Letter to the Future - In Two Skins - XV

Hello Future.
It's Friday, July 8th, 2016.
It's been a while since I've last written you.

Rolling to my night stand in the dark this morning, a Wall Street Journal alert bannered my screen.

"5 Dallas Police Officers Killed by Snipers during Protests"

I buckled. I imagined the officers covering behind whatever barriers the Dallas streets offered as they scanned windows or parking garages for muzzle flash or gun barrels.  Thought of the paramedics pulling dead cops off streets still popping with small arms fire.

And I thought of Philando Castile, whom police shot to death one night earlier in Falcon Heights while in the passenger seat of his girlfriend's car.  I had watched the footage she streamed in the twilight of a long Minnesota summer day, at the corner of Larpenteur and Fry, near the dorm where I spent my first undergraduate year.  The image opens on her. Poised and reporting, she pans to Philando slumped to her right, bleeding out.  Only after a moment you note the standard issue handgun still pointing through the far window, you hear the crescendo of hysteria in the shooting officer, and the feeling sets in that all of this is wildly out of control.

In the dark, I figured how the Dallas attacks would embolden critics of Black Lives Matter.  Opposition to difficult truths, like the reality and killing weight of my privilege, is the most opportunistic of things.  The rampage of that shooter in Dallas last night, and the treasured lives he pillaged, may well be snatched up by skeptics of alleged white privilege and hung from the rafters as proof that there's evil on both sides.  That it's so complicated as to tie our hands.  That we don't and can't know the whole story but, likely, it doesn't boil to privilege and certainly not to race.

To be sure, the ink of these stories still runs as I write.  Our understanding is only taking shape.

Their national context, though, is fully fleshed and tremendously dark.

Alton Sterling was killed early Tuesday in Louisiana.  He'd been tackled to the ground in the parking lot of a convenience store, pinned to his back, and shot several times, starting in his chest.  Like other black men before him, when police killed Alton Sterling, they were all wrapped in the cloak of real time law enforcement.  Defendants claim that even with our looking eyes, we can't penetrate the fog of police encounters with the allegedly criminal.

In that claim, Future, it's important to see America's new reality: these deaths are videotaped.  We watched Alton Sterling die from several angles.  When police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, a people's indictment of the collective American police force precipitated from the cloud of allegation that has hung over American justice since at least the taping of Rodney King's pummeling on the edge of an LA highway, and which started to crystallize after the death of Eric Garner.  Michael Brown's shooting was not taped.  But it became a summons for evidence to corroborate claims of abuse inside a justice system undergirded by a deadly white prejudice.  And the evidence came roaring in.

The strangling of Eric Garner.  Walter Scott shot dead through the back.  The killing of a seated Samuel DuBose.  The cowboy response that felled Tamir Rice.  Freddie Gray's mangled spine, Laquan McDonald's body danced with 16 rounds, and the many dead whose names are only aired at protests or poetry slams.

So often the outcome was death. But a trove of documentary footage accompanied the recordings of killings, showing non-lethal yet horrifying encounters between police and black Americans. Potshots by white officers to the heads of black detainees in handcuffs.  The frenzy to beat black motorists after high speed chases.  Faces smashed on hoods of cruisers made to look like old hat.  Intuition screams that such a damning sample of encounters as the tapes are rolling must belie a brutal daily reality when they're not.

It's all set against an exasperating backdrop.  We have to somehow frame the total acquittal of George Zimmerman, the pretend-a-cop who ignored 911 advice, followed, confronted, and killed the unarmed Trayvon Martin.  Zimmerman now sells memorabilia and leverages his infamy to profiteer in the post-acquittal limelight.  The continuum between police violence and a culture so suspicious of the possibility that a young black kid can die innocent, in his hoodie and his blackness, that we declare his killer without criminal blemish, disallows those communities to take any comfort in the view - and it is my view - that most police officers are decent humans, who carry out their craft in earnest, and commit their working lives to ensuring no harm, much less death, visits their countrymen.

Yet, police officers are half as likely to be convicted in criminal proceedings, and then half as likely to serve time if convicted.  Often, indictments don't come at all.  So black communities ripped of their living have to swallow rulings which conclude that the killing of their black neighbor did not meet the standard of evidence which governs criminality, and will not receive more than the initial weighting of a lone prosecutor.police shooting by race

And there's the rub.  Don't be lulled to obedience by a phenomenon's longevity, Future.  No more should we accept that people have to die in police custody because it's happened all our lives than that economies require slavery or State security torture.  With what kind of power have we endowed police?  Can we say we've rightfully examined the standard for obliteration by a public servant?

The Vox article above talks about supreme court cases and legal precedent, but emotionally and politically we establish our own human expectations.  My own have become disturbingly low. Video of a black man dying surfaces and we start in on a checklist of deserving.  Was he a convicted sex-offender like Alton or a beloved school cafeteria supervisor like Philando?  The spirit of American law urges us that that should not matter.  Police have latitude, but regular judge or jury they are not and cannot be.

These videos smack of early tv dispatches from war zones.  Not because the police are an opposing army - that's never how I mean to portray them - but because the videos are pocked with the undignified reality of violent death that police, medics, and ERs see every day and because that indignity has the power to shock the conscience of an America that was until recently none the wiser.  The scenes are not euphemistic snaps of the finger where an antagonist goes to die elsewhere. After the bullets, Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile both seem to swipe slowly at phantoms as they go.  They attempt noise. Mr. Sterling's barrel chest halos red, and Mr. Castile's right arm jags slightly, maybe broken. The light of the brain whispers retreat.  It requires several moments.  They die with us there.

The murdered police in Dallas deserve the same reflection, same as those killed a few months after Eric Garner, in Brooklyn.  Their deaths maim us, just the same.  But as a white man, I find myself persuaded to a gross concession: that the deaths of those officers are different because they are not written on the joists of our society, not branded into the coping of our national frame.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the galactic distance between the worlds of black boys and white boys.  He writes on how the idyllic neighborhoods of white hijinks and cheek-pinch mischief that made its way to the televisions of black boys in Baltimore in the '90s, boys who hurried to school minding the muscled ownership of street corners and navigated the ruins of failed public education, that those things measure the difference between the security of our bodies.  I don't always agree with Mr. Coates.  Often, in a single breath, he'll claim to know my and my neighbor's stories and dismiss any possibility that they included struggle, real pain or death.  And so I am suspect of his anthology on what my whiteness means.

But where Coates has won me over, is on the size of the galaxy between the security of his body and mine.  There are lots of reasons I would not find myself in the shoes of either Philando Castile or Alton Sterling.  There is no reason more potent than that the color of my skin reflects kindly in the eye of American power.

You will be challenged, Future, to in one moment map the straits of disparate human faculties, which seem spiritually opposed to one another.  To wear resolve and to achieve tenderness. If you are white, you'll inhabit a place of power you'll feel you played no role in carving out. Alcoholism may draw near to you, drugs, loneliness, you may be poor; your daily trudge will be a far cry from the high seat of empire. You'll see friends left behind, marriages decay, towns collapse. You'll be taken advantage of by political dynasty, you'll be nickel-and-dimed by for-profit institutions of education.

But if left unchanged, the teens in your world will be twenty times less likely to be shot and killed by police than their black friends.  You will access credit and education by virtue of birth that your black neighbors will never see.  And you will not suffer the dance of scales in the eyes of strangers which aim to measure aggression, to detect the simmer of an animal.

So you have to find a way, Future.  Same as steel workers are poets, same as black strangers move to embrace white cops in America's convenience stores, shadowed by a week of death and division. You find the voice for both needs. And the belief that you can armor yourself with resolve enough to halt the killing of your neighbor, while achieving tenderness requisite for living in a world that's splitting its skin, that belief makes better possible. That belief seals humanity from the days that would dissolve it.

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