A couple months after Meech Davis died while being detained by the Buffalo Police Department (which was ruled a homicide), there was an incident in what’s nominally my neighborhood where the police shot a man during a traffic stop. The story has changed a lot, but the initial narrative was that the detained shot the ear off an officer, to be shot in the shoulder and arm by the officer’s partner. Later, the story changed: it seems that the officer wasn’t shot at all, it was an injury sustained by the airbag when the detained man’s car, which he hit the gas for after the officer reached into the window, hit a house. The New York State attorney general is investigating the incident, as it now appears the suspect, now deceased, was not armed after all (unless you consider a car to be a weapon, which a lot of pedestrian and cycling activists suggest can be appropriate). There have been protests about the Erie County Sheriff, Tim Howard, because activists say too many people have died in the holding center (the talking point says 26 people – I haven’t verified it, but a couple people promised me a list[UPDATE: Got the list, looks legit]).
There are lots of questions these circumstances pose to the Buffalo community, but the one on my heart is this: do we permit institutions of authority to err on the side of death? If so, how often? In what circumstances? Why? How much scrutiny do we give those institutions of authority when interactions lead to the loss of life? On some levels, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 26 or 14 or 5 people whose lives ended in the custody of the government if your threshold for acceptability is 0, if you decide that life is so precious and we’ll make sure we treat everyone’s life as precious no matter the accused sins of the person living it are. If life is that precious, then you make sure people get the medication they need, are protected from violence, and not subjected to overt violence from the institution itself. We have not made that decision as a society. Instead, we’re using public institutions of accountability to reinforce power and moral codes. Restorative justice is on the margin in favor of incarceration. The rhetoric of deserving is very strong, that terrible circumstances happening to people deemed unworthy are considered acceptable. It comes up in some seemingly benign ways too – Think of the way people rejoiced when the homeless man who assisted at the Manchester attack suddenly got access to basic means of living. He deserves it, I’d see repeatedly on social media, as if people who are homeless and just trying to live have not otherwise demonstrated deserving.
We have far more methods to ascertain negative consequences for those who threaten police, or any other centralized authority, than we have in the other direction. The police have the authority, institutional and societal support, and motivation to pursue charges and justice against those who threaten the officers that serve. That’s a statement of fact, not one of judgement. Policing is a difficult job that exists because most of human history is a list of the ways people treated each other horribly. Police are people too – its ranks will include people who are awesome at their work, people who are alright, and people who are not because policing is a human institution and not exempt from human foibles and flaws. It needs to be held to the same accountability as the rest of society in order to hold legitimate trust. Arguing against that accountability, to me, is arguing that we risk dying so they can keep their power. Remember, you are always a potential target of someone else’s mistake, even if you do not consider yourself likely to be.
If there is tension between the government’s role to preserve order or to protect life, which is the direction that we prefer as a society? There will always be gray situations. I worry – we are a society characterized by inequity in material circumstances, political power, and the power to self-determine. It seems, to me at least, that the gut preference for most people is overwhelmingly in favor of decisions made by whatever entity holds power more so than to another idea or ideology (truth, life, etc). You could say that whomever causing death or deprivation is always wrong, but that’s not where most people’s instinctual reactions go. I worry about this. In the case of refugees, I’ve heard a lot of people expressing anxiety that permitting refugees (remember: people fleeing war) to come here introduces an unacceptable risk to their own safety. Because our own status is so important to us, because we are so quick to draw borders, boundaries, and lines, that we accept no risk despite the suffering of someone who is just as human as we are. Favoring the well-being and status of the better-off instead of the group as a whole is basically supremacy. The powerful need few advocates, and yet they have many.
Life is the most precious thing a person has; it is the reason we are all here; it is the only reason we are. How much accountability do we require of institutions of authority, police or otherwise? Where is the line between what we consider acceptable and unacceptable? How is that line decided?
Everything is defined by its edge – that is where we decide what is, and what is not. What is good, and what is not. What we value, and what we do not. Where is it? If we are to have a democratic society where individuals have sufficient rights to self-determine and be without imposing on others, we must require that our government and social institutions prize life, practice transparency and accountability, and defer to the people more often than it rules over them. Democracy and equity require the deference of power to others by those with excess and the acquisition of power by the disadvantaged. Our institutions could be great assets in facilitating that, but they need to be willing to take anti-supremacist views on the sanctity of life. We need our institutions and our society to value everyone, not just those who conform to the dominant ideas of worthiness.