In many ways, I’m an outsider in America. People are confused by my accent, I’m left baffled by certain customs and turns of phrase.
However, in a vitally important way, I am not. I can see police, talk to police, indeed have been stopped by police, without fear. This week has brought home in stark and sobering relief how this is not an assumption that millions of Americans can share. How can large swathes of the black community feel like anything other than outside the much lauded American justice system, with its notions of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and a ‘jury of your peers’?I have had conversations with people, black and white, who in response to Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown, have said some variation on ‘well he was no choirboy- you have to see it from the police officers point of view’.While I don’t agree with these arguments, I understand the urge to give Darren Wilson the benefit of the doubt. There is no video footage of the altercation, and people do seem to want to believe the best of those who are sworn to protect them- even though the benefit of the doubt is something not routinely offered to victims. But I cannot fathom how anyone looks at this case, and then at Tamir Rice, and then at Eric Garner, and fail to see that black lives are judged as less important than white in America. Search for the hashtags “crimingwhilewhite” and “alivewhileblack” to see the disparity in experiences, and ask yourself who isn’t showing ‘respect for the law’. Remember Jared Lee Loughner? Remember James Holmes? White men who committed murder, yet were subdued on the scene without being killed. They were arrested, processed, and availed of the help and protection offered by the American Justice system. Just to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that should be the procedure for everyone, as far as possible. Conservative websites and Fox News twist themselves into knots to simultaneously dismiss race as a factor (this is not a black/white issue, this is a thug/ police officer issue, one commentator said) while blaming Obama and Eric Holder for stoking racial tension. This may have been a useful strategy to demonise legitimate outrage and protest in Ferguson, but there is video footage of Eric Garner. He is agitated, but obviously not a threat to anyone, certainly not the armed police who surround him. And how thuggish was Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy with a toy gun? These are not isolated cases; although official statistics are not kept. At what point do people start giving the victims the benefit of the doubt? At what point does a militarised police force who face no sanction for the murder of black children lose the benefit of the doubt? Peter Beinart in the Atlantic compares the case of Eric Garner with the summer’s conservative cause célèbre, Cliven Bundy, who was flouting the law for more than a decade, was heavily armed, and openly hostile to law enforcement. Try to find how many right wing commentators referred to Cliven Bundy as a ‘thug’.
The hypocrisy and double standards across media are not unique to America, and have long since ceased to be a surprise. But the lack of empathy people exhibit, the presumption that the overwhelming power given to police is not being abused, and the urge to shift blame onto the victim is something I don’t think I’ll ever fully wrap my arms around. In this, I want to remain, in my own safe and nonthreatening way, an outsider.