A common charge that gets thrown at you when you tell people you write on current events—especially if you write for outlets smeared with the “clickbait” or “outrage” label— is that you’re thin-skinned. The stereotype is that your job is to react more strongly and emotionally than “normal” people to current events, that you’re a Professional Offense-Taker.
Honestly? Since I started doing this for a living (well, sort of a living while otherwise living off of ill-gotten game-show gains) I’ve found myself getting thicker-skinned, more cynical, more numb.
Everyone wants to talk about Walter Scott’s death. And I, someone who actually gets paid to do that, who’s argued passionately that it is our social responsibility to talk about things like Walter Scott’s death, want to do anything but.
It’s a purely selfish impulse. Because I’m just really burned out.
Right now, my Twitter feed is buzzing with people reacting to the cold-blooded shooting of a man in the back, caught on camera. The officer who killed Walter Scott, Michael Slager, has been charged with murder. The video, spreading like wildfire, clearly shows the officer picking up a taser he drops early in the chase and placing it beside the victim, before reporting to his dispatcher that Scott “took my taser.”
There it is, right? On camera, for your eyes to see—proof of the supposed “fantasy” of a cop gunning down a suspect then framing him as having been “threatening” by planting a weapon on him. Yes, as Dave Chappelle joked about—what, 15 years ago now?—police brutality is a thing, and it is indeed happening to black people “like hotcakes.”
I’m sorry. I can’t get my heart pumping about this.
Not when I know that murder charges against police officers are basically meaningless, since out of all the police shootings in the past 20 years only 10 led to murder charges and ZERO led to convictions.
Not when, even now, there are still people out there calling us to “wait till all the facts are in,” as though further forensic analysis might prove that there’s a good reason to fire eight shots into the back of a running unarmed man, then plant your taser on him and lie about doing so, as well as lying about trying to give him CPR.
Not when even the New York Times’ coverage that sent this story viral includes caveats like approvingly mentioning Officer Slager’s service record while ignoring Scott’s (both men are Coast Guard veterans) or going into detail about Scott’s past arrest history, as though that has any legal bearing on the propriety of shooting an unarmed running man in the back (it doesn’t).
Not when there was already a GoFundMe, aping the successful crowdfunding campaigns for George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson, put up within hours of the news to pay for Slager’s legal defense. (It’s been taken down by GoFundMe after a wave of protest, but the cheerfully named “Culture Fight” sponsor organization is still around.)
And not when I’ve heard this song before. In New York, Eric Garner was killed by police who were caught on camera doing so—we all saw the horrifying footage of Officer Pantaleo throttling him while he shouted “I can’t breathe!”, in direct contradiction of the police report saying he made no statement and did not appear distressed. The result? No indictment by a grand jury.
And what about what happened in my own hometown of Cleveland? A video camera witnessed Officer Loehmann jumping out of a car and shooting a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, within two seconds of pulling up, again contradicting blatant lies from the police saying Loehmann verbally warned Rice three times before firing.
I’ve talked about how repulsive, how insane it feels to try to weigh whether gunning down a 12-year-old boy who’s holding a (fake, toy) weapon is better or worse than gunning down a grown man who’s fleeing and unarmed. We’ll see what the grand jury thinks, I guess, just as we will with the Scott case, though the City of Cleveland already coming out and saying they think Tamir Rice is at fault for his own death isn’t promising.
But what about the elephant in the room? I didn’t mention Mike Brown, who was just one case out of many—Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tanesha Anderson, Malisa Williams, and Timothy Russell—I could go on, and I’m just naming cases from Cleveland.
Mike Brown, though, was the case that went viral—all eyes drawn to Ferguson, MO, the words “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” on people’s lips, his photo plastered over social media. Mike Brown was, undeniably, an unarmed teenager shot dead by a cop. Inconveniently, there wasn’t any video making explicitly clear what happened between Darren Wilson and Mike Brown on August 9, 2014.
And so when other witnesses cast doubt on Dorian Johnson’s testimony, when Mike Brown’s prior shoplifting at a convenience store gives Darren Wilson a reason to have stopped him (despite prior testimony he’d been unaware of the shoplifting), and when forensic evidence shows there may have been signs of a struggle when Wilson shot Brown—
Well, for many, that’s enough. That’s just as good as if we had video evidence. Mike Brown was a violent criminal resisting arrest, Darren Wilson a heroic cop trying to bring him to justice, case closed. Wilson’s deranged rhetoric about Brown looking like a “demon” and “bulking up to get through the bullets” in his witness testimony? Meaningless—irrelevant to any judgment on Wilson’s character or racist attitudes among police generally. The Justice Department’s report describing Ferguson, MO, being generally run like an apartheid state? One of those pesky “social issues” that can wait for future incremental “reforms” now that there’s no bleeding body crying out for justice anymore.
So it goes.
I could say that I wish Rice or Garner’s story had gotten more traction than Brown’s—I kind of do—but I’m not entirely sure it matters. People liked talking about Mike Brown because there was ambiguity to the story, no videotape that clearly showed wrongdoing, something to argue about.
It’s surprisingly easy for the media to skew toward “controversies” that enable them to talk about the conflict between two “sides” while burying stories where there’s a clear-cut case of right and wrong, justice and injustice—stories that might force their readers to acknowledge the world is undeniably broken. Even when a 12-year-old boy gets shot, our media watchdogs still need to try to find other “sides” to the story involving his parents’ criminal records, as though that bit of “nuance” might somehow make killing a child less of an unambiguous atrocity.
Why? Because we have to pretend that Tamir Rice’s story is just about Tamir Rice—treat each case on its own merits, treat everyone as individuals, as we get endless bleating lectures to do in journalism classes.
Well, I’ve been hearing stories like this, not for a year, not since Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, not since “social media” got started, but for my entire life. This simulator by Prof. Joshua Correll that everyone was talking about after Mike Brown’s death, proving that people are faster to shoot black suspects than white ones regardless of how “not-racist” they think they are? It’s been around since 2000, a year after a black man was shot for pulling out his wallet in 1999.
I had to hear about that simulator—and take it, and confirm that yes, I also suffer from unconscious racial bias—when I was a freshman in high school. And again, a year later, when a guy got shot by undercover cops pretending to try to score drugs, scuttling Rudy Giuliani’s Senate campaign.
And again in 2006, in college, when a man was shot fifty times the night before his wedding. And again in 2009, while I was starting a new job in DC, when a man was shot dead while handcuffed and on the ground.
And again, and again. Has this issue “come to a head” with Walter Scott’s death? It keeps on coming to a head and subsiding again, like clockwork, with the cops involved getting off scot-free nearly every time. The pundits said it “came to a head” when I was eight years old, when the brutal beating of a black man was broadcast on national TV, a city burned… and nothing of consequence changed. After the Rodney King riots the LAPD kept doing what they were doing and got egg on their face for it five years later.
This is just what happens. The more plugged in you are to the world of the chattering classes—to history, the news, current events—the more predictable it seems.
The regular folks who don’t pay that much attention get really shocked. They have some dim memory of police brutality and race riots in the past, but seeing anti-black violence shoved in their face on TV feels like a state of emergency, like something must be done.
And what happens is intense discussion. Discussion of the particulars of this case—Walter Scott’s life will be dissected, weighed in the balance, every brush with the law, every relationship successful or failed, every childhood photo shared on social media. His life analyzed for any trace of culpability, any possibility he “deserved” to be shot.
The same will happen at a much lower level for Officer Slager, whose privacy will be much more vigorously protected—but people will look for any hint that he might be “a racist,” as though that’s a special, anomalous breed of citizen distinct from all the rest of us.
What happened that day will be combed over by both professional and amateur detectives, seeking any trace of forensic evidence that might make the video not mean what it clearly means. The anonymous person who took the video will have their motives called into question, the authenticity of the video litigated—they might even end up arrested on some kind of trumped-up charge and end up, like Eric Garner’s videographer, in a jail cell given food laced with rat poison, a story which will, as a “secondary” news peg, barely get coverage.
Op-eds will be written—op-eds crying for justice, op-eds crying for calm, op-eds like this one expressing dull and cynical despair. Arguments will be had. The Dialogue Will Be Furthered.
And then, eventually, there will be an end. Maybe by some miracle Slager will go to prison. Most likely he won’t. Either way, the media will eventually decide that this story, The Walter Scott Story, has run its course and move on to something else, and the general public will move with it.
There might be a call for more widespread deployment of police body cameras, so that more of these killings get recorded and we get more gruesome footage to outrage us before the killer’s inevitable acquittal. There might be “reform campaigns” of various other types that will have little effect other than being name-dropped in 2020, or 2025, when the next journalist makes a timeline of events that led up to whatever nightmare of police brutality is happening then.
But mostly? Things will stay more or less the same, the everyday humiliations of being black in America will continue, and we’ll all go back to arguing about TV shows or the color of a dress.
I’m not saying nothing ever gets better. Indeed, the one thing that makes me think things might get better is that the media is different now than it was way back when I first became aware of this stuff in 1999. Social media means the cycle is speeding up—the names and faces of dead black men coming at us rapid-fire, each new image of violence flashing to life before the afterimages of the last have quite faded. Trayvon Martin’s name was still familiar to our lips when we heard the name of Mike Brown—and it was the staying power of Brown’s viral fame that got front-page as opposed to local-news coverage for Tamir Rice, as Tamir Rice now has for Walter Scott.
For all the many, many problems with implementation I proudly embrace “outrage culture.” It’s the needed antidote to a complacency culture—a culture where horrible things happened every single day but our news media only had the stomach to put a spotlight on it once in a while before looking away. Complacency culture is what breeds the illusion of “bad apples,” the illusion that these things happen once in a while but as long as we’re vigilant to catch the bad guys when they do, the world is generally an okay place.
Well, it’s not. If the #BlackLivesMatter campaign can slowly, eventually get it through people’s heads that the details of any individual case do not matter but that the constant, pervasive overall anti-blackness in our system of law enforcement does, then maybe something worthwhile will come of this—something more worthwhile than one murderous cop going to prison or a few bureaucrats resigning their posts.
Maybe that will eventually happen with the endless, pointless debates over accusations of rape. Or the tireless picking-apart of everyone with a story about income equality. Maybe, eventually, we’ll get our shit together and take depressing news as a signal to fix the massive underlying problems they illustrate instead of fighting over the facts of each individual story.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I still believe that.
I just didn’t realize how much bullshit it would plow through on the way.
Arthur Chu is a bi-coastal Chinese-American nerd who's currently settled down in Cleveland, Ohio. An actor, comedian and sometime culture blogger, he somehow captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate but alarmingly ever-growing number of cats.