Absence of Outrage

ZNet, January 26, 2015. Nobody who is familiar with the case of Milton Hall – shot to death by 8 police officers on July 1, 2012 in Saginaw, Michigan – should be surprised that the US Justice Department will not be bringing any charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. Last October, amidst protests over the Ferguson killing, the Michigan ACLU released footage obtained from the Hall family’s lawyers and used it as part of its testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Organization of American States. You can view the video here (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Iigvm5iPkU)

In the video, you see the mentally disturbed Hall, 49, a local Civil Rights activist, surrounded by eight police officers, each with guns drawn and aimed at him. A police dog barks, growls and lunges toward Hall, who responds by bringing out a small penknife. When he turns towards the dog, the police open fire, getting off 46 shots in just a few seconds. Hall was hit 14 times. As he lay on the ground, “his blood running down the street like water” (in the words of his mother Jewell Hall), an officer rolled him over, placed a foot boot on Hall’s back, and handcuffed the dying man.

Right after the shooting you can hear response from eyewitnesses. “That was bullshit” – a Black women screams. “Man, why’d they shoot him so many times?” a Black man asks. “I don’t know,” another Black man answers.  “That was straight up bull.”

The notion that Hall posed some kind of serious threat to eight police officers and a police dog – an imminent danger that required lethal force to be exercised on the scale of 46 shots – is so absurd as to be sickening.

Last February, the US Department announced that it had failed to find “sufficient evidence of willful misconduct” to prosecute the cops who executed Hall in a Saginaw parking lot in the summer of 2012.

How any seriously justice-oriented Justice Department could give a free pass to such an egregious police murder is a fascinating question. But one thing seems clear: if the clear-cut execution of Milton Hall by eight cops, caught on video, doesn’t elicit federal charges, then neither will the killing of Michael Brown under less obviously murderous circumstances.  Don’t expect any positive federal “justice” action either on John Crawford (a 22 year old Black man unjustly executed on video by police in an Ohio Walmart last August) or on Tamir Rice (a 12 year old Black boy executed on video by Cleveland police last November) or on Eric Garner (a 44 year old Black man fatally choked on video by New York City police last July) or on many if any of the more than 300 cases of Black Americans killed by police and security guards each year in the US.

This brings me to another and intimately related issue: where is the outrage outside the Black community over such atrocious police killings – some captured on video and available to anyone with Internet access – of Black people in the US?

For better or worse, I periodically put up links to essays and videos reflecting my political and intellectual concerns on Facebook.  Typically, one of my intermittent postings garners a handful of comments. On some occasions, they elicit a large number of remarks, some quite heated. I have posted the Milton Hall execution video on the “social network” twice in the last month. Each time it has not elicited a single solitary comment. The same thing happened when I recently posted my latest essay on the racist police killing of the Black man Johh Deng in Iowa City five years ago.

Along with ZNet’s Mike Albert, I can’t help but note the contrast between (A) the giant public outpouring that occurred in France and across Europe in response to the remarkable and atypical murder of some satirical, Muhammad-mocking white cartoonists by fanatical Islamist terrorists in Paris and (B) the relatively minor public protest outside the Black community itself over the regular and by now practically routine murder of Black people by police officers across the United States.  No offense to Charlie Hebdo and the rest of France’s recent martyrs, but what about Milton Hall, John Deng, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Terrence Shaun, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray (16 years old), Ezell Ford, Shareese Francis, Reynaldo Cuervas, Victor White III, Chavis Carter, Tamon Robinson Raymond Allen, Shantel Davis, Manuel Loggins, Jr., Rekia Boyd, Kendree McDade, Kiwane Carrington (15 years old), Reginald Doucet, Ramarley Graham, Kenneth Chamberlain, Alonzo Ashley, Kenneth Harding, Kajieme Powell, Shereese Francis [1] and…(the list runs into the hundreds by the year and into the thousands over the decade)?

True, not all of those 300-plus killings each year are such clear and graphic examples of racist police lethality as the Hall, Crawford, and Garner killings.  Still, the disparity in public concern and outrage is chilling. As Albert reflects:

“In the U.S. there have…been recent incredibly heinous murders of innocent civilians and though such horrors are ubiquitous in U.S. history, the most recent racist policing has garnered far more notice than usual, due to public reactions. These U.S. murders were inexorable outcomes of ubiquitous profiling and intimidation policies perpetrated by trained agents of the institutional order of the U.S. and then exonerated in U.S. courts.”

“This mixture provoked an incredibly passionate reply in the streets and even in some corners of popular culture, but overwhelmingly from the assaulted community…overwhelmingly from the Black community and, beyond that, from very progressive activists – and not from the population at-large…In France, in contrast, what appears to have been a tiny group of maniacs – though quite well trained – assaulted and killed various journalists and associated media employees. As commentators all noted, this was a virtually unique event in French history. The outpouring of anger and support in Paris (and around the world) has been enormous and has appeared to span French society. The displays are in many instances angrily and even violently directed at a minority and impoverished community as are discussions of and likely implementations of new repressive freedom-curtailing policies, though the demonstrations rhetorically claim no desire other than to defend free speech and show solidarity with the slain victims. The scale of the events spurred by the assault on Charlie Hebdo appears to be much larger, proportionately, than were the U.S. reactions to Ferguson…”[2]

Why this unsettling contrast, reflecting remarkable public indifference of most of the US white populace to the regular heinous police murder of Black Americans? “I hope if there is further study,” Albert writes, “it will reveal that the part of the population that has been quiet and even complacent about police violence and judicial complicity is simply ignorant of the scale of the injustices rained upon the Black community…due to media machinations.”  My sense is that a serious examination would reveal that the media’s role would also be shown to be worse than merely encouraging ignorance of racial oppression.  From law and order television dramas to the nightly news, the local newspapers’ crime beat, and Hollywood films, United States corporate media mostly paints a vicious, fear-based, dehumanizing, demonizing, and victim-blaming image of the nation’s Black communities.  The nation’s still highly segregated and ghettoized Black population centers are portrayed as nightmare zones of rampant criminality, immorality, and violence: dangerous spaces of savage depravity[3]. Meanwhile, white Americans’ stunning ignorance about Blacks’ circumstance and experience is fed by persistent harsh racial segregation in the US (itself a leading factor in the highly disproportionate poverty and joblessness of Black America), leaving the terrible media images and narratives as the main source for white perceptions of Black life.

Domestically, urban Black and Latino victims of the contemporary US police and mass incarceration state and are the “homeland” versions of the media’s “unworthy victims” abroad: those killed and maimed by US and US-allied military forces, whose deaths come with a stunning “absence of concern” and even a “collective autism” on the part of most US citizens.  As John Tirman notes in his powerful and distressing book The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), “The human costs [of US military interventions abroad] simply are not discussed in any sustained or probing way [in the US]; even the scattered attempts to account for [foreign civilian] dead is a highly charged endeavor.  More disturbing still is the appearance of a ‘blame the victim’ mentality: that to the extent the American public reacts at all, it sees the civilian deaths, injuries, disease, and displacement as…something the war-zone population has brought upon itself” (p.13).

A similar and related dynamic holds for the Mike Browns and Trayvon Martins and Milton Halls and John Crawfords and Rakia Boyds and Tamir Rices of America, eliciting a sense among many whites that the US ghetto-zone population – the main targets in the “homeland’s” so-called War on Drugs – has brought repeated lethal police interventions and other terrible things upon itself.

1. Please see Rich Juzwiak and Aleksander Chan, “Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014,” Gawker, December 8, 2014.
2. Michael Albert, “America vs. the World, as Usual,” TeleSur English (January 20, 2015), http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/America-Versus-the-World-As-Usual-20150120-0037.html
3. See Stephen Macek’s remarkable study Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

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By | 2015-01-26T14:40:12+00:00 January 26th, 2015|Articles|