• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Trump And The State Of Black America And The Police

August 2017

In the waning days of Obama’s presidency, domestic issues abounded. The culture, quite unlike the state in which he had received it in 2008, was riven with unprecedented strife. During the course of his two terms, one might’ve understandably felt as though the culture—admittedly, always somewhat of a tenuous thing—had unfastened at its seams. The social fabric was unravelling. Cordial disagreements seemed to have dissolved into blatant and churlish character attacks. Brothers, left and right, felt drawn unnaturally but politically toward fratricide. The liberal would vivisect the conservative at the family dinner. Sympathy was reverting in a base and shameless way into enmity. The political fringes, at one time nuanced, yes, but amenable and recognizable, had turned and fled in opposite and irreconcilable direction. They were no longer brusque but collegial friends, but distant and hateful antipodes.

It was within this atmosphere, within these lamentably worsening mores, that the defining domestic issue was came to be. None of the issues—among them a flailing healthcare system, a hopeful economy, and an uncertain national identity—rivaled in tempestuousness nor in sadness that of police misconduct (or the perception thereof) in predominantly black communities. The fact that this even was an issue caught many by surprise. Obama, born of a white mother, sired by a black father, and reared in every dynamic and culturally interesting corner of the globe (from the Philippines to Chicago, Kenya to California, and Hawaii to Harvard Square), was supposed to be the healer of all past and present racial wounds. It was to him we looked for a redeemer, for someone who might, with a generous and magnanimous hand, tend to our disrepair. Instead, as Obama takes his leave, the wounds appear only to be suppurating.

And bleeding. From the corpse of Michael Brown, the young black Missouri man with whom Officer Darrin Wilson engaged and fatally shot, arose the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The movement, if at all unclear in its name, was predicated on the suspicion that, heretofore, the black man mattered much less than the white. Modernity might serve as an empirical and statistical rebuke, but based upon the racially abhorrent history of America and the Jim Crow South, the movement had a point. The group tailored its polemics and its protests against law enforcement officers and departments across the U.S. And, with each subsequent police shooting or uncertain death in the midst of a racially-tinged circumstance, their adherents grew in number and their movement in credence.

Inevitably, there was a push back. The police officers, feeling themselves unjustly assailed and chastised, started their own movement. In response, they called it, “Blue Lives Matter”. It, like its antecedent “Black Lives Matter”, is a somewhat prosaic name, but that’s undoubtedly to the point. Their protestations were just as strong and the justifications for their anger and indignation quite as obvious. They bristled at the sheer thought, as it was alleged, that their departments were imbued with what’s come to be known as “systemic racism”, a term that has become a misappropriated by-word for criminal justice.

The two groups have become mutually exclusive. Any claim to the contrary is either ingenuously hopeful or deliberately misleading. Advocacy for the one necessarily excludes sympathy for the other. You simply can’t hold that both have legitimacy. It’s impossible to consider that both have an interest in the truth and in America’s slow process toward its long-awaited edification. Already dangerously schismatic, the political gap has widened with the left jumping to the side of the “Black Lives” while the right to those in blue. Attempts to bridge this gap have proven unpropitious, in much the same way that attempts to soften the political vitriol and disdain coming from the further reaches in the echo-chambers of the fascistic left and the fanatical right.

In light of this seeming intractable animosity, what is a government to do? Surely, and with frightening historical data to account, black Americans have been treated improperly by law enforcement officials. This is incontrovertible if one scours our segregated American past. Through time, such treatment revealed itself both subtly and overtly. If done so in the former way, it became an imperceptible but insidious habit. If done in the latter, it became at first heinous and then egregious. The bigotry of the criminal justice system long went unchecked, and for that, black Americans suffered. For decades and generations, they were beleaguered by its predations that never went punished.

And who could expect a man to impose punishments upon himself? But the cops of today aren’t to be blamed or held to account for their predecessors’ sins. Today’s cops, for their own part, have also become ostracized and marginalized. A skeptical community views them with suspicion and with doubt. We err on the presumption that officers are operating with ill motives. We impugn them and charge them with indecent conduct without them having even uttered a word. Few among us recognize that today’s officer is tasked with an insurmountable feat. He or she must face exponential rates of criminality and overwhelming responsibility. They’ve become not only enforcers and protectors of our law, but psychologists, alienists, and immigration specialists. Their responsibilities have far exceeded the limits to which once they were constrained. As such, the officers have been tasked with too much and stretched too thin.

So, each side, the “Black Lives” and the “Blue Lives”, needs the government’s support. They are grasping desperately for its solidarity to which only one side can have a claim. President Obama made clear his sympathies when, in more than a few speeches, he struck out against police officers in favor of the protestors. To many in law enforcement, this was a redoubtable blow. To have the president, under whose auspices they strain to keep order in an ever-changing nation, question their moral integrity was unparalleled. Through the years, the president, whomsoever he may have been—Democrat, Republican, or something in between, was always law enforcement’s staunchest defender. Now, they were on the defense. The officers were forlorn, and as all those who are abandoned do, they began to look elsewhere for succor. They wouldn’t have to look long or very hard. Within a year, in the emergence Donald Trump, they found their champion.

That said, they might’ve gotten more than they’d bargained for. Last week, the now President Trump arrived at Suffolk County Community College to address the present and the future of law enforcement in America. There, addressing an unsettled and curious crowd of police officers, Trump said something that rubbed most in attendance the wrong way. He encouraged officers to act more roughly with criminals and detainees. Verbatim, as my eloquence does the president no justice, Trump said, “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon…You see them thrown in rough. I said, ‘Please don't be too nice’…Like don't hit their head and they've just killed somebody. I said, ‘You can take the hand away, okay?’”

Trump was referring to that process whereby a criminal’s head is protected when being escorted into the back of the squad car. It’s a subtle yet sacrosanct move to ensure the detainee’s safety. It’s the buffer between a brain injury and a cognizant criminal, who might offer further information about the circumstances and motivations of his crime, and perhaps even accomplices unseen. The hand on the head is vital. It obviates harm to the prisoner and recrimination against the officer for what surely could be called brutal misconduct.

If one reads strictly and not contextually into the words that President Trump said, it seems like yet another example of his disquieting fistic propensity. Blood, punches, and throw-downs are his go-to thoughts and lines. It could be that he’s simply indulging his nasty little habit of using pugilistic imagery to drive home in memories of his attendees a point. He did this regularly on the campaign trail, when he hoped that protestors might be taken out of the arenas on stretchers and declared that he would pay the legal bills of those who took to violently suppressing obstreperous, anti-Trump demonstrators. If he meant only words, and meant not for there to be violent actions inspired from them, this would make what he said a bit more easily forgiven.

Or, he could’ve said what he did and meant it—literally. Only by asking him can we for certain know. Most who’ve come to his defense say it’s just Trump being Trump: it’s the easy argument from personality. They’ll say it’s just his over-inflated, hyper-virile ego, off of its chain and running loose. It’s harmlessly the patois of a New Yorker—a Park Avenue pugilist and a Manhattan tough-guy. Very well, it may be. It may be his idiosyncratic and naturally combative Empire State edge. But it’s unbecoming of a president and a man who touts, more than most things, the concept of “law and order”.

The timing for his statement couldn’t have been worse. As I said, the mores that are defining our cultural and changing the light in which people skeptically view the police are fraught. It was not very long ago that Eric Garner died in breathless anguish on a dirty New York sidewalk after being submitted to a rear-naked choke hold (which, by the way, like slamming a criminal’s head into a police cruiser, is prohibited and seen as being gratuitously violent). His crime, undeserving of such a brutish fate, was that of selling loose cigarettes. As did Garner, Freddie Gray died because of police brutality. He wasn’t asphyxiated prone on the ground as was Garner, rather manhandled and tossed into a police car, where he died of a spinal laceration.

Acutely aware of this, and of the light in which many people view their work, police departments across the nation responded with revulsion to Trump’s statement. Almost immediately after his comment, the Suffolk County Police Department iterated its dedication to wholesome and lawful policing. In a statement, the department said that it has “strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously”. This county, mind you, has been under ongoing oversight since 2013, after a federal investigation revealed anti-immigrant violence on the department’s behalf. For this reason, theirs might not be the best city to trial Trump’s idea.

Various other police departments responded with similar statements and with similar alacrity. All of them embraced this as an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to justice, legality, and respect for persons qua persons. And it wasn’t just state and county police departments who felt compelled to speak out against Trump’s remark. The head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, wrote an internal staff memo in which he reasserted the department’s “strong operating principles to which we, as law enforcement professionals, adhere”. The disheartening reality is that such a statement bears repeating at these federal and local levels, but Trump evidently made it imperative to do so.

The cultural and societal conflagration that has consumed officers and black Americans has put the former in an unenviable position. Obama, in many ways, fanned it and Trump has kindled the flame. Blacks still see themselves as recipients of discriminate barbarity at the policeman’s hand. To their ears, President Trump just gave the “go-ahead” for officers to serve justice à la Garner or Gray with impunity and without fear of repercussion. In his eyes, Trump was simply standing up in solidarity with the cops, so long maligned and mistreated. In Trump’s opinion, in standing with the police officers and in being their “voice”, he is filling the void that Obama furrowed and left behind. What’s certain is this. Law enforcement officials have some unique pietas. It’s a long-held and sacrosanct ideal from which they won’t soon depart. It includes a prisoner’s unconditional protection cap-a-pie, and it precludes his brutalization and harm.

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