Lay down your weapons

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

I’ve had this to say about police for a while:

  • They are the only people in society authorized to use even deadly force against others.
  • The authorization to use force colors any action they may take such that in effect, force is their only tool.
  • They employ force in the service of a system of law, passed by an overwhelmingly wealthy white male elite to apply to everyone else, and order, meaning the socioeconomic hierarchy, particularly expressed as property (of which the rich have more).
  • They organizationally resemble gangs, with their own colors, rigid hierarchies, and enforced orders.
  • Just as elites pass laws directed at “others,” police enjoy a certain immunity from laws that apply to “others” and their testimony is privileged in court.

It was over a year ago when then-BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant on a subway platform. Grant, an African-American, was face down. Mehserle is white. Widely-circulated cell phone videos did not show Grant resisting in any way that justified the use of a taser, let alone a gun. Mehserle is now on trial for that shooting and has taken the stand in his own defense. According to the San Francisco Chronicle,

Former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle wept on the witness stand at his murder trial today as he testified that he had killed Oscar Grant by mistake.

Mehserle, 28, said he was trying to use his Taser to subdue Grant on the platform of the Fruitvale Station in Oakland early Jan. 1, 2009, for allegedly resisting police following a fight on a train. He didn’t realize he had shot Grant, 22, until he looked in his right hand after firing and saw he was holding his pistol, the former officer said under questioning by defense attorney Michael Rains.

It’s evident from a long history of white police officers shooting blacks under–at best–dubious circumstances and of their subsequently being cleared of wrongdoing by their peers; numerous allegations of racial profiling; incarceration statistics that show disproportionate numbers of blacks in prison; an incident involving a university professor at Cambridge; the Rodney King beating and numerous episodes like it, that police departments are racist institutions, that police officers include far too many vicious bigots and their enablers amongst their ranks, and that the criminal so-called justice system systematically discriminates against blacks.

But as egregious an example of racism as the Oscar Grant shooting is, and that this is only one more among so many examples, are not my point today. I want to entertain, just for a moment, a possibility that Mehserle is telling the truth when he claims he meant to tase rather than to shoot Grant. I further want to set aside the fact that the circumstances did not justify even the use of a taser.

I want to consider the possibility that in the heat of a moment, an officer might confuse his gun for a taser. And in so doing, I also want to forget, just for a moment, that guns feel different and operate differently from tasers, that they are kept in separate holsters, and that police are trained not to confuse them.

I remember a professor of mine, Robert Terrell, who now thinks I am “reluctant to discuss race,” saying of gun rights that before people should have their guns taken away, the police should give up theirs. He pointed out that entire neighborhoods live in greater fear of the police than of the supposedly criminal gangs that the police are supposed to protect people against.

The simple fact is that police too readily resort to force. Because, as some might phrase an analogy, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But of course, police carry many tools, all of them implements of force. Even when the red light appears in your rear view mirror, you pull over not for the unexpected pleasure of a conversation with a cop, but for fear of the consequences should you fail to comply.

And as Henry Gates, that professor in Cambridge discovered last year, “disorderly conduct” is one charge police may lay on you when you fail to do what they say. Another is resisting arrest: Grant didn’t live to learn that lesson.

As a former teacher of disadvantaged students, I had a number who explained that the appeal of gangs is that they provide a social connection–a sense of belonging–which families and presumably legitimate societies now fail to offer. And when I see the resemblance between police and gangs, I realize that vesting the power of life and death in the former is no more responsible than vesting it in the latter.

It is time for police to lay down their guns.