'Soul Weary' in America: Cell phone videos and cycles of violence
Father Bryan Massingale watched one of the latest videos of police shootings of African American men on July 7, first with a growing sadness at the “gut wrenching” tragedy he was witnessing, then just a sense of “soul weariness.”
“I think that what most confounds me,” he said, “is that as a nation we cannot personalize these deaths, that we somehow see them as abstractions or statistics or worse as the embodiment of our worst fears rather than as human beings—as someone’s father, someone’s mother, someone’s fiancé, someone’s loved one.”
Massingale, the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, will be teaching theology at Fordham University in the fall. He worries that U.S. society has “made black bodies into abstractions.”
“I think sometimes as black people in America, we’re walking ink blots; we’re walking Rorschach Tests upon which the majority project their fears and anxieties, and now, yes, here we are again,” facing another video of a shooting, “because we as a nation refuse to learn.”
“We see each of these as isolated incidents rather than saying this is not a Minnesota problem; this is not a Baton Rouge problem; this is not a Staten Island problem; this is not a Cleveland problem; this is not a Ferguson problem.
“This is now a national problem.”
More people need to be able to view the cell camera recordings of confrontations with police and start saying there is something systemically wrong, Massingale argues.
“This is not a matter of looking at the individual intent of individual police officers. We now have to look at training and police culture and what is it about police training and culture that leads to these outcomes.” He asks why does this happen predominately to young African American men “in ways that it does not happen with other racial groups—it simply doesn’t.”
He added, “I’m not saying that white people are not shot by cops; of course they are, but never in these kinds of circumstances, and white people have very different encounters with the criminal-justice system than African Americans; this is beyond dispute, and the fact that it is disputed says something about what racism and race has done to our nation.”
He called that inability to confront the social outcomes of racism a “spiritual cataract.” Racism has distorted personal and social vision such that a problem like police violence toward African Americans can be in plain view “and obvious to everyone, but we can’t see it.”
“We refuse to see it,” Massingale said.
One of the videos Massingale viewed captured the last moments of the life of CD-salesman, 37-year-old Alton Sterling, a father of five. Public outrage has been mounting in Louisiana in the aftermath of his death at the hands of police outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge on July 5. Officers had been responding to a report of a man brandishing a handgun. The day after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards asked the U.S. Justice Department to lead a civil rights investigation into the killing. "I have very serious concerns," the governor said at a news conference. “The video is disturbing, to say the least.”
In a statement released on July 7, two days after Sterling was shot and killed as two white police officers wrestled him to the ground, Bishop Robert Muench of Baton Rouge urged the local community to be “ministers of healing to a hurting world.”
“This week in our community, as in our nation, and as in our world, we find ourselves facing the many emotions that accompany acts of violence. We experience sadness, anger, frustration and fear," the bishop said. The bishop urged members of the community not to let anger move them "to inflict pain on others" but instead to be "ambassadors of hope and mercy."
A statement from the Louisiana Interchurch Conference, which includes Christian churches from around the state, said, "Local religious leaders and civic authorities have called for calm as the investigation unfolds.” The need for calm was soon tragically highlighted during what began as a peaceful protest for police reform in Dallas on the night of July 7, when gunmen ambushed local police, wounding seven and killing five, in what may prove to be a retaliation strike against police.
Just a day after Sterling’s death was recorded an even more astonishing video surfaced depicting the aftermath of the killing of 33-year-old Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul. A traffic stop initiated because of a broken tail-light ended in death after Castile reached for his wallet, his fiancé Diamond Reynolds told viewers as she live-streamed the incident on Facebook from inside the car. "He let the officer know that he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm," Reynolds told viewers. “Please don't tell me this, Lord. Please, Jesus, don't tell me that he's gone," Reynolds said as Castile slumped beside her. "Please, officer, don't tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
In a statement issued on July 7, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton offered condolences to Castile's relatives while vowing to "do everything in my power to help protect the integrity of that investigation, to ensure a proper and just outcome for all involved.” In a stark departure from protocol on such grim occasions, during a press conference that day Dayton blamed Castile’s death on racial bias and said the officer involved used a level of force “way in excess” of what was necessary.
“Would this have happened if the driver and passenger were white?” Dayton asked. “I don’t think it would have. So I’m forced to confront, and I think all of Minnesota is forced to confront, that this kind of racism exists.” The Minnesota governor has reached out to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough "to request that the U.S. Department of Justice begin an immediate independent federal investigation into this matter.”
According to "The Counted," an online project maintained by The Guardian newspaper which tracks fatal use of force by police nationwide, Sterling’s and Castile’s deaths marked the 558th and the 562nd fatal encounter respectively involving U.S. law enforcement officers so far in 2016. (The toll had edged up to 565 on July 7). The Guardian reports that 1,146 people were killed by police in the United States in 2015—that’s a rate of over three fatalities a day. African American men aged between 15 and 34 were nine times more likely to be killed than any other demographic group in 2015, according to the project. A report due to be released on July 8 by the Center for Policing Equity reviewing use-of-force incidents across the spectrum shows that police are far more likely to use force in situations involving African Americans.
Last year Amnesty International USA released a study that reported that all 50 U.S. states fail to meet international standards for the use of lethal force. AIUSA demanded nationwide record keeping and procedural reforms. In a statement released the day after Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge, Jamira Burley, an AIUSA campaign manager, said, “The available video footage of the death of Alton Sterling raises questions about the circumstances of this shooting that must be answered. A thorough, impartial and independent investigation must be conducted as soon as possible.”
She added, “The use of lethal force in the U.S. continues unabated due to inadequate laws and the lack of accountability for officers who are accused of using unnecessary or excessive force. Without reforms, there will be more deaths.”
Burley was forced just a day later to issue another statement following Castile’s death: “Once again another horrifying video has emerged that begs for answers, and once again we are calling for a thorough, impartial and independent investigation.
“The laws that govern when police can use lethal force need to be reformed and they need to be reformed now. International law is clear that lethal force must only be used as a last resort against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. Philando Castile should not have had to fear for his life during a traffic stop. How many more wrenching videos do we need to see before there is real change?”
The Last Resort
There is no quick fix to the problem of toxic confrontations between police and members of the African American community. That’s according to Reggie Miller, a retired Metro Nashville police officer and the eastern regional president of the National Black Police Association. “Stuff like this has been happening for a long time,” he adds, “We’re just catching more of it on camera.”
Miller suggests that only better dialogue with the community and enhanced use-of-force and sensitivity training among law enforcement will reduce the deadly confrontations that have exacerbated tensions between African American communities and the police who are sworn to protect and serve them. Miller worries that breakdown can begin feeding itself—as community members come to trust the police less, they will become more likely to flee traffic or sidewalk stops that would have otherwise passed without incident. The ambush of police in Dallas may suggest the depth of the community-police breakdown Miller worries over.
But Miller implores the public to allow the investigation of the Baton Rouge shooting to take its course. He argues that snippets of video don’t tell the whole story, though they are likely to inflame public opinion, something he feels is understandable, if regrettable. “I would say let [the Department of Justice] do their investigation because they are going to take every possible thing into consideration.”
He does worry that white officers may not approach African American community members with the same level of familiarity and comfort that African American officers might possess. “We don’t see things as much of a threat as maybe some other non-minority officers do, as maybe someone who’s never worked around minorities does.”
That can lead to fatal misunderstandings.
“When an incident like this happens everybody is up in arms, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be; I’d be up in arms if that were my child.” But each situation is different and use of force policies and procedures vary across the country. Deadly force must be a last resort, he said, and when it comes to use of deadly force, police “can’t get enough training…[and] just because you were afraid doesn’t give you justification to use deadly force.”
In the end, he suggests, the pivot point of these tragic encounters may not be the color of the officer or the color of the deceased, but the presence of a gun. That does not mean Miller is not concerned that racism might play some part in the high toll taken by police in African American communities. He calls racism just one possible ingredient, along with poor training and the overly aggressive or do-it-alone, “John Wayne” temperament of some police officers, in these fatal confrontations.
But the huge number of guns on the streets and the spread of open carry laws, according to Miller, also contribute to the problem, creating new tensions for police as they respond to calls or approach the unknown in a traffic stop. “You know what kills police officers?” he asks. “Hands,” he said. “When we can’t see your hands, that’s what scare us….If I can see your hands; I’m not worried about what’s in them; now my fear goes down.”
Responding to a call of a man brandishing a gun, as were the two officers in Baton Rouge, “I’m going to get out of my car with my gun out,” said Miller.
“Officers unfortunately never know what or whom they are up against; they don’t know their mental condition; they don’t know if they are on drugs or alcohol or depressed or just out of prison,” he said. “Everyone is trying to go home at the end of the night.”
Keith Humphrey is the police chief of the Norman, Oklahoma police department and another regional president of the National Black Police Association. He watched the videos of these two fatal encounters uneasily “as both a police officer and as a citizen.”
“We want the community and police to work together to come up with collaborative solutions, to try to prevent these types of incidents,” he said.
Like Miller, he argues that consistent and committed community dialogue can help prevent future incidents like the two killings recorded this week. He thinks greater departmental transparency—both on standard street procedures, so the public understands how police officer are interpreting their actions, and during investigations of incidents that end badly—would contribute greatly to reducing fatal confrontations between police and community members.
Now he wishes “both sides would pull back,” he said, “and allow all of the events to unfold.” Humphrey explained that it would be a mistake for investigators to rush to defend the officers or attempt to appease the public with disclosures about the investigations. “You have to be careful and not speak too soon,” he said. “You have to give the police officers the same respect and rights that you want to be shown” to anyone accused of a crime. “Let the full story come out; don’t assume that the five or ten seconds you see on video is the whole story.
“I have to be concerned about any time a life is taken at the hands of police,” Humphrey said, “but I try not to jump to conclusions because there are so many unknowns.” He allows that “it does cause concern: why is this increasing with African American men being shot.”
He explains, “On the surface, it looks bad—this song played again, a white officer shooting a black person,” but “the use of force is never going to be pretty.”
Are there officers in the field who are more prone to violence or “too wound up” perhaps to do the job? Absolutely, said Keith, but, he adds, “I have never known a police officer in 30 years of law enforcement that is looking to get involved in a deadly force incident.”
Miller believes better training will help all police better negotiate potentially violent encounters and that a small number of police need to be screened out of the profession to best address the problem.
An Opportunity and an Obligation
Those are sentiments that Father Massingale finds perfectly understandable and reasonable but in the end completely unsatisfactory.
“No one disputes the fact that there are police officers who are out there who are doing heroic work and who are fulfilling their responsibility and their solemn duty to protect and to serve,” he said, but he emphasized, “We can’t look at these as isolated incidents. We have to look at the entire picture here and when we look at the entire picture there’s a disturbing pattern.”
Problems with systemic abuses and institutional racism have already been detailed in federal and state investigations of the Cleveland and Chicago police departments, he points out. “We have to broaden our focus and not look at each isolated picture, but look at the entirety of what we see before us … and that’s what we as a nation are unwilling to do.
“I think it’s a very normal reaction to want to circle the wagons, to want to expect the best out of those whom we love and out of institutions we depend on, but I also think that as citizens, as believers, as those who seek the truth, eventually that instinct has to surrender to the weight of the evidence or to what we in the Catholic Church would say is a solidarity with victims and say, ‘There is something that’s not good going on here.’”
Because of the disproportionate number of police who are Catholics in many cities, Massingale wonders if the church has “not only an opportunity, but an obligation to use its connection to appeal to the better angels that are present in the police department.” The church can remind police officers “because you are doing something that is noble, that is truly a vocation,” you “have an obligation to root out and address any problems that get in the way of people perceiving there being a credibility or a problem of trust.”
But the work of rebuilding communal trust, he argues, is not the sole responsibility of police. “This is not simply a matter of police culture and police training,” although improvements in both would be welcome, he said. Police violence “exists within a wider context of racial division and racial understandings and misunderstandings and injustice and in that sense the police are reflections of systemic problems, they’re not aberrations from the American norm, so I don’t want to make the police scapegoats for broader patterns and issues.”
When we prosecute cases of police violence “the standard becomes did the officer fear for his life.” But the question for Massingale is why did a police officer fear for his life in a confrontation with an African American person when in a similar experience with a person from a different race he would not be possessed by that fear.
“Racism is a soul sickness; it’s a profound warping of the human spirit,” he said. Body cameras, better training will contribute to ending the problem, Massingale argues, but “to my mind they are going to be limited and even ineffective if we don’t address these issues as soul issues and that should be what religious faith and Catholic faith is all about.”
“We are going to keep circling back on this issue unless we confront it at its deepest level and to say that there’s a soul sickness that’s present in our nation,” Massingale said, “and until we have the willingness to address it, and not just address it rationally but to address it using the best resources of symbol and ritual, we won’t be able to really deal with or get ourselves out of this destructive feedback loop that we’re caught in.”
He issued that appeal just a few hours before the shooting started in Dallas.