As those of you who follow these things may have heard, Philip Brailsford, a former Mesa, Arizona police officer, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges after shooting Daniel Shaver. The details of the shooting itself are disgraceful. Acquittal came despite the fact that the senselessness of the incident was captured on another officer’s body camera. The graphic video is available here, and shows Shaver crying and begging for his life. Ultimately Shaver is shot to death while attempting to comply with a barrage of aggressive, confusing commands. However, unlike many highly publicized episodes of police shootings since the killing of Michael Brown provoked unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, there were no allegations of racism. Both the officer and the victim were white.
Also unlike the incidents in Ferguson, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Cleveland and many other places where (usually white) officers have killed unarmed black (mostly) men under at best highly questionable circumstances, there is no protest or threat of unrest in Mesa, Arizona, or anywhere else. With activist energy focused on Donald Trump, and no interest in change among the Republican Party, reforming police conduct and criminal justice policy is indefinitely on hold. From my vantage point, this shows that the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies have failed, at least for now.
Let me unpack that a bit. First, I think it’s only natural that disproportionately impacted communities would rally together in protest of police violence. Self-interest is the mother of all political activism, and I place no fault on those that tried to take action against a problem that for a variety of reasons is much more visible in poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods. However, I believe our media’s hyper-focus on the racial angle of these killings has had the perverse effect of compartmentalizing the problem. After all, the police kill about twice as many whites as blacks, and, as writers like Radley Balko have shown, many cases of unjustified (albeit lawful) uses of deadly force involve white victims. Instead of debating substantive, race-neutral policy proposals (many of which are endorsed by Black Lives Matter) that might alleviate the problem of unjustified-but-lawful police violence, police reform remains, at best, a special interest of little relevance to policy-makers.
Where did things go wrong? It’s tempting to place all of the blame on the populist right that now dominates conservative culture and media in the United States, and no doubt they deserve their share. Of all the political factions, these were always the most likely to oppose reform or accountability of any kind. From their perspective, law enforcement agents are perpetually assailed guardians of safety in a dangerous world. Those who end up on the wrong side of the law did something to put themselves there, and the police can’t be blamed for not taking any chances. That these arguments have no real basis in crime statistics or the relative safety of a career in law enforcement are ignored, or dismissed, sometimes with emotionally charged but unrepresentative anecdotes.
The mainstream, culturally liberal media has unwittingly played a role as well. Dominated by the blue-state professional class, the easiest narrative for these reporters to focus on is racism. It plays well to its increasingly “woke” audiences, and is easier than trying to help people navigate Graham v. Connor and related jurisprudence, the slow but sure militarization of the police over the last 35 years, mass criminalization, and bad incentives in law enforcement and public bureaucracy. These last two I think are the most difficult for our media class. Grasping the scope of the problem would require them to question basic progressive assumptions about the effectiveness and efficacy of legislative and administrative action, not to mention the competence of public servants sent out into the world with license (and often a gun) to fix our social ills.
As the media narratives on the right and left have taken on a predictable form, so too has the popular face of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had the best chance in recent memory of building a political coalition capable of creating change. However, instead of broadening its appeal, BLM has increasingly gone down the rabbit hole of the post-modern identitarian left. Its activists post demands that might make a race studies professor gush, but which alienate and make no sense to those outside of a certain cultural and class bubble. Even the most obvious allies in the struggle to reign in police violence are targeted for insufficient ideological purity. While success was never guaranteed, a prescient movement that makes its case across not only racial but also cultural and class lines might stand a chance of moving the needle on the larger problem of police violence. Instead BLM is marginalizing itself into just another faction of the jargon spouting, inward looking activist left.
Before concluding, I think it’s important to state that the judiciary, law enforcement, and legislators remain first and foremost to blame for the sorry state of policing in the United States. They are the ones who have written more and harsher laws, armed police like soldiers, and treated the 4th and 5th Amendments as no more than refuges for murderers and rapists. However, while it would be naïve to pretend racial animus played no role in creating modern America’s approach to law enforcement, the focus on race has become self-defeating. This isn’t to say that unjustified killings of black citizens by law enforcement don’t deserve attention. They do. But if we’re ever to do better, the public needs to start understanding that these events stem from a huge web of bad decisions. Fixing them requires a broad coalition willing to address the problem in legislatures and court rooms, not just picket lines and social media.
Without addressing the larger context of failed public policy and jurisprudence, great and small injustices like what happened to Daniel Shaver (and Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Philando Castile, and Justine Rusczyk and on, and on) will persist. For now, the problem has been safely put on the back burner. A moment where reform may have been possible has passed.Image by Elvert Barnes