The widespread outrage since the killing of Walter Scott 11 days ago by a North Charleston police officer has been palpable. The reaction has been wildly "different" from other stories of police shootings in numerous ways, but there is still an underlying current that is not really understood by many people — even those who are upset by what they saw in the video.
A lot of what I've read or heard about in the last few days touches upon how this case is "different" and how the response to it in our community will be "better." However, there is still some confusion about why there's lingering anger in the African-American community.
"The system worked. The officer was charged with murder" — that's a common refrain coming from well-meaning people who don't see the problem. The system has always worked, mostly to the disadvantage of people of color in the United States, and it works so well that police officers still kill people in broad daylight for apparently no reason at all.
To say that this shooting is different because "the system worked" is to deny that the system itself is based on depriving people of their humanity and their dignity. This should not be too difficult to see, especially for the people who spend the better part of their own lives talking about how government is oppressing them through taxation or by not allowing them to rent out their homes using Airbnb.
By and large, these people are not racists, at least not in the sense that they believe that people different from them should be marginalized and oppressed for their ethnicity. But neither are they capable of understanding the very real problems that exist in this country and its institutions.
This is very much an issue of how we were raised and what our experiences are as much as anything else, but using that as an excuse is not an option — all it takes is some openness and awareness and maybe just the tiniest bit of empathy and the simple act of trying to see something from a perspective outside of your own. Instead, the system is defended by people who are unable to see their own privilege inside it, because that is precisely how privilege works.
The problem isn't that we saw an officer fire his service weapon at an unarmed man. It isn't that we saw what was apparently a very calm reaction to that shooting and possibly a casual, matter-of-fact placing of incriminating evidence against Mr. Scott by the officer. It isn't that this time there was a video that directly contradicted the story of the officer.
The trouble here is that this is not an aberration. This is a result of a system with deep, underlying problems. It's not about whether or not the police wear body cameras or whether or not there are enough minority police officers. It's not about the fact that we've militarized our police force over the last 20 years to the point where they no longer feel connected to their community as public servants, but rather are, as David Graeber wrote for Gawker last month, "essentially bureaucrats with weapons." At the end of the day, this case isn't "different" at all.
Early on, the media attempted to portray Mr. Scott as they always portray victims of police violence: people who probably deserved to be shot and killed. Whether or not Mr. Scott had zero arrests or 500 on his record, there was absolutely no reason for his death — nor the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, or the hundreds and thousands of other people killed or tortured by police in this country over the course of its history.
Walter Scott died because of a system that has criminalized the most marginal offenses. Eric Garner died over unlicensed cigarettes. Michael Brown died for walking in the middle of the street. Others have died just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As untenable as this situation is in America today, it is neither nothing new nor is it a problem that most people can even see. They ask, "Why are people protesting?" and they are upset at the thought that their afternoon commute might be interrupted. And yet they can't see for one moment that a brief interruption of maybe a few hours in their lives is a poor exchange for the decades of abuse and neglect heaped upon millions and millions of people who we legally call Americans — and who have been given, on paper at least, the same rights as everyone else but continue to be disenfranchised and oppressed. Some people are more upset about a hypothetical accident victim in a hypothetical ambulance being stuck in a hypothetical protest than they are about the very real fact that American police officers have killed almost three citizens every single day this year. And when confronted with that fact, they will say, "Well, why don't we talk about black people killing each other?"
But again, the system works.
We should expect some civilians to commit crimes, but we should not have a system where we expect our police officers to do so as well. If we believe the system works, then we must hold the police to a far higher standard than that of the rest of us. Isn't that, after all, why we have a trained police force in the first place? And if it isn't, then why do we have one at all?