24 December 2014
Drawing a line on protest
This fall's protests against perceived police use of excessive, lethal force against unarmed people have had a shifting emphasis, depending on the time and place. Correctly the emphasis is on unarmed, since in the best known cases neither Michael Brown nor Eric Garner had a weapon, though Brown is widely believed to have tried for a policeman's gun. In such cases, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect that police be capable of subduing their antagonists without shooting or choking them to death. Often, however, the emphasis has been on black, and that seemed to be the emphasis in Missouri last night when people protested the killing near Ferguson of an armed black man. Security-cam footage appears to show the man pulling the gun on the cop, but the police department has withheld images of the actual shooting for the sake of the dead man's family. What is to be protested here? I suppose you can dispute the police account of events and say the man wasn't armed or a threat. You may also believe that the police are to blame for "hassling" and thus provoking the man. You may even believe that no cop ever has the right to kill a black man. Whatever the thought process, outsiders are free to believe that for last night's protesters the issue really is race relations rather than police power, unless any of them stated clearly a belief that police should never use lethal force under any circumstances, on anyone. While it's irrational if not irresponsible to argue that protests against the killings of unarmed men were the necessary or sufficient motivation for the Brooklyn cop-killer, it may be argued more plausibly that the previous protests enabled a protest last night that seems far less justified. In either case, we have an opportunity for clarification, and it is the responsibility of the protest movement to do the clarifying. What needs to be clarified is when we should consider police force excessive, and whether race should inform our consideration to any degree. To put it more simply, neither last weekend's murders or last night's scuffles is reason to silence protest. If anything, these incidents impose a greater obligation on protesters to make their message clear to everyone, without reducing our obligation to listen to them.