April 25, 2008

poorly-closeted racism

I promise to stop this series of overposting so you can hear from some of our other great writers but I wanted to comment on a breaking news story and what I see as inappropriate reporting, and inappropriate comments by a variety of government officials. And by inappropriate, I mean racist.

This story explains that three detectives were found not guilty this morning in the death of an unarmed black man who died when officers shot 50 or more bullets outside a club in Queens. (If you don't want to give NYT your info, you can go to bugmenot.com to get a login). The detectives were found not guilty on all five felonies and three misdemeanors.

Everyone is focused on the racism of the verdict itself and while I don't know all the facts, I don't question that people are right, but I will leave that discussion to those more informed than I am. But look at these quotes from the article:

  • "[The mayor said] 'We don’t expect violence or law-breaking, nor is there any place for it.'"
  • "[The district attorney said] 'I accept his verdict, and I urge all fair-minded individuals in this city to do the same.'"
  • "Commissioner Kelly, speaking in Brooklyn, would not comment on the verdict itself. But he did say that while there were no reports of unrest in response to the acquittals, the Police Department was ready should it occur."
  • "'We have prepared, we have done some drills and some practice with appropriate units and personnel if there is any violence, but again, we don’t anticipate violence,' Mr. Kelly said. 'There have been no problems.'"

Are these comments reminding people not to be violent? Are they trying to reassure people that other people won't hurt them? Or are they just saying people will not be violent in order to bring up their expectation of violence following not guilty verdicts when a black man gets shot by police? And how, if at all, do the images in the article add to this theme of racial panic? What do you think?

4 comments:

maudite entendante said...

I don't think it's racist to worry about violent responses to a not-guilty verdict in a case where police officers were charged with killing an unarmed civilian in an area with a longstanding history of extreme tension between law enforcement and the local population. Especially if the verdict itself is perceived as unjust and racist, meaning that the population is led to believe that there is no justice to be had for them from the justice system and no protection for them from the police force.

In fact, I think it's incredibly stupid and short-sighted not to consider the possibility of violence. Furthermore, I think it does no one in the African-American community (or any other community) any good to refuse to prepare for riots on the grounds that entertaining the thought would be racist - after all, if we've learned anything from decades of riots in response to police brutality and legal neglect, it's that the people who are disproportionately harmed by the violence are, in fact, members of the very same geographical/demographic community that's committing it. Saying "sorry, it's inappropriate to generalize from past events and put a response plan into place to protect your community in case violence breaks out" is a pretty empty form of commitment to social equity.

wannatakethisoutside said...

M.E. First of all, thank you for posting. Sometimes, there's not enough disagreeing around here and I think disagreeing, at least for me, is what helps me push myself to think about these things more deeply.

I still disagree with you, however. I agree that it's bad when police officers kill unarmed civilians in any case. It's hard to compare this to a case with a white victim because I honestly don't know of any similar cases where an unarmed white guy was killed by cops and the cops were found not guilty on all counts.

I guess my viewpoint is just why are they obsessing over how "there won't be violence." There is no reason to keep stating that except to bring up the question of whether there will be or the possibility that there might be. It's this weird way of bringing up that fear without addressing it directly.

I do agree with you that the fact that it took place in an area where there is extreme tension with law enforcement is relevant - I just don't know why they don't just say they are concerned as opposed to hinting it through innuendo in order to make it seem more ominous.

Can you explain what you meant here:
Saying "sorry, it's inappropriate to generalize from past events and put a response plan into place to protect your community in case violence breaks out" is a pretty empty form of commitment to social equity.
I guess I am in part confused about who is the "you" and who is saying it. Sorry for having to always get things spelled out directly - I'm not very good with subtlety.

maudite entendante said...

why are they obsessing over how "there won't be violence." There is no reason to keep stating that except to bring up the question of whether there will be or the possibility that there might be. It's this weird way of bringing up that fear without addressing it directly.

I think, if you look at what they're actually saying, it's not "there won't be violence." It's either "there shouldn't be violence" or "there hasn't been violence, but we're prepared in case there is."

Even the mayor, whose comment seems to be patronizing and out-of-the-blue. In fact, his comment comes in the context of a much longer statement about how there were "no winners" in the case:

"Judge Cooperman's responsibility, however, was to decide the case based on the evidence presented in the courtroom. America is a nation of laws, and though not everyone will agree with the verdicts and opinions issued by the courts, we accept their authority."

He added: "There will be opportunities for peaceful dissent and potentially for further legal recourse — those are the rights we enjoy in a democratic nation. We don't expect violence or law-breaking, nor is there any place for it."


(link goes to the Daily Mail - more context, less login)

He was, incidentally, speaking after there had already been borderline-unruly protests at the courthouse and after questions had arisen in the media about whether this verdict would inspire outright violence. What was he supposed to say? "Regardless of the obvious historical precedent, the idea of (some) black people responding to institutional racism with violence is patently racist, and I refuse even to consider it" - ? Under the circumstances, I think saying essentially "Look, this is a shitty verdict, but the way our system works, there are non-violent ways to deal with it, and I think New Yorkers of all races and political convictions understand that" is pretty much the only appropriate way to go.

You ask, in your original post, Or are they just saying people will not be violent in order to bring up their expectation of violence following not guilty verdicts when a black man gets shot by police?

I think that history, the scuffles that occurred immediately after the verdict was announced, and the persistent questioning before the officials' statements were more than enough to "bring up their expectations of violence." Honestly, y'think people wouldn't have thought of it if Kelly and Bloomberg hadn't said anything? (Incidentally, as someone who was living in Los Angeles when OJ Simpson was acquitted and heard plenty of white people threatening to riot, I bet there's a certain segment of white folk out there expecting black people to riot in response to this verdict because that's what they would do after a verdict they perceived to be monumentally unjust.)

So, no, the politicians quoted in the article aren't "bringing up that fear without addressing it directly" - not in the slightest. They're responding to a fear that's already circulating and addressing it head-on, both with a vote of confidence in their constituents and a promise to do their job by protecting their constituents. What you see as sneaky and passive-aggressive seeding of implicit racism into the discourse, I see as direct responses to an ongoing discourse of tension and uncertainty. Of course, whether that discourse is itself implicitly racist is another issue entirely, but I think that the politicians' statements - that they believe New Yorkers to be capable of self-restraint even if they're black and really pissed off - are the least racist thing about the whole episode. (Note, by the way, how Commissioner Kelly says "...but again, we don't anticipate violence" - emphasis mine. Clearly, he's responding to a reporter's question, and clearly it's a question he's sick of responding to over and over.)


As for my earlier comment, reprinted below: Saying "sorry, it's inappropriate to generalize from past events and put a response plan into place to protect your community in case violence breaks out" is a pretty empty form of commitment to social equity.

You seem to be suggesting in your original post that it's racist to even consider the possibility that people might riot after a racist verdict - and certainly racist to talk about it. But given that, both historically and in this very situation this is a pretty well-founded concern, what's the alternative? Refusing to consider the possibility, and thus refusing to prepare for it?

And if that's the "less racist" route, who exactly does that serve? Because it certainly doesn't do members of (in this case) the African-American community much good - since, in terms of probability, if there were to be rioting by some members of that community, other members of the community would be disproportionately affected. So being "less racist" by turning a blind eye to the possibility of violence because it might be committed by black people hurts those same black people a whole lot more than acknowledging the possibility and preparing to protect them from it, should it occur. (Make sense?)

wannatakethisoutside said...

Thank you for explaining. I think I get what you are talking about now. I appreciate your patience.

I definitely see how one could interpret this both ways, and definitely agree that the reporters asking the question over and over again is a reflection of the same stuff that's going on.

I also think you are right that there is no "right" thing to say here.