Here we go again – “protests” over a grand jury decision involving a police officer and an arrest. One wonders about the spontaneity of these demonstrations, and their true purpose; particularly when one reviews the source materials. That is to say if you look at the evidence related to the Michael Brown incident or the Eric Garner incident. you can understand why there are questions. However, given that a grand jury is designed precisely to answer such questions, you are forced to conclude there is something else at play when people are so distrustful of the results of that process.
This is culture war. It is not the culture war we usually think of, about abortion and marriage and religious identity, this is a culture war based on different identities. But more, it is a culture war based on ignorance. It is clear that the general public, and apparently a good deal of the media, is ignorant of the grand jury process. Many seem to think it some sort of pro forma butt covering for a prosecutor, when in reality it is a fact finding panel just like a jury in a trial. People seem to think it is easy to “fix” a grand jury – the whole “indict a ham sandwich” thing. The burden of proof for a prosecutor is much lower in a grand jury than in a criminal trial, but that also means that when a grand jury fails to return an indictment, there is practically no evidence of a crime. People seem to be ignorant of the fact that a tragedy is not always a crime.
It seems clear to me that at least within a large swath of our population there is a general ignorance, despite seemingly 100′s of TV “procedurals” called “Law and Order,” of the role of police officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Police officers collect evidence and keep the peace. Police officers are not the people you argue with when you are accused of something – you argue with prosecutors and hopefully you have a defense attorney to help you do so. Both Brown and Garner were arguing with police officers. As a part of their peace keeping function police have to control such situations and argumentation can and often does escalate into a less than peaceful confrontation. One should always cooperate with the police. If that cooperation, but generally the lack of it, results in a detention it is highly inconvenient, but you will have opportunity to argue with someone who can respond reasonably to your argument. However, such response is not a police job.
This is also a culture war based on a presumption of privilege. I have had the “honor” of serving on a condominium Board of Directors. One year a small group of disgruntled owners used a technique called “cumulative voting” to put one of their own on the Board. It was a problem from the get-go. When the confrontations reached their zenith, the individual finally revealed the heart of the issue. This person was under the assumption that Board members were skimming and that was why the Board seemed to be perpetually short of funds to address situations that the cabal thought were of dire and immediate importance. This person finally agreed to stop being obstructionist if granted “a cut.” Needless to say, the rest of the Board was flabbergasted. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I do not think it coincidental that these incidents, always involving race, are occurring in the last days of the Obama administration. It has long been the source of race-based comedy that white people shared some sort of “code” so that when police confronted whites over minor infractions they allowed them to go on unscathed, while people of color were arrested, or otherwise abused – the so-called “white privilege.” While video of the Brown confrontation does not exist, watching video of the Garner confrontation it seems clear to me that Garner expected some sort of privileged treatment. Anyone that has ever watched “COPS” knows that if you argue with police in that fashion you will get detained, regardless of color. But Garner seemed to expect that because a man of color was now in the White House, he could expect to walk away like he assumed white people always had. And when he was detained, his protestations escalated the force police used to enforce the detention – with most unfortunate outcome. All of this based, like my HOA Board experience, on an assumption of privilege that does not really exist.
There is no question that historically there has been identity group discrimination in our nation. Being born at the University of Mississippi in 1957 and returning to that state annually for most of my life, I have seen first hand what has gone on. But negative discrimination is not the same thing as privilege. The same Southern bigots I knew so well as a youth were as quick to dismiss “white trash” as they were people of color. There was no privilege of color. There may have been privilege based on membership in the Klan or other fraternal organizations, often shared with police, and that of course involved race, but it was not based on race proper. And even then privilege was limited to Klan interests only. In the day, your Klan brother cop may look the other way about a cross burning, but not about a robbery or assault. But that is also history and that is also the South. That privilege just does not exist today and certainly not in New York City.
Culture war is corrosive enough in this nation. It becomes intolerable when based on ignorance and presumption. Some in our political class have chosen to play upon the cultural divides discussed here for their own political, and in some cases financial, benefit. As we have seen it seriously, and in some incidences fatally, threatens the peace. Moreover, it threatens the very cultural glue of our nation. Generating and amplifying such divisiveness may be the most heinous acts of all these sad episodes – particularly when doing so enhances, not cures, ignorance and presumption. I wonder what the nation would look like if the media shamed such acts instead of broadcast them?