Commentary Race

Police Brutality and Accountability: When Liberals Forget to Check Their Biases

Alfonso Nevarez

Stated simply, most Americans have an irrational belief that Black men are dangerous, and this bias is especially prevalent among white Americans, including most white liberals and progressives.

Read more of our coverage related to recent events in Ferguson here.

On August 19, Kajieme Powell was shot nine to 12 times at close range 15 seconds into a confrontation with police, just a few miles from the crime scene where Mike Brown was executed ten days prior. The St. Louis police have released a video that provides a graphic documentary of a man’s slaying. I found this to be the most damning video footage yet of the utter disregard too many police officers have for the lives of Black men. And for some who view it, it may be the most damning evidence yet of the low value they themselves place on the lives of Black men as well. Though there is certainly a large gap in culpability between the perpetrators of such violence and the viewers who sympathize with the perpetrators, both the violence and the unwarranted sympathy are the product of the same underlying bias, one that infests our society and fuels the fire of racism like no other.

Stated simply, most Americans have an irrational belief that Black men are dangerous, and this bias is especially prevalent among white Americans, including most white liberals and progressives.

Case in point: Ezra Klein wrote an essay posted on the killing of Kajieme Powell. Klein is clearly disturbed by what he sees in video footage that captured the slaying, as I think any person who is not completely numb to violence would as well. The brutality displayed is impossible to ignore. Klein proceeds to describe what he saw on the video, and the feelings he had when viewing it. When I read it, I could hear the internal struggle Klein experienced when he viewed the video. The description indicates that his eyes were telling him that the events he was seeing contradicted the story police used to justify the killing. His analytical mind was telling him that the force the police used was entirely disproportionate to the threat. His heart was telling him that this man, Kajieme Powell, should still be alive right now, and if not for the actions of these two police officers, he would be.

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Woven into this description, however, are statements that reveal that this new evidence did little to affect the deeply held biases he brought to the table.

As an example, Klein leaves the question of whether the cops are lying open-ended, despite the indisputable fact that the police version of the encounter is filled with verifiably false claims.

It raises questions about aspects of the story police told in the immediate aftermath of the shooting — Powell does not appear to charge the police with his knife held high, and he is shot when he is farther away than two or three feet, for instance.

The video clearly shows Kajieme with his hands at his side the entire time. He does not charge the police in the video. At no point is he within two full-body lengths (>10 ft) of his closest shooter. He sees it himself, but he can’t draw the obvious conclusion: The police are lying to cover this up.

Demonstrating more bias, he continues to report police allegations as fact, despite their obvious lack of credibility, saying, “all Powell had was a steak knife.” Did he? I don’t see a knife. It’s possible, but given the lies the police have presented—not just the shooters but the detectives and officers who are clearly covering for them—who would take such claims at face value?

Someone who identifies with the fear those police faced.

In the aggregate, our society considers Black men threatening, especially young Black men.

It is easy to criticize. It is easy to watch a cell phone video and think of all the ways it could have gone differently. It is easy to forget that the police saw a mentally unbalanced man with a knife advancing on them. It is easy to forget that 20 seconds only takes 20 seconds. It is easy to forget that police get scared.

What Ezra Klein failed to mention when describing his observations and feelings about what he saw was that it was an allegedly mentally unbalanced Black man on the video he was watching. In fact, he never mentions once that Kajieme is Black, and that the police who shoot him are white.

It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.

I would argue that it is easier not to ask yourself what you might have done if the victim had been unarmed and circling, as he appeared to be. And even easier not to ask yourself what you would have done if Kajieme had been white. Because the answer is obvious, isn’t it?

Contrast the killing of Kajieme Brown with this response to a potential threat:

If you’re uncertain about the extent of your bias, be honest with yourself right now. Who was more threatening in these videos: (A) the apparently unstable unarmed or hardly armed Black man who was taunting the police; or (B) the apparently unstable heavily armed white man who was taunting the police? Well, I think the answer is (C) the apparently unstable white police who shot and killed Kajieme Powell and lied about the details to shirk any responsibility for his death. Or maybe it’s (D) the plurality of people in our society who would view a horrifically brutal act and empathize with the perpetrators.

I don’t mean to pick on Ezra Klein exclusively. He just happens to present a perfect case study for attitudes that are prevalent in progressive circles, and in the media as well. He is a left-leaning political journalist who has a track record of covering social justice issues. I can’t pretend to know how he really feels about civil rights and social justice by reading an article or three where he weighs the merits of the “facts” and attempts to come to a “logical” conclusion, but I get the impression that he knows there’s a problem, feels bad that the problem exists, and is frustrated by his inability to identify a possible solution.

The problem is that he, and many others like him in progressive politics, simply don’t understand the problem: We have an aggregated bias in society that assigns attributes to people based on race, and despite any intentions he may or may not have, he is part of that problem. Bias is a difficult concept. There are many shades of bias, from inclination to tendency to prejudice to bigotry to intolerance. Every single one of us has moderate to strong biases that we bring to every situation, and every problem we face. And bias is not always bad. Bias helps us make decisions quickly. Few of us have the time to fully investigate each and every dilemma we’re faced with.

Unfortunately, too many people believe that the absence of bias is ideal, and in the process deny that they have biases. I get the sense that Klein, like so many other well-intentioned progressives, comes from this school of thought, when he concludes that politics makes you dumb. This makes it especially difficult to recognize, and admit, when bias is preventing him from drawing appropriate conclusions. As research shows, “the brain is well-equipped for controlling unwanted biases—if the person detects their presence.”

Rather than trying to eliminate all bias, which is not only impossible but also undesirable, people should strive to suppress unwanted biases. That begins with recognizing that we have unwanted biases. Can we assume that most progressives don’t want racial biases? Since identification and ownership of racial biases is the key to controlling them, what needs to happen to get people to recognize their own racial bias, particularly when that bias perpetuates myths of racial inferiority and immorality? At what point does denial of racial bias, in an effort to fool others, or to fool yourself, begin to define your character?

News Law and Policy

Texas Could Be Next to Give Police Hate Crime Protections

Teddy Wilson

Police officers have shot and killed 165 people in Texas since the start of 2015. Of those, 35 were Black men, 12 of whom were unarmed. There were 2 officers killed by firearms in Texas in 2015.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Monday that he would ask the state legislature to pass a law classifying acts of violence committed against law enforcement officers as hate crimes, mimicking a similar measure passed by Louisiana lawmaker.

Abbott said in a statement that the proposal is intended to send a message.

“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the State will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” Abbott said.

Abbott will ask the GOP-held Texas legislature to pass the Police Protection Act during the upcoming 2017 legislative session, which convenes in January. The proposal would extend hate crime protections to law enforcement officers.

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Abbott’s proposal would increase criminal penalties for any crime against a law enforcement officer, regardless of whether or not the crime qualifies as a hate crime. The proposal would create a campaign to “educate young Texans on the value law enforcement officers bring to their communities.”

Abbott’s proposal comes in the wake of a shooting in Dallas that left five police officers dead, and six others injured. Micah Xavier Johnson targeted police officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, before he was killed by law enforcement.  

Police officers killed at least 1,146 people in the United States in 2015, according to the Guardian’s database The Counted. Police officers have shot and killed 165 people in Texas since the start of 2015. Of those, 35 were Black men, 12 of whom were unarmed, according to the Guardian’s database. There were two officers killed by gunfire in Texas in 2015, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).

Police in Texas have shot and killed 53 people so far in 2016, per the Guardian‘s database.

The Dallas shooting increased the urgency of calls to increase the penalties for violence against law enforcement.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced similar legislation in Congress, designed to make killing a police officer a federal crime. Cornyn said in a statement that police officers protect communities and deserve “unparalleled support.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) in May signed into law the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill, which amended the state’s hate crime law to include acts of violence against any “law enforcement officer, firefighter, or emergency medical services personnel.”

Proponents of laws creating more penalties for crimes against law enforcement claim these measures are needed because of a growing threat of targeted violence against law enforcement. Data shows that violence against law enforcement has declined to historically low levels, while killings of civilians by police officers have risen dramatically.

Violent attacks on law enforcement officers are lower under President Obama than they have been under the previous four presidential administrations, according to the Washington Post’s analysis of data from the Officers Down Memorial Page.

During the Reagan presidency, there was an average of 101 law enforcement officers intentionally killed per year; during the George H.W. Bush administration, there was an average of 90 police killed per year; during the Clinton years, there was an average of 81 police killings annually; and during George W. Bush’s presidency, there was an average of 72 police killings via stabbings, gunfire, bombings, and vehicular assault per year.

There have been an average of 62 law enforcement officers killed annually during Obama’s seven and a half years in the White House.

The number of Texans who died during the course of an arrest almost doubled from 2005 to 2015, according to an analysis of state data by the Dallas Morning News. The increase in deaths coincided with a 20 percent reduction in the number of arrests statewide.

Matt Simpson, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, told the Dallas Morning News that the number of deaths during arrests in Texas add to the evidence of systemic racism within the justice system.

“We have pretty strong evidence in a variety of ways that the criminal justice system is disproportionate,” Simpson said. “These numbers are unfortunately stark reminders.”

News Politics

#SitInForThe49 Protesters Demand Gun Safety, Equality, and End to Community Violence (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

Protesters are demanding action from Sen. Marco Rubio and “all elected officials who have contributed to the discrimination and violence” that plagues communities of color, according to a press release.

UPDATE, July 12, 9:42 a.m.: After spending nearly ten hours at Sen. Marco Rubio’s Orlando office, ten sit-in participants were arrested, according to local news reports. Monivette Cordeiro of Orlando Weekly reported that those arrested were released from police custody as of Tuesday morning.

UNITE HERE, a national labor organization committed to LGBTQ rights, launched a sit-in on Monday at Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s Orlando, Florida office.

The 49-hour sit-in in the atrium of his office building seeks to honor the 49 predominantly Latino victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and demand action from Rubio and “all elected officials who have contributed to the discrimination and violence” that plagues communities of color, according to a UNITE HERE press release.

In the month since the deadly mass shooting “opportunist political leaders” have done nothing to help the communities most affected by the attack, UNITE HERE said in the press release. The “No Fly No Buy” legislation, pushed by Democrats that would bar gun sales to people on a government terrorist watch list, only “employs racial profiling and fails to address the most urgent needs of marginalized communities,” it added.

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On behalf of the inaction of politicians to address issues affecting queer and trans communities of color, those participating in the #SitInForThe49 have a list of demands related to gun safety, equality, and community violence. At the top of the list is a call for lawmakers to reject financial contributions from the National Rifle Association and implement universal background checks. Protesters also want lawmakers to enact legislation making it a crime to “knowingly import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon or large capacity ammunition-feeding device.”

The victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, almost all of whom were queer people of color and many of whom were immigrants and undocumented, already suffered from discrimination because of their identities, poverty wages, and an unjust immigration system, according to UNITE HERE. That is why protesters are demanding “not only an end to hateful rhetoric and policies that perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, but the passage of a fully-inclusive national LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination law and comprehensive immigration reform,” UNITE HERE explained in the press release.

Lastly, those participating in the sit-in are calling for lawmakers to end police brutality and develop “a transparent database of law enforcement activities, repeal mandatory-minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and institute after-school programs, living wage jobs, and accessible higher education to cultivate brighter futures” for community members.

Rubio, who has received endorsements from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative leaders opposed to LGBTQ rights, cited the Pulse nightclub shooting as the reason he was re-entering the run for re-election to the Senate, months after stating he would not run.

“Sen. Rubio claims he is ‘deeply impacted’ by last month’s Pulse Nightclub Shooting, yet he continues to terrorize Orlando’s LGBTQ+ communities of color by adhering to a platform of so-called ‘conservative values‘ which discriminates, dehumanizes, and denies access to the American dream,” said UNITE HERE.

Responding to the news of the sit-in, Sen. Rubio’s office said in a statement to Rewire: “Senator Rubio respects the views of others on these difficult issues, and he welcomes the continued input he is receiving from people across the political spectrum.”

Michelle Suarez, one of the protesters participating in the sit-in told Rewire that as an immigrant and a Latina, she felt it was important to join the sit-in because a bulk of those killed in the nightclub shooting were Latino and she wants to stand with her community. Seeing people become politicized has been a bright spot, she said, and she’s hopeful that things will “one day change” for the communities most impacted by the shooting, but the activist told Rewire she is disappointed in politicians whose politics disenfranchise communities of color.

“Marco Rubio has said he’s for the Latino community and when the shooting happened, he made a statement saying he was impacted, but the reality is that his voting record and the money he receives from the NRA and his platform of so-called ‘conservative values’ is what continues discrimination against our communities,” Suarez said.

“If politicians won’t do anything for us, we need people to start organizing and strategizing for reform. We can not tolerate the racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or xenophobia. We hope this sit-in unites people and inspires them to organize.”