Written by Jinwan Cho
With Black History Month just around the corner, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the “new” civil rights movement that has taken place over the past few years, particularly with regard to police brutality against people of color. Since the high-profile killings of unarmed black individuals by white police officers and the ensuing violent protests in Baltimore early last year, the scrutiny against police brutality has been at an all-time high. However, more appalling news of police brutality against African Americans continue to pop up every day, and my Facebook newsfeed features articles regarding such incidents on a daily basis.
Looking at the whole picture, I was still shocked that the dispatchers hung up on him three times, regardless of his reluctance to respond to their inquiry, and the trigger-friendly reaction against a teenager – albeit one holding a bat – was undoubtedly unnecessary, to say the least. This case was definitely another event that demonstrated the prevalence of police brutality and at the least very poor reaction from people who have been trained to protect Americans.
A few days ago, I was scrolling through my newsfeed and, to my chagrin, ran into yet another article regarding a shooting dating several months back. This particular article, having been liked by one of my friends recently, covered the story of a black teen who – according to the headline – called the police three times asking for help, only to be hung up on and subsequently killed by the police. Sadly, the details of this months-old case were nearly indistinguishable from other very similar accounts surfacing everyday on my social media. Reading the headline, I obviously interpreted this incident as another blatant instance of racism and police brutality. Before scrolling further down, I decided to take a look at people’s responses in the comment section, and, to my surprise, the top comment – written by an African American woman – audaciously alleged that the headline was a “boldfaced lie.” Upon reading this comment and the full article, I realized that some aspects of this particular case were odd. The teen had certainly called 911 three times asking an officer to be sent to his home but had also refused to answer questions by the dispatchers, prompting them to hang up. Surprisingly, a glaringly crucial detail the headline, and even the article itself, had failed to mention is the fact that the father of the teen called the police as well, claiming that his son, who was wielding a bat and attempting to break into the bedroom, was the one threatening his life. The police later asserted that when they arrived on the scene, the teen “charged” at them with the bat, forcing them to shoot.
However, I also found issue with how the article decided to portray this tragic case. The article, and particularly the headline, focused heavily on the calls from the teen, but not the call from the father that claimed his son was threatening his life. In fact, I discovered this detail regarding the father’s call only after finding a more comprehensive article on NBC. From what I could see, this particular article wanted to highlight the transgressions of the police while downplaying the specific circumstances that could potentially depict the killed teen as erratic, dangerous, or perhaps even partly responsible for what had transpired.
I understand why somebody would do this. The fight against police brutality still needs more momentum, more publicity, and more public outrage not only from the victims, but also from people of all races and creeds; this article succeeded in gaining the attention of at least the 12,000 people who had liked it. However, is this type of “propaganda” – for the lack of a better word – the best way to achieve this end? 99 times out of 100, it is clear that the police acted irrationally and with bias, and the African-American victims did nothing wrong except for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, there’s always that one case with certain circumstances that are unclear and potentially debatable. Then, is it really necessary to group that one controversial case with the myriad of other cases depicting evident police brutality, as this article attempts to do by manipulating the portrayal of the event? Why give the opposition something to question, give them the chance to ask, “How can we trust you when you are ‘engineering’ the portrayal of this case?” Why not build an airtight case against police brutality with just the 99 examples of clear-cut police wrongdoing?
Some people may contend that putting police brutality in the spotlight is far more important that quibbling over these slight and perhaps negligible manipulations, and others may contend that this issue simply does not exist. I may be reading too far into the intentions of the publisher, or I may be writing about a one-time lapse by the article writer. Regardless, I think it is still important to consider the possibility that my analysis has some merit, as even in conversation, many of us tend to conflate weak examples with stronger ones in an attempt to further strengthen our point, thereby opening ourselves up for criticism we would have otherwise avoided.
I think one of Martin Luther King Junior’s quotes aptly defends my position: “It would be morally irresponsible for me to [condemn riots] without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.” I see this article’s attempt to paint this case in a somewhat manipulated light as a form of intellectual “riot,” one that arises from the desperate need of the oppressed to raise more awareness for their position and to further engage the public with their daily plights. But just as MLK condemns the use of violence as a means to a noble end, we must also condemn this type of “propaganda.” At the same time, we must always keep in mind the “contingent, intolerable conditions” that brought about this phenomenon. The ultimate takeaway is that as we continue to fight against police brutality targeting those of color and by extension against any form of racism towards any race, we should strive to do so the right way.