"Hands Up, Don't Shoot" is not just about Mike Brown, or Ferguson,or police shooting unarmed black people. "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" is about a fundamental question that gets to the core of what this country stands for. It's a question that's been open to debate since long before Darren Wilson shot and killed the unarmed Brown four months ago: Do black lives matter, and if so, how much?
Jeff Roorda and his ilk don't want that to be the question at hand. Roorda, a disgraced former police officer, who moonlights as the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA), released a statement on behalf of the SLPOA demanding that the five St. Louis Rams players who came out of the tunnel before Sunday's game with their hands up be "disciplined and for the Rams to issue a very public apology."
The reason the SLPOA made this demand is because they need Mike Brown's death to be evaluated absent context or dissent. They need Brown's death to be evaluated under "unorthodox and unusual" circumstances. They need the "prosecution" to rely on 30 year old, discredited case law. And, ultimately, they need to be able to rely on the public's belief that black males are inherently dangerous super humans.
Roorda asserts that the Rams players' display was "synonymous with assertions that Michael Brown was innocent of any wrongdoing and attempting to surrender peacefully when Wilson… gunned him down in cold blood." In case Roorda's point was missed, he reminds the NFL that "it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It's the cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do." That sound you're hearing is the loudest dog whistle since Willie Horton.
What Roorda doesn't get—or perhaps chooses to ignore—is that this is about far more than Mike Brown. It should be obvious to anyone who has shown even a passive interest: The 114 days of consecutive protests going on across America are far broader in scope than any one case. The protests are also about Eric Garner, who was choked to death after committing the crime of informing police that they were trying to arrest the wrong man. The protests are about John Crawford, who was killed for committing the crime of shopping while black in a white neighborhood. The protests are about Ezell Ford and Tanisha Anderson, whose crimes were being mentally ill in America. The protests are about Levar Jones, whose crime was too promptly doing exactly what an officer asked him to do. The protests are about whether or not 12-year old Tamir Rice can play with a toy in the park without being summarily executed by the police who lie about the circumstances of his killing, and then have the media aid them in smearing his memory. The protests are about Darrien Hunt and Akai Gurley. The protests are about far too many people to list here.
A common response to the protests has been, "Where is all the outrage when black people kill other black people?" This was a question asked by former New York City Mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, a Wall Street Journal columnist, and basically anyone and everyone on Twitter. The problem with this question is that it immediately alerts the audience to two things about the person asking it: 1) The person clearly never talks to people in black communities; 2) The person is not interested in being intellectually honest.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates has tirelessly documented, the black community does, in fact, protest black on black crime. A better question might be: Why does the media not report the drastic decrease in black on black crime in the past 20 years? Or, where are the protests for white men's crimes against women as a whole. After all, according to the FBI, white men kill twice as many women as black men do. Or, where are the protests for white on white crime, when it happens at almost an identical rate to black on black crime?
But, ultimately, we all know the answers to those questions. The answer, of course, is that people like Giuliani don't talk about black on black crime except when it serves as a distraction from a crime a white person committed, because we have no interest in discussing how we actually got here. We have no interest in self-examination.
Protesters outside Sunday's Rams-Raiders game. Photo by Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports.
Discussing how we actually got here means talking about redlining and legalized housing discrimination. It means talking about the 100 years of white on black terrorism that followed the Civil War. It means talking about the intentionally racist incarceration practices that have ravaged entire communities and continues to rob many of their voting and housing rights. It means talking about the fact that, right now, the average white high school dropout has nearly double the wealth of the average black college graduate.
And while we're taking an honest look in the mirror, let's also talk about our police officers—after all, Darren Wilson is a police officer. And it's a bunch of police officers now whining about the Rams. One reason most people grant police such enormous discretion in meting out lethal force is because of the perception that being a police officer is such an inherently dangerous job that if they have to spend even an extra second considering whether or not to shoot it will be the officer lying dead in the street. But is this true?
We know that it is safer to be a police officer now than at any time in the past 40 years. We also know that about 45 police officers nationwide were killed by shootings or stabbings each of the past five years. How does that compare to other apparently dangerous professions? According to OSHA's database along with the Bureau of Labor Statistics on workplace killings and deaths, in 2013 796 construction workers, 112 oil and gas extractors, 63 pilot and flight engineers, and 42 members of the mining industry were killed in the line of duty. What about jobs that we don't typically consider dangerous? According to the same data, the following professions had more people killed while working than police officers that were shot or stabbed to death in 2013: landscaping, cattle ranching, financial services, grocery/convenience store salesperson, logging, real estate, and fabricated metal manufacturing.
However, while policing is becoming safer than ever, the odds of being killed by the police appear to be at their highest since the Civil Rights Era. While there is no official database for all civilians killed by police, some grassroots efforts have begun popping up to tally these numbers, and here are things we do know: Police killings are at a 20 year high. Over the past five years in Utah, police have killed more people than drug dealers, gang members, or child abusers. Last year in Seattle, over 20 percent of all homicides were at the hands of police officers. And, nationwide, the instances of local police using government gifted military equipment to terrorize communities for violations as simple as barbering without a license or as a response to someone calling the suicide hotline, seem to be happening on a daily basis.
Whether Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens, and Kenny Britt, the five Rams who raised their hands, knew it at the time, their silent protest was a culmination of hundreds of years, thousands of victims. It was always bigger than Ferguson. But Jeff Roorda and the SLPOA can't have that be the case. They can't have you look at the forest, just an individual, bullet riddled tree. For their rhetoric to work they need every single incident evaluated by itself, and with typically only one living witness to give their side of what happened.
They need you to believe that a 12-year-old child could look like a 20 year old man. They need you to believe that selling loose cigarettes warrants the death penalty. They need you to believe that America is more dangerous than ever, even when it is actually safer than ever. They need you to believe that the big black man is about to kill you, even though, if you're white, you're six times more likely to be killed by a white person. They need you to believe that black people are super human, impervious to bullets, and inherently dangerous creatures.
And, ultimately, they need you to believe that black lives don't matter, at least not as much as white lives do. That is how they get away with not only killing young black men and not having to answer for it, but also taking a victory lap around the St. Louis Rams.