Demon? Hostile Environment?

        Like many of you, I spent a good part of last night watching the events unfold in Ferguson, MO. It was more than surreal to see the split screen of President Obama calling for peaceful action while people were setting a Little Caesar’s Pizza on fire in Ferguson. Then I spent a good part of the night poring over the grand jury documents because that’s what I do. Research is probably a coping mechanism for me. I wasn’t surprised by the grand jury’s decision. It is extremely rare for police officers to be indicted for the use of deadly force. Each year, around 400 deaths occur at the hands of American law enforcement and 99% of the time these are deemed “justified” (as reported by the USAToday in August). Like all stats, this can cut both ways. It could mean that our law enforcement officers are very good at only using deadly force when absolutely necessary. It could also mean that police and their criminal justice system partners work together to narrate those killings as justified whether they are or not. The reality is probably some mixture of the two, which doesn’t do much to calm the growing sentiment that our police officers are not subject to effective oversight, that appointed officials who should be peace officers facilitate and exacerbate violence at an increasing rate. That sentiment is bolstered by crazy stories like the ATF setting up gun shops in towns and causing the crime rate to go up (click here to read more on that, or here to listen to the most recent episode of This American Life). And the 251 people killed by police since Michael Brown was killed (I went to this Wikipedia page and counted the names). But if you read through some of those stories, you will see that in many cases the officer genuinely had no choice. We’ve been a fairly violent country since before these states were united. There is a strain of wild wild west that still lives with us. In what I’ve read of the  grand jury documents (mostly Officer Wilson’s testimony so far, there are thousands of pages), my own take on whether force was justified in this case is – unclear. It seems clear that Wilson and Brown had a verbal and physical confrontation. It seems clear that things escalated very quickly. Officer Wilson seems to admit being caught off-guard by the incident. Which stands to reason. Punching a cop through his open patrol car window is pretty reckless. But it also seems clear to me that Officer Wilson and the prosecutor’s office got their story together and presented to the grand jury for the desired end of getting a no-indictment. The questioning leads him in that direction. And his testimony had been worked out quite well beforehand. The prosecutor’s office used physical evidence to test the veracity of witness testimony (which is what they should do, as eyewitness testimony can be highly subjective). But it seems like that same evidence was used to help craft Wilson’s testimony more than to test it. Wilson comes across as a partner to the grand jury presentation, not the target of its scrutiny.

Two things in particular stood out to me. The first is when Officer Wilson described Brown as a demon. Many have picked up on this. Wilson testified that Brown punched him through the open patrol car window, they fought for Wilson’s handgun, then Brown took a step back: “And then after he did that, he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.” Several times during his testimony Wilson described Brown’s demeanor as aggressive, angry, and more than that, so beyond anything Wilson had ever experienced that he resorts to religious language to try and get his point across. Brown’s anger was beyond Wilson’s ability to reckon with or process mentally. Several times Wilson appears to refer to Brown as “it” as we also see in this quote. To me this indicates that Brown’s humanity was veiled from Wilson. Officer Wilson could not see Michael Brown as the same as himself, as a fellow human being, as a somebody. Brown was something else. Animal. Demon. Unknown. Wilson indicates this interaction was unlike anything he had ever experienced and led to immediately fear for his own life, which in his mind justified the use of deadly force. There was just no way for him to tell what this thing might do to him.

The second thing that stood out to me was Wilson’s description of the neighborhood where the killing occurred. He described it as an “antipolice area,” a place where “a lot of gangs reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.”  The prosecutor asks (twice) if Wilson was always on “high alert” in that neighborhood. Wilson testified: “Yes, that’s not an area where you can take anything really lightly. Like I said, it is a hostile environment. There are good people over there, there really are, but I mean there is an influx of gang activity in that area.” To me this part of the testimony works against the part I just mentioned, about Brown being this alien thing with this unaccountable source of (perhaps supernatural) anger. Here Wilson is saying almost the opposite. That this sort of thing was to be expected in the Canfield Green Apartments area. That officers had to be on high alert in a hostile environment. This is the sort of discrepancy a prosecutor looking for an indictment would have probed. Still, at a deeper level, this is the same disconnect. Wilson could not relate to Brown and cannot relate to that neighborhood generally.

Whether Officer Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown in the confused scuffle of that fateful moment is unknowable. Wilson gives a lengthy, detailed account of how he went about choosing his firearm instead of his mace, or his asp, or his flashlight. His testimony reads like someone choosing from a menu, very considered, very methodical. All for an action that took place in a fraction of a second. Like we all do all the time, Wilson made a moral decision in that nanosecond of a moment and has since thought long and hard to work up an ethical account that makes sense of the decision he made. Moral decisions are made in the moment. Ethical considerations come after the fact. None of the thought he testified to actually happened in that moment. That’s not the way the human mind works. (Again, the prosecutor should have drilled into this.) Officer Wilson’s justification is only an after-the-fact re-narrating. And we have no other definitive proof. All the key evidence here seems to cut both ways depending on how one chooses to interpret it, meaning it can only verify, not debunk, preconceived notions. Which is to say, how this was going to turn out, both Brown’s death and the grand jury’s decision, were foregone conclusions.

And therein lies the deeper problem. The two things that stood out to me – the otherizing of Brown and the neighborhood – are clear indicators of how these situations play out. It helps explain why these killings keep occurring. And even though they seem somewhat contradictory, I do think Officer Wilson testified honestly to both. He was working in what felt to him like a hostile environment, a place where his safety was always threatened, where this sort of thing is just what he had to expect in order to survive. And yet, he experienced Brown as unfathomably angry and aggressive, something he could never have anticipated. In a foreign, hostile environment, Wilson saw Brown as even more foreign, more hostile. I think if other police officers were honest, they would say similar things. And I know the communities and people in them that are dubbed “antipolice” feel the same way because I’ve talked to them. They experience the police as foreign and hostile too.

Which means we have work to do. The solution to demonizing and otherizing people is to get to know them. The solution to feeling like a neighborhood is a hostile environment is to spend time there. Our neighborhoods should be policed by residents of those neighborhoods. We should work on getting to know each other. And we have to find a way to hold law enforcement accountable that can be trusted by all parties to be fair and to work intentionally to curb the trend toward police militarization and the use of lethal force as a first resort instead of a last resort. We can’t have police officers patrolling areas they deem as hostile. They can’t work for peace with people they judge as enemies. Reconciliation work is long, slow, hard work that can only be done in person over time. We have to plant ourselves in our communities and work to humanize (not demonize) people and communities.