Ferguson, Los Angeles & Lakewood….the Task of Finding Facts Beneath the Defensiveness, Demonization & TraumaAugust 18th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon
Over the weekend, emotions continued to run high over the shooting of Michael Brown.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced via a Sunday morning news release that, under the supervision of the DOJ, a federal examiner will conduct a third autopsy of Brown. (A state autopsy and an autopsy requested by Brown’s family are the first and second.) Holder said the state autopsy will also be taken into account.
Also on Sunday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon expressed unhappiness that Ferguson police released the video of Michael Brown appearing to rob a convenience store of a box of cigars, shoving the much smaller clerk out of the way when the clerk attempted to stop him.
[NOTE: In an earlier version of this story, we described Brown's apparent action as "shoplifting," which was not correct. In Missouri, as in most states, the shove to the clerk makes it "strong-arm robbery" or "robbery in the second degree," as physical force appeared to be used, but there was no weapon involved.]
On the other hand, while the timing of the video release was painfully clumsy, withholding the video did not, frankly, sound like a great idea either. Damned if you do, damned if you…. etc.
Indeed, the video upset people. It may have been real but it was misleading, Brown’s neighbors tried to explain to an LA Times reporter. Mike-Mike, as they called him, was a good kid, not perfect, but someone for whom the neighbors had real hope.
By Sunday afternoon, the results of the private autopsy were released showing that Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head, with none of the shots appearing, at least initially, to be at close range. However, this last was not at all conclusive, since Brown’s clothing had not been examined by Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York, who flew to Missouri to perform the autopsy at Brown’s family’s request. Baden and others specified that more information is needed before conclusions could be drawn from his findings.
Yet the announcement fueled further demonstrations Sunday night featuring gun shots, Molotov cocktails and looting. Early Monday, Missouri’s governor called in the National Guard.
Matters had not been helped by the fact that members of the Ferguson Police Department had been behaving like storm troopers during demonstrations for the past week, hauling off a Washington Post reporter and a Huffington Post reporter to jail for….reporting.…from inside the local McDonald’s. And chasing an Al Jazeera team away from the reporters’ lights and cameras with tear gas.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, the LAPD met several hundred sign-carrying demonstrators who gathered at LAPD headquarters to protest the shooting death on August 11 of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old, reportedly mentally ill black man who was unarmed and whom police say tried to take the gun from the holster of one of the officers who attempted to detain him. Witnesses tell a different story.
In LA, the cops mostly let the demonstrators do what they wanted when they marched through Union Station, Little Tokyo, and elsewhere, long as they didn’t cause trouble.
The difference in the responses of the two departments points to the fact that the two shootings did not take place in the same context and, despite the similar emotional issues they may raise, they must not be conflated.
At the same time, the circumstances of both shootings are sharply disputed, and thus they require clear-headed, dispassionate investigation to tease out the facts.
On Friday, LA’s emotional climate was complicated further as the dangerous nature of police work was tragically illustrated when a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy was viciously assaulted while he was escorting a domestic disturbance suspect out of a Lakewood shopping mall. The suspect, who has now been arrested for attempted murder, knocked the deputy to the ground, then repeatedly kicked him in the head and body, putting him in critical condition. Since surgery, the deputy’s condition has been listed as stable, but there are inferences of life-changing injuries.
Such attacks cannot help but traumatize officers who just want to do their jobs well and get home safe to their families at night. When non-cops fail to comprehend this reality, they risk distancing themselves disastrously from the men and women who have signed up to protect and serve them.
At the same time, members of LA’s minority neighborhoods in particular can point to decades of shameful history of police abuses that, while reform has taken place, have left trauma still in their wake to the degree that an LA reporter and mother writes about her terror when she first learned she would be having a baby boy in a world where “black boys face different dangers,” some of them from law enforcement. Her fears, sadly, are not uncommon.
To look at the matter from a slightly different angle, one of the best and simplest explanations I’ve read in the last week as to why shooting of—or by—- police officers are likely generate so much upset comes from the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Police in America are granted wide range of powers by the state including lethal force. With that power comes a special place of honor. When cops are killed the outrage is always different than when citizens are killed. Likewise when cops kill under questionable terms, more scrutiny follows directly from the logic of citizenship. Great power. Great responsibility.
There you have it. We are supposed to be devastated when a cop is hurt or killed. Cops and firefighters are the people who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us, and injury or worse to peace officers goes beyond the awful tragedy that hits the family and friends of the individual cop. It tears something fundamental in the community as a whole.
By the same token, if police appear to use their powers wrongly or carelessly or cavalierly, then resist being questioned about it—or worse, lie about it—-community members feel frightened and betrayed. Community trust shatters in ways that are difficult to repair. Everybody suffers from the shattering, police and community both.
It is, of course, much too soon to know what really happened in either the Michael Brown or the Ezell Ford shootings. And whatever truths are ultimately uncovered, let us hope we can get to them with a minimum of defensiveness and/or demonization. We are, in the end, all in this together. Remembering that one small fact might be helpful.