Deadly Perception

There’s more unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and the “black lives matter” movement certainly hasn’t gone away as more and more people, especially African Americans, are demanding that the “justice system” be fixed. I agree that it needs fixing, but I’m not so sure that the most necessary fixes are the ones the protesters are demanding.

I got to thinking about this as the result of reading about two events. One was the fatal shooting of a young unarmed black man who apparently attacked an automobile dealership with his car, finally driving through a showroom window. The other was about a Utah county commissioner who has been convicted on misdemeanor charges and faces up to one year in jail, $100,000 in fines and possibly large restitution awards for damage he and other protesters caused to the archaeological resources on federal lands by leading a mass ATV ride through an area where motorized vehicles were prohibited. The state legislature attempted to pass a bill to pay the fines and restitution awards, and when that failed, the governor contributed $10,000 from his campaign war chest toward legal fees. Then I got to thinking about Cliven Bundy, the rancher who has failed to pay federal grazing fees for over twenty years and who threatened armed resistance to BLM agents who attempted to confiscate his cattle to pay those fees. The BLM backed down, over a year ago, and Bundy still hasn’t paid up, and nothing has been done about the fact that he and his supporters offered armed resistance to federal officials.

Somehow, I just can’t imagine a black rancher, assuming one could even obtain grazing rights, ever being allowed to offer armed resistance to the federal government without being gunned down post-haste.

The Justice Department has rightly condemned the town of Ferguson for operating a police system that preyed almost exclusively upon lower income blacks, and reports of other towns operating in exactly the same fashion have also come to light and have been condemned, but I don’t see the federal government doing much condemning of the billionaire finance types who nearly destroyed the U.S. economy. Nor do I see much support for those who protest illegal government leases and procurements unethically benefitting the corporate sector.

In fact, as an example, after Tim DeChristopher offered a fraudulent protest bid at a BLM mineral rights auction, he ended up serving 21 months in prison for that bid – despite the fact that his acts hurt no one and cost almost nothing and that the U.S. Attorney General declared the auction illegal and voided it – even before DeChristopher went to trial. No one was ever prosecuted, let alone tried, for attempting to illegally sell drilling rights to industry. When that happened in the Teapot Dome scandal in 1923, the Secretary of the Interior went to jail for accepting bribes, but, unsurprisingly, the official of Pan-American Petroleum who paid the bribes was acquitted. You can see how far we’ve come… or not.

There’s been a great focus on the police for a whole string of events which resulted in the deaths largely of black men. In a great percentage of cases, however, those black men had done something wrong, often illegal. The problem wasn’t, in my opinion, with the attempts to arrest them, but how those attempted arrests were carried out… and what happened after that. Yet no one shot Cliven Bundy or any number of white criminals.

Part of this is perception, a very deadly perception. Because of the amount of guns in American society, and because of the high level of violence and death in the majority of black communities, the police too often perceive any black man, especially one caught in a questionable or illegal act, as a deadly threat. Sometimes, those men are a deadly threat, but as recent events have shown, all too many times, the threat is not that deadly. And, at times, there has been no threat at all. But how are the police to tell?

As a supporting point to the critical role that perception plays, recently I wrote about a man fatally shot in a nearby town, a very white man. I’m convinced that one reason he was shot was because most of the police in the entire county knew that he was violent and dangerous when drunk. When he refused to drop his gun and aimed it at the investigating police officer, the officer believed that the man was a deadly threat, which he likely was, and fired in self-defense. I suspect, although we’ll never know, that had the officer been faced with the same situation with someone who had no record, he might have waited just a bit longer…but how that might have turned out is another question.

There are two deadly sides to the perception problem. First is the fact and the perception that, in general, whites get away with a lot more during and after being arrested, and the fact that often they don’t even get arrested, especially if the wrong-doing is large enough and financially related, no matter how many people it hurts. Second is the fact that, like it or not, black men doing things that look to be illegal are considered dangerous, and that perception can be all too deadly, usually to the black man.

“Community policing” can certainly help the problem in black communities, but a good part of the anger that has led to demonstrations and violence is simply because of the rather accurate perception that the justice system continues to show a double standard, particularly in the areas of drugs and theft. Blacks who use crack cocaine, for example, which is more prevalent in minority areas, face far harsher penalties under law than whites found with cocaine powder with the same amount of the drug itself. Likewise, a black man who commits comparatively small theft is likely to spend more time in jail than most of the white men who crashed the economy.

Interestingly enough, the white collar criminals who get the longest sentences aren’t the people who crashed the economy or tried to illegally auction off federal lands or drilling rights – they’re the ones convicted of “insider trading,” profiting from non-public knowledge to make money for themselves. But at whose expense are they profiting? You guessed it — the multibillion dollar investment firms. What makes this so fascinatingly hypocritical is that the high level executive can decide to make a decision or move that will impact stock prices, can then buy or sell stock, and then, weeks or months later, actually carry out the decision… and profit enormously… and that’s perfectly legal, just so long as he tells no one.

What bothers me, again, about the “black lives matter” movement is that all the debate over what has happened seems to be limited to black deaths alone – and continues to avoid the far larger questions of justice and fairness. And that means that, once the current furor dies down, and it will, no matter what anyone says, the underlying problems will largely remain. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I’m certainly not betting on it.

3 thoughts on “Deadly Perception”

  1. Jim S says:

    Very interesting and well considered thoughts, sir.

    There’s definitely a difference in how crimes are prosecuted as they move from “street crime” to white collar crime. Steal as little as $5 from the person directly, and it’s a felony, and, with caveats about prior criminal history and quality of representation (which is a whole different influence of money on crime and especially punishment stats…), likely to result in at least a suspended jail sentence. Steal millions, say by looting pension plans, and there may not even be a prosecution…

    As a bit of an aside… you’re probably aware of why there’s such a disparity between crack and powder cocaine punishments. It was a knee-jerk legislative reaction in the late 80s. The rise of crack cocaine drove a an epidemic of violent street conflicts which more or less scared legislators into throwing harsh penalties on the possession of the drug…

  2. Grey says:

    “What bothers me, again, about the “black lives matter” movement is that all the debate over what has happened seems to be limited to black deaths alone – and continues to avoid the far larger questions of justice and fairness.”

    Hilary Clinton had an encounter with some BLM activists that’s now getting some media attention* that touched on this point. In a nutshell, she told them you can change all the hearts and minds that you want, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t change the laws.

    I would say that what’s hampering BLM now is the lack of political experience for taking the support of an increasingly large amount of people (‘hearts and minds’) and channeling it into legislative change. That said, this should be easier than addressing the unfairness and inequity in the financial system because racist/class-based discrimination, in contrast, does not have a large, moneyed interest that likes the way things are to buy politicians on the other side.


  3. Joe says:

    This report from the US police executive forum states they believe the problem lies in how police officers in the US are trained — and that the experience of the UK is relevant, despite Britain having fewer guns: people brandishing knives kill unarmed policemen quite effectively.

    One statistic: Scottish police receive 1.8 million emergency calls a year, but have only killed one person in the last 3 years. (Scotland has the second highest murder rate in Europe).

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