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.

No comments:

Post a Comment