On the Matter of Lives Mattering

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.

6 thoughts on “On the Matter of Lives Mattering”

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Point of fact- you can be choking to death and still be able to speak some. We only breathe in and out roughly a quarter of our lungs’ capacity with each breath, with the rest there as “carrying capacity”, so even if you are unable to breathe in any more air you still have enough air to expel out as words.

    The police had no way of knowing that Garner had health problems, but they did have ways of knowing that their police manual said not to hold people in choke holds because it had an increased risk of death.

    1. You’re absolutely right about being able to speak while choking, even choking to death, but the problem wasn’t the so-called choke-hold [which wasn’t likely that at all], but the fact that Garner was restrained in a position that collapsed his lungs for far too long, a position dangerous for anyone, but especially deadly for an obese asthmatic. Focusing on the so-called choke-hold detracts from the larger point, which is the problem facing police officers — when to use force and when not to. Once the decision to use force is made, anyone who thinks that the officer can exactly replicate his training in all circumstances is sadly mistaken. When force is used, no matter what anyone says, there will be adverse consequences. And whether force is used depends on both the officer and the alleged offender, not just the officer, although his/her responsibility is always not to use force unless necessary.

    2. Steve says:

      The statement that “someone who can speak or cough is not choking” is misused in this context. It comes from educating people when to properly use the Heimlich maneuver.

      You activate emergency services and stand by ready to provide aid if someone is PARTIALLY CHOKING as evidenced by coughing or speaking despite distress due to partial obstruction.

      You perform the Heimlich maneuver if the person is CHOKING, as evidenced by the absence of coughing or speaking in association with the usual signs of distress.

      As you repeat the statements from the reddit article THE PERNICIOUS MYTH OF “IF YOU CAN SPEAK YOU CAN BREATH”, please keep in mind the origins of that myth. For most law abiding citizens the importance of knowing when to perform the Heimlich maneuver outweighs the importance of knowing the pathophysiology of strangulation.

  2. Joe says:

    The police were forbidden from using that chokehold, but did so anyway.

    So not only did the police use more violence than needed, but more than was legal. That does not fit into their mandate of serving and protecting.

    In fact this wasn’t a situation where violence would save anyone’s life or even property. The police could have waited for backup, and then used the least amount of violence needed.

    The least one can say is that they did their job poorly. One might wonder whether they felt it acceptable to apply that much violence because they thought themselves superior to the person they were arresting.

    This is very different from killing a hostage taker who is killing hostages, which is still regrettable but may be understandable.

    1. You’re missing the point. While officers are trained in using force and ordered not to use certain tactics, once involved in an altercation, things change. The video shows the officer beginning with a half-nelson, not anything resembling a chokehold [and the officer in question still asserts that the hold he used was not a chokehold]. One can certainly question whether force should have been used in this case, but once it is, it’s not nearly so cut and dried as you and many others are making it — which is why a lot more thought needs to go into whether to use force in the first place. Focusing on the “chokehold” ignores the far larger and more important questions about overall police strategy and tactics in policing minority areas that are crime-prone.

  3. Jon says:

    I always like your books for the same reason I like this post. They consider more than just adventure, but how to deal with the moral questions people struggle with in government, the military, and the police. But, sometimes I wonder if you over-think. I take a different meaning from the sign that “Black Lives Matter.”

    The context is that there are two deeply disturbing issues with the death of Michael Brown. The first is that he was arrested by gun – that is, witnesses at the scene (other than the officer) were clear that he was unarmed and did not pose a threat of deadly force to the officer or anyone else when the final shots were fired. These witnesses reported that the officer fired at him when he was running away, and that the officer shot him after he had raised his hands above his head in surrender. This is a clear violation of the use of force, even for a police officer, who may only use deadly force in the defense of themselves or others when presented with deadly force. Other uses of force are currently illegal.

    The witnesses may have lied, but this reaches a second disturbing concern. The prosecuting attorney presented to the grand jury exculpatory information that he never would have presented had he been prosecuting an ordinary citizen, and in a number of instances this testimony would have been inadmissible by the defense. The investigators omitted procedures that that would have used for any other type of crime. This second issue violates a fundamental premise of our justice system – that guilt will be decided by the presentation of adversaries at a trial before a jury where the formal rules of evidence will apply to evidence fairly collected by independent investigators. BTW – if the prosecutor believed the evidence didn’t support indictment, he has the authority to exercise direct discretion. By releasing the grand jury testimony, he polluted any later jury pool with irrelevant and inadmissible evidence.

    If a minority American claims these actions show a certain amount of contempt for their lives, then this should not surprise anyone. It would. That is point of the sign – not a balance of who is better, but that minority lives are deserving of respect. Respect that has failed.

    The issue is that it is uncontroversial that police officers are rarely, if ever, convicted of murder when they used deadly force against racial minorities in the course of their duties. In fact, they are rarely even tried for it. Are the police incapable of misuse of deadly force during the course of their official duties? No. So, there is something wrong in the justice system that never holds the police accountable for the misuse of deadly force, particularly when that force is used against a black person.

    Finally, I can find no reports that the police officer had reason to believe that Michael Brown had committed a crime at the time he approached him. Michael Brown was not violent toward anyone until the police officer challenged him for walking in the street. Even if the use of force was later justified, an argument could be made that the officer was exercising a sense of entitlement to order people around because of his position, not merely seeking to ensure the safety of the public or uphold its laws. A person acting like a bully, because he could. Contempt.

    And so, let us be clear with our examples. There are issues theory vs. practice, but I do not dismiss easily real complaints as if such things are subject *only* to a balance of the practical and the theoretical. It is well recognized by the psychological and legal community that police need training to avoid the kind of debacle that happened in Ferguson, and there was surprising little evidence that people with authority over such things were willing to recognize their responsibility to do better, until this reached the boiling point.

    As another writer I admire has explained, all evil starts with thinking of people as things. Contempt for other people is a dark road, and one that we must fight to avoid. And yet there is evidence that the Ferguson police treated the minority citizens with repeated and overwhelming contempt in general, if not specifically Michael Brown. Black lives matter, in that at least they should not be treated contemptuously by our justice system, either in arrest or in death. We can argue whether they matter as much as the lives of the wealthy and privileged when the least is treated with that much minimum dignity by those entrusted to uphold the law.

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