When the Blinders Are On, The Knives Come Out
By Chris M. Barkley:
Belief – Understanding = Ignorance
We, collectively, live on a very large, complex, noisy, crowded and messy planet. And on this planet, at this particular time, communicating your ideas clearly and concisely is not only important, it’s essential.
If only it were that easy.
Mind you, if you wanted to communicate your feelings to a broad audience, you can do it as easily as ordering a latte from Starbucks. Which can be a big problem when you have a lot of people with conflicting ideas and ideologies competing for you money, attention and time.
But consider this; what if your fervent belief in your own values could be hindering your ability to engage your empathy for those who you disagree with, politically or socially?
On the afternoon of September 15, on Hoffman Avenue in the Olde Towne East neighborhood of Columbus Ohio, a thirteen year old black teenager, Tyre King, was shot left temple, the upper left chest and upper left side of the abdomen by Bryan Mason, a white Columbus Police officer. It was alleged by police that King, along with several other teenagers, had robbed a man of ten dollars with a gun. When police responded and confronted two of the teens, King allegedly pulled a gun from his waistband, which is when Officer Mason fired.
On September 16, knowing just these few scant details, I came across a post on Facebook page of a prominent fan from the United Kingdom, lamenting about this latest police involved shooting.
(Note: I am not naming this fan or any of those who support this point of view, because as much as I disagree with what happened next; no one should not be subject to recriminations or harassment by anyone reading this.)
I wrote that the situation was terrible but, under the circumstances, we should withhold any final judgment about what happened until the investigation had been completed. The reaction, from this person and other friends from around the UK and Europe was swift, harsh and unrelenting.
What the hell was I talking about? A cop shot a child. America’s police forces were out of control. America is full of corrupt cops. America is like the Wild West. When will the police stop killing? End of story, pal.
I found myself being quite startled and bewildered by these reactions. I have to explain that I have always been a bit of an optimist and that I have always considered myself to be a human being first, then an American and black, in that order. But being an African-American, I have always had to walk a tightrope of emotions when it comes to living here. I have experienced the worst sorts of discrimination, violence, insults and racism just based on my appearance as a black man. I feel and experience it every day, whether I like it not. But one of the safe spaces I have enjoyed over the past forty years, until very recently was being in the company of fans, writers, artists and editors in sf and fantasy fandom.
When I was in my formative years, I briefly entertained thoughts of being a police officer myself. And that period, the late 60’s through the early 70’s, the United States was rife with more violent crime and domestic terrorism than we do today. But as a teenager, I was more attracted to the gritty movies and tv shows of the day, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Seven Ups, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O and Adam-12.
All of this came to a grinding halt at the tender age of fifteen, thanks to Detective Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Wambaugh, a former marine, served with the LAPD for fourteen years before retiring to write full-time.
I first stumbled across his first novel, The New Centurions (1971), at the public library in 1973. That, plus his other early novels, The Blue Knight, The Choirboys and his stunning non-fiction best seller, The Onion Field, pulled back the glamorous veneer of police work and showed me what it truly was, dark, dangerous and only occasionally fulfilling. He was also an executive story consultant for NBC’s Police Story (1973-1979), an anthology series whose episodes, more often than not, dared to show the dark underbelly of policing.
Reading Joseph Wambaugh’s works probably saved my life. I could not imagine that I would have survived the emotional and physical toll the job would have taken on me over any lengthy period of time.
On top of all this, my brother-in-law, who married my sister straight out of high school, went straight to the police academy and served in the Cincinnati Police department for thirty years, on patrol duty, undercover, an elite street robbery unit and internal affairs. I find it remarkable that he appears to be whole and sane after seeing, hearing and experiencing what he did over his career in police work.
So, when I graduated from high school, I opted for a slightly safer occupation; journalism courses and a degree in English.
Throughout my life of sixty years, I have stayed alive because of my knowledge of the police and how they operate, along with a good dose of common sense. I also have a great deal of empathy for the police, because I know what it is doing to them on emotional level.
Which brings me back to the Facebook discussion; I explained, several times to the posters on the thread that police work, no matter where or who is practicing it, is not only physically dangerous, it is, more importantly, emotionally dangerous, which is what Joseph Wambaugh taught me. No one wants to see a cop unless someone is shooting or robbing them. Otherwise, some people feel, your speeding, broken car parts, expired license, decrepit vehicle, driving with your headlights off, public drunkenness or impaired driving, is no one else’s business.
And of course, this is dead wrong. Public safety, which incorporates all of the activities above and countless other infractions, comes under their purview.
The police, I explained, are human beings, too. And like all human beings, they miscalculate, misunderstand and, through their own experiences, come with a set of values and judgments that come from dealing with the public on a daily basis. Most cops deal with this precarious balance of sense and sensibility. Others, unfortunately, do not.
Over the decades, the police departments in many cities, most notably in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and yes, even Cincinnati, have been placed under investigation or scrutiny by the Department of Justice for unwarranted shootings or violence, against unarmed civilians, most of them being minorities.
I tried to explain to the thread that In this day and age of cell phone cameras, dashcams, the internet and the vigilance of an informed public, police shootings, justified or not, will not go unnoticed. I told them that as flawed as it was, I believe in our system of due process and trial by evidence, not public opinion.
Will justice be served in the case of every shooting? No. But the record for posterity and the memories of those left behind will never be erased from history.
As far as I could tell, all of the correspondents condemned me. One poster wrote, “Well, obviously you must be white”, an astonishing and surreal accusation that could have been easily avoided had she bothered to check my Facebook profile. A child was dead and a cop shot him, case closed. I, in turn, asked if you were a police officer in that situation, and a gun was present, such as a 2014 case in Cleveland, Ohio, when twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in a public park while holding a realistic looking air rifle, could you tell the difference between a real gun and air gun? A police officer, who is already under duress, has to make a choice in seconds whether or not that gun is real. No one wanted to deal with the reality they face EVERY SINGLE DAY that they might end up being on the receiving end of a fatal gunshot.
But this argument came to a head the very next day. Some of my posts featured words in caps, when I tried to emphasize a point when everyone was ignoring my arguments, the owner of the wall declared that I was “shouting” and I summarily blocked.
Now mind you, I have known this person for a few years and had some pleasant conversations at Worldcons in the past. Being summarily dismissed over a difference of opinion shocked and angered me.
And as for the shooting in Columbus that started this argument? Upon examination, the weapon in fact, turned out to be an air gun fitted with a laser sight. An autopsy released by the coroner on November 10th revealed that King had no drugs or alcohol in his system and that the left side wound indicates that King was turning to run or was running when he was shot. An independent autopsy done at the behest of the King family matched the official autopsy. Sean Walton, an attorney for the family, planned to call for an independent investigation and send their report to other forensic experts for further analysis.
On November 22, Demetrius E. Braxton, 19, who was also arrested at the scene, was sentenced to three years in prison for one count of robbery as part of a plea agreement.
As of this date, Officer Mason is still on desk duty and Columbus Police are still investigating the shooting. I wonder if any of the people who denigrated me actually followed up on what happened in Columbus?
Indeed, I wonder if any of these righteous people had heard of or care about the five valiant police officers who died protecting Black Lives Matter protesters when the officers were brutally ambushed by a sniper this past July.
How about Detective Benjamin Marconi of San Antonio, Texas, who was fatally shot on November 20th while writing a traffic ticket. And Deputy Sherriff Eric James Oliver of the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office, Florida, who was struck by a vehicle while pursuing a suspect on November 22nd.? And what about Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez of Tacoma, Washington, who was killed by gunfire when he responded to a domestic disturbance call on November 30th? NOTE: The total of police killed in the line of duty in 2016 as of November 30th stood at 133, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Of those, 60 deaths were from gunfire.
So yeah, I get it; there are some police officers who kill or maim unarmed civilians with malice. Some of them are caught and punished, others are not. But do you care, do you give a damn or a thought to the police officers who are hurt or killed performing their sworn duty to protect the public?
Why do some people vehemently turn on other people they know over some minor disagreement? Especially people, neighbors or friends who have similar views and outlooks?
Actually, as a progressive leaning person, this is not something I had really not given much thought to until, strangely enough, Black Friday morning. I had planned on getting up at 5 a.m. to attend a sale at a local bookstore but, in deference to my rather sleepy partner, I opted to listen to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition instead.
The very first story that morning featured host Steve Inskeep interviewing Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, who had published a controversial essay in the New York Times on what he called identity liberalism and how that was one of the main causes of the startling election of Donald Trump. The interview can be heard here and the essay is here.
In brief, Professor Lilla thinks that enlightened self-interest is at times overcome by myopic concerns on a few or even one issue. As I lay in bed listening, I found myself flashing back to that incident on Facebook. And what Lilla theorized made perfect sense in retrospect; when the blinders go on, the knives come out.
Now, before we all start feeling all smug and condescending about liberals or sf fandom, these same of standards could be equally applied to the conservative forces that have been obstructing President Obama’s agenda during his two terms or any of the more strident supporters of President-Elect Trump.
We all carry some inherently bias in one way or another, either through our political or social or intimate interactions.
A few days after the NPR interview, I encountered a few Trump supporters on my open and public page. Instead of blasting them and summarily blocking them, as I had done in the past, I tried a different approach. I told them while I was not pleased at all with President-Elect Trump and his cabinet appointees; there were serious concerns about his conflicts of interests with his businesses. I also pointed out that the people peacefully protesting were not the enemy, they were citizens and had a right to do so. Furthermore, since we’re all in this boat together, we should concentrate on finding common areas to work on together instead of attacking each other on everything we disagree on.
And the responses in return were remarkable. One man explained why he voted for Trump and said that for one, he enjoyed engaging with someone who wasn’t calling him an “alt-right nazi” at the drop of a hat. The other said that he did not like fighting all the time online and wished that more people like me would just try talking instead of shouting at each other all of the time.
Buddhists have a phrase, “the middle path”, in which they describe a philosophy where extremism is avoided and wisdom is gained through understanding. Western political thought has other comparable terms, compromise and empathy.
Over the past few years, fandom has faced a problem with dissidents; the Sad and Rabid Puppies. The us and them, push and pull and political gamesmanship over the very nature of the fandom has stressed it to the point of being permanently fractured, much like the United States is presently.
The only way any of us are going to survive the Trump Administration, or each other, is to stop shouting at each other and start listening more. I say this not as an excuse to accommodate the racism, sexism, homophobia or religious persecution. We are going to be fighting these battles for some time to come and we, collectively, should spare no effort to combating it.
But we need to start somewhere. We need to understand in order to overcome the conflict, animosity and anger we all carry with us each day.
We start by listening.
Knowledge + Empathy = Enlightenment