13 August 2014

In Missouri, the latest rush to judgment

Here we go again: a policeman kills a black person. The victim is reportedly unarmed, but it's as yet officially unknown whether he fought with the cop. Most people draw their own conclusions: a racist cop acted out of fear, hatred or arrogance; a stupid punk got what was coming to him for showing attitude, getting confrontational, etc. Outbreaks of looting follow, which only harden the attitudes of many white observers, whose comments only harden the attitudes of black observers. Who is the victim? As with Trayvon Martin, some see him as a child, others as a "gangbanger." Who is the cop? The general public doesn't know his name yet, yet some think they know him in some essential way. They assume either that he lashed out at a stereotype of black youth, or that he had no choice but to defend himself from attack. The fact is, most people following this story don't need to know anymore: black kid vs. cop is all they need to know, no matter whose side they take. A surprisingly nuanced look at the latest controversy comes from a figure in the last one: the attorney for George Zimmerman. He writes for CNN that attitudes either way -- cops toward blacks, blacks toward cops -- are problematic and dangerous, but argues that police have to take "the first step" toward reconciliation, since their authority places responsibility on them. "In return," he emphasizes, we must respect police authority and the risks of their work. It is a "grave reality," he argues, that "the way we engage a police officer can affect whether we walk away, whether we are driven away in handcuffs, or whether we are taken away on a stretcher." But this is still also a matter of police responsibility, and we might note that, ideally at least, the people should set the rules of engagement for their police. If Mark O'Mara concedes these points, a more respectful environment for police may result. But if he looks like a voice of reason this time, you can always scroll down to the comments thread for what are most likely more typical opinions, from those absolutely convinced that the cop committed murder to those who believe that black people's problems (or, more likely, the writers' own problems with black people) would end if they'd only talk and dress better. Prejudice is rampant in our land of individual liberty, no less than in the past. As ever, prejudice belies any pretense of individualist sentiments. A true individualist really has no choice but to reserve judgment until we know more about the two individuals who confronted each other in Ferguson, but reserving judgment seems to be a lost discipline in this paranoid nation.

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