I try to avoid chiming in on the issue of the day, unless I have specific knowledge to add. And I don’t have specific knowledge about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, Tompkinsville, Staten Island, and the Pink Houses in Brooklyn. But I do have an impression, and since that impression has been unsaid I’ll say it here. In each case the police appear to have been afraid, or at least felt threatened. And in each case a large segment of the general pubic does not agree that such feelings were warranted. The latter might not have been the case 20 years ago. Everyone is thinking differently now except the police.
Here is one thing civil rights activists don’t necessarily get. Every White person my age, plus or minus 10 years, who lived in a place with a substantial Black population, certainly knows of someone, probably knows someone personally, and quite possibly is someone who was mugged and/or even attacked violently and injured by a young Black man. That is the legacy of a 30-year crime wave that broke a couple of decades ago.
And here is one thing that may surprise the police. Just about every White, Black or Other person under age 35 very likely is not someone, probably doesn’t know someone personally, and might now even know of someone who was mugged or attacked violently by a young Black man. That is the legacy of the end of that crime wave, and the consequence of 15 years of lower crime.
People in that age group aren’t afraid of young Black men. They aren’t afraid to move to and live in predominantly Black neighborhoods, even those I would not have wanted to walk around in at night a couple of decades ago.
Guess who is still afraid, however? The police, or at least many of them.
Perhaps it is due to the sort of non-White people, often the only sort of non-White people, they deal with on a regular basis, given that most of them live far away from where they work, in the suburbs. Maybe it’s just unfamiliarity.
Kind of like people who are afraid of dogs. Before I had a dog, I couldn’t tell the difference between one that was jumping up and barking because it was feeling frisky, one that was carrying on because it was nervous, and one that was ready to attack. After having a dog for nine years, and being with that dog and other dogs in the park, I could tell the difference. But only because I was used to them, and they didn’t all look alike.
Moreover, today’s young Black men are far less likely to be armed, and involved in serious crime, than the young Black men of 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The high crime generation is older now, and its crime wave has moved on to white collar crimes committed by White people. People who are criminals will put up with being treated like criminals because that is part of the life they have chosen. People who aren’t criminals become very angry.
And how about something in between? Eric Garner? What he was doing was less harmful that someone who speeds in a motor vehicle, and thereby puts other people at risk of severe death or injury. Yet somehow the police do not treat speeders, or even drivers who have killed, the same way. In reality what Garner was accused of doing was tax fraud, the equivalent of all the white collar crime in the white collar riot of the past decade plus. The white collar criminals aren’t treated the same way either.
The police are upset that people aren’t prepared to back them all the way, no matter what has happened. Since they are threatened with death and dismemberment every second of their day, as if they were on patrol in Fallujah. If the person they shoot turns out to have been unarmed and not a suicide bomber don’t question the shooting anyway, if you’ve never been put in that situation yourself. That’s the mentality. It’s an understandable mistake that just has to be accepted.
The U.S., however, is not Fallujah. Those who have never been victimized by a young Black man, who don’t feel threatened by young Black men, who interact with young Black men all the time and don’t think twice about it, do not accept that it is understandable to be on a hair trigger around them. Ready to kill or be killed at any moment.
At least once a year, if I can save up a vacation day, I try to ride my bicycle from Brooklyn to Citifield to see a mid-week Mets day game. After one of these games I was having trouble finding the overpass that carries pedestrians and bicycles over the Grand Central Parkway. So I could pick up 37th Avenue, ride through Jackson Heights, and stop for Indian food on my way back to Brooklyn. So I told the cop directing traffic out of the Citifield parking lot where I was going, and asked if he knew where the underpass was.
“Jackson Heights?” he replied. “Oh I wouldn’t go there. That’s a dangerous neighborhood. That’s a place I wouldn’t want to be, that’s for sure.”
Now the crime rate in Jackson Heights is not zero, and bad things do happen there I’m sure. For example a Latin American journalist was killed by a drug gang there, what, 20 years ago? But is it a dangerous neighborhood? A place to be terrified of and avoid? Terrified of what? Being strangled with a sari?
We’re sending out guys with guns who are afraid of Jackson Heights, Queens in daylight. That is a problem.
Just think of all the people who have to travel around areas as deadly and terrifying as Jackson Heights, or even more deadly and terrifying, every day. Postal workers. Other delivery workers. Meter readers and infrastructure maintainers. Building maintenance workers, such as plumbers and electricians. Rent collectors. Bus drivers. They generally do so without guns drawn, and without a an armed partner.
I’ll give the police some of the credit for the fact that it isn’t 1994 anymore. But given that it isn’t 1994, policing like is 1994 will only lead to more incidents like the one in the stairway in the Pink Houses. Leaving behind issues of right and wrong, and just looking at the practicalities, the police ought to understand that the reaction of the general public to these incidents is entirely predictable, based on the crime rate. As is their falling reputation.
Think about the time before the 30-year crime wave, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When crime was last about this low. Among thoughtful people there was a heck of a lot more concern about the treatment of prisoners and the rights of the accused than there has been since. Miranda v. Arizona was in 1966. Five years later, after the crime wave got going in earnest, you get Dirty Harry. Three years after that you get Death Wish.
Well guess what? Dirty Harry, despite his attitude, never shot the wrong guy. Never killed an unarmed man. But if they made Dirty Harry today, it might end very differently. Perhaps with some quotes from a later Clint Eastwood movie.
“I don’t deserve this, to die like this.” “Deserve has got nothing to do with it.”
“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” “Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.” “We all got it coming, kid.”