Baton Rouge and a reservoir of wrongs
Jelani Cobb has a good column in the New Yorker:
There is a scene in Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon” in which a character named Guitar explains to the protagonist Milkman that violence inflicted without repercussion is not a matter of morality, but mathematics. The tide of black death at the hands of white people, he reasons, sets the world at an imperfect ratio. He then explains the corrective.
There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can. If the Negro was hanged, they hang; if a Negro was burnt, they burn; raped and murdered, they rape and murder. If they can. If they can’t do it precisely in the same manner, they do it any way they can, but they do it.
The call-and-response pattern of violence over the past ten days has distorted that line between fictional and factual. The virtual blur of gunfire, death, protest, sorrow, recrimination, anger, remembrance, and shock that has defined this period has made it possible to lose count of the totals. The record stands at two civilians dead at the hands of law enforcement, in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, followed by eighteen police officers who have been shot, eight fatally, in two separate mass shootings, in Dallas and Baton Rouge. We know, or at least ought to know by now, that harm inflicted upon innocents as retribution for other harmed innocents is bad mathematics. The grief isn’t dimmed; it’s compounded like interest.
President Obama, wearied and six inches past his wits’ end, addressed the violence hours after the most recent incident—the shooting on Sunday, in Baton Rouge, of six police officers, three of whom died as a result of their injuries. The alleged shooter, Gavin Eugene Long, was, like Micah Johnson, the sniper in Dallas, an African-American military veteran in his twenties. Last week, after the massacre in Dallas, the President adamantly declared, “We are not as divided as we seem.” This was a familiar refrain. Obama’s path to the White House began at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the night he gave a speech in which he argued, in essence, that we are not as divided as we seem. Perhaps he’s right. But the fact that he’s had to keep making that point for the past twelve years means that we’re not all that close together, either. The events in Baton Rouge, which came like a personal rebuttal to Obama’s invocation of our common bonds, seemed to take something out of the President. He delivered his remarks with the muted affect of an actor doing a table read.
This is a season of rebuttals. The Dallas shooting revealed the bankruptcy of the good-guy-with-a-gun theory. A single shooter hit twelve trained, armed officers before being cornered and killed by a robot-delivered bomb. The events in Baton Rouge exposed a different kind of bankruptcy. In the chaotic wake of the shooting, Stephen Loomis, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, requested that Governor John Kasich, of Ohio, suspend open carry in the area surrounding the Republican Convention, in Cleveland, given the heightened threat level. Kasich, who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, responded by saying he could not suspend the constitutionally insured right to carry firearms. But the simple fact of the request is the most honest admission that firearms create dangerous situations.
Loomis represents police officers in a department responsible for the death of the twelve-year-old boy Tamir Rice; the officer who shot him, Timothy Loehmann, faced no criminal charges for it. Officers from the same police department fired a hundred and thirty-seven bullets into a vehicle after a car chase, with one officer climbing on top of the hood to fire more directly at the unarmed motorists. In both those circumstances, Cleveland police sought to justify their actions by pointing to their fears that the victims had been armed.
The N.R.A.’s zealotry in the name of self-defense founders when race enters the equation. After the death of Philando Castile, a licensed gun owner, at the hands of a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the organization released a tepid statement that didn’t name Castile and emphasized that “it is important for the N.R.A. not to comment while the investigation is ongoing.” In an attempt to cloak the most obvious elements of its racial hypocrisy, the N.R.A. has in recent years attempted to recruit African-American members by pointing to their disproportionate need to defend themselves against violent crime.
But self-defense is only one part of the gospel of gun ownership. The more fundamental element of the argument is that gun ownership is what differentiates a citizen from a subject. Sidearm conservatives rushed to the defense of the Malheur occupation in Oregon and Cliven Bundy’s armed defiance against federal authority over grazing lands in Nevada. We don’t know what motivated Long, who was killed in the shootout, to murder police officers in Baton Rouge. But Micah Johnson reportedly seethed over police brutality, and what he perceived as a failure to do anything about it. In other words, he was angry over governmental power and abuse: just the sort of grievance that the gun lobby, under other circumstances—say, a beleaguered cult of fundamentalist Christian landowners in Colorado—would laud as “Second Amendment remedies” and the prevention of government overreach. Mao Zedong theorized that “power flows from the barrel of a gun.” By the N.R.A.’s estimation, democracy does, too.
It’s worth recalling that the scorched tribunal of rioting that engulfed Los Angeles in 1992 came after a trial, thirteen months after the video of Rodney King’s beating by police first surfaced. The acquittal of the officers who beat King pointed to the futility of trusting the system and hoping for more than a year that it could deliver any approximation of justice. . .