Recently, following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, signs have sprouted in numerous places and at a number of rallies and protests concerned with “police brutality” and the way in which police are alleged, and certainly do at least at times, to deal with minorities, particularly those of African-American descent. Those signs read “Black Lives Matter.” Since I cannot read the minds of those creating and parading the signs, I will assume that the full meaning of those signs is that black lives matter just as much as white Caucasian lives, especially in the administration of law by the police. That is certainly an appropriate and understandable principle.
Except… principles in theory and administration in fact are two different things.
In point of fact, I know very few people who value all lives as equal in meaning and value. The vast majority of us value our own lives highly, and those of our nearest kin highly. Some parents value their children’s lives more highly than their own; some do not, but almost all individuals value the lives of those near and dear to them more than the lives of those they do not know, or know but slightly.
People also value the lives of those who have accomplished worthwhile goals more than the lives those who have not. They may deny that, or even say something to the effect that, in the eyes of whatever Deity they worship, all lives are equal. That’s a polite admission that they don’t place equal value on all lives.
While the laws of the land, and those who enforce those laws, should in fact treat all those innocent of wrong-doing equally, and should presume someone innocent until proven guilty – or, at the very least, observed in wrong-doing – that does not mean that all lives are in fact equal, or that we truly value them as equal.
At the same time, the fact that we place differing levels of value on life, depending on who we are and where we live, does not justify differing treatment under the law. Laws are meant to be applied fairly and evenly to all. Unhappily, often they are not, and at times, as I have noted before, sometimes the laws themselves have been written in ways that disadvantage one group or unfairly advantage another.
Equally unfortunate, however, is when laws are applied equally, and some group or another believes that they are not.
Then, too, there is the very difficult problem of dealing with those apprehended for breaking the law when such individuals do not wish to be detained or arrested. The Garner case is an unfortunate, but illustrative, example. No matter what anyone claims, Garner was not choked to death. One cannot say he “can’t breathe” a number of times if his airway is blocked. That doesn’t mean that the police efforts didn’t result in his death. Based on the situation, his ill health, and the autopsy reports, he most likely died of an internal violent asthmatic reaction to stress and to his attempted arrest. The simplistic explanation that he was choked to death, unfortunately, obscures the more difficult problem facing police officers. To what degree should force be used? How are officers to know if someone has a health problem, as Garner did, especially if they resist arrest? Garner’s situation is truly unfortunate, but it’s also an example of how complicated the issue of “rights” can be.
While one can and should expect police officers to treat people equally, what exactly does “equally” mean when they are dealing with individuals whom they have either witnessed committing a crime or who they have strong reason to believe have committed a crime – as in the case of Michael Brown? The recent case of the two New City detectives who were shot by individuals committing a burglary is an illustration of the other side of the issue.
What also seems to be overlooked is that mandate laid upon police officers is to keep the peace and apprehend law-breakers. Are they supposed to ignore less violent crime because the perpetrator is black or another minority? Perhaps they should, given that current law certainly doesn’t require the immediate arrest and hand-cuffing for white-collar crime, a less violent form of crime committed disproportionately by whites. And maybe, just maybe, we might then see some “interesting” results.
Either way… the issue is anything but simple, and simple slogans, by themselves, won’t resolve it.