26 August 2014
We're No Angels
The big challenge many of us face when contemplating the Ferguson tragedy is the near-impossibility of reserving judgment. That's partly because reserving judgment usually entails a presumption of innocence until proof establishes guilt, yet it seems impossible for most people to presume both the kid and the cop innocent. Instead, because of the nature of their encounter, to presume one innocent is to presume the other guilty. To claim that the cop committed no crime is perceived as claiming that the kid deserved death. To presume the kid innocent, in the sense of not having brought about his own death, is perceived as presuming malice (or racism) on the part of the cop. This is the emotional and rhetorical environment in which the New York Times can provoke outrage by publishing a story that states simply that the kid was "no angel." That much was evident from the security-camera video of his misadventure in a convenience store minutes before his death. Yet the article has been deemed insensitive, having appeared on the day of the kid's funeral, not to mention indicative of a tendency offensive to black observers in which the media allegedly sets an impossible standard for a "perfect victim" whenever a cop shoots a black person, and in a way that inevitably distracts from the real issue of police procedure and police responsibility for another unarmed corpse. The fear is that the moment you concede that the victim is "no angel," you open the door to blaming the victim; if he's no angel, he must have done something wrong to invite gunfire. This doesn't follow, but it's also understandable that many black opinionators doubt people's ability to think logically about such matters, given how many idiots, racists or knee-jerk cop-lovers seem to think that the kid deserved death merely for roughing up a shopkeeper. Yet you needn't be a crackpot or a cracker to feel that a "no angel" account of the victim is a necessary corrective to the sentimental "gentle giant" description his family and friends understandably still insist upon. What will make you neither crackpot nor cracker is your ability to remember that the ultimate, objective issue is still about police procedure. This is more a political than a legal issue because the cop may be vindicated by having followed procedure, yet we can still believe that the procedure is profoundly wrong if it results, in this case and others, in unarmed perpetrators of any sort mortally wounded. I've seen a lot of talk about how it's unrealistic to have expected the cop to shoot to wound, that he must shoot to stop, which usually means lethal force aimed at the center of the body. But how unrealistic is it to expect our police officers (i.e. our "peace officers") to know how to subdue an unarmed assailant of any size without killing him? No matter how unrealistic it may be, it's still our prerogative to demand that higher standard of self-defense, and to demand that officers be held accountable when they fail to meet it. In the end, our answerable to us, or should be more so, or else this country becomes, as Al Sharpton warns, a police state. But all that being said, if the kid being "no angel" before his last night on earth has nothing to do with the cop's responsibility for killing the kid, then there shouldn't be any harm in saying he was no angel. History can't defer indefinitely to the feelings of a grieving family any more than it should comply with the demands of police. The kid was no angel, but being unarmed he didn't deserve to die. What the cop deserves, who can say? There's a question for you.