You may have heard about NYPD officer Brian Moore, who was shot in the head by Demetrius Blackwell. Moore was in critical condition. A couple days ago, he died. This is not a bad thing.
Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York, said that Moore “did everything a good police officer was supposed to do.” And this, as far as we know, is true. The real problem is not the “bad” police officers versus the “good” ones. It’s the good ones, inclusive of the bad ones, that are all a problem. This is because what police officers do, routinely and daily as normal behaviors, is problematic.
The mainstream media has tossed around the figure of “150 arrests.” This is Moore’s legacy. We’re expected to perceive 150 arrests as a good thing, because that is the way the media presents it to us. However, it immediately raises the question: 150 arrests for what?
Moore participated in the American criminal justice system. He had a direct role, a part of its enforcement arm. The laws themselves could not be applied without Moore’s vigorous participation. We’ve got to realize the fact, then, that Moore is highly responsible for the outcomes of the applications of those laws. He is as responsible, if not moreso, as the legislators who drafted the laws and the politicians who tasked him with their enforcement.
Most of Moore’s 150 arrests (and this is true of all arrests) were for nonviolent crimes and crimes that have no victim. Drug crimes, which fall into both categories, make up a broad swath of those arrests. Drug crimes are also severely punished in the United States, with many people spending multiple decades or even their natural lives in prison for mere possession of banned substances.
Possession of a firearm is also possession of a banned substance. Keep that fact in the back of your mind.
Blackwell, whom Moore approached and who is suspected of having shot Moore, was also under suspicion for a victimless crime. The media has made a lot of the claim that Blackwell is a “career criminal,” discussing at length his past criminal record. Yet, unless his criminal past is a basis for future persecution and police harassment this should be of no consequence. In fact, it is an attempt by the media to poison the well and perpetuate future authoritarian policy. It will also be used the same way in a legal setting (in court) to ensure the harshest sentencing for Blackwell. But the fact is that, at the moment Blackwell was approached by Moore, he did nothing wrong.
This is crucial to understand: Blackwell did nothing wrong.
Moore approached a black man in America and asked him if he had something hidden in his waistband. Incidentally, this time a black man did have something hidden. (Many black men, approached on the exact same pretext, have been unarmed and have been killed anyway.) And having that something hidden was Blackwell’s right. Not one of the false “rights” granted or restricted by the law, but a universal right that every person has and that Blackwell asserted. Blackwell had committed no act of violence, he had victimized no one. Yet, it was he, Blackwell, who was approached by armed men who wished to do him harm.
It is the myth that police officers have more rights, special rights, that shapes how we perceive this event. As soon as we question that myth, it becomes two armed men in a car harassing one armed man on foot. Incidentally, those two armed men are also wearing the colors – the uniforms – of a gang that specializes in acts of preemptive violence. Preemptive violence directed, disproportionately, toward black men.
And as soon as we begin to see it that way, what Blackwell did makes sense. It becomes rational. In fact, it raises the question: why don’t more black Americans respond the way Blackwell did? Perhaps, if they did, more would be alive today. Blackwell, after all, is alive. He’s going to prison, but he lives.
The police approached Blackwell – Moore approached Blackwell – and this was the incident that led to Moore’s death. Law enforcement harassed yet another black man. This time the black man decided to defend himself.
If you’re a black man in America, especially if you’re a black man with a criminal record – or anyone who was spent some time incarcerated in American prisons regardless of ethnicity, race or so-called crime – you’re probably afraid of the police. Not because you’re a criminal, nor because you’re breaking any laws, but because you know two things: the police may hurt you, on the spot, and the police may put you back in prison even if you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s natural for Americans, then, to be afraid of police encounters. It’s even more natural for Americans with a criminal history to be afraid.
After many violent confrontations between persons and police officers, those who have defended themselves against the police are often asked why. Why did you fight with the cop, why did you struggle, why did you resist arrest, or why did you shoot first? And the answer, invariably, is I was afraid of going back to prison. This is even true in many events of flight where the police were only attempting to perform a traffic stop. It’s even true when people do not face long prison sentences. We’re confronted with the fact, then, that prison is such an awful place that people are willing to risk their lives, as well as the lives of others, to avoid even short stays. Moreover, people are so afraid of the mere prospect of even a short prison sentence that they are willing to risk large prison sentences; they’re so afraid of prison that contact with the police evokes panic, and incites panicked behaviors.
And this was Moore’s job: to put people in prison. American prisons. Places that have been called clean versions of hell by legal experts. Can we really expect people, especially Americans with criminal histories, to respond to the police any differently than fugitive slaves responded to slave catchers?
When Ernie Chambers, a senator from Nebraska, said that law enforcement were the terrorists to the black community – “Police are my ISIS” – this was not merely rhetorical. The role of law enforcement is literally that of inciting terror in a large part of the American population. It does not matter if that is the job they are tasked with on paper; it is sufficient that is what the job amounts to in practice. When Moore approached Blackwell, this was the role he was acting in and the way he was perceived.
Moore came from a family of police officers. His father, his uncles and his cousins were police officers. As one of Moore’s friends put it: “He was born into this.” Many police officers fit the mold. The values of this group are the values of a supremely privileged class. Not necessarily economic privilege, nor racial privilege, but a privilege more acute: that of having the literal, state-sanctioned power of life and death over others, while simultaneously being exempt from having that power used against them.
Life and death not only pertaining to the ability to shoot someone and get away with it – which police officers do unquestionably have – but the ability to imprison people. Imprisonment, in the case of many medium and long-term sentences, being equivalent to death itself. And certainly, in all cases, being a form of extended torture and slavery.
When a police officer is shot, then – when someone like Moore is shot, with his acclaimed 150 arrests – it isn’t tragic to everyone. To many, it brings a sigh of relief. The feeling of loss is the feeling of losing only an oppressor, of losing chains and whips. And even though the death of one police officer is a long way from fulfilling the abolitionist goal, a silver lining exists, at least in Moore’s case, in knowing that the militaristic law enforcement tradition will not be passed on through his own family, in the same way that his elders passed that tradition to him.
And, in that sense, we may all be a bit safer now that Moore is gone.