Things We Can’t Unsee

There’s plenty of speculation over the social and political effects of the Wild West that is the Internet. Optimists believe it’s a mechanism for democratic renewal; pessimists are certain it is shortening attention spans and facilitating the spread of conspiracy theories.

I lack sufficient expertise to evaluate most of these arguments/predictions, but I do know one thing: the Internet and especially social media have upended our ability to deny the extent of American racism.

Before social media, nice people–and I still believe nice people outnumber the not-so-nice–could tell ourselves that race relations were improving, that the civil rights movement had addressed most legal inequities, that the growing rate of intermarriage was a sign that old, tribal hatreds were subsiding.

And there has been progress– just a lot less than I used to think.

it isn’t just the explicitly racist websites. The Internet and the ubiquity of smart phones with cameras have combined, making it impossible to ignore the extent to which people are treated badly simply because they are black. In recent incidents, police have been called because a graduate student fell asleep in a common area of her dorm, because a picnicking family was grilling in a city park, and because two businessmen were waiting–without ordering– for a friend at a Starbucks. Those incidents are just recent examples; similar episodes constantly flood the Internet.

As distressing and hurtful as those sorts of experiences can be, the truly horrifying videos are those showing police officers killing unarmed black men–all too often in situations that defy justification.

A few months ago, here in Indianapolis, police officers shot and killed an unarmed motorist named Aaron Bailey. The officers weren’t charged with a crime, but after an internal investigation, the Police Chief recommended that they be terminated for failing to follow proper procedures. Terminations have to be approved by the Police Merit Board, however, and last week, at the urging of the police union, the Merit Board declined to approve the Chief’s recommendation. The Board accepted the argument that the officers had “feared for their lives.”

Perhaps they did. There’s plenty of research showing that white people generally–and police officers specifically–have an instinctive, often unreasonable, fear of black people.

The Indianapolis shooting is one of a long string of similar incidents that have been captured in videos and distributed on social media. It’s impossible to view some of these without thinking “If that guy had been white, the officer wouldn’t have shot him.” I think of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old playing with a toy gun; I think of Stephon Clark, who was shot in his grandmother’s back yard holding a cell phone. Type “police shoot unarmed black man” into google, and you get dozens and dozens of hits.

I was in City Hall when Indianapolis police arrested a young man named Michael Taylor. He was shot dead in the back seat of the patrol car, and the police swore he must have had a gun on him that they’d missed–that he’d shot himself. I remember how Bill Hudnut, the Mayor at the time, agonized over that episode. He desperately wanted to believe members of his police force, and he had no evidence on which to dispute their version of events, no matter how far-fetched it seemed.

Before cell-phone cameras and social media, nice people were often in denial of the extent to which Americans–including but certainly not limited to police– continued to harbor implicit and explicit racist attitudes, the extent to which our belief in progress was illusory.

Whatever else the Internet has done, it has forced us to confront a very unpleasant reality. That certainly doesn’t mean that every police shooting is unjustified, or that every conflict involving people of different races is prompted by bigotry.

But neither can we dismiss the now-exhaustively-documented fact that, in far too many cases, skin color makes the difference between being apprehended and being killed.

 

 

23 thoughts on “Things We Can’t Unsee

  1. Working through our history of slavery and the ramifications is not easy.
    The violence that goes with that is abhorrent.

  2. Sheila and I share a number of racist memories in this city; Michael Taylor was one of the saddest. There was another case during that same time period; funny I cannot remember the terrible crime committed by an unidentified Black male, what I do remember is the day after day crimes committed by our police force on Black men of all ages. When someone reported the man was posing as a woman; police officers actually began forcing Black women onto the ground to “investigate” their private parts to learn if they were women. There were injuries and arrests; it was not unlike that Boston case where the husband had murdered his pregnant wife and shot himself for insurance payoff and the city of Boston went on a rampage seeking the fictitious Black male he accused. The husband committed suicide rather face authorities for his crimes of murdering his wife and unborn son.

    That “thin blue line” formed by police protecting each other, “covering their backs”, is often an excuse used not to report their fellow officers they know are committing crimes. When anyone commits a crime, they become a criminal, no matter their job position. I believe when the police cover crimes committed by fellow officers they are guilty of aiding and abetting a criminal. Remember Officer Serpico in New York City; left alone by fellow officers to face the criminal who shot him in the face. Officer Serpico had uncovered an entire criminal ring of officers active in a drug ring hauling in money; he refused to be a part of it and reported findings to higher placed officers who ignored him. That wasn’t even based on race but shows the extent to which too many police forces protect fellow officers from arrest and conviction…or being removed from their jobs as public safety officers such as the two here in Indianapolis.

    An “unidentified witness” supposedly reported seeing a gun thrown from Mr. Bailey’s vehicle before it crashes but that didn’t seem to be proven or an issue made of it as part of the reason the two officers fired ELEVEN shots into Mr. Bailey’s vehicle, killing him.

    Was the south being more honest with their Jim Crow laws and the open racism carried out today by their elected officials worse than the barely hidden, more insidious racism of the north? What is the death count by now. Our local news shows many daily reports of Blacks committing crimes of all levels; how many white crimes are never made public making it appear that crime in this city is only a Black issue? Is this done deliberately? Indiana’s Own Dana Black had to deal with police being called to investigate why she was campaigning door-to-door in her bid to unseat Brian Bosma from his 32 year reign as State Representative in the 88th District. I have wondered why the undercover Indianapolis officers, supposedly following my positively identified attacker around the clock, missed my attack at 11:00 in the morning on my own driveway and the 4th attack one week later on an elderly woman in a small parking lot was because the attacker is white. Would they have more carefully followed a Black suspect and prevented his last two attacks on four elderly white women?

    The racially based unfairness follows most Black arrestees into the jails and the so-called justice systems across this country. We now need to include the dark-skinned immigrants, many brought here as babies and young children, now being arrested and detained awaiting deportation. Why are not all of those known to be here illegally already in our jails and prisons not deported? Why are we still providing housing (however unpleasant), food, clothing, medical and dental care many of us cannot afford as Trump’s posses hunt down easy to find family members?

    Trump, supported by our Republican Congress, backed by the SCOTUS Citizens United protection, has made racism tacitly legal, he has encouraged police forces across the nation to use more physical abuses when making arrests. Some police forces are going out of their way to follow his presidential lead to include Black women in these abuses, even pregnancy is no protection. Will our IMPD Police Chief remain in his position after seeking termination of the two officers who fired ELEVEN shots into Mr. Bailey’s vehicle hitting him in the back and killing him? This case has not ended yet; we here in Indianapolis, need to follow it carefully to its conclusion…if there is one. We still question that years ago Michael Taylor murder which “ended” with clearing the officer who shot him.

  3. Last night I was in a lively discussion about this very subject, the center of which was the police shooting in Indianapolis. The consensus was that the police were innocent because “the guy would not put his hands up/ the guy broke the law/ if the cops tell you to do something you better do it/ he had it coming / the police were chasing him”.

    Have you ever seen a police arrest involving multiple officers after a chase? I have… and it ain’t pretty.

    Once cornered, the suspect is ordered by “each officers” to do something different. The police are not yelling.. they are SCREAMING! “Put your hands up!” “Get down!” “Put your hands behind your back!” “Lay down!” “Sit down!” “Don’t move!” “Shut up!” There is so much Adrenalin in the air you can cut it with a knife. Which command is the suspect to obey? NO ONE IS CALM! Add to this scene the fact that the suspect is black and the officers are white, and well, you get exactly the result you would expect in a racist society.

    It isn’t that this is new. It is that now everyone has the potential to be an on the scene reporter complete with film to prove what happened. Thus we are seeing the real law and order world we are living in. For that bit of technological advancement I say “Hallelujah!”

  4. I had the privilege of introducing Gary Younge, a journalist and novelist, for The Guardian in England. He came over after reading my progressive blog, Muncie Voice. Those calling me a “right-wing apologist” have simply no clue.

    Gary spent 6 weeks in Muncie covering the Trump vs Clinton presidential race. I warned him as a black man that he will get very different versions of “our reality”. I pointed him in a few directions over coffee and off he went. It didn’t take him long as he interviewed both sides even though Clinton lost Indiana to Bernie Sanders, especially in Delaware County.

    Gary’s articles were classic and the comments from the Brits to his articles were even more fantastic. Their perspective of the USA might make most of you on this blog bristle.

    He also dispelled the myth that Muncie, Indiana was Middletown USA or a microcosm of the USA. It prompted me to do some more research on the matter for this classic:

    https://www.muncievoice.com/11643/who-engineered-racism-in-muncie/

    We have several generations of biracial Americans who don’t see race. The white supremacy attitude will end in time. Many believe by the year 2050. Trump and the white supremacists know it’s coming and they also fear the brown people from the Middle East even though they praise Jesus who was brown and from the Middle East. They’ve even white-washed the man they worship every Sunday. 😉

    Racism is a distraction from classism. Many smart black people are learning this and it was also at the center of MLK’s message:

    “I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

  5. After people started carrying cell phones, Bigfoot and UFO sightings went way down. Racism sightings have gone up, but they were always there. Acknowledging there is a problem will be the first step toward solving it.

  6. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t admit you have a problem. Americans won’t own up to their racism. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “I am not racist. I have black friends.” The people who tell me that are most likely to cross the street when they see a couple of black men coming towards them. Let ne just say that knowing a couple of African Americans doesn’t make them your “friends” any more than knowing “Space Oddity” makes you an astronaut.

    I am prejudiced. I am working on it, but I’m not sure if I will ever be completely free of my prejudices. Let’s all work on it together.

    Happy Mother’s Day to all of the mothers on the blog.

  7. Some say that our original sin is slavery, the institution that brought black people from Africa to the New World to harvest sugar cane, then cotton and other agrarian products. Actually, slavery is the ultimate labor environment for capitalism and capitalists. During our slavery period – beginning even before we were a nation – black people were stigmatized by those immoral souls who tried to justify their bigotry and obvious affronts to the God they worshiped.

    When some idealists came along to declare that slavery was immoral and against God, the capitalists went berserk and started our Civil War to resist having their ideal labor environment ruined. Meanwhile, the slaves and subsequent black migrations to the North fed the capitalist there into the maw for cheap labor as they would work for lower wages than white people doing the same jobs. This was OUR form of classism perpetrated by the descendants of European capitalists who did the same thing with their “lower” classes.

    The resentment from northern whites against blacks continues to this day, as today’s blog and commentary show. It’s not a southern thing anymore, as these “incidents” occur coast to coast. The roots of our slavery (an irony missed by most readers of the book by that same name written by Arthur Hailey) lie with the greed of capitalism, just as our current labor debacle does today. While profits soar, costs of goods and services increase, wages and buying power decline relative to the profit increases. Subtle, but still the basis of capitalism. There’s nothing FAIR about it. It is what it is. Morals and capitalism without regulation are two sociological and economic sets that seldom overlap.

    Today, we don’t have overt slavery, but the ugliness of our past sins remains in the DNA of bigotry being promoted by all races against the “other” everywhere. I even remember going to my protestant church and listening to white ministers and parishioners blasting Catholics, Jews and Muslims. That would have been in 1959, the last year I belonged to any church.

    I discovered the real roots of our racism much later. Now, I try to write about it in the context of current events. Oh, and Todd, it is YOU who have few, if any clues about the dynamics of what the people on this blog are trying to convey. Step away from the mirror.

  8. I still think Marshall McLuhan had it right when he said the “medium is the message”.

  9. Vernon; this county writes its history in a way to cover up its sins as a cat covers its feces in the litter box. Why are the few stories, such as Amistad, not in our history books? A horrible story but with a Supreme Court finding which almost righted a terrible wrong. Whether the words of former President John Quncy Adams were his words or those of the scrip writer, they carried a message of a dream not yet realized in this country: “And if Civil War must come, let it come. And let it be the last battle in the American Revolution.” Will we need another bloody revolution to undo the current neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, KKK administration running rampant throughout this country?

    Theresa; I am sorry you had to witness such a tragedy but you came away with the true message it portrayed…ugly racism is alive and has not yet peaked. Were you living here when the 15 year old Black boy, very angry and with an ugly mouth on him, refused to back off or shut up when police officers were arresting his brother? FIVE police officers forced him to the ground and beat him badly; even breaking one tooth, his battered face was on the news for days. Was the kid wrong; of course he was but FIVE grown men, supposedly trained to deal with such situations, used unbridled violence resulting an numerous injuries. Is cruel and unusual punishment only a valid issue for those arrested and locked up? This police force; and probably most others, don’t always single out Blacks, the use of force on many white girls and women are never made public and usually ignored if reported by victims to the police. Their jobs are dangerous but they have become a danger and a force to be feared and have little faith in.

  10. Perhaps they did. There’s plenty of research showing that white people generally–and police officers specifically–have an instinctive, often unreasonable, fear of black people.

    This is a get out of jail free card for white cops when they ventilate POC for no apparent reasonable reason.

  11. In my role as Executive Director of the Edna Martin Christian Center in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood, I worked closely with the police department in that dangerous area. I got to know several officers personally and was generally impressed with their competence and healthy attitudes. For a span of several months, I was designated to choose the “officer of the month”. Reading through the applications for this, I was amazed at the difficult, often life-threatening situations that officers were put in, and the competence with which they resolved the situations. The one thing that disturbed me, however, was a general “good guy-bad guy” attitude that prevailed. They, and most ordinary citizens, were the “good guys” and then there were the “bad guys”, and it was their job to take these bad guys down. I believe all of us have “good guy” characteristics and “bad guy” characteristics and it is important to recognise these nuances.

  12. I wonder how much in Police Attitudes would change if we had the type of firearms control on civilians that Canada, and UK have. I can understand the Police being very nervous about walking up to car to let the driver know he has a tail light out. Does the driver have a firearm in his hand???

    What we see here in the USA, in terms of racism and violence is a microcosm of what we as a nation have visited on the rest of the world. 3 1/2 million South East Asians killed, wounded, refugees and missing during our War in Vietnam. Probably over 3 million people killed, wounded, refugees and missing during our War on Terror in the Middle East.

    There is another aspect to our our nations brutality (think Rodney King here on the Home Front) – Torture by the CIA and/or outsourced Extraordinary Rendition at black sites. The Constitution forbids Cruel and Unusual Punishment, but hey it’s just words.

    Gina “Mommy Dearest” Haspel, Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, was repeatedly asked by the California senator Kamala Harris for a yes or no answer on whether torture was immoral, she declined to say either way. John McCain subsequently issued a statement in which he said Haspel’s refusal to condemn torture as immoral was “disqualifying”.

    Dick Cheney said: “The people I know at the agency are very enthusiastic about having one of their own, so to speak, in the driver’s seat at the CIA.”

    The American Civil Liberties Union said the Senate “should not even agree to vote on this nomination until it gets full information and honesty from this nominee”.

    John McCain’s words and the ACLU did not stop Joe Donnelly on Saturday he became the second Democratic senator to back Donald Trump’s pick to run the CIA, Gina Haspel, whose nomination is in question over her role in a rendition and torture programme run by the agency after 9/11.

  13. Very well put, Monotonous.

    I had hoped that Senator Donnelly would have joined Kamala Harris by taking a moral stand instead of what was politically expedient. Perhaps if Democrats return to taking moral positions instead of playing into the hands of the Republicans they will start winning elections.

  14. Theresa @ 10:06 am. I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam (Draftee Type). I know one thing for certain – I would have refused an order to Torture someone. That said, you can always find sadists who are willing to do so, either on their own or acting under the cover of orders.

    The apologists and there are many connected to the Security-Military Industrial Complex for Gina “Mommy Dearest” Haspel say she was operating under orders. This of course is the Nuremberg Defense.

    As John McCain has said – “These forms of torture not only failed their purpose to secure actionable intelligence, but compromised our values, stained our national honor, and did little practice good. Our enemies act without conscience, we must not.”

  15. JoAnn,

    Thanks for putting a solid cap on most of the comments presented today. Almost all of them are spot on. We, as a capitalist nation, have been at war for all but 23 of our years of existence. WW II and it’s extension, Viet Nam (We felt obligated to bail out our French allies…and fight for the rubber and tin resources there.) were not necessarily exclusively economic-based wars, but the Spanish-American, Mexican, Civil, Iraq, Afghanistan and soon-to-be Iranian wars ARE based on economics, most importantly coal and oil. The lies by our government were necessary to sell these wars at the behest of big oil and coal. You know, those things that give off climate change by-products, carcinogens from combustion and the un-earned “depletion allowances” to the most profitable companies in the history of economics.

  16. JoAnn,

    “Vernon; this county writes its history in a way to cover up its sins as a cat covers its feces in the litter box. Why are the few stories, such as Amistad, not in our history books?”

    Very well said. Poor Donald Trump, he was all for most of those lies, however, he didn’t know how many were out there. Consequently, he fell for some of the lies that were against his own interest and his ability to lead. So what now? He CAN’T GOVERN . All he can do is DESTROY, in order to keep up some semblance of momentum.

  17. When I was visiting my Mother back in November, my brother was making stupid comments to his buddies in my presence. He kept using the “N” word and I told him to stop. Multiple times. Yes, he’s a racist and it’s difficult for me to forgive him even if he leans left. He is color blind to my husband and sometimes worries about him getting deported even though my spouse is a citizen now. My brother simply forgets that my husband is a person of color. He thinks because hubby is an educated Indian, he’s not going to be treated like the “blacks” are treated.

    After all of these videos surface with police profiling and calling the police for stupid things like napping and BBQing, I wonder what our future holds.

  18. Todd,thanks for sharing the enlightening article. It’s good to see you have the acceptance of Gary Younge. As far as I’m concerned,Mr Younge has more cred wrt race issues than anyone else amongst this blog.

    Todd, I think those of us not threatened by constructive criticism of the Democratic Party can handle your posts without constantly denigrating you for it. I may now be biased, as I’ve now joined the group of “Independent” voters. It’s obvious the proprietor of this blog supports such empty accusations toward you by curmudgeonly Democratic Party apparatchiks. Then again,you’ve never used your posts here to hawk “merchandise” as if we are a group of mindless marks. I thank you for that and for your contributions to this blog.

  19. As we address the issue of racism, I just want to remind everyone that the original sin of racism was perpetrated against the indigenous people that occupied this land when Columbus showed up. It continues to this day. In watching “America Inside Out” a documentary hosted by Katie Couric the other night, it was interesting to me , that in asking people from Oklahoma about their feelings toward immigrants, many said they were unhappy that their grandparents and great grandparent’s way of life was being destroyed. I thought to myself, “Now you know how the American Indians felt.” Courick never once mentioned the racist treatment of native peoples for the last 500+ years. Whites have a long history of denigrating/destroying the cultures of POC everywhere. We have a LOT to answer for.

  20. If I remember correctly, Michael Taylor was sitting in the back of the police car with his hands cuffed behind his back. And somehow he managed to find a gun in his pocket and shoot himself?
    Please!

  21. Police fearing for their life when they see a black person should disqualify employment as a police officer. Being black is not reason for execution by the police. Shooting to kill first and asking questions later is horrific. I don’t like broad-brush statements, but I’ve come to believe that every police department needs annual training to recognize and control implicit bias.

  22. Pat; one theory was Michael Taylor had that gun in his shoe…or it had been hidden down between the seat and the back by an earlier prisoner. They had a number of theories but no answers and no proof where the gun came from, they didn’t seem to KNOW anything except that Michael Taylor was dead.

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