"They were shot, just because they were police officers," said St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar, following the shooting Wednesday night of two cops in Ferguson. Few details are known about the incident, but it indeed appears that shooters aimed directly at police officers standing outside the Ferguson police department during a protest. The two hospitalized cops were targeted because they were police officers — that much Belmar had right.
The problem with the police chief's statement resides in his use of the word "just." In our current context, there's no "just because" about being a cop in Ferguson — it's one of the most loaded positions in America. When young unarmed men including Mike Brown, Akai Gurley, and Ramarley Graham were shot dead by police, enraged responses posited that they were killed just because they were black. They were not targeted for assassination; structural racism dictates that young black lives can be extinguished without impunity — just because.
But what can be said about black skin cannot equally be applied to a police uniform. And while I believe young men like Brown were killed just because they were black, I don't think the cops were shot just because they were cops. I believe they were shot specifically and intentionally (no "just" about it) because they were cops — cops in Ferguson, at that.
While two police officers were the victims of this shooting, Belmar's comment implies that police are victimized group in general. The same sentiment was echoed in the National Fraternal Order of Police request to Congress that anti-police language be classified as "hate speech," suggesting that police should be a protected minority. Such grasps at victimhood are bunk.
As I have noted numerous times, unlike black skin, a police uniform comes with a weapon, authority, and lashings of impunity. We can condemn the ambush shooting of two officers — but to be targeted because of a uniform, and the violence it has come to represent, is in no way akin to being targeted because of the color of one's skin. In these fraught moments, questions of blame and victimhood are all important and regularly confused.
Already, as was the case following the fatal shooting of two NYPD officers last December, police officials are ascribing guilt to the protest movement, which emerged following Mike Brown's death. Demonstrators had gathered Wednesday night across the street from the Ferguson police department to celebrate the resignation of police chief Thomas Jackson. Witnesses from the group have stated that the bullets flew from behind them, from a darkened raised alley.
Meanwhile Belmar asserted confidently that, while pretty much nothing is known about the incident, and there are no suspects, the protesters are somehow guilty. “I don’t know who did the shooting, to be honest with you right now. But somehow they were embedded in that group of folks," he said.
Those of us who want to see continued and vigorous protest against police violence and racism are understandably concerned that a shooting like this will stymie valid and justified anger at the police. When anti-police protesters are aligned with, and thus treated as, potential cop killers, the chilling effect on dissent is powerful. It's tempting, then, to want to distance the protest movement from the shooting entirely. But we can't.
Blood is not on the hands of the Black Lives Matter movement (as blustering police union chief Pat Lynch suggested after the NYPD shooting). Nor am I remotely suggesting that those rising up against police violence and racism should condone the incident. But it would be foolish to assert that the shooting is unrelated to this contemporary moment of (quite valid) anti-police sentiment.
Of course it is related. But it's not a relationship of causation, as some police officials and apologists would like to suggest. It's an age old mistake — confusing causation with correlation. The protests didn't cause the shootings, but the events correlate for obvious reasons. We have established that we have a background context of racist police violence, the emergence of counter-violence should not come as a surprise, even if it deserves condemnation.
The Black Lives Matter movement has forcefully brought to the fore the grim realities of our violent context. It has shown that for young black men, dealing with police in this country entails quotidian violence and harassment. Street protests and riots are a reaction to this circumstance. So are acts of violence against cops, like Wednesday's shooting.
Even if we decry the act, we can't exclude it as some inexplicable anomaly. To do so would undermine the very point that Black Lives Matter activists have made clear — that our context is a horribly violent one. We can't write for ourselves a white-washed history. Histories of struggle are never so simple, and this moment, in which people are standing up to racist police violence in their thousands, is a moment of struggle.
Purveyors of conventional wisdom in the U.S. have been keen to write violence out of the narrative of civil rights successes. As Willie Osterweil noted in the New Inquiry, "why is it drilled into our heads, from grade school onward, in every single venue, by presidents, professors, and police chiefs alike, that the civil rights movement was victorious because it was non-violent? Surely we should be suspicious of any narrative that the entire white establishment agrees is of the utmost importance."
And while many civil rights victories were hard won through tireless, committed non-violent activism, the movement was not purely non-violent — there were massive riots, cops were killed.
To tell an honest civil rights history, which does not expunge its nuanced violences, helps us navigate moments like this in the wake of a police shooting. It prompts us to reject a narrative that would see ongoing anti-racist struggle be derailed and defanged because cops have been targeted. Similarly, civil rights history affirms that we can condemn bloodshed while asserting that such an incident is situated in a cycle of violence and counter-violence, in which the institution of U.S. policing is the primarily violent force.
When Malcolm X said, commenting on John F. Kennedy's assassination that it was a case of "chickens coming home to roost," he caused mass public outcry because he added, "chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." He later tried to explain the comment, adding "I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country’s Chief Magistrate.”
The shooting of two cops in Ferguson, and the context that provoked it, is nothing to be glad about. But that's where Malcolm X misspoke — there's never much to be glad about when a violent context inexorably produces violent consequences, that is, when chickens come home to roost.