and that doing so means dead civilians for no reason; or
- They can believe that the police acted correctly and that the black person was a criminal of some sort who had something coming, and maybe that even meant his death.
To a privileged white person for whom everything has, more or less, always gone according to plan and who grew up in a world where the cops kept order and the blacks – well, jeez, it hasn’t been too bad for them since, what, the 50s, right, so if they’re acting out it must be for no good reason? – commit crimes, one of those scenarios is comfortable. The other is horrifying.
Knowing what we know about how people respond to horror, it’s not at all surprising that, generally speaking, they are quick to believe a cop who killed an unarmed black teenager, even if his story strains credulity. Or that police truly warned the 12-year-old boy three times before they shot him yet he still acted menacingly, all in the space of two seconds. They’ll believe that, in part, because it fits in with a lot of things they’ve been taught about how police are heroes and young black men are “thugs.”
But more so, I think, they’ll believe it because not to believe it upends their pleasant, orderly and just universe. It reminds them – or maybe informs them for the first time in their lives – that not everyone in a position of authority is there to protect you, that anyone can be a killer and that anyone, even a child, can be gunned down for no reason. And that, often, the killer can get away with it.
They deny that which is horrifying because to accept it is to negate everything they think and believe about how the universe works. And no one wants to accept such a thing.