I think we can all agree that the much-needed conversation about race and police abuse in America should be led by a white police chief who lives in a community so white that it makes Wonderbread look ethnic.
Steve Gesell, the San Luis Obispo chief of police, made the extraordinarily arrogant and foolish decision to sound off on lack of respect for law enforcement in the wake of several highly publicized police-involved deaths of unarmed black adults and children.
In his opinion piece printed in The Tribune, Gesell started by paying lip service to the realities of racism in a brief paragraph that used generic terms like “complex social and cultural issues.” Then he tore into Michael Brown—the dead 19-year-old black man—by talking about how physically intimidating his size was and stating for fact that Brown smoked pot, stole, jaywalked, and attacked a police officer. He failed to mention that Darren Wilson isn’t exactly a petite fellow at 6-foot-4, but when you’re trying to paint a picture of a big scary black man, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about the big scary white man who shot and killed him.
Gesell insisted that witness accounts and physical evidence supported Wilson’s testimony, which is true if you cherry pick which evidence and which pieces of testimony you’re talking about. Basically, it’s true except when it isn’t.
Then he lays into the community for being upset that a young man—that so many young men, really—was shot and killed with no trial, no guilty verdict, no remorse. “What shocks me is the ever-growing lack of deference to rule of law, push for mob justice by some and concerted lack of objective focus by the media even now, despite the release of a lengthy grand jury investigation.”
I wish I could parallel his shock with an expression of my own surprise that a white chief of police in a predominantly white community would expend the time and energy assaulting the reputation of a dead 19-year-old who can’t defend himself at a time when the community is mistrustful of the police and desperately needs some indication that our law enforcement officers are humans. But I can’t. I can’t even fully articulate why it’s offensive to dismiss outrage over Brown’s death as simple mob mentality.
Gesell wrote 763 words. Not one of them expresses regret for the loss of a man’s life, sympathy, or recognition that Brown—whatever his color, whatever his size, whatever his actions—was a human being. To Gesell he is only among “the most brazen criminals.” But it’s easy to talk shit about a dead man. He can’t speak back, can’t argue his case, can’t defend his reputation. It’s much harder to criticize the white chief of police who carries a gun and who knows that, based on what we know from past experiences, he’ll never be held accountable for how he uses it. He’ll never go to trial for shooting a man, or choking him to death. His lack of ability to express empathy with anyone who doesn’t wear a police officer’s uniform might not qualify as an abuse of power, but it does certainly qualify as a sad waste of it.
I’m curious what Gesell would have to say about the American revolutionaries turning against the British rule. Would he have called them thugs? Would he have bemoaned their lack of respect for the rule of law? Or would the fact that the people breaking the law were white have changed anything?
I can dispute Gesell’s arguments about what happened the night Brown died point by point. And neither of us would be right because neither of one of us knows what happened. In all likelihood no one will ever know. But I do know that Gesell has never been and never will be a black man being confronted by a white cop. Best case scenario, he might be a good cop confronting a black man.
I’m not saying Gesell is racist—I am saying that’s he’s not qualified to talk on the subject beyond boiling it down to “cop good; mob bad.” He can’t even consider the possibility that the so-called mob is justifiably angry, that the term “justice” might have different implications depending on who you are.
And yeah, I get that Gesell is upset because this whole brouhaha has made his job even harder. I understand that it would be most convenient for him if we all just went about our lives and passively accepted that sometimes a police officer just needs to repeatedly shoot an unarmed civilian. The white cop was right. The black guy was wrong. Go home, black people. I mean, jeeze, Gesell might have even missed a night of sleep contemplating the fact that poor officer Wilson suffered the indignities of having to answer for shooting a man to death. Can’t we all just learn some respect?
It’s all right, though, because in Gesell’s honor I’ve invented a hashtag to contradict that pesky #BlackLivesMatter being perpetuated by thugs who don’t respect the rule of law. How’s #What’sA WhiteGuyWithABadgeAndAGunGotToDo ToEarnSomeRespect for you?
Shredder wants to know #WhatAColumnistNeedsToDoToGetSomeRespectAroundHere. Respond at firstname.lastname@example.org.