The general reactions to the uprising earlier this week in Baltimore, MD, reveal an almost schizophrenic attitude in the United States towards violence in general and police brutality in particular. Following the brutal arrest of unarmed black man Freddie Gray which resulted in his voice box being crushed, his spine being severed, his spleen being ruptured and ultimately his death, no officer has been fired, arrested, or prosecuted.
Yet, the focus of outrage seems to be more on the protesters rising up to demand change than on the unaccountable police whose brutality sparked the crisis.
It was especially revealing to witness CNN personality Wolf Blitzer wringing his hands over violence on the streets of Baltimore and criticizing the inability of law enforcement to stop looters:
“I don’t remember seeing anything like this in America in a long time,” he said, apparently forgetting all about the very similar riots that rocked Ferguson, MO, just a few months earlier over the non-indictment of killer cop Darren Wilson (riots covered extensively at the time by CNN).
Later, Blitzer attempted to browbeat a community organizer into confirming the narrative that the mainstream media is attempting to establish, namely that the primary concern in this situation is the unrest on the streets and not the systemic police violence that sparked the unrest.
On live television, he directly challenged activist DeRay McKesson to state unequivocally his condemnation of violence – again, not the violence of police but the violence of protesters. “I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Blitzer insisted.
“Yeah, there should be peaceful protests,” the community organizer replied. “And I don’t have to condone it to understand it, right? The pain that people feel is real.”
McKesson added: “And you are making a comparison. You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines, right?” Trying to keep the discussion focused on the issue at hand, McKesson pointed out that “police are killing people everywhere.”
“They’re killing people here,” he said. “Six police officers were involved in the killing of Freddie Gray, and we’re looking for justice there. And that’s real. The violence the police have been inflicting on communities of color has been sustained and deep.”
Before this week’s riots broke out in Baltimore, there had been over a week of peaceful protests against the police murder of Freddie Gray, which naturally received nowhere near the media attention of the violent protests that ensued following the young man’s funeral on Monday.
Despite this media bias, there is a growing acknowledgement in the United States that its local police forces are generally out of control, killing and brutalizing unarmed civilians with impunity across the country, with a number of proposals for stemming the tide of wanton police brutality gaining traction.
Anti-police brutality activists marched 250 miles from New York to Washington DC, starting on April 13 and ending on April 20. Upon arrival at the nation’s capital, they delivered a “Justice Package” to Congress highlighting three pieces of legislation: the Stop Militarization of Law Enforcement Act, the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act and the End Racial Profiling Act.
As March2Justice Co-Chair Tamika D. Mallory put it, “With every step we knew that we were moving closer to presenting our demands to the legislators who could respond to a national crisis with a national solution by making these bills law.”
While these measures are designed to prevent future tragedies, other campaigns are focusing on ensuring accountability for police killings that have already taken place. An email from ColorOfChange to supporters on April 29 noted that in Baltimore, “local officials haven’t provided answers to the most basic questions about why police violently arrested Gray in the first place or why ended up dead after just 45 minutes with Baltimore law enforcement.”
The email continues:
The lack of accountability for Gray’s killing is unacceptable and the solution to Baltimore’s policing crisis is not martial law or more militarized policing. Right now, we need widespread public pressure to ensure the necessary leadership and independent oversight to bring Gray’s killers to justice and overhaul the Baltimore Police Department. Without independent oversight it’s unlikely that Gray’s killers will be held accountable. Local prosecutors work too closely with police on a day to day basis to hold them accountable — and they almost never do. …
The best way to restore peace to Baltimore is for Governor Hogan and local leadership to undo the structural racism targeting its people. But right now, police are preparing to announce even harsher measures to crack down on the protests — like a curfew for youth — that will likely continue to escalate an already unacceptable level of confrontation and violence between police and citizens.
The group calls on people to send a letter to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan urging him to appoint Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to join the local investigation of Baltimore law enforcement responsible for Gray’s brutal death, noting that local district attorneys work too closely with police on a day to day basis to hold them accountable.
These measures – both the investigation into Baltimore law enforcement being urged by ColorOfChange and the more long-term preventive solutions being advocated by March2Justice – would go a long way into bringing the United States more closely in line with international norms on policing.
These norms include the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers, which state,
Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.
- Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:
(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;
(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;
When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”
Further, Articles 2 and 3 of the International Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials state unambiguously:
In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.
Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.
It’s recently been coming more into focus just how out of step the United States is when it comes to respecting these norms. As the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper pointed out on April 17,
Police in the US have have fatally shot people 298 more times than forces in the UK, which has consistently had two or fewer shootings a year since 2009 and fewer than seven shootings a year since 1990. According to some estimates, police in the US killed more people in March than police in the UK killed in the last century.
Iceland only experienced one fatal police shooting in 2013 – believed to be the first in the country’s history.
Our graphic, supplied by Statista, also shows a gaping hole in official FBI data, illustrated by the smaller of the two US circles. The FBI only reports shootings that are considered “justified”, defined by them as “the killing of a felon by a law enforcement officer in the line of duty”.
It’s also noteworthy that the vast majority of these shootings were considered unjustified as demonstrated in this graphic:
If opinion-shapers like Wolf Blitzer were really concerned about violence, these are the statistics he would harping on, and perhaps browbeating cops into condemning violence on his live TV show rather than activists.