So imagine a Thanksgiving dinner with the whole extended family invited over. The turkey has one more hour to roast in the oven. Half the family is gathered in the living room, say, eating snacks, enjoying drinks, and telling stories. Maybe the other half is in the TV room, watching football. I'm gonna add snow falling outside to fill out this scene.
Suddenly smoke starts seep from the oven. Not a lot, nothing alarming, but it's starting to smoke up the kitchen. Aunt Sadie says, "Oh, maybe I spilled a little grease when I basted the turkey fifteen minutes ago," and Uncle Ira says, "No, I think that's the scalloped potatoes bubbling over." A nice flurry of activity in the kitchen. Mom opens the window above the kitchen sink to let the smoke out.
Suddenly Uncle Bob bolts into the kitchen! He holds Aunt Sadie's face against the kitchen table and tells her to stay there if she knows what's good for her! He tells Uncle Ira to get on his knees and don't even think of getting up. Then he starts chanting "Fire! Fire!" as he turns his attention to the oven. He grabs a small fire extinguisher and yells at Mom, "Open the fucking oven! Open the fucking oven!" Mom quivers. "Bob, I'm sure if we just open another window...." Uncle Bob screams at her to shut the fuck up if she wants to live through the next three minutes. "Do it!" With trembling hands, weeping, talking about how early she got up to start Thanksgiving dinner, Mom opens the oven.
Uncle Bob sprays fire extinguisher spray into the oven, unloading the entire cannister. The kitchen billows with white smoke and spray, the oven screams like a dying animal, and the entire Thanksgiving dinner is destroyed. Then Bob turns to the entire family gathered around the entrance to the kitchen. "Everyone keep their mouth shut!"
Freezeframe the picture. Think. Every single member of the family - every single member - would say that Bob is completely, utterly, and without a doubt, out of his mind. Nuts. Crackers. Over the high side and into bananaland. But because we're rational people, we all stand there in stunned silence and obeisance, simply because the size of Bob's irrationality is so immense, his craziness so crazy, that we rationals are stunned into slack-jawed inertia. We might even convince ourselves that Bob must have had a reason to have behaved so irrationally. Maybe the turkey was going to kill us.
This is policing in America.
It is about race, oh, absolutely, don't worry about that. But it's also about something else. The fact is, cops in America are not temperamentally suited to the job. Nothing is going to change until we admit that as well. The George Floyd verdict addresses some of this, but aspects of the trial wouldn't and couldn't deal with that reality, otherwise Chauvin might have got off. I'll get to that in a second.
But first let's look at the case of 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who was pulled over by two cops in Windsor, Virginia. I watched the footage, and like everyone else I was horrified by the treatment of an active duty serviceman being threatened at gunpoint, pepper-sprayed, yanked from his vehicle, and physically and psychologically abused by the cops during a stop for a missing license plate - which wasn't, in fact, missing. Officers Joe Guttierez and Daniel Crocker clearly went beyond the bounds of their duty, but the whole incident was more than what governor Ralph Northram described as "disturbing."
In fact, it was nuts. Guttierez is nuts. He's screaming and yelling. He threatens. Let's be clear: the infraction is a misplaced license plate. That is all. Yet the cops have their guns out in seconds. Guttierez's hands shake so badly with rage that he can barely get the pepper spray out to pepper spray his detainee, who is speaking in a normal tone of voice even though also clearly shaking, except in this case the guy's shaking is well-placed fear. Guttierez's lack of control deserves full clinical evaluation. Is he so frightened of Nazario that he can't contain himself? Or is he, like Bob in the kitchen, unable to handle even the smallest non-crisis and he feels he needs to over-compensate? Or does the license plate mean so much to him? A yes to any of these questions makes it clear Guttierez should not be wearing a badge of any kind, but a strait-jacket instead.
Now let's go to the death of Daunte Wright, who was killed by cops because he was... driving a car. This nightmare is also on video - as is George Floyd's death, as is the stopping of Caron Nazario, as is the shooting in the back of Rayshard Brooks, etc etc. etc. But ignore, if you can, what you're seeing in the Wright video and just listen to it. Officer Kim Porter is screaming. I mean screaming, "Taser! Taser! Taser!" Then a micro-second after that, she shoots Wright in the chest, then a micro-second after that, she says, "Shit, I just shot him."
By anyone's metric, Kim Porter is not in control of herself or the situation. She is a screaming, yelling, nut. A murdering nut at that. However, the reality that Wright was able to get back in his car and, even after being shot, pull away, shows that no cop was in control of the situation. Look at their stunned faces and slack-jawed expressions if you don't believe me.
And that leads us back to George Floyd and Derek Chauvin. I don't know about the rest of you, but the look I have always read on Derek Chauvin's face as he kills Floyd over a period of nine minutes is one of satisfaction. Confidence. Even, pride? He is controlling the situation and everyone else on the sidewalk can go fuck themselves. The fact that this is over an alleged counterfeit twenty is beside the point, as is the license plate, as is Wright's misdemeanor. Chauvin is so hyped up on himself and his power and his role here that he is going to kill a man in front of all of us and get away with it, just to prove to us that he can.
And he was right! If you don't believe me, check out the statement the Minneapolis Police Department put out right after. Here is the meat of it:
Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.
I'm not making this up. This is what the Minneapolis Police Department put out after Floyd died. In other words, they were covering up a murder and they were doing so with the casual insouciance of an institution that is used to covering up murders. "He appeared to be suffering medical distress." By the way, once they realized the fix was in, these same folks testified against Chauvin, all pious and making sure we understood he was an outlier.
It's simply not true, and by all traditions, Chauvin should have got off for killing Floyd, just as these other incidents would never even have made a blip on local evening news. The problem for the cops is the wonder of modern digital video technology.
This technology, which we all carry, reveals who our cops are. Screaming, yelling killers. Terrified, yes, but also weirdly vengeful. How else do you explain cops chasing Rayshard Brooks in order to shoot him in the back? Who chases someone you're terrified of in order to shoot him in the back? What's going on in your head at that moment? If you tell me nothing, I'll itemize just how many deadly weapons a cop is carrying at any given moment.
The truth is obvious, even if we don't like to admit it. It isn't just a few bad apples. It's the whole barrel.
How did this happen? I mean, on a human level. Do crazed Uncle Bobs apply for jobs as cops so they can work out their inner demons and terrors? Or does the system turn them all into Uncle Bobs, screaming and yelling and killing?
We could argue this all day long, but even though I'm no optimist, I believe it has to be the system. I just don't believe there are that many crazy people out there who A) want to be cops, B) can figure out how to apply and pass the requisites, and C) get into the academy and graduate. It's too long a shot. The problem is, if I'm right, that it means the system creates murdering lunatics. Why? How? I don't know, but I do know that a 26 year veteran who loses her mind and just shoots a kid she means to tase ("Taser! Taser! Taser!") doesn't seem plausible unless you accept that the system turned her that way over a period of time, otherwise her complete incompetence for the job would have been outed long before.
Worse, the system is able to keep doing its thing because the rest of us are willing to go along with the myth that it's either one bad apple or something that can be fixed with retraining, or defunding, or whatever silliness we tell ourselves is going to fix the thing. We may as well tell ourselves that Bob just had an extra beer before Thanksgiving dinner, or he just needs some air; anything, really, other than the truth, which is that Bob needs to be put away.
Part of our problem is cultural. We want to believe the cops are the good guys and most of them are looking out for us, but after year and years of hearing them (Val Demings in the House Judiciary committee the other day), I am searching for the hard evidence on that score. I know TV tells us they're all good, and I know people believe that myth. We do that simply because the alternative requires too much work on our part.
And I have a weird story on that front. Not to go off on a personal sideroad, but in 2019 I made a feature film called "American Hangman," which played on Netflix. In that film, the cops are portrayed as doing pretty much two things: sitting around talking and looking stuff up on computers, or dressing themselves up in riot gear and smashing into houses, screaming and shouting, and shooting people randomly. At a test screening, many of the (totally white) audience said the portrayal of the cops was totally unrealistic. And how did they know? Not one, but two people said, "Well, I watch a lot of Law and Order, and I can tell you that's not how it is." (Interestingly, the film has developed a much more diverse following, and once that was added to the mix, the "this is unrealistic" voices seem to have been drowned out.)
In other words, our myths perpetuate our perception of reality. We believe because we want to believe. The alternative is too hard to handle. The Floyd prosecution team knew this, which is why they made sure to paint Chauvin as an outlier. They knew that the jury would be hesitant to condemn police in general, because it is simply too terrifying a thought. And they got their verdict.
But nothing is going to change on any level until we admit the problem is far far bigger than that. It's even bigger than racism itself, which can eventually become a kind of perverted solace for white people. "Well it's really a race issue" is a boo hoo, but it's also a kind of weird "get out of jail free" card. Of course it is a race issue, that's obvious, but it's also a power issue, a temperament issue, and a failure of society to control those who control us. We fucked this up royally, and moved cops from those who are supposed to calm situations down into an invading force who inflame all situations.
How many of us are relieved to see the cops pull up to a streetcorner where a bunch of teenagers are having an argument? How many of us are happy to see the cops banging on our neighbor's front door? How many of us believe the cops entering our house - at ANY time - is a good thing?
In light of the George Floyd verdict, do not be snowed. The folks who put out that false news report from the Minneapolis Police Department are still in charge, and the crazy cops who killed Daunte Wright are still cruising your neighborhood looking for action. Pray to God they don't stop you, or your teenager - especially your Black teenager - for having run a Stop sign. Because they will escalate the situation, they will turn it into a crisis, and they will kill someone.
That's what they do.