Perhaps it is inevitable that a movement needs a cause célèbre. We don't deal well with complexity. If an institution is rotten, we don't want to hear about its aggregate effects on a large population. We want to hear about how a mean person in that institution demeaned an angelic child. And it was all caught on tape, of course.
So it is for the Black Lives Matter movement.
So it was for the civil rights movement. The White supremacist United States slowly ground the life out of people, but it was Emmet Till whose name became known worldwide. The oppression of the segregationist South was pervasive, but Americans fixated on a few fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham. And during Jim Crow, many African Americans stayed in their their seat on a bus, or raised a ruckus, or simply refused to ride the buses in the first place. But only Rosa Parks became an icon.
This week the Justice Department released the report of its investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. See Radley Balko's review of the report, or check out German Lopez's summary. Or read the report for yourself. It deserves more attention than it is getting. But it's not going to
get that attention because it's 164 pages of text written by government
lawyers. It's not bleeding. It's not on video.
And that's a problem for us. We don't know how to deal with systemic failure. When institutions go to rot, responsibility is defused. When something goes wrong, who is to blame?
When Michael Brown was shot, we were quickly arguing over the details of the incident. Were his hands up? Was he running toward Darren Wilson, or away? The movement wanted an icon and its opponents wanted a heroic police officer doing his job. In the end, the justice department could not find sufficient evidence to prosecute Darren Wilson under federal law. Many Americans cried vindication!
They probably didn't read the other Justice Department report. You know the one? It's the one that showed the Ferguson police department was a predatory gang funding the city government off the backs of poor African Americans. But that wasn't on video. No one was bleeding out in the street. It was just diffuse failure, its costs borne by thousands of people instead of one body.
Read the Ferguson Report.
And then there was Tamir Rice. There were fewer people willing to defend the police in Cleveland, but more than you might suppose. And among them was the man who really counted, the county prosecutor. He ensured that the murderer got off. But in the meantime, the Justice Department released a report. You heard about it? The one that showed the Cleveland Police Department is a racist and incompetent mess? It wasn't on video either.
Read the Cleveland Report.
And then there was Freddie Gray. He died in police custody. Somebody did something wrong. But how do you convict one person for systemic failure? All six officers charged got off. And then, just this week, the Justice Department released the results of its investigation of the Baltimore Police. In a familiar refrain, it reveals that the department routinely employs unconstitutional and racist practices. But that wasn't on video. The riot was though!
Read the Baltimore Report.
What's interesting about these three would-be icons of a movement is that in each case authorities found insufficient evidence to convict anyone of wrongdoing. At the same time, in each case authorities found that the jurisdictions in which these incidents occurred do not maintain the rule of law. Indeed, they often don't even pretend to do so. These departments are predatory.
The combination of institutional failure and individual innocence is not contradictory. When the whole system is rotten, who takes the fall when something rotten happens? Nobody, I guess. And when there isn't an obvious individual villain to scapegoat, do people care? Not a lot, I guess.
So next time you see that disturbing shooting video lighting up social media, remember that the important context isn't on the video. And decades from now when your grandkids ask you whether you supported Black aspirations for freedom in the oppressive America of the early twenty-first century, telling them you didn't know because it wasn't on video is going to sound like a lame excuse, even to you.