Sunday, May 16, 2010

Automatic Self-Defense

Last year, a young, unarmed Black man was shot in his own driveway by a White police officer who thought he was stealing his own car. The shooting occurred in the mostly White suburb of Bellaire; the officer claimed self-defense, believing that the youth was going to pull a gun on him. This past week, the officer was found not guilty of all charges, apparently finding that the shooting was justified.

The Field Negro links this up to the O.J. Simpson verdict, arguing that Simpson's acquittal wasn't due to some asinine belief that Simpson was innocent, but simply the applied knowledge of Black jurors who knew what standards of evidence exist when White folks kill Black people, and believed justice should be colorblind. I remember also reading reports that the Black community celebrated the Simpson verdict not because they saw an innocent man going free, but because a guilty man was. It's not so macabre -- we live in a society whose criminal justice system is predicated on letting the guilty go free. That's what innocent until proven guilty means. That's what it means to believe that it "better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer." For a long time, that principle was a luxury reserved only for White folks. The Simpson verdict was a rare extension of colorblind justice. If you think the verdict was unjust, then you have to think it's unjust systematically -- not only when it causes criminals of a particular race to get off.

Nonetheless, I think the better comparison to this verdict is not the Simpson trial, but rather something like the "Subway Vigilante" case or Rodney King, and its racial inversions, such as the Chai Vang case. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written quite eloquently on this subject. White fears of Black-on-White violence are essentially an automatic self-defense acquittal at this stage (every time I read the facts of People v. Goetz, I get chills at how one could acquit -- especially the shooting of Cabey). No person of color is afforded this sort of luxury.

Several years ago, I wrote about the experience of young Black men being profiled because they "fit the description". As one man put it "Yeah. Young black male. I always 'fit the description.'" I wrote then:
I've never been stopped "on the street" by a cop. But I do remember one time when I was a teenager playing "hide and go seek in the dark" by my house. I was crouching behind a leaf pile in my front yard, wearing a dark hoodie, when a cop pulls up behind me. It could not have possibly looked more like a stakeout, and I knew it. So I stood up and heartily waved at the cop, who looked at me for a moment, then kept driving. There is no way in hell he would have just kept driving if I was Black.

Forget "kept driving", as this case demonstrates, I could have been shot.* If "young Black male" always "fits the description", "young Black male" also always means "valid self-defense claim". And that's another way of forfeiting certain, less-valued sorts of lives.

(I also highly recommend Jody Armour's Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America).

* I remember telling this story (quite shaken up) to my mother, who assured me that even if the cop had stopped me, all that would have happened is that my parents would have come out, verified that I lived in the house, and that would have been that. The facts of the Bellaire case put a rather sinister twist on that account -- Mr. Tolan's mother coming out was the proximate cause of the shooting (there was an "altercation" -- the family says the cop shoved the mom into a wall -- and when Tolan raised his head to ask what was going on, that was the movement that the officer took as a threat to his life).


Superdestroyer said...

If you look at the right up in the Houston Chronicle,, the police believed the car was stolen because the tag number was incorrectly entered into the dashboard computer. AT least the newspaper article does not support the claim of profiling. In addition, there were other policemen on the scene. And last, why does a 23 y/o adult need his mother getting involved in a traffic stop.

Are you really going to argue that police should ignore stolen car reports if a black man is driving the car? I guess that would make sense for people who believe that colleges should have different admission standards for whites and blacks or that the government should punish and reward ethnic and racial groups.

xephyr said...

I've been pulled over before when riding and know it was because they thought I was black underneath my full coverage, smoked helmet, gloves, leathers, and sportbike. Neither time was I doing anything that could have been construed as wrong.

joe said...

xephyr, how do you know they thought that? I'm not trying to badger you or anything, it's just I've never heard of the "biker in full coverage, must be black" stereotype.

joe said...

Doesn't the Field Negro's hypothesis only get the verdict as far as a hung jury? (Perhaps the black jurors convinced their white counterparts on this point, but that rests on the large assumption that a group of pseudo-randomly selected white people were down with confronting their own privilege.)