It’s been a little over a week since Michael Brown was killed in broad daylight for, basically, jaywalking, in Ferguson, Missouri. Later, police tried to justify his death by changing the subject to shoplifting. It made me think of that campy Jane’s Addiction song, “Been Caught Stealing,” with its even more campy music video about white people shoplifting in grocery stores. It always seemed funny to me before, but this last week it has seemed like a testament to the way white people are rarely seen as a threat in popular culture—a view that’s ridiculous given that white people commit more crimes than anyone else.
When that song came out, I was just a couple years away from working a series of minimum wage jobs in low- to middle-income, mostly white communities. I worked at a music and video store, for instance. Our almost entirely white clientele stole things, yes they did. Nearly every night that I worked the video counter at closing, I’d find half-eaten candy packages in the impulse-buy rack. In the music section, when we did store inventory, we’d find seemingly closed CD packaging with the jewel cases removed. White people would come in to “return” CDs they’d purchased, and act shocked if we opened the cases to find a junk CD instead of the new one that was supposed to be in the package.
I don’t think a single police report was ever filed.
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Later, I worked at a sandwich shop. As I recall, everyone on staff was white. We made minimum wage, or nearly, at part-time jobs with terrible hours. Everyone ate extra food—by which I mean we stole. In our defense, we were hungry. Our salary-to-sandwich ratio worked out to about 20-30 footlong subs a week and they always made you work late, for free, if the whole store wasn’t clean within an hour or so of closing. The managers were feared and hated, and they treated us like scum, but the hostilities never rose to the level of police intervention.
Years later, when the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out, one season’s subplot centered around a major character with a shoplifting habit. She stole, per the show, hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise from her workplace and the local mall. She was white, too, and maybe that’s why it didn’t seem weird that she never faced much in the way of consequences beyond paying restitution to the stores.
I can’t even tell you how many times I or friends of mine have jaywalked. Scofflaws!
I’ve copied personal documents on my employers’ photocopiers before. You? Because that’s theft. Don’t tell me you’ve never taken so much as a paper clip home from the supply cupboard. I’d know you were lying. Don’t tell me it wasn’t wrong because no one cared. Of course no one cared. Exactly.
I, and dozens of white people I’ve known through the years, have smoked marijuana. Add in other illegal drugs, either done in my presence or by direct admission, and we’re probably talking about 150 people directly known to me. Sometimes there were minors present, or partaking. Sometimes state lines were crossed. I was on a college trip once where nearly my entire mostly white class gathered after dark in a state park and passed a joint around. I was at a friend’s house once, with a group of other young white professionals, and another white person from the neighborhood popped in, cooked some party drug on the stove, offered it around, and then left when no one was interested. I lived in a college community for a fancy private and mostly white school where you can just walk down the street and smell weed most evenings. White people do a lot of drugs, like everybody else.
Destruction of property? I heard via my then boyfriend, a few months after the fact, about multiple groups of white teenage boys who drove around our north Los Angeles County community shooting out car windows with pellet guns when I was in high school. They hit cars in front of my house twice as retaliation against my parents for disliking my boyfriend, who was their friend. It’s possible one or two individuals may have been caught over what was apparently tens of thousands of dollars in damage, but I had other things going on in my life and I didn’t give a damn about broken windows.
I can’t imagine a scenario in which one of these petty crimes was responded to by a police killing of an unarmed person. I don’t know anyone who would have felt safe in their community after that. Everyone would have completely lost it, me included.
I’m not naming names, and I think statutes of limitation are long past, but I have witnessed hundreds of individual criminal acts of the type I’ve seen white people in America say are exculpatory of the unjustified killing of a Black person. I personally witnessed hundreds of misdemeanors and felonies, state and federal, committed by white people before I turned 30. I’m no Hunter S. Thompson, either, because while that sounds like a lot of stuff going down, it was mostly from a handful of parties, a smaller handful of friends, and two exes. And I know, like, four people who’ve ever gone to jail for a lick of it. People mostly sympathized with our parents’ efforts to get us back on track so we could grow out of that phase and settle down.
No one ever suggested, or ever would, that any of us deserved to get shot on sight for any of that. Even my neighbor who once told me he’d turned someone in for growing marijuana, in retaliation for loud music, didn’t seem to think anyone deserved to die over it.
But I got called a fascist the other day for saying that I thought Officer Darren Wilson should turn himself over to the criminal justice system after shooting an unarmed teenager. Because apparently it’s fascist to want accountability when the police shoot unarmed civilians of oppressed minority groups while they’re trying to surrender. Fascism doesn’t mean what it used to, I guess.
Numerous people discussing #Ferguson on Twitter have pointed out that white Bundy Ranch protesters pointed sniper rifles at federal agents and didn’t even get arrested. The white Penn State students who rioted after Joe Paterno’s firing were treated like unruly pranksters in spite of causing significant property destruction. None of them got indiscriminately tear gassed. No one rolled out LRAD sound cannons. Pretty much everyone involved was going to just walk away, because it was clearly the goal of law enforcement that the situations not seriously escalate into physical violence: Get your anger out and then everybody go back to your regular lives. It almost even worked.
White ranchers, white college kids, white sandwich slingers, and office drones are treated like they have some intrinsic value to society such that our untimely deaths would be considered tragic. Police don’t treat Black people with the same care. They do not. And as nearly impossible as it is for white people killed by police to get justice, because policing in the United States is rarely accountable, it’s different from other types of homicide because it’s government employees doing it on the public dime. When a government sometimes operates on the premise that terrorizing Black and Latin@ youth is a legitimate tool of public safety, as if “the public” does not include these harassed and often brutalized individuals, it’s especially pernicious.
In the financial crisis of 2008, large financial institutions were revealed to be thieves. Mortgage lenders stole entire houses. Stole. Houses. None of them got treated like Michael Brown. None of them got treated like the millions of stop-and-frisk targets in New York City alone. When Occupy Wall Street protesters assembled in opposition to their thefts, police protected the thieves and roughed up the protesters. White people were surprised to see the police act like that, while Black people had been expecting it all along because that’s their normal.
When a report from the National Employment Law Project revealed that wage theft against low-income employees outstripped bank, gas station, and convenience store robberies in 2008, no one rushed to press charges. No one’s constantly talking about the criminal thuggery of America’s low-wage employers, or the culture problem of the entrepreneurial set, throwing that statistic in the face of every small business owner who ever appears on television.
Way back when, white people stole the whole damn continent. White people once stole the entire value of the life’s work of millions of enslaved Africans, and the descendants of those white people sometimes call the descendants of those formerly enslaved persons lazy. It boggles the mind.
In white communities, Child Protective Services usually only steps in during obvious tragedy. Like the police, white people see CPS rarely and usually in a capacity of protecting and serving. In Native communities and other communities of color where the state definition of “neglect” can be as simple as poverty, CPS’s behavior is more like mass child theft, which is a recognized form of genocide. Researchers have found Black children being taken from their families at twice the rate of white children.
Meanwhile, I think my white predecessors have been beating their kids since they got off the boats from Europe, and they were quite poor at times. No one in those past generations of my family ever had their children taken away by the state. I was whipped with belts and wooden spoons as a child, and no social worker ever came to our house. White people in conservative Christian churches still today share child abuse tips and actively seek out advice on how to get away with beating children in the name of Biblical discipline, and yet there is no stolen generation of white Christian children in America.
Would it be better if more people got harassed, arrested, jailed, shot dead in the street, had their families broken up, or lost family members in response to a constant parade of flawed humanity not living up to our legal ideals? No. I don’t think more brutality will ever convince people that brutality is wrong. White people need to be renouncing violence, not expanding it.
There does need to be a civilian peacekeeping force in our communities. There needs to be some kind of accountability that keeps our transgressions against each other from getting out of hand, without clamping down so tightly that the police will show up for spitting out your gum on the sidewalk. But what we need is not a new kind of war on crime run by police officers who consider excessive force an inalienable prerogative of their jobs. Stop with the wars, already.
The United States instead needs to make peace with Black people, as well as other people of color, and people living in poverty.
Because it would not be too much of a stretch to say that the so-called war on drugs has mostly been a war on Black people, with plenty of other people of color and white people too poor to spring for a good attorney thrown in for good measure. But mostly, a war on Black people.
It would not be too much of a stretch to say that the war on crime has turned into a way to tax poor people by running them through a ruinously expensive criminal justice system to cover costs that local governments can no longer find the political will to tax wealthier, whiter residents to pay for. But that larger and longer war on crime primarily started as, and has continued primarily to be, a war on Black people. It’s been that way since the passage of the 14th Amendment made it possible to deny the vote to people charged with any crime, and racist white state and local governments figured out a new way for Black people to be denied the right to vote while inflating the proportional representation of white people at the same time.
What needs to happen now is that we must stop measuring our commitment to public safety by racking up arrests, prosecutions, probations, and incarcerations, because there aren’t enough armored cars in the world to make that work. Real public safety comes from friendship, trust, and people looking out for each other’s well being; but you can forget about any of that when someone gets arrested, beaten, and then charged with a crime for allegedly bleeding on people.
It would be no stretch at all to say that policing in the United States has traditionally seen Black people as an enemy of white public safety, rather than as members of a unified public who are all equally deserving of being protected and served.
People say we need to outlaw so many things, put so many people in jail, to protect the kids. Kids like Michael Brown? Kids in jail? The many thousands of very young people caught up unfairly in the criminal justice system often started there as children who didn’t get up to anything worse than I, or many other young white people, did.
More than half of all Black men without a high school diploma will spend time in prison—places where torture and rape and all kinds of abuse are known to go on—and that isn’t an accident. How old were you when you heard your first prison rape joke? Let the horror of that sink all the way in. Even brief, unexceptional stays in prison are degrading and inhumane by any standard of ordinary life. Black people make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 40 percent of the prison population, and too many white people seem fine with that.
But if white people want to put racial discrimination in the past like we keep claiming, that discrimination must first come to an end. We need to declare peace in America and then put in the work to make it happen.
The widely reported police declaration that Ferguson was a “war zone” in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing was telling. The police don’t have the power to declare war. And they didn’t. The war that raged, and continues to rage, in Ferguson was there before those police were born, before there was press around to cover it—it’s a war local police forces have been waging against Black people for as long as there have been police in the United States. Where else besides a war do you see a dead body in the street and instead of treating it like a crime scene, the authorities point to the killer’s commendable service record, armor up, and come back itching for a bigger fight?
That’s the attitude of a people at war, even if white people can’t admit that we’ve been party to one. But we have. So we must demand a ceasefire and an end to provocation from every government agency that we fund with our tax dollars. There can be nothing but derision for people who claim the title “patriot” for ordering a latte while packing an assault rifle, but don’t bat an eyelash when a 22-year-old father can be shot to death in a store for picking up a toy gun. And white people, no more calling police just because you see an unexpected Black person. It should not be a crime to make white people twitchy, but Black people have been shot to death by police for exactly that reason.
When someone shoots a white person, even if any given suspect is innocent until proven guilty, the killing itself is considered a crime until proven otherwise because the dead person is presumed innocent of having deserved such a fate. Dead Black person? Well, people were scared, they might have been on drugs, I think I saw a gang sign, check out those clothes…
Stop with the excuses.
White people, there’s already been a race war in the United States. White people won. You can walk outside anywhere in this country or turn on any media outlet and find evidence that this is true. Enough. It’s time for peace, and here’s one way we can start:
It must be considered a crime until proven otherwise to kill a Black person in America.
A serious crime. Not like smoking a joint in the woods, shoplifting small consumer goods, or any of a hundred other stupid things white people do with the reasonable expectation that there will usually be no consequences even though there’s a statute against it somewhere. Because only when it is considered, in practice, a crime to kill a Black person will it be possible to have peace in the United States.