British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow got it almost right in his 1956 line in the sand The Two Cultures, when he posited that Western culture had bifurcated, almost hopelessly. But while he saw the divide being between science and the arts, a deeper and darker strain emerges in America that sees itself riven, way too frequently than is comfortable, along lines that run the rough straits between urban and suburban, blue and red, white and black, smoldering and non-smoldering.
But understanding the complex mechanics of race, power and entitlement in Obama’s America sits somewhere beyond the familiar boogeymen, our us’s versus thems. It requires looking into our not-so-distant past of not learning from a history that we seem doomed to repeat. The most recent in pre-Ferguson memory?
April 29, 1992: The Los Angeles civil disturbance to some; riots to others. On March 3, 1991, after motorist Rodney King was stopped for speeding and subsequently beaten by five cops for upward of 10 minutes, America got to witness at least a portion of the beating filmed by nearby white resident George Holliday. Again and again, all of America got to see King tasered, kicked in the head and beaten with batons before being tackled and then handcuffed.
Four cops drew assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force charges that saw a hospitalized King left with a fractured face/skull, broken bones and teeth, and kidney damage. The watercooler conversation was on. Because that’s what it was at first. Though police defense attorneys claimed that the video didn’t tell the whole story, they got the trial moved to Simi Valley — a stroke of pure defense genius, as the jury of peers would be drawn from neighborhoods where lots of cops retired to.
But it was still chatter. Until April 29, when the verdict came down by a jury of 10 whites, one Latino and one Asian. The very black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, called bullshit on the verdict, as did the very white president, George H.W. Bush, who said in a speech to the nation, “Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I, and so was Barbara, and so were my kids.”
Which mattered not at all to the feet on the street and the people they were connected to, who decided to register their cognitive dissonance and displeasure in a formula both tried and true: They flipped out, and in six days more than 11,000 people were arrested, more than 2,000 injured and 53 dead. Price tag? At least $1 billion in property damage. So the beat goes on.
The very black mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, called bullshit on the verdict, as did the very white president, George H.W. Bush …
And depressingly on: In 1989, Miami saw the Overtown Riots kicked off when a cop, who was later convicted, shot and killed a black motorist. And in Miami again, Overtown actually, nine years earlier, four cops were acquitted after beating speeding motorist Arthur McDuffie to death. The result: one of the worst race riots in American history. The year 1967 saw the Newark Riots, sparked by two cops beating a cab driver whom they stopped for passing them, and in the end stretching the tape at six days, 26 people dead, 725 people injured,1,500 jailed and property damage exceeding $10 million.
Moving back through the 20th century, the riots occur with disturbing similarity, and these would be only the ones that involve members of the Thin Blue Line between civilized folk and criminal citizenry — cops and black folks. Like in Ferguson. And like in Ferguson, in just the last few months: John Crawford shot by cops in Walmart while chatting on his phone and buying a BB gun. Tamir Rice, a Cleveland 12-year-old with a water pistol that was confused with a gun, shot at a playground. And the former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, contributing to the unspoken but well-heard dialogue by claiming that white cops are needed to stop black folks from killing other black folks, presumably by shooting them.
Through it all this: Black teens are killed by cops 2.3 times more often than their white counterparts. And these figures are from Fox to counter the assertion in Slate that that kill rate is 21 times higher for black teens. These are facts we can live with, and proof of that is that we have lived with them. But what it seems we can’t live with? That these actions are not often seen as wrongdoing until the needle gets moved to the tune of millions of dollars of damage, dead people and cities in flames.
… actions not seen as wrongdoing until the needle gets moved to the tune of millions of dollars of damage, dead people and cities in flames.
While we understand that being a cop is a hard and often thankless job, and know that not many of us go to work in places where people hate us for doing our jobs, we do expect our highly trained police to a better job than the recently convicted Michael Dunn, who shot some teens for playing loud music, or the exonerated killer of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman. And if they don’t, we expect repercussions commensurate with the law.
In Ferguson, Missouri, a grand jury has just found Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, not worthy of indictment. The jury, composed of nine white and three black folks, didn’t have to come back with a unanimous verdict. Only nine had to agree or not agree on a charge, and what was agreed on here, that Wilson should not be charged, is just now filtering out to the streets. There are all kinds of lessons that may be learned — maybe the hard way, maybe the easy way. But the sentiment settling down around the issue remains: There’s got to be a better way.