Recent events in Milwaukee have struck close to home for me: I’m from Wisconsin, and my sister lives in Milwaukee. I’ve wanted to write something in response to Milwaukee’s situation, but I, like many people, am probably not well equipped to offer any broad theory about why any particular demographic acts or feels as it does (although sometimes these kinds of events do occasion great commentary along such lines). I’ll keep my task small: quashing one particularly nasty bug that crawls out of (a certain segment of) the right-wing woodwork whenever another plausibly racialized killing by police becomes national news.
Here’s the bug:
Here, in two points, is what's wrong with it.
1. The sentiment is demonstrably false.
This meme suggests–inexplicitly (given the rhetorical use of sarcasm) but nonetheless obviously–that personal misbehavior is really at the root of difficulty with police. If only you were an upstanding and law-abiding citizen, you would have nothing to worry about.
In at least one recent instance, you likely didn’t even have to go out of your way to see this disproved. A month ago, the shooting of Charles Kinsey, a Florida therapist, made the rounds both in major news organizations and on social media. After police responded to a 911 call about a man supposedly threatening to shoot himself, Kinsey, a caretaker for the autistic man at issue, followed police orders to lay on the ground with his hands raised. Further, Kinsey clarified that the autistic man was holding a simple toy truck and explained their relationship. A police officer shot Kinsey in the leg, then (apparently) said immediately afterward that “he didn’t know” why he had fired. Later, a local police spokesman related that the officer was, in fact, trying to shoot the autistic man so as to “try to save [Kinsey’s] life,” as though Kinsey’s patient and his toy truck posed some kind of clear, lethal danger to Kinsey. (Consider, by the way, that if not for the video the circumstances of the shooting, it would’ve come down to the police’s word against Kinsey’s, and how easily a simple, self-vindicating instinct on the police’s part could perhaps have batted down any suspicions in the public consciousness.)
Ultimately, the work of policing necessarily involves certain dangers to the public, because police officers are human and inevitably prone to err in their uses of force, and sometimes in their application of any force (as in Kinsey's case). This is not an argument against police being typically armed–far from it–but it does prove the meme wrong.
2. It overlooks the problem of excessive force.
The meme uses a cheap (and, again, obviously false) binary: either you’re a law-abiding citizen with nothing to fear from the police or you’re a lawbreaker who warrants “poor treatment” from police. While this certainly doesn’t prohibit anyone from acknowledging the possibility of excessive force, shunting "lawbreakers" all off into one rough-‘em-up category rhetorically punts away the matter of differentiating between police conduct that’s proportionate to a given illegal act and police conduct that’s excessive, and thus, abusive.
I don’t mean to overlook cases wherein lethal force is proportionate to the situation; certainly activist opinion can make faulty premature judgments about the justice of lethal force in a given instance, and it’s important to distinguish the facts of a particular case from the relative truth (or falsity) of a broader systemic critique. Nonetheless, I’ve shown why the particular meme above is false and terrible and needs to die. Help me kill it: share this around!