The Ethics Of… Killing Cops

*sigh* What a god damn mess. For those who have been understandably avoiding the news cycle recently, the USA just had two more black men shot by police under extremely questionable circumstances.

Philando Castile was pulled over by police and shot while reaching for his wallet, likely because he had just warned police that he was legally carrying a weapon and the officer just heard ‘Black man has gun’. Alton Sterling on the other hand was in the middle of being arrested by police, based on reports of ‘a black man in the area with a gun’, when one of the officers found a gun in his pocket and the other immediately unloaded 5 bullets into the guy. While he was underneath them, likely had already been tazed, and while the gun was still in his pocket, ie. no threat whatsoever to the cops.

One of these incidents can be explained as a (completely unjustifiable and indefensible) mistake. The other was nothing short of an execution.

Big surprise, two incidents like this within days of each other, both caught on camera, enraged anyone who cared about racial equality, police brutality or just justice in general and large-scale peaceful protests took off immediately. And then army veteran Micah Johnson bumped it up a notch and shot 14 police officers, killing 5 of them and wounding an additional 2 protesters in the process.

And all I can remember thinking at the time was ‘Why is anyone surprised?’.

Here you have a community that, rightly or wrongly, see the other as a constant source of threat. Time and time again they have seen examples of their people being hated, discriminated against or attacked by these others until they automatically identify them as the enemy. And in the middle of a tense and dangerous scene with both sides armed with deadly weapons, it’s really only a matter of time before someone tips it all over the edge and people start killing each other.

And the fun thing about that paragraph up there? I could easily have been describing either the cops or the black community.

Throughout the civil rights movement of the last 70+ years, many black citizens of the USA have come to distrust, fear or hate the police and for good reason – they were literally the people enforcing the racist ideology of the government that was keeping black people down. And since racism didn’t cease to exist immediately after the official ideology changed, there have been plenty of (if increasingly less) racist cops looking for an opportunity to beat down on black people ever since.

On the other hand many police do not have a good image of black people, and not only because some of them are just flat-out racist. It’s well documented that black males in particular are vastly more likely to end up prison than any other demographic in the US, and while there are plenty of reasons to explain why this is the case, from the viewpoint of a cop, none of that changes the fact that black men commit more crimes. Combine these stats with the fact that some of the most famous black celebrities openly celebrate those crimes, and big surprise that your average cop views black people, particularly black men, as suspicious or dangerous.

You can talk about political commentary all you want; to a cop, this is a straight-up threat.

To be clear, these perspectives are just that; perspectives. Not everyone in either community holds them and for some that do, they are opinions based in hard experience. That said, when you move beyond individual experiences and get to the bigger picture, perspectives like this are bigotry, pure and simple.

As we’ve covered here before, judging any large, diverse group of people like the black community, police, Muslims, Australian Aboriginals, or white people based on the actions of members of those groups isn’t just unpleasant, it’s flat out stupid and factually false. Why? Because that group is made up of individuals, and those individuals need to be judged based on their own merits – anything else is blaming innocent people for the actions of criminals, purely because they happened to have some random quality in common with the criminals. Whether that’s skin colour, a community, a religion or a job, it’s always a stupid comparison to make.

That said, given these attitudes do exist, I have no idea why anyone was surprised when Micah Johnson shot 14 police. Frankly I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen again.

Why? Well the media has been having a field day calling this latest bout of tension a ‘war’, but that’s not really accurate. This is more of a feud; group A attacks or victimizes group B, group B develops resentment and hatred for group A and some of its members attack them in turn. Group A suffers from this and attacks group B in revenge, who attack group A in revenge, and so on and so forth. You get a big cycle of retaliation where the old grievances get papered over by fresh new ones until they don’t really matter anymore – the fight becomes self-perpetuating.

Sound familiar?

Such cycles of fear, hatred and violence make everyone’s lives worse, but paradoxically are really hard to break. When someone has been taught to hate a group by everyone in their community, and have seen examples of why that hate is justified over and over again, why would they listen when you tell them that their hatred is unjustified towards most members of that group, but also is part of the reason why they are suffering in the first place?

So when two particularly bad examples of police murdering black men are caught in graphic detail within days of each other, there would have been no shortage of black people who would have thought about killing some cops in revenge – Micah Johnson just had the weaponry, training and mindset necessary to make it a reality. No doubt there are more than a few cops right now looking to get some revenge for the deaths of their colleagues, and if they decide that any black man will do as a target then I wouldn’t be very surprised.

And so the cycle continues and worsens. Peaceful efforts by both the black community, police and other groups help step back these tensions, but every time an attack is made, it makes than next revenge attack all the more likely. And out of all of this, the only ones who really win are the extremists on both sides who want violence to break out, and opportunistic media and politicians who profit from a fearful and easily led public.

This same trend is currently playing out on a much larger scale with European refugee crisis currently underway. On the one hand you have militants and other scumbags within the refugee groups that hate and disrespect the west, attack their hosts and commit crimes. On the other hand you have the far-right nationalist movements that are quickly growing in power in Europe, who see all foreigners are untrustworthy, barbarians or worse, and who want to close their borders regardless of the human cost this will lead to. And stuck in the middle of it all are the vast majority of the refugees and Europeans who just want to get on with their lives, but who are increasingly being forced to choose sides as the extremists make the middle ground look like a betrayal of one’s own community.

In essence what we have here is a group of criminals and bigots on both sides, tarring the rest of their community with their own colours, creating distrust and division between groups until it becomes impossible to solve the problems that caused all the fuss in the first place. And the more of the general public that gets suckered into this false dichotomy, the harder it becomes to fix.

Usually I try to wrap these articles up on a positive note about ‘what you can do to help!’ but for issues this large that’s kinda tricky – unless you’re a particularly powerful person then being able to intervene in such giant cultural machinations is a big ask. But while there’s no way you personally can change the relationship between black folk and the police in the USA, or refugees and European citizens, there is one thing you can do to help break these cycles – don’t buy into them and, if you’re feeling up to it, call them out wherever you see them.

To summarise the point for ease of use:

  • You cannot judge a group of people by the acts of an individual that happens to be part of that groups; and,
  • You cannot judge an individual just because they are part of a group that statistically speaking, has problems that need fixing.

These two fallacies are at the core of the cyclic violence that killed Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and the 14 police officers who weren’t involved in either murder. It is up to all of us to break this cycle.Theoretical class

7 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Killing Cops

  1. Great piece. I think your ending was perfect, since I think it expresses the sentiment of all critical thinking people I know, even if they lean more to one side of the issue or the other. There is a feeling of helplessness in what to do about it. And that does seem to be the best idea is just don’t view the issue as black and white, and don’t reduce the problem down to some overly simplistic solution.

    • Thanks Swarn, appreciate the feedback. I agree about the helplessness – unfortunately the rational/ethical response to situations like this is EXTREMELY unappealing compared to all the emotional reactions flying around. You can try to explain the distinction between statistical truths and individual truths all you want, but it doesn’t have quite the impact of screaming ‘racist!’ or ‘criminal!’ at each other. I think the media is a big part of the problem here; going to have to do a series on media ethics at some point, but it’s a massive topic to grapple with!

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