Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Perfect Victim

Now that the dust has settled over Ferguson, Missouri, I want to talk about something that's been weighing on my mind.  There's a common theme in these police brutality cases that's troubling for a number of reasons, but mainly it's troubling because nobody seems to recognize it for what it is.  The problem I'm talking about is the incessant need to have a "perfect victim" before we're willing to admit that excessive police force was unjustified. This is especially true in the case where excessive force was used against a person of color.

The events of Ferguson are instructive on this matter. An unarmed teenager was shot by a police officer 6 times until he was dead.  If the teenager had been armed with any kind of weapon then a natural inference of self defense would rise in favor of the officer.  But here there was no weapon.  Nothing that would seem to warrant deadly force by the officer.  As such, a natural inference of excessive force rises in favor of the victim...or so one would think.  However, there is a strong view held by far too many people in this country that, even in situations like this one where the victim had no weapon, the police officer must have been justified.  Which is another way of saying that the victim had it coming.  

And so the hunt for the "perfect victim" begins.

Those same people will scour the Earth far and wide hoping to find something, anything, that will justify their world view that when a police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager, then said unarmed black teenager must have been up to no good.  Indeed, the Ferguson police department itself played into this theme like clockwork when it rushed to release video of Michael Brown allegedly
A white girl obviously throwing up some kind of "gang sign"
shoplifting cigars from a convenience store even though the video itself shows Brown standing at the counter paying for them.  The media, playing the usual sensationalist role, was quick to run with the "robbery" narrative against Brown and constantly flashed unflattering pictures of Brown looking like a young thug in a low brim baseball cap throwing up "gang signs" with the first 2 fingers on his hand which, when viewed by people outside of the hunt for a perfect victim, is actually the universally recognized "peace" sign.

But please note, the media and police were able to craft this narrative against Michael Brown because Brown, like most victims of police brutality, was not the "perfect victim."  He was not the son of a wealthy family, nor was he himself wealthy.  He was not a private high school graduate on his way to attending the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis this fall; instead he was a public high school graduate from a working class family who had been accepted into a technical/vocational school (Vatterott College).  Although it is true that he was a young Black man, it's notable to observe that he was a young Black man walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri.  Had he been a young Black man walking down the street just 25 minutes to the west in Chesterfield, Missouri (St. Louis' wealthiest suburb), he may have still been stopped but it's highly unlikely that the same events would have taken place. You see, as a matter of law, we all have Constitutional rights protecting us against excessive police force.  But as a matter of practice, the only people who actually enjoy those rights are people who lead a "perfect" life (a/k/a the wealthy).

And therein lies the problem with the "perfect victim."

The "perfect victim" will never exist because the police know better than to harass people who they would consider "perfect", i.e., the wealthy.  Instead, they target people in poor neighborhoods who tend not to know enough about their own rights to fight back.  This is not to say that wealthy people do not partake in criminal activity.  Oh no.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Rich people use drugs and steal things that don't belong to them the same as the poor (Enron anyone? No, not enough?  How about Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz of Tyco, Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth, Ramalinga Raju of Saytam, or Bernie Madoff, just to name a few).  The only difference is that the police rarely shine a spotlight on the activities of the wealthy, whereas the police spend an inordinate amount of time scrutinizing every move made by people in America's poorest neighborhoods.

But living a "perfect" life is not the standard for avoiding police brutality.

Again, we all have the same rights under the Constitution.  The manner in which the police deal with someone suspected of a crime who happens to reside in California's 90210 zip code is the same manner in which Michael Brown should have been dealt with.  The fact that he wasn't is further evidence of the double standard in this country's criminal justice system.  That is a problem in and of itself.  But the real problem is that the moment we discover that a victim of excessive police force led anything short of a perfect life then we automatically assume that his or her execution by the police without judge or jury is somehow justified.  This assumption has no basis in law or in fact.  Your Constitutional rights do not evaporate simply because you smoke a joint or put on a pair of sagging Rocawear jeans or an oversized hoodie.  They don't even evaporate if you shoplift.  None of these things, even if true, have any relevance to whether excessive police force is justified.

You don't need to be "perfect" to have civil rights.  You just need to be a human being...or at least recognized as such.  Perhaps, for some, that is asking for too much.
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