Add another notch in the American police force’s belt. This time, it’s Walter Scott, a black man in North Charleston, South Carolina, summarily executed by sociopath-in-blue Michael Slager. Scott is just one of, statistically, three people to be killed by a cop that day, April 4. But his story has generated special attention for two important reasons: first, his murder was filmed by a passerby, and second, his killer has been fired and charged.
Because of shoddy recordkeeping, there’s no accurate count of how many citizens have been killed by police, justifiably or otherwise. But in just the past eight months, several high-profile cases have made household names of black Americans killed by police. There was Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was shot for the crime of playing with a toy gun in Cleveland; Eric Garner, the man who was choked to death for selling loose cigarettes; Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was shot in the climax of an altercation that began with his jaywalking; and now, Walter Scott, who was executed for fleeing a broken taillight traffic stop.
If at first there appears to be a glimmer of hope in the fact that Officer Slager was charged, there is still plenty of room for skepticism. For one thing, Rice and Garner’s executions were also filmed, and neither even led to a charge, let alone a conviction. And charging one officer doesn’t come close to accomplishing massive, citizen-governed overhaul of the entire nation’s police forces that’s desperately needed.
All the common elements are in place in the Walter Scott story. An officer makes an arrest and then claims the suspect tried to seize his weapon, became confrontational and caused the officer to fear for his life. This is a routine characterization of black citizen/officer of the law interactions, often given by police to the media when it’s too late for the victim to offer an alternative description. To suppose that Slager is some kind of exception, and that the narrative has been true all the other times departments claimed it, is preposterous.
This is where the Scott case reveals something nasty about our culture. It shouldn’t take uncontestable video proof to convince white people to take black Americans seriously when they complain of police violence in their communities. Movements like Black Lives Matter don’t spring up for no reason. The grievances of black America are real and widespread. For years, black Americans have been protesting extrajudicial police killings and racial discrimination. The evidence for these patterns is exhaustive and overwhelming. Yet white commentators still bemoan the presence of black activists in the streets. They continue to insist that police do not target black Americans disproportionately. And in cases like the killing of Michael Brown, where there was no video proof, they are quick to look for ways to exonerate the officer and find the victim guilty of some kind of crime after his murder in order to justify it.
But for those who are hesitant to believe black people at their word, just read it in the police-oriented press. Officers are trained to view themselves as soldiers in a war, and the enemy in that war is militant blacks. Forget that this enemy is largely just a fabrication to justify the existence of things like MRAP tanks in small towns. Like in so many modern wars, the enemy combatants police face can be hard to identify – they blend right in with the regular citizenry because they are the regular citizenry.
Note how unshaken Slager is by the fact that he just fired eight flesh-rending bullets at the body of an unarmed man. He waltzes over to, apparently, put the frame on Scott by dropping his taser on him as though he’d concocted the story by rote. Maybe he was thinking about all sorts of things at that moment – the season premiere of his favorite show, the policemen’s softball league warm-ups, dump the weapon on the body of the dead black man. The point is it appears par for the course, a day in the life. Most importantly, it’s the kind of behavior that is the product of practice, training and indoctrination.
If scandals like Walter Scott’s killing provide an impetus for some type of change, so much the better. Slager’s firing and being charged with murder is the correct action for the department to take in this particular case. But it’s much more important to focus on the systemic nature of police-on-citizen crime. The media sensationalizes the deaths of black Americans and “investigates” them by probing into the personal lives of the parties involved. They should pay attention instead to the wider narratives of police militarization, training, recruitment, and statistical analysis of police violence, which is simply astonishing – for instance, American police killed more people in March than UK police have killed since the year 1900. White people need to learn how to listen to their fellow black citizens and recognize the reality of their grievances. There is a great deal more evidence than one video to incriminate American police as an institution.