I checked the headlines on the New York Times tonight, and Rochester, New York is in the headlines. Apparently back in late March, the cops strangled a black guy to death. Video finally got released, so it’s finally making the news cycle.
I’ve been to a couple of protests in the last month few months, but on the whole, it’s felt like something far away, like racism always has for me. When I was young enough, I didn’t know it existed. When I was perhaps 8, I saw an after school special about white people moving away because black folks moved into their neighborhood, and it didn’t make any sense to me. Eventually I wrote racism off as a stupid old people thing, a way of framing the world that my grandparents used but a lens nobody my age was dumb enough to use. Except a couple of idiots in high school, but I wrote them off as idiots and aberrations.
It’s only been in recent years, with camera phones everywhere and easy video sharing on the Internet, that I’ve started to comprehend the scale of it all. Still, something that happens elsewhere, in other states where people are more racist.
And then it happens right here in my back yard. A black guy with either a mental health crisis or wasted on something, I can’t tell which. But obviously not in his right mind, given he’s buck naked in the dark at 3AM with a few flurries falling around him.
The cops standing around him, watching him—I’ve seen this before, growing up, kids (usually boys) standing around some creature they’re toying with, abusing, hurting, killing. They stand back but when it moves, they step in and prod it, taunt it. They’re bigger, in control; the creature doesn’t have a chance.
Except the victim isn’t a frog or an injured cat, he’s a human being.
Curiosity raises a question: I have had mental health struggles. What if I ever had a massive breakdown, a relapse that to outrageous behaviors? The unfairness is disturbing if I’m protected by the color of the skin, and yet it’s a scary idea if I’m not. I could be one relapse, one episode from being choked to death by a Rochester cop holding a bag over my head, ostensibly to keep me from spitting, but actually keeping a tight twist on the open end and gradually choking me to death.
I knew our cops weren’t angels. I knew there were problems and abuses. But I was in denial it was this bad.
I will also say, we reap what we sow. In the crime panic of the 1980s, we wanted a solution to crime seeming to escalate unbounded. Turns out crime dropped dramatically 20 years after abortion was legalized; see the book Freakonomics for a discussion on this. But before this happened, we passed a lot of law-and-order shit, and laws to free up cops to impose it more easily. Thirty-five years on, this is what we get.
Whatever solution we come up with, we need to learn from this mistake: expecting changes we make to do precisely what we expect. Changes can take years or even decades as society adjusts and reshapes itself.
Another thing that might have reshaped policing? Cops, the TV show. Gotta wonder how many cops have joined the force in the last 20 years, thinking they wanted a job like on that show, where they got to raid places and wrestle bad guys to the ground just like on TV. Before the “reality” show, what we saw on TV was level-headed cops trying to do the right thing. How has TV shaped us individually, and as groups as it redefines standards for roles and causes us to self-select ourselves into different groups.
But establishing blame is less important than fixing racism, once and for good. We need to stop making excuses and justifications, to stop denying the problem exists or trivializing its size, and finally goddamn fix it. This is wrong. It must not continue.