OK, well, the propensity of law enforcement personnel to kill unarmed black men is back in the news this week, with the inevitability that comes with chronic, systemic, and unaddressed problems. There was the motorist in Tulsa whose car broke down, and when police came to help, the dashcam and helicopter (!) videos released this week show, he was instead gunned down for no apparent reason. There was the guy in Charlotte sitting quietly in his vehicle in an apartment parking lot, reading a book and waiting for his son to come home from school, who got shot instead, leading to two nights and counting of riots in that city. And a young mn in Baltimore County whose fiance called 911 last weekend to report his erratic behavior apparently had to be “subdued” by police before and even after he had been put in restraints, with a beating so vicious that he died yesterday of heart and kidney failure due to his injuries.
Beyond the immediate tragedy of these incidents, what has stood out to me this week has been the relative lack of interest in them by national media and much of the general public – by which I mean white America. The Tulsa killing barely made national media, gone after a news cycle. So far, the Baltimore death has primarily been a local story, buried in national coverage by the riots in Charlotte – which have also eclipsed the original death there (and another shooting in last night’s riots which witnesses insist was also at the hands of law enforcement, not another civilian as the police claim). It takes riots in places like Baltimore, Milwaukee, Baton Rouge and now Charlotte to get national media attention now. A grisly and seemingly unprovoked death of a black man captured on video isn’t enough any more, for exactly the reason it should matter even more: we’ve seen it all before. Black lives, it turns out, really don’t matter, at least not if there’s insufficient entertainment value.
I would now write that these cities join the long gazetteer of American places made famous in the last two years for law enforcement killings of unarmed black men – names like Ferguson, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Dayton, Milwaukee, Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and many more – but Tulsa and Baltimore were already on the list. Somewhat improbably, a 71-year-old reserve Tulsa County Sheriff’s deputy was convicted this past spring of second degree manslaughter. He’d claimed he confused his Taser with his service weapon. That’ll be a hard defense to mount this time, since police used both. And the Baltimore death was eerily reminiscent of the death of Freddie Gray, who also succumbed to injuries inflicted while in police custody – and whose killers were acquitted after a prosecution that generated a furious backlash from law enforcement allies and groupies.
The chances are still relatively low that the killers of this week’s victims will face prosecution, let alone conviction, for their killing. The immediate reaction in Charlotte was to release the wholly irrelevant details of the victim’s previous police record. Denigrating the victim is a standard part of the official playbook in cases like these – to the point where even 12-year-old Tamir Rice, gunned down on a Cleveland playground, was initially portrayed by officials as a miniature, budding thug.
In Washington state, prosecution of law enforcement murders, no matter how egregiously random, is nearly impossible due to our state’s absurd standard for convicting law enforcement officers for killings committed in the line of duty. I-873, a statewide initiative now gathering signatures (SIGN IT!!), would change that standard. But it’s been over two years since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri provoked national outrage. In that time, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has raised awareness, but that has not, to any significant degree, resulted in changes to actual law enforcement policy or practice. People of color are still being shot without provocation, in if anything increasing numbers.
It’s a national problem Congress can’t and won’t do anything about, and it’s hard to imagine the Justice Department of Hillary Clinton (let alone Donald Trump) being any better than Obama’s has been on the issue. And still, corporate media interest in these killings, and for that matter interest among the general white public, has been declining for at least a year. It pretty much takes the novelty of a riot or killings of police to pique their interest now.
I’m old enough to remember the 1980s, when Reagan de-funded the mental hospitals, one of the major factors in creating a sudden new generation of homeless people where few had exited before. For about two years, this was considered scandalous. How could people not have homes in the wealthiest nation on Earth?
Then it got normalized, which was excused by something called “Compassion Fatigue.” Worrying about the fates of less fortunate people is waaayyyy less interesting than worrying about the fates of MORE fortunate people. And so, today, we have a multi-billion dollar celebrity-watching industry and, in Seattle as in many other cities, ten times or more homeless people than when homelessness was newly visible and unthinkably scandalous.
I fear something similar is happening with baseless law enforcement killings of people of color. The novelty of shocking video is wearing off. The complexity of fixing the problem has become more obvious, as has the fact that much of the Trump-supporting majority of white US citizens likes the status quo just fine. The shootings of cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge took a toll. So too, honestly, has some of the more inflammatory rhetoric by people claiming to speak in the name of #BLM.
But mostly, it’s a failure of imagination. Abstract principle and altruism only go so far. If you can’t imagine that you’d ever find yourself living on the street, you’re less likely to care about the fate of those who do, and more likely to simply want them gone. If you’ll never be stopped for driving while black, you’re less likely to think such shootings really could be unprovoked, and more likely to assume the victims were somehow responsible for their own deaths and to think protesters are totally out of line. (Or, in Charlotte, fitting targets for your vehicles.) And eventually too many of us will lose interest in the shootings at all, as the next shiny thing grabs our attention instead.
There’s a reason some #BLM activists have expressed distrust of white allies. There’s a day-in, day-out context for these shootings that most white people don’t know about, understand, or care about. We don’t have to care. Too many of us don’t.
Call it Execution Fatigue.