Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Other Gun Violence

If I were to say "America has a gun violence problem" you might instinctively think of mass shootings like the tragedy in Orlando. That frame is what drove the sit-in of House Democrats to force a vote on gun control legislation aimed at increasing background checks and barring those on the terror watch list from getting guns. That frame has issues, since mass shootings account for a small number of the tens of thousands of Americans killed by guns every year. 

The murder of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge at the hands of the police should also be prompting a different conversation about gun violence, one that will not be solved with gun control measures. This is the gun violence perpetrated at the hands of the police. There have been too many prominent instances to count, and they have been outnumbered by the victims whose names did not become hashtags or who did not have cameras present at the scenes of their deaths.

As awful as mass shootings are, we cannot forget that police shot and killed almost a thousand people last year. There's a big difference in how the two are received, however. Nobody defends mass shooters, but huge amounts of political capital are expended to defend killer cops. Prominent publications even write sympathetic articles about them. The blood is barely dry on the ground before stupid memes like "BlueLivesMatter" are all over the place. In Louisiana, the state where Alton Sterling was murdered by the police, the legislature just passed a law covering police as a category of victim in hate crimes. When police are faced with protests over their violence, they blame any street crime on protests, as if the blood on their hands can be transferred onto the hands of others. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, consistently defends the police after they kill, and has proposed a mandatory death penalty for those who kill police officers.

And here's the deal: a very substantial portion of the white American population cares more about assuaging their own fears of supposed black criminality than they do about the lives of black people. In their minds the police are holding the line against what Victorians called "a criminal class," and will support any level of force used against them. If the police are criticized they go nuts because they think the whole dam is about to break. It's in moments like this that I feel absolutely sick, and not just because of the horror and injustice of the killings. I get ill thinking about how this mentality is so common among the people who raised me and surround me. The police are allowed to kill not just because of a political system or legal system, but because of the everyday fear, hate, and contempt nestled deep in the soul of white America. As long as that remains, I fear that the other gun violence will never end.

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