In 1992, two white Detroit police officers assaulted Malice Green, a black man. He died after the assault, and while he did have drugs in his system, the courts decided that the brutal assault by the officers was what led to his death. They were sentenced to multiple years in prison.
Twenty years later, in 2012, a Latinx white man, performing his neighborhood watch duties, shot and killed a black teenager that he felt was acting suspiciously. The courts decided that, because Treyvon Martin had apparently jumped George Zimmerman, the man who had been stalking Martin, the man who had been told by police not to pursue, Zimmerman was acting in self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
In 2014, a month after Michael Brown was shot dead after a confrontation over jaywalking and perhaps some stolen cigarillos, Detroit police were called to the Gratiot Grill because of a black man threatening the restaurant’s patrons with a gun. Shortly thereafter, the man was in custody; the gun was a toy.
Since the death of Treyvon Martin, several other major shootings have gotten national attention, including a retired officer who tried to claim “Stand Your Ground” after an argument in a Florida movie theater, a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando (a gay nightclub heavily frequented by the Latinx community), and a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, with a high population of Jewish and Latinx students.
Since the death of Malice Green, I don’t recall hearing about many national news items involving Michiganders and extreme violence. There was the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Building way down in Oklahoma City.
Another was the shooting of Renisha McBride in 2013. Renisha was going door to door trying to get help when she scared a Dearborn Heights homeowner, who shot her dead. While the judge ruled that the homeowner’s act wasn’t racist, he was still sentenced to at least 17 years in prison.
Another was the police shooting of Aiyana Stanley-Jones in 2010. Aiyana was sleeping in another room when a police officer fired his gun while executing a raid. Whether the officer was deliberately or accidentally firing his gun is muddy, but it seems evident that he didn’t mean to shoot a six-year-old through a wall.
That’s three major stories in a quarter century, compared to three stories in five years.
Part of the silence of the national news is racist. Detroit continues to have a very high homicide rate, although it’s no longer the “Murder Capital of the World.” Because most of these victims are black, and because the racists in our society have normalized the myth of “black-on-black crime,” the incidents get ignored.
I think another part of the silence, though, is that our murders aren’t as consistently part of the cancer of systemic, institutionalized violence. Wikipedia lists three mass shootings in Michigan, and none in the Detroit area.
As for police shootings, Michigan is 46th in the country per capita for the last five years. Florida, in contrast, is 14th. California, where the police who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, is 10th.
We’re doing a lot of things wrong here in Metro Detroit, but we seem to be doing something right. And I think it’s tied to Malice Green, Rodney King, and Treyvon Martin.
The officers who assaulted Malice Green learned that their actions have consequences; everyone watching the case learned the same thing. While appeals softened the prison sentences for those officers, the initial ruling was clear: White men who assault people will be held accountable.
The officers who assaulted Rodney King learned that, meh, not so much. The message for the greater community was that white people with badges and, more generally speaking, people with social power won’t get held responsible for acts of violence.
When young white men see older white men act with relative impunity, it tells young white men that they can do it too. When Brock Turner gets 30 days for rape, then has the gall to appeal his slap on the wrist, that repeats the message: White men get special treatment. We can go farther off the rails with less risk of consequence.
When the Detroit police and court system told those officers that it wasn’t okay to just beat a black man to death, the rest of the system responded. The Detroit police are better equipped to handle crises appropriately, rather than just going in shooting.
This is not the be-all-end-all of what causes mass shootings, but I do think it’s a crucial piece. The underlying problem is a complex web of roots that have crept deeply into our culture’s foundations, but one of the fundamental issues is white entitlement that creates systemic racism and gives more latitude to violence among whites than to violence among people of color.
To be clear: I’m not calling for harsher penalties. As it is, penalties are disproportionately doled out against people of color, and I don’t want that to get worse. I want fair consequences. I want it so that white people, especially those in power, don’t continue to receive lesser if any consequences.
If white people were held more accountable for violent acts and threats, than the shooter in Parkland likely would have been intercepted earlier in his trajectory. He might have gotten the treatment he needed.
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