The Limits of Law and Order
2016 has been a monumental year in terms of spectacles and horrors. Scientists have landed a satellite on an orbiting comet, perceptions have shifted over women’s rights, and public ride sharing services like Uber have become household terms. At the same time, recent media has brought several atrocities to light, involving racial violence and shootings. What is it in the basis of human nature that can lead to both glorious and horrific situations in tandem? The role of authority in the form of policemen and civilians has become blurred, and many have begun to question the basis for the decisions made by these authority figures. This doubt changes the dynamic of the power figure in the local government and is playing a pivotal role in the irresolute landscape pertaining to human rights and the role of weapons.
In August 2014, the media focused around the events in Ferguson, Missouri. An African-American teenager was shot and killed by a police officer after a convenience store robbery and extended confrontation with the police officer. The teenager was unarmed and was shot multiple times in the back, the altercation fatal. The events surrounding the shooting were unclear and suspect to individual interpretation. Social media elevated awareness of the Ferguson case to a national level, through newspapers, magazines, and networking sites. Activists from around the United States began traveling to Ferguson to protest the perceived injustice of the death of an unarmed teenager. Riots broke out in, and around the area, and rallies in major urban cities grew in strength and number. Police forces were forced to send out more policemen to keep the riots and rallies under control, with the order to use manpower if deemed necessary. A grand jury deliberated on the Ferguson case for three months before their verdict. This decision was highly anticipated. Several days before the verdict was announced, local public schools decided to cancel school so as to make sure no children would be in harm’s way. The police officers were notified of the decision before the public several days in advance so they would be able to respond to the public reaction. At the end of November 2014, the final decision by the grand jury was announced, where they declared the police officer to be innocent. Shortly after the decision was made public, riots broke out throughout the area as people rebelled against the court’s verdict. Supermarkets and drugstores were burned down as the protests spread down the streets. Social media sites gave outside observers first hand access to information, raw and unfiltered by larger news corporations. Placid rallies occurred in many major cities, most in support of the family of the teenaged boy.
Despite the protests and jaundiced attention Ferguson received, some individuals drew attention to the positive aspects of human nature. Hundreds of people began donating money to the local Ferguson library to help raise funds and promote a safe environment for children and families alike to have access to resources and books. Due to all of the succor received, the library was able to hire a second full time staffer to promote accessible public resources for people of the Ferguson area. The matters of the Ferguson case brought many factors and opinions to light. For the past several decades, the role of race and power has been a changing landscape, with civil rights movements and political campaigns to promote equality across races. Before the 20th century, white supremacy was in existence, and considered to be the norm. This was evident in everything from land ownership, voting rights, and societal customs. Now in the 21st century, people of all races have more opportunities than ever before. Thus, the perspectives of individuals towards such tragedies have shifted.
A century ago, a crime like this may not have elicited any response. If any at all, the public would have supported the American individual. Two centuries ago, the white man would have been supported, the black man would have been antagonized by society as being in the wrong, regardless of his or her actions. Now, due to greater race equality, people defend the minority figure, and spread the word to ensure that the minority’s rights are protected. This change in public perception of race is indicative of the effects of civil rights movements and public awareness. Does this show, that through time, humans have decided to evolve and change themselves because they wish to prevent such tragedies from being overlooked by the majority? Are people supporting the minority simply because of the minority status, or because they believed that this was a societal injustice? As minority statuses evolve over time and no longer become an item of consideration on sole premises of being a minority, it is only then that society can move forwards and truly claim that there is no discrimination towards groups that have smaller representation in comparison to groups that have larger representation.
Though this decision has already been made by the grand jury, one can acknowledge alternative results that could have occurred during the course of this court trial. A potential outcome could have been the police officer declared guilty, which could have split into several different options for how he would pay for the crime he had allegedly committed. One of those options includes the detainment of the police officer, who would spend a term of years in jail, without the allowance of bail to release him from the punishment. The public outlash would have been much different in nature. Many factions would support the belief that a person who kills another individual is entitled to a punishment. Those who would be supporting the victim--in this case, the police officer--would face hotly contested protestors who would assert that they were in the wrong. People would accuse those in support of the Caucasian officer of being racist against those of color, and the potential of riots would still exist, but under a different context. People would claim this as a social rights victory, even though the emotional damage would be immense to both the accused and his family. Regardless of the direction of the grand jury’s decision, it is clear that no matter what, multiple parties and groups would be strongly affected by their final verdict. If one believes that these events were caused by fate, because of the inevitability of some party/individual being negatively affected, what does this say about human society as a whole? Does this mean that humans are inherently flawed, such that such evil is brought about by our mere presence? On the other hand, if these events were caused by free will, then is human society still at a fault? Who controls the tragedies that take place among ourselves? If it is us, ourselves, then prevention is a dire treatment that needs to be applied--but how? If it is not applied, if the process takes too much time, then such tragedies will occur once more, and it shows that humans are inherently evil, thus reflecting that tragedies are solely caused by fate.
The previous incident in Ferguson can be contrasted with the casualty of a 12 year old boy named Tamir Rice. A police officer in Ohio was responsible for shooting and killing Tamir Rice, who was playing with a replica semi-automatic gun. Surveillance footage showed no confrontation; the police car was still moving when the shots were fired from the car, fatally injuring the boy. The family was distraught, and once again, public media played a large role in spreading the word about the tragedy. In a recent trend, the police officer in this case was also found not guilty. These events make one question the role of a shooting and the role of a community’s response to an attack of one of their own. When a tragedy occurs, the first response is anger, followed by the desire for retribution. The community pulls together to provide support and aid for the family of the bereaved, and due to social media, others from hundreds of miles away were able to contribute to the community and the family, and others affected by such an event.
It seems as though such a tragedy was preventable--such preventable measures could have been taking such that the police officer could have, instead of not thinking about his actions and automatically shooting when seeing a boy with a gun, removed himself from his vehicle, called for backup, and identified whether the gun was real or not. These questionable actions also bring to attention the role of authority figures in maintaining the general peace. What does it say about our society that an authority figure can immediately, without confirming the truth of the matter, act with fatal violence towards an innocent individual? People believe that such authority figures should not be given the power that they are given--perhaps, this is what this struggle is, along with other similar events: a struggle about power. The imbalance in power leads to human suffering and acts of injustice. The skewed balance of power is unhealthy, and in a culture like in the United States, such actions are likely to cause outrage and public dissent. This could have been prevented if earlier in society, an imbalance in power would have been justified, and perhaps, corrected before the situation got out of hand. Fate and free will play into this matter such that it is one of the natural functions of the universe to turn towards disorder. When chaos reigns, it is unlikely for justice to be equal to both sides involved, and somebody will inevitably receive the short end of the stick.
The Ferguson incident showed a tragedy at a national scale, and also brought to light other similar incidents occurring across the country. A good example of this is the death of New York City resident Eric Garner. This unarmed individual had been selling illegal cigarettes and was accosted by a police officer. Video footage was recorded of the altercation. The police officer attempted to arrest Garner and place him under arrest, in the process placing him in a chokehold. Garner was recorded saying several times, “I can’t breathe” before going into cardiac arrest and dying. The police officer was accused of murdering the man. The official’s reasoning was that the chokehold was a defensive maneuver to subdue Garner so he could be arrested. The jury in this case, unlike in Ferguson, took less than one day for their deliberation and declared that the police officer was not guilty.
In the Garner case, protesters also took to the streets to state their opinions, but this was a much differently charged public arena in comparison to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests took place in major cities across the US and were peaceful, protesters chanting the phrase “I can’t breathe” as a mantra, showing their implicit support of Garner and their disapproval of the police official’s actions. Activists directed attention to the court’s decision, despite the presence of clearly recorded audio and video of the incident. Concerns arose regarding the actions of the authoritative figure, and whether they were or were not warranted. Some even supported the concept that this was a blatant abuse of power over the unarmed and defenseless individual, and that this has been going on for quite some time outside of the media’s eye. However, what this public event focused upon was raising national awareness without resorting to violent measures. People are aware of the recent media stories and will be able to participate as active citizens in terms of creating new legislation and proposals to ensure incidents like this do not continue to happen. President Barack Obama has publicly responded to these recent events and has announced a series of law enforcement reforms aimed to prevent any similar or future events of this nature from occurring again in the future. His focus on community police initiatives and law enforcement education look to improve authoritative training. He also supports the use of body cameras for all law officials in order to improve surveillance. This shows that power issues are typically dealt with nothing more than regulations from an individual with more power.
In all of the above cases of tragedy and human suffering, it is evident that power is a reasoning behind human suffering, but perhaps, not power in its entity, but the applications of power in different societies. Power (and tragedy, to some extent) are choices that one can choose to inflict upon themselves and others; it is enabled by an individual, whether one believes the ability to be within them or not. Its changeable and loose nature allows for societal disruption, if there are differences in opinion relating to power, its organization was poor, and if such a power is too oppressive or too loose. There seems to be a fine line between power, tyranny/oppression, and weakness, one that is constantly defined by an individual--thus, because it is left to the individual to decide what power means for themselves, power (and therefore, tragedy) are choices of free will influenced by fate.
The 2016 RNC proudly proclaimed their platform of law and order, to the extent that their presidential nominee, Donald Trump, repeatedly declared himself the “law and order” candidate. To what extent is national security to be prioritized over human rights? This is the question we are faced with today.