|City Hall, Philadelphia
Don't get me wrong. I'm no fan of Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez or Mayor Rahm Emanuel. They all could quit today and I wouldn't miss any of them. Especially Rahm Emanuel. He failed to deliver the goods, and failure made him even more charmless than he was when he arrived, which is really sayin' something.
But the protesters demanding they resign, or be indicted, or whatever, are missing the point. These three don't run the show; they just pawns too, really. They step down, and three new ones step in, and what has really changed? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
The protestors saying that it is the whole system is corrupt are closer to the mark, but even they have too narrow a focus.
The thing is ...
Let's put it like this.
Everyone seemed to focus on the 16 shots Officer Jason Van Dyke pumped into Laquan McDonald. And why not? Awful to see—the vast majority of the shots first while the teen was already on the ground. Sixteen. A lot of bullets. Hard to imagine squeezing those off. Bang bang bang. Bang bang bang bang bang. Bang. Bang. Bang... There's more, but you get the idea. Can't blame a hair trigger on that.
And as awful and inexplicable as the act is, there is an even more awful part that comes later, something that is, I would argue, both even worse, and more inexplicable.
After McDonald is shot, another officer steps into the frame and kicks the teen's little knife away. Just in case the dying McDonald decides to hop up and use it. McDonald of course just lies there. None of the police officers try to help McDonald, or comfort him, or talk to him.
As if he weren't a human being, dying there in front of them.
Which is the true problem.
Think about it. You're police officers. A 17-year-old boy is dying in the street in front of you. A teen that one of your brethren shot. They all knew it was an unjustified shooting. They saw it happen. But still, none of them so much as laid a sympathetic hand on the kid, dying, in front of him.
As if he weren't a person.
Bingo. The core of the problem, one that no lopping of leaders, no amount of arm-linking in front of Michigan Avenue stores, will remedy. I could say that Van Dyke didn't view McDonald as a human being when he pumped 16 shots needlessly into him, but that unfairly puts the burden on Van Dyke's shoulders. The undervaluation of black lives goes back to the foundation of the this country; it's what slavery was based on, what Jim Crow lasted for a century because of, and whose after effects are so obvious in Chicago every single day. Blacks aren't seen as human by whites. Not really. Not all whites, of course. There are exceptions. But enough.
Do I overstate the case? I don't think so.
In their defense, whites do not have a monopoly on the practice. The undervaluing of human lives, the viewing people, not as individuals, but as fungible units of a certain group, is not an exclusive white sin, or a black one, but an affliction plaguing all people in all times, one that drives much of the sorrow and wrong of the world. Blacks certainly do it too. The idiot at University of Illinois who posted his brief threat that shut down the University of Chicago was succumbing to it when, upset about McDonald, he raged against whites he had never met online, destroying his own young life, or at least seriously sidetracking it. Imagine his next job interview, assuming he doesn't go to prison. Another future snuffed out by not holding others in the esteem they deserve, that all people deserve, at least until they demonstrate that they don't.
That's why I resist the excitement of the protests, the momentary thrill and romance. I narrow my eyes and think, "Toward what end?" They might as well be protesting gravity. What power can grant them their wish? They think every march is Selma, but if you look at the issue in Dr. King's time—the signs at his Sanitation workers strike said "I am a man"—and now, well, they're still protesting to assert the exact same thing. We believe there has been some progress, and maybe there has. But that could just be another illusion.
When we all succumb to lumping people together, to a greater or lesser degree. I just did it now, in the previous sentence, and it feels so natural we hardly notice we're doing it. The problem can't be fixed, big picture, but only addressed small picture. Society cannot change us, we have to change society. Try not to generalize so much; try to see each person as the individual he or she certainly is. It's not much of a solution, and not easy, which is why nobody demands it. But it's the only solution that can work, eventually; I don't see another.