The Racial Dimension of Trusting in Police Violence

Though many religious leaders have sought to turn Mike Brown’s death into a movement for social change, others have taken the position that Brown was a criminal whose actions invited police violence. If the first perspective is attentive to history and systemic racism, the second would treat this incident as just that—one incident, informed only by the details of grand jury testimony.

In my experience—and I would imagine, that of many others—the perspective one adopts on this question usually aligns with her political position, which in turn informs her religiosity. And as with many other issues of partisan import, this one asks people to make a judgment about the nature of governmental power.

Listening to conservative Christian friends defend Darren Wilson this week, I could only marvel at the unblinking trust they placed in a government agent—trust that seems to fly in the face of their otherwise skeptical view of government. Later, on Twitter, one popular user observed, “It seems as if all you have to do to make some conservatives trust the government is shoot an unarmed black teenager.”

Though I am not inclined to attribute such reactions to racism plain-and-simple, they do indicate something about how politics informs our understanding—and approval—of police violence.

My understanding of the events in Ferguson has been very much indebted to Radley Balko, whose excellent book on police militarization has helped me connect the dots on a lot of very important and pressing contemporary topics. (His Washington Post piece on St. Louis County municipalities and the poor is excellent too.) In chapter seven of his book, Balko observes that political impressions of police violence have everything to do with who orders it, who receives it, and why.

If the standard conservative view in this instance holds that police need to be well-armed and vigilant when dealing with black suspects, previous instances of well-armed vigilance were condemned by conservatives when applied to white suspects—even and especially when they were heavily armed.

Balko cites the 90s-era events in Ruby Ridge, ID; Waco, Texas; and the Clinton-ordered apprehension of Elian Gonzalez as examples of violent law-enforcement action that summoned opprobrium on the Right. In the first two cases, government agents attacked white suspects living on compounds. In the third, they invaded the home of a child Cuban refugee, famously pointing assault weapons at terrified civilians. On his radio show, around this time, conservative commentator and Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy offered this advice:

Now, if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they’re going to be wearing bulletproof vests… They’ve got a big target on there, ATF. Don’t shoot that, because they’ve got a vest on underneath that. Head shots, head shots… Kill the sons of bitches.

Much more recently, we saw tax evader and avowed racist Cliven Bundy aim assault weapons at federal agents, only to be given glowing coverage by Fox News Channel. Then white members of the “open carry” movement began exercising their “freedoms” by conspicuously toting guns in public—so often, in fact, that Chipotle kindly asked them to leave.

When 12-year-old Tamir Rice sat quietly on a park pavilion with an airsoft pistol, by contrast, police shot him.

These examples leave little doubt that political—and hence, religious—reactions to Ferguson are colored by perceptions of threat and the threatening. These perceptions, in turn, are colored by color.

For Balko, our focus should fall squarely on the dangers presented by militarized police, resisting the temptation to use individual examples for political gamesmanship. Matt Yglesias makes a similar point, attaching the prevalence of militarized policing to the rise of the armed-and-dangerous citizenry. Damon Linker has called for greater scrutiny on police officers who kill citizens, and Michael Eric Dyson—responding to the exceptionally bellicose Rudy Giuliani—demands some semblance of accountability.

Personally, I left the world of conservative Christianity because I felt it was far too implicated in conservative political positions that are, in my view, indefensible. In their comments on Mike Brown this week, many of those who inspired me to leave have only reinforced that decision. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what happened. But at this stage I think we know enough about how these things tend to go to make precise knowledge unnecessary. We know enough to know that things need to change.


  •' Jim Parnes says:

    Michael Brown was a violent thug that got himself killed. Society is better off without him.

  •' ecm192 says:

    Yeah, that’s the stuff.

  •' Guest says:

    I hope your son marries a black guy.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Some of the Rams did the hands up thing as a show of support. The response from the police said,

    “I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I’ve got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours.”

    I think the police should be taken seriously because they have the hardware to back their statement up.

  •' Harry Underwood says:

    How dare athletes exercise their 1A rights against the actions of government agents! Why I nevah!

    *gets the fainting salts*

  •' Jim Reed says:

    They also want a “strong” apology from the Rams and the league.

  •' Jim Parnes says:

    Guest, U-Mad? Poor Douchenozzel.

  •' Eric says:

    I’d take one Michael Brown over a one hundred of you any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

  •' tom says:

    “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what happened. But at this stage I think we know enough about how these things tend to go to make precise knowledge unnecessary.”

    Let’s please distinguish the micro from the macro. Systemic injustices of race and class in this country are deep, pervasive, and undeniable. We have so far to go to approach MLK’s “beloved community.” AND SIMULTANEOUSLY the truth could be that the Ferguson officer’s use of deadly force in this instance was justified. I wasn’t there either, so I don’t know exactly what happened either (and for that matter, people who were there don’t seem able to clear things up much). Empathy for ALL means hearing the point of view of officers who have a very hard and dangerous job to do on our behalf.
    BTW, excellent point about the hypocrisy of right wing outrage when police force is brought to bear against their own armed fanatics.

  •' ecm192 says:

    That’s fair. This morning I came across a strong piece at TNR in which John Judis writes:

    “Liberals took the decision by the grand jury to symbolize, or stand in
    for, the greater injustice of the Ferguson and of the American criminal
    justice department. But in fact the reverse occurred. They projected
    the larger injustice of the system onto the grand jury’s ruling.”

    I am more responding to the knee-jerk claim made by certain folks that Darren Wilson was blameless, a claim based squarely on his own self-interested testimony. Balko points out that this sort of trust is placed selectively.

  •' NancyP says:

    Not gonna happen.
    St. Louis is one of the cities with a huge racial divide within the police force, with separate white police and black police associations. The white association yells reverse discrimination frequently. I don’t give a rat’s a** about the white police association whining. (I am a St. Louisan of many years)

  •' tom says:

    Agreed. Knee-jerk reactions (in various directions) are understandable but we have to try to do better. Unfortunately, conservatives (maybe inspired by their own race/class identification) are likely to “jerk” in the direction of focusing on the micro of what happened in the Ferguson street that day and only want to talk about reasons the officer did a “just and mournful” at the cost of ignoring the systemic issues. Meanwhile liberals (inspired by self-identities of their own) “jerk” the other way, using this tragedy to focus attention on our (very real) systemic evils at the cost of distorting facts of the immediate case and vilifying an officer who doesn’t deserve it.

  •' NancyP says:

    I want foolish young black men to have the same chance to grow up as foolish young white men. Teenage boys and young men all do stupid things that are potentially against the law, in order to display “masculinity” (young women do other stupid things not necessarily against the law).
    I am hoping that the discussion will focus on systemic racial injustice, and not stay purely on the one case.

  •' phatkhat says:

    One of the reasons my DH and I left St. Louis WAS the simmering pressure-cooker of racial unease. I grew up there, but my racist parents did “white flight” when I was 12. We went back years later to work, and decided it wasn’t the place to be. St. Louis has to be one of the worst hotbeds of racism there is – I now live in Arkansas, and even Little Rock isn’t as vicious.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The problem has already been resolved. Someone from the Rams called the chief of police and they talked. The Rams say it wasn’t an apology, and the police say it was, so everyone is happy.

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