Accountability That’s Unaccountable

Accountability is how we define sources of problems so we can implement solutions to those problems

I don’t have to explain how a police chokehold on a black male (selling individual cigarettes illegally) in a New York borough resulted in his death, and how a grand jury decided the officer was not at fault. One couldn’t be alive and not know about this given media coverage. But one aspect in particular was, for me, singularly problematic — how some managed to make the victim the problem. Except for one Republican senator, who, like his libertarian father, wants to be president of the country. He blamed the incident on New York cigarette taxes being too high, encouraging a black market (no pun intended) for them. This is the same individual who noted that the civil rights laws of the 1960s infringed on personal freedom — of racists, apparently (with no mention of the personal freedoms of black citizens).

I understand that most police officers are good people who would make every effort to avoid brutality, violence and killing others, but some — and in some police departments, far too many — misuse their authority to protect and serve by violating those principles. Defending police in general by holding victims of police behavior at fault for their fate is sending the message to others — minorities in particular — that the police are not accountable for their actions. If racism is already a continuing problem in our culture, even with our first black president, racism or the appearance of it in police departments is the worst iteration of it. And it most certainly exists given the number of police departments currently being monitored.

Accountability is how we define sources of problems so we can implement solutions to those problems. Obviously, those who are responsible for the problems don’t want to be held accountable, and this lack of accountability can be systemic, in which case no one holds them accountable — and thus no consequences. Killing or brutally mistreating persons of color is really just the ugly tip of a very large racist iceberg. Yes, there are blacks who do bad things, but the vast majority are simply going about their lives, which for young black males is quite different than for young white males.

I remember as a young man hearing women talk about feeling safe or unsafe when walking. Time of day, location, the presence of others or the absence of others all mattered to them. I was suddenly aware of feelings about a common activity for me that never had occurred to me because they didn’t have to. It transformed my perspective about the lives of women and how it felt for them to be in the world. I’ve never forgotten the lesson learned, and am aware that women taking a walk alone might well wonder about me doing the same.

Years ago I read an article about what it’s like being a young black male, doing the same things I do, but with differences that reminded me of the women going for walks. To not be able to walk anywhere at any time without feeling being watched, the sight of police creating anxiety about what that would bring, the sense that others might be anxious by one’s mere presence. That utterly altered my understanding of what their lives were like. I held myself accountable for remembering this when reading about how often young blacks are interrogated by police for doing nothing more than what I would be doing.

The ubiquitous presence of cameras in mobile devices, and the increasing presence of video cameras in police cars and on police officers should, in theory, reduce the brutality and deaths of those confronted by police. But, then again, the video of the black male noted above pleading for his life did not stop a grand jury from declining to indict the officer responsible, even though a chokehold is against department policy. And therein rests the larger issue: When does accountability become operative?

If there are no accountability and consequences, what is to dissuade the overuse of force by police? The number one priority of police departments is most certainly not the safety of officers. It’s the safety of citizens. Police are paid to accept some risk. Risk avoidance by simply shooting first is not a viable standard, and police departments are not doing themselves any favors by not properly training young officers to disable, not kill, individuals. More than 450 “suspects” were killed by police last year nationwide. It is rare for officers to be held accountable, but civil suits against cities result in millions of taxpayer dollars being won in damages.

There’s a premise that whites simply don’t value black lives. The theory is that whites exist in a white culture and therefore perceive the world through that lens. Thus, many aren’t aware they place less importance on black lives, unlike those who are functionally racist and by definition devalue those they hate. One doesn’t have to be particularly pragmatic to be deeply disturbed by this possibility. There’s a difference between race and racism. Race is simply skin color, the only real difference among us, whereas racism is how one perceives and behaves toward others who differ only in color. Racism isn’t inevitable, even in a culture of whiteness, which itself can change…if we want it to.

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