Monday, June 24, 2019

Get Your Hands Up, Part Two

In my last post, I discussed a specific instance of police brutality and abuse of power in Phoenix, Arizona, where a pregnant woman, her fiance, and a one-year-old child were each physically assaulted, threatened at gunpoint, and intimidated with vulgar language and wild threats of extreme violence. Every time one of these incidents happens, and they happen far too often, there is a knee-jerk reaction from some to look past the violence and abuse of power and immediately take the side of the police, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt. As much as I hate to say it, there is this tendency with a lot of us who don't look like the victims in these crimes to identify with the police. On some level, I get it. We need police to protect us and enforce laws. We look up to them and respect them for the sacrifices they make to serve the community. But it's hard sometimes to get out of our own heads and look at things from someone else's perspective, to understand that others might have an entirely different experience and expectation with the police. That probably accounts for a lot of the division we see when we talk about this subject.

But that myopia isn't limited to the viewers of these incidents. The reporters of these events also have their own ways of seeing and expressing them, and that also contributes to this feedback loop of perception, this inability to see things from another perspective. If all of our sources of information are slanting the facts towards a specific worldview, then how can we ever break out of our own prejudices and challenge ourselves to think more critically about society?

Whether it's on Facebook or face to face, I talk with people all the time about these issues, and one thing I notice is that people are not only prejudiced about what they believed, but also prejudiced about where they get their information from. I can't even count how many times someone has told me they outright refuse to consider a source because of it's supposed reputation or so-called agenda. And I'm not talking about a healthy skepticism about internet sources. We should all be wary of unproven and unaccountable websites that specialize in lies and propaganda, but the people I'm referring to are refusing to even listen to long-standing and vetted news sources, whether they are online, broadcast, or print media. I've seen posts, shares, and comments in my Facebook feed from people who will believe anything, no matter how ridiculous or how easily disproven, as long as it confirms what they already believe. The irony of these people is that they will reject a well-known and reputable source because of it's "politics," but stand by information from some little known website that is clearly propaganda and often even completely made up, supposedly "satire," if you scroll all the way down the home page and read the six-point type at the bottom. They pan a source because it's supposedly got a left or right leaning agenda, or because it says something that questions or attacks one of their core beliefs, or just because it disagrees with them, but embrace the most questionable sources because they fit right into their prejudices. Consider the idea that if you are one of these, one who refuses to even hear a report that comes from a source you disagree with, then you are really locking yourself into an unquestioned and unaccountable frame of mind, sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting whenever any facts challenge it. This is the very definition of cognitive dissonance.

On the other hand, if you're one who says that certain news outlets have a slant, then you're right, or actually only half right. The truth is that they all have aslant. But if you choose to only follow news that slants in one direction, then you'll keep sliding down that slope towards ignorance. In a way, two slant an cancel each other out and lead to balance. Even reputable sources of news and information have a slant, no doubt, but locking oneself into one side of an issue and refusing to hear any others is a quest for confirmation, not truth.

So what does all this have to do with racism in police departments, and specifically in Phoenix? Let's consider two different reports on that horrific incident, from two very different sources, both of them national, accountable, and reputable, but admittedly, with different slants. The first is the Washington Post, and the second is Fox News. Before we look at the reports, just beware, if you're already rejecting one of those sources, saying that it can't be "reputable" because it leans a specific way or doesn't agree with your worldview, or has said things you disagreed with in the past, then you're on that quest for confirmation, and we're probably done here anyway. But if you're willing to look at both sides, let's start with the Post.

Both sources contain the facts of what happened, but it's the way they report them, the emphasis on what parts of the story, and the bias towards one side or the other that makes the difference. The Washington Post article starts with a headline that emphasizes what the police did wrong.
Not only does the title state what the police did, without much bias really, but it refers to the video, which is embedded in the article, for support. When I say there's no bias there, I mean that there are no adjectives describing the police (they are not described as "honorable" or "dishonorable" in any way), no adverbs describing their actions (just "pulling a gun" instead of "viciously" or "courageously"), not even a verb that carries any connotation or emotional context whatsoever.

Furthermore, the article goes out of its way to cite sources and legitimize it's reporting. It quotes the mayor of Phoenix decrying the police officers' actions,

includes quotes from the victims' lawyer, specifically emphasizing that these quotes were not just copied and pasted from other sources, but personally obtained by the Post staff itself.
Even the statements attributed to the Phoenix police department are cited, and the writers want you to know that they reached out to the Phoenix police for comment, but received no reply.

Even though this source is clearly trying to establish its credibility, it still has a slant to it. It  not only posts the video, but also uses the text to call attention to specifically brutal actions by the officers that amount to abuse of power,
and notes that the police violated their own protocols in ways that can't be seen in the video.

On the other hand, the Fox News article, while covering the same event and published within two days of the Post article, has a clearly different slant. It's title emphasizes the size of the victim's claim against the Phoenix police department, instead of the actions of the police themselves, and couches its report in what the claim "says" instead of what the video "shows," as the Post title does.
While the Fox report also quotes the police chief, like the Post does, it makes sure to not only report that she is "disturbed" by the incident, but also emphasize that she said that this is "not representative" of the police department in Phoenix. This is the classic distraction that asks us to shift the focus from the problem and place it onto some more positive spin. In fact, the Fox article doesn't quote the mayor at all, when it was she who made the more definitively accusatory statement, saying that "There is no situation in which this behavior is ever close to acceptable." Besides omitting the mayor's quote, the Fox report also doesn't include most of the brutal words and actions of the officers, and doesn't even post a link to the video to corroborate its version of the story. Not only does it present a gross lack of detail in describing what the officers did wrong, whenever it does mention the slightest abuse of power, it makes sure to connect it to the "claim" or the "lawsuit" so that the emphasis still stays on this young couple suing the department, instead of the officers violating these civilians.
Where the Post article goes to great lengths to show that the writers can source their quotes and that they got their information, as much as possible, directly from the people involved, or from supporting evidence like the video, the Fox article doesn't seem to have any sources at all. There's no mention that the writer reached out to anyone for comment, and even the details of the event are not linked to any specific statement released by either side. Just note how many times the Fox article says "Police said ...," as if those statements should be so inherently true as to not need any sort of supporting evidence. Did the police say this in an interview with the writer? In an official report? In a press release? We don't know; we're just expected to accept it because the police said it.

This is what slant really is. It's not a lie, just a shade, just a different emphasis that reveals the writer's bias. The Post article is clearly the fairer of the two in its reporting style, but it's purpose and agenda is to highlight the criminal actions of the officers, which is the real story here. On the other hand, the Fox article neglects to mention what the police did, and chooses to focus on what the victims did wrong instead. If you only ever read one of these sources on the topic of police brutality, you would definitely have a very one-sided view of the issue.

And it's not just this one event. Look at two different reports about the most recent update on Sandra Bland's case, one from The New York Times and the other from Fox News. The facts here were that three years after her mysterious death in police custody, attributed to suicide, her own phone video of the beginning of her encounter with Texas police surfaced, and it exposes some of the inconsistencies in the police report. It's also a case where the police department was caught covering up the incident by altering the dash camera video of the stop, which started with a failure to signal a lane change. Read them both for yourself and try to notice the way that each one colors the event differently. Again, one source is focused on what the officer was doing, while the other is focused on what the victim was doing. Again, one posts the video and specifically points out what the officer did that was wrong, while the other doesn't even post the video, even though the title of the article makes it seem as if it's the focus of the piece. Again, they both use a quote from someone close to the victim, but the Fox source cuts the quote short, including the words "Open up the case, period," but leaving out what follows them, "We know they have an extremely, extremely good cover up system."

So if you're limiting yourself to one source of news and information, or excluding other national and vetted sources because they don't meet your political requirements, just know that you are headed down the road of willful ignorance. You can always find sources that agree with what you already think you know, but if they never challenge you to think differently, if you never see any facts or opinions that might change your mind, you get trapped in that feedback loop of thought, and the longer you stay there, the harder it is to get out.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Get Your Hands Up, Part One

About a month ago, Phoenix police officers pointed a gun at a pregnant woman holding a one-year-old child in her arms and a four-year-old child by the hand and repeatedly told her to "put her f***ing hands up" or they would "f***ing shoot her." They ordered her to put an infant that can't walk down on the hot pavement in the summer in Arizona, or get shot. When she doesn't immediately comply and tries to explain that the baby can't walk yet, one officer tries to snatch the child from her, and dislocates her arm, according to the family's lawyer. At the same time, they shouted at her fiance to "get your f***ing hands up" while his hands are clearly up, shouting that they will "put a f***ing cap in your f***ing head." The reason for the incident, as far as anyone can tell, is that the four-year-old girl walked out of a nearby dollar store with a doll that they hadn't paid for. That same thing has happened to me with each of my children, and it's prompted discussions about how stores work, about paying attention to what you're doing, and about stealing. It's never ended in threats of violence and loss of life. I'm linking the video below, but be warned - it's full of vulgar language and scary violence, so you might not want your children to see or hear it.

Then again, the one- and four-year-old girls in the video had to live through it, so who knows?

Aside from some local news, this incident has only come to public knowledge because the video taken by residents of their apartment complex went viral. In fact, without that video, this incident would have been glossed over completely, because the police officers weren't wearing bodycams and the official police report doesn't mention any of the violence or threats.

When we see incidents like this, there's always a ton of voices raised to ask for patience and point out that while it looks bad, we don't know the whole story. There's some truth to this, but even as a storyteller myself, it's really hard to come up with a story where these officers' behavior would be justified. In their report, the police emphasize that the mother and father may have stolen other items, but make no mention of their own behavior. History really is written by the victors, I guess. But even if that were the case, even if this young couple had stolen the food and underwear that the police report says they took from the dollar store, this violence and wanton disrespect for life and liberty is unjustified. There's always voices who will say that these officers were just two "bad apples," but by the end of the incident, I saw at least six police officers responding to this alleged shoplifting, which resulted in no arrests, no charges, and no tickets. Even if these are two bad apples, those apples are still on the force, and one of the two is still on patrol instead of the usual "administrative leave."

Recently, and organization called The Plain View Project compiled data on the Facebook accounts of 3500 police officers across the country. What they found backed up the "bad apples" theory, namely that one out of five current police officers had posted violent or blatantly racist material recently. When the scope includes retired police officers, that statistic goes up to two out of five. So the claim that the majority of police aren't guilty is probably true, but even so, if 20% of the apples in American grocery stores were that bad, there would be a shutdown at the distribution center and a recall of all the tainted produce. Instead, the response is usually, "How come we never talk about the good cops, the ones risking their lives to help the community?"

My first reaction is that we do talk about the good cops, all the time, almost incessantly. Every time I open Facebook, I'm guaranteed to see somebody posting a meme praising the good cops, and trying to guilt me into sharing it. And deservedly so. Good cops should be praised, just like bad ones deserve to be fired and criminally charged. I would even go one step further, and say that even bad cops sometimes risk their lives to help others. But they also risk our lives with their prejudice, poor training, and poor restraint. However, the truth is that the "What about the good ones?" argument is just a subterfuge, a distraction from the problem. When your doctor comes to you with the news that your liver is failing, the appropriate response is, "That's terrible! What can we do to fix this right now?" Our typical response to police brutality is more like, "Why don't you ever tell me about my organs that are working fine? My kidneys are functioning at 80%, that's a B- where I come from. Why can't we focus on that for a change?"

In fact, the Plain View Project found several bad apples in the Phoenix police department specifically, and the response from the department was mixed. The police chief, to her credit, took some officers off patrol duty and put them behind desks. This is a step in the right direction, but it still leaves the community, and especially minorities, exposed to danger. Just because a police officer isn't on the streets or interacting face to face with citizens doesn't mean he or she can't do damage with their hatred and prejudice from behind that desk, where reports get written up (or not) and investigations are carried out. On the other hand, one city council member had the exact opposite response, shaming the Plain View Project for exposing these officers and summing up his reaction with the statement, "Free speech is messy."

Free speech is messy, and so is, I guess, police work. This is why police departments need to be closely scrutinized, and why things go so badly when they aren't. This is also why all of us have to use our free speech and make noise when we see police officers abusing their authority. This situation in Phoenix is another in a long list of violent incidents involving corrupt police and Black folks. If not for some nearby residents recording the situation and posting it on social media, if not for others sharing those videos and making go viral, and if not for others writing about it and keeping it alive, this family might never get justice. For a lot of people, this situation might have just faded into the background noise of racism in this country. Like I said at the beginning, I've experienced the beginning of this story several times, but never the end of the story. For me, it always went like an episode of Full House, with a very important talk at the end, instead of an episode of The Wire. Those of us privileged enough to never go through scenes like this have to speak up and speak out for those who unfortunately do. We have to listen to these stories and look at the truth of them, instead of diverting attention or trying to justify these clearly unjust behaviors.