Body Cams Won’t Fix Anything
The other night my 17-year-old son came home from a party. He arrived home ahead of the agreed upon time and came upstairs to speak to my wife and me about his evening. “Why didn’t you tell me that you were leaving the party and going to M’s house?” I asked him. “I gave M. a ride home and decided to go inside and play video games for a few minutes,” my son replied. “But why didn’t you tell me?” I implored. My son sighed. “When was I supposed to tell you, mom? I called once I was there. Do I have to tell you every single time I go somewhere… I’m a good driver,” he said.
I empathize with his frustration. He’s old enough to not have to check in with his parents every 5 minutes. He’s never done anything to compromise our trust in him and he’s almost an adult. But, it’s not him I’m worried about. “What if the cops had stopped you on your way to the party? I would not have known for hours,” was my response to him. “But I wasn’t doing anything to make the cops stop me,” he replied. Then we all sat in silence for a moment – knowing that doesn’t matter…
Last week Stephon Clark was killed in his grandmother’s backyard after police shot him 20 times because they thought his cell phone was a gun. Sadly, this happens so often that my reaction to this horrific tragedy was mostly numb. I can’t get up everyday and feel the weight of these senseless acts of violence. If I did, I’d fall back down. It’s literally too much to bear. Numbing myself allows me to function in this world, knowing what happened to Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice, Philando Castillo, Eric Garner and so many other victims of police violence. Numbing myself allows me to function while knowing that any one of them could have been my son. If I truly felt the weight of that every day, I wouldn’t get up. It’s just too heavy. So, numb it is.
When I heard about what happened to Stephon Clark, one detail in particular stuck out to me. After he had been shot twenty times, the police handcuffed him. Upon hearing this, my mind immediately raced to Parkland when police were in pursuit of a shooter who was actually armed and who had already shot 17 people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. Still an hour after that shooter walked out of the school, he was arrested without incident and brought in alive. My mind then raced to thinking about the shooter at the Emanuel AME church, who shot 9 people and was also apprehended alive. This shooter was even taken to Burger King before being brought in for questioning. These men were armed. These men killed people. These men are alive.
It’s an indescribably difficult place to be as a parent… to have to look your black son in the face and remind him again and again that no matter what he does, who he’s with, or what he is carrying – people will fear him. To have to look him in the face and stress that he must never ever forget that other people’s fear of him could cost him his life. No kid should have to know that. But mine does and so do the sons of countless other parents of color.
I am not trying to attack police officers who are doing their jobs. This story is not as simple as saying bad cops shoot black men because they are racists. I know all too well how much more complicated this problem is. But I am also unwilling to let police officers and our society at large off the hook on this one.
Stephon Clark was a painful reminder for me that people do not have the same capacity to be compassionate to black men that they have to white men. People do not have the same capacity to empathize with black men and boys as they have with white men/boys. When a police officer sees a black man on the street – they don’t see their own sons, they don’t see their brothers or their nephews. When police officers see black men on the street – they see danger and that danger eviscerates their capacity for empathy.
This context, I believe, is the most dangerous and pervasive root behind the police shootings of unarmed black men. People want to believe that we have grown since the days when white men performed gynecological procedures on African American slaves without anesthesia because they believed they did not feel pain. People want to believe that we have grown as a country since the days when gynecologists used Puerto Rican bodies in the first human trials on the safety and effectiveness of birth control pills before approving them for the rest of the country. People want to believe that the we have grown sense the days of the Tuskegee experiments – when doctors denied black men suffering with syphilis the penicillin that would have treated their illness. People want to believe that the ideology used to rationalize this kind of inferior treatment of black and brown people no longer exists. People want to believe this even when research study after research study shows us that, even today, doctors continue to believe that black bodies have a higher tolerance for pain than do white bodies.
We can’t erase the systematic dehumanization of black bodies that has collectively marred this country’s history. You cannot flip the switch on this ugly history and expect people to honestly begin to see black bodies as capable of feeling the same pain as white bodies. The difference is that in contemporary society we delude ourselves into believing that we do hold the same capacity for black and white bodies. The difference is that now we delude ourselves into believing that we don’t see black and white bodies as inherently different whereas in the early 1900’s we simply rationalized the belief.
The delusion, we engage in, is what makes the police shootings of black men so dangerous. Remember the police officer who shot Michael Brown twelve times described him in grand jury testimony as a “demon with an aggressive face and with strength like the super hero, Hulk Hogan. No wonder, the grand jury refused to indict that police officer. They too share these beliefs about black bodies.
It is the fact that people are unwilling to take a long hard look inward and admit that they do not have the same capacity to empathize with black and white people – that creates the conditions for police shootings of unarmed black men. Body cameras aren’t a real solution. The body cam solution presumes that police shootings are the acts of a few rogue cops. THEY’RE NOT. This is about pervasive racial bias that infiltrates every aspect of our society and all who live in it. Until people are willing to sit with that, own it as their baggage as citizens of a country built on the backs of African slaves, until then, we will continue to see these shootings as nothing more than accidents. It is only in owning the bias that we start to move toward change.
Until then, white privilege is being a white man who gets the benefit of other people’s empathy. Even when they don’t deserve it.