“I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose and still somehow, it’s life’s allusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.”– Joni Mitchell
The Ma’Khia Bryant case seems to be the perfect Rorschach test for policing and race relations as they currently stand. The 16 year old teen was shot and killed by police on the same day the Derek Chauvin verdict came down. The dark irony was not lost on the African American community. Many peacefully protested immediately following the event.
Each side of the political spectrum seem to throw out their own snark and neither seem to be particularly helpful. What we know is that she was shot while threatening others with a kitchen knife. So, the right threw out memes about all of knife fights they had growing up. Their tongues were firmly planted in their cheeks. It’s a laugh a minute with them.
The left pointed out that she was a honor student. For instance, I usually love John Pavlovitz’s work, but his recent post on this missed out on a lot of nuance. In an earlier piece, I talked about the perception problem that came with showing pictures of Daunte Wright with a gun. The mention of her as a honor student presents the same problem. While it might be relevant to her overall character, it is not particularly helpful in sorting through the facts of this particular case.
When the officers approached they could have no idea who Bryant was. They couldn’t have known whether she was an “A” student or a potential dropout. They saw a potentially dangerous teenager that was threatening the lives of everyone on the scene. They saw the dangerous weapon. Contrary to what some would have us believe. This is not a normal scene for most of us. That would be the genesis of those jokes told in right wing memes.
However, what is equally misleading is the false dichotomy that the right forces us into in these situations. The reflexive reaction seems to be to force police to stand back and allow whatever bad is going to happen happen and then investigate after the fact. In other words, certainly don’t intervene because then you will be blamed for whatever you do.
I certainly do love passive aggressive behavior. Moreover, the response demonstrates the binary thinking that usually comes from the right. You can do nothing or you can shoot to kill. They fail to see that while much of the criticism lacks nuance, it comes from a place where we want better outcomes. How do we get those better outcomes? That’s a fair question.
Community policing is just one answer. I mentioned that none of the responding officers knew Bryant. Why not? If those that patrolled the neighborhood frequently also responded to the call it’s more likely they would have known Bryant. Maybe they would have known she was an honor student and could have used that relationship and knowledge to talk her down before shots needed to be fired.
However, the more pressing question is why we always have to shoot to kill. Couldn’t they have disabled her instead? It’s a knife. All that needs to happen is to allow those in her path to get out of the way and away from danger. Maybe Bryant has a future after that. Maybe she could make good on the promise she was showing as a student. Maybe she could learn from her mistakes and become a productive member of society.
Racism is usually never overt. It is usually subtle and this is where both sides often get it wrong. Those officers didn’t shoot Bryant because she was black. They would have responded to a call of a white girl with a knife. They would have taken the situation just as seriously. Would they have done the same thing? That’s a much more complicated question.
All we need to do is consider the cases of Dylan Roof and the Santa Fe shooter. They survived their ordeals. This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t have. Maybe I wouldn’t have taken Roof to McDonald’s afterwards, but we don’t have to shoot to kill either. There is something going on here that has to be addressed. We need to ask ourselves why these situations often turn out this way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something nefarious or illegal. It usually isn’t.
The officers involved in the Bryant case didn’t do anything illegal necessarily. It was a dangerous situation. Lives potentially hung in the balance. They acted and that was that. What we can’t quite put our finger on is that there is a slice of humanity they seem to see when they see white suspects. Maybe they see themselves. Maybe they see the potential. Maybe they feel something they just don’t feel when they encounter suspects that are people of color. Maybe there is just some level of connection that isn’t there.
I don’t know how you fix that. I think community policing would help. If police get to know the members in their community then it is easier to see them as people when bad things go down. I think psychological testing of potential officers would certainly help. Rooting out would be racists before they start would be a huge help. I think new training would also help. There are a number of options to try between doing nothing and shooting to kill. All of those are good things and things that would make the situation better. It won’t eliminate every situation. Perfect is the enemy of good. There will never be a perfect, but we need to do better and we can’t afford to wait any longer.