Earlier this week, a somewhat similar story emerged out of Louisiana. Another man, Alton Sterling, was killed by police responding to a call about a person matching Sterling's description pointing a gun at someone in front of a convenient store. Video has emerged of the actual shooting event in this case, and it's about as bad as it could be. Two officers are seen pinning Sterling to the ground and then one of the officers shouts that Sterling has a gun. The officer draws his own weapon and fires on Sterling multiple times at point-blank range. It's not whether the other officer also fired shots. Sterling died on the scene.
Both of these events follow the formula we have come to expect. Both of the victims were black, and it appears none of the police officers were. At the time of the shootings, neither of the victims appear to have posed a threat to anyone. And at least in the case of Castile, the reason the police encounter even occurred was completely mundane--a broken taillight. Offhand, I can only think of one other police murder case where the initial "offense" was even more benign than this--in that case, the victim flashed his brights.
Given these facts, there is a natural inclination to emphasize the racial component of these stories. This is understandable, and it is true that the victims of police killings are disproportionately black. In the Castile case, it also seems relatively certain that racial prejudices played at least some role. I find no other way to understand how a police officer can go from "that car has a broken taillight" to "the driver is going to try to shoot me".
Having said that, however, the fundamental issue here is not about race. Yes, it's true that there are racist cops. Yes, systemic racism does exist in at least some parts of the criminal justice system. And of course, we all know it's true that cops routinely get away with killing innocent black people, and face no sanctions or punishment whatsoever.
All of this is true. But on the last count, that fact is not exclusively true for black victims of police violence. Rather, the unfortunate reality is that cops almost never get punished for anything, except in the most heinous of circumstances. The primary explanation for this reality is not racism, but privilege--specifically, the extraordinary legal privileges that have been granted to cops that all but preclude their prosecution.
This is a critical distinction strategically. Focusing on the racial aspect of these stories has the effect of limiting its appeal to the usual confines of left and right. Modern liberals would line up behind Black Lives Matter while most conservatives reflexively defend police action. One side says racism is a problem, while the other denies its existence. The walls stay up, and nothing changes.
By contrast, arguing against the legal privileges of cops has much more potential appeal. I would argue this is generally true, but it definitely true right now after Clinton Email Scandal. The Clinton story has had the incredible effect of making everyone on the political right clamor for the rule of law, at least rhetorically. We discussed this case at length earlier this week, but the broad contours are straightforward:
- A powerful government official committed actions that would clearly be illegal if anyone else did them.
- The government conducts an ostensibly "independent" investigation by a different branch/agency into the official's conduct.
- The investigation finds insufficient evidence of wrongdoing and the government official gets away clean.
There are many problems in the Clinton case. But the fundamental problem is that the government is terrible at prosecuting itself. And that problem extends from the federal government all the way down to the local police department.
This week offers a golden opportunity to help thousands of people to discover this perfectly logical connection for themselves. The question we need to emphasize is not whether we think cops are bad or racist. The question is whether or not we believe in the rule of law, whether we think that government officials should be held accountable to the same laws as everyone else. By design, those questions may as well been rhetorical.
Explicit or implicit racism can help us account for why the victims of police brutality are disproportionately. But it cannot explain why cops (and many other powerful government officials) suffer no consequences in all but the most extreme cases. That outcome stems from a justice system that gives deferential treatment to government agents, no matter what the alleged crime or who their victim may have been. Dismantling those legal privileges must be the primary focus of any reform effort, both strategically and practically.