Enough is Enough: guns, race and empathy in America

At the “Enough is Enough” rally held at Brandeis the other day, a member of Poetic Justice reflected upon their experiences with law enforcement on Brandeis campus when the lockdown of the school occurred.

The speaker said that they didn’t know at the time that an armed robbery occurred. They continued poetically, saying that they didn’t need to be told they “fit the description.” They added “How dare I forget that I am always the armed robber and the shoplifter and the drug dealer and the gang member.”

They then brought up how they felt after being stopped, saying that the encounter terrified them and caused a hit to their self esteem. “The sir that rolled off my tongue when I addressed the cop now stung, stung like the tongues of my ancestors when they said master.” The fear and belittlement that they experienced is particular to black people, since the broad history of racism informs their experience with police. The speaker went on to commemorate those who had been slain by police officers in recent years: “Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Arteri Woods, Desmond Phillips, Rodney Hess, Tamir Rice, Eleanor Bumpurs, so on.” The history between the police and black people can make every interaction with police a trauma. You can never be sure if the officer will hurt you or if you will be blamed for it. Even if you come out physically unscathed, the experience is harmful.

For white people, encounters with the police are different. Armed or not, white people are much less likely to be shot by police. In interactions between police and the most violent white criminals, the white criminals often come out unharmed. Many people wouldn’t think twice if the police had shot at Nikolas Cruz, the man who killed seventeen people in Parkland, FL. Police could have reasonably assumed him to be armed, given the circumstances, and been inclined to draw weapons in self-defense. In Cruz’s case, the public would likely have accepted that excuse with minimal protest. As a white man, his arrest involved a degree of caution that isn’t afforded to black men, which resulted in his survival of the encounter.

Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine churchgoers in a racially motivated attack was also never shot by police. Both Nikolas Cruz and Dylann Roof had killed several people before the police arrived using several high-powered weapons, yet they were unharmed by police, while innocent people like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and Eleanor Bumpurs were killed, even though they were all either unarmed or safely carrying legal firearms.

A study done by The Counted, a project of The Guardian that collects data on police violence in the US, found that 31.9% of black people who were shot were unarmed, almost double the number of white people shot while unarmed, at just 15%. And even though non-white Americans make up less than 40% percent of the population, almost half of the people killed by police are minorities, almost two-thirds of which are unarmed.

The Guardian mentioned that they had collected these statistics themselves, adding a statement from Laurie Robinson, the co-chair of Barack Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing, “It’s troubling that we have no official data from the federal government. I think it’s very helpful, in light of that fact, to have this kind of research undertaken.”

When innocent people of color are shot for no apparent reason, police officers defend their actions in the name of self-defense. Their defense breaks down when one considers the cautious way police apprehend men like Cruz and Roof. Men like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice were not armed and presented no danger to the police officers they encountered. They were existing in public, a right only afforded to some. Self defense did not play a role in these shootings. Their skin color was the only perceived threat.

The differing degree of police attention imposed on people of different races affords white people a certain leeway in society. We can walk on the street, play in a playground, linger at a Starbucks and lounge in our backyards without giving it much thought. White people need to understand that we’re granted leeway that others are not, and empathize accordingly. We can extend this empathy into action by donating to organizations like the ACLU or Innocence Project, or attending protests and rallies against police violence.

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