Our Culture of Killing
I confess up-front that this blog post is going to be confusing for some people. It is not going to be my normal animal-shelter-related commentary. It will, I swear, connect directly to animal sheltering, but not in the way that I typically talk about it.
I will also say that I am writing it at a time when I am very angry and sad. If my emotions spill out in the writing, I apologize up-front. I am not as upset as I was yesterday, but nonetheless I'm very much needing to consciously focus on good things around me to keep from being overcome by the negative feelings.
Yesterday I watched the video of a Louisiana cop shoot and kill Alton Sterling. Sterling was being held down on the ground by other cops and unable to move. The cop who killed him, pulled his weapon and fired several shots into Sterling’s chest. Sterling’s “crime” was selling music CDs outside a music store, with full permission of the store’s owner. Then I watched the video live streamed on Facebook of Philando Castile’s death as the result of several shots being fired into his chest at point-blank range by a cop in Minnesota. Philando’s crime was reportedly having a busted taillight.
I admit that I watched the videos through a very specific and unusual kind of filter: one of an advocate for animal shelter reform who, over the last few years, has watched far too many videos of cops shooting and killing innocent family pets. In case you are unaware, yes, that is a thing that has become increasingly common - cops shooting people’s dogs, often right in front of the owners, and when the dogs are doing nothing wrong.
To be clear, before going farther, I have to state that I am not going to equate killing dogs with killing people. I am absolutely not going to do that. I am, however, going to make the case that the culture that accepts one is almost certain to accept the other, especially if it is filled with pervasive bigotry. I am also going to make the case that the underlying problems that cause both kinds of shootings are the same.
The other filter through which I watched these videos was as an admitted racist myself. Let me explain…
I first became aware that I was a racist in about the mid 1990’s. I was working as a software developer in the particularly white suburb of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. I was alone in the elevator on my way to work when three young black men got into the elevator with me. I was immediately uncomfortable, so much so that I noticed that I was immediately uncomfortable, and so much so that I had to ask myself, “what the heck is that feeling all about?”
Upon reflection, that was really hard question to answer. Looking back at my personal history, I had never experienced any kind of negative encounter with a person of dark skin. So, from where in the world did that feeling come? I couldn’t explain it, so I kept looking and asking.
I eventually concluded that the irrational feeling of discomfort I felt that day was the byproduct of my own racism that was the result of being born in a culture that is jam-packed full of racism, only some of which is easy to detect and ignore because it is overt. The more subtle racism in our society, I have come to believe, is the worst and most insidious kind. The language the press uses, for example, when talking about “white crime” when compared to “black crime” is totally different. I came to realize that I was like a fish swimming in a sea of water that it can’t see. But, the water around me was racism and it was not keeping me alive. It wasn’t even healthy.
After traveling around the world a bit more, I also came to realize that my home state of Minnesota, considered by many to be a model of progressive values, was also one of the most segregated states in the USA. In those days, in that area of St. Louis Park it was very rare to see a person with dark skin. I came to realize that on the elevator that day, it was like I had a little Archie Bunker living inside my head shouting, “black people out of bounds!” It was a voice programmed by the culture into which I was born.
The most overt racism I have personally encountered happened just a couple of years ago, and it happened in an intensely, frighteningly, official way.
I was called to serve on jury duty and got assigned to a criminal case involving a 16-year-old African American defendant, who was being tried as an adult for a very serious offense.
The “crime” for which the defendant was initially stopped by Minneapolis Police was failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, before making a right turn. The arresting officer described it in court as a “rolling stop,” you know the kind we have all done, where you slow way down, but don’t quite come to a full stop before moving into an intersection?
Neither the prosecution nor the defense ever explained why what happened next happened. For some reason the cops decided to search the entire car, the driver and a passenger in the car, even though neither had any prior criminal records. In searching the vehicle, they found a gun that had been stolen a year and a half previously, in a very different part of town.
In listening to the prosecuting attorney’s opening statement, you would have thought it was an open and shut case. In fact, in her opening statements she said it WAS an open and shut case. She promised to bring forward a string of DNA experts to testify and that she would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, the driver of the car, had stolen the gun.
By the end of the trial, I felt like the prosecution had lied to me. She did deliver on her promise to bring forward a string of DNA experts. None of them could put the defendant’s DNA on the gun. Additionally, it turned out, the car did not belong to him, was not a car he regularly drove, and the gun was in a place in the car where he could not possibly have seen or reached it.
The gun had actually been stolen from a truck in Fridley, many miles away. The white gun owner, who the prosecution tried to paint as a “responsible gun owner” had left the loaded gun in his unlocked truck in a strip mall parking lot while he went on a week-long fishing vacation with his buddies.
Nothing other than the gun connected the two scenes. Nothing connected the gun to the defendant, other than it was present in a car he happened to be driving. The prosecution could not prove he knew the gun was there, much less that he had stolen it a year and a half previously. Yet, the charge he was facing was theft of a deadly weapon.
There were many other gaping holes in the prosecutor’s case. No testimony was given about who the owner of the car was or what his or her explanation of the gun being there may have been. There was no other information about how many other people may have had access to the car, or who regularly used it. In other words, the prosecution didn’t prove the defendant ever had possession of the gun, much less that he had been the one who had stolen it 18 months before.
When the jury went to deliberate, the judge gave very explicit instructions, which she repeated twice. She told the jury that the defendant had a presumption of innocence that we must abide by and that it was the prosecutor’s job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty. If the prosecutor had not proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we were to return a verdict of not guilty.
I figured it was an easy decision, so asked the other jurors if we could take a simple vote for guilty or not guilty, before really deliberating, just to see if we all agreed and we could all go home. To my utter shock and horror, it was about a 50/50 split.
Over the course of the next couple of days jurors began moving from “guilty” to “not guilty” by saying things like, “Ok. Sure. I still think he is guilty but there is really no evidence to prove it.”
By the end of the second day, there was one, final holdout arguing for a verdict of “guilty.” As more jurors had switched to the “not guilty” side, she had grown increasingly agitated and emotional.
We pressed her by re-reading the judge’s instructions and asked her to explain the evidence or facts that prove to her beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty. At that point, she screamed, “Obviously, he is guilty. Just LOOK at him!”
After that was finally said out loud, the bigotry in the jury room was finally fully exposed and everyone could see it and even she could no longer support a verdict of guilty. We delivered a verdict of not guilty.
Throughout the trial, the defendant’s three younger sisters sat quietly in chairs right behind their brother. They were beautiful, perfectly-behaved kids. They even maintained their composure when the verdict was read.
After the jury was excused, we all gathered out by the elevators to leave. As we stood there, the girls came into the area just as an elevator arrived. The other jurors looked uncomfortably at the elevator. Maybe it was because we weren’t supposed to have any contact during the trial. But, the trial was over and the no contact order was done. I was the only other person who got into the elevator with them. They were clustered around a cell phone that was on speaker and were talking to their mom. Tears were streaming down their faces. They were jumping up and down.
“Your baby is coming home!” one of the girls shouted.
“What? What?” the voice on the other end of the phone asked urgently.
“Not guilty! NOT GUILTY!” the girls cheered now jumping up and down with joy.
Then, all of a sudden the youngest one who was about six-years-old, who had been holding the hand of the middle sister, looked over at me. She let go of her sister’s hand and walked across the few steps that separated us and looked me straight in the eyes, tears steaming down her face. She simply smiled and said, “Thank you.”
That moment touched me deeply. I still tear up when I think about it, not only because it was such a sweet, tender moment, but because I also am painfully aware of how it could have gone.
That trial gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to grow up black in my own city. I believe everything about the case was handled differently because the defendant was a young black male. From pulling him over, to the searching of the car, to the prosecution, to the fact that a number of jurors were ready to convict him based on, at best, extremely flimsy evidence – it was all, in my opinion, a load of systemic, overt racism. I can’t help but wonder what it is like for kids like that to grow up in a system like that. I almost have no experience to compare it to.
I say almost because there is something I can kind of compare it to from my own life: growing up gay. In high school I was picked on and bullied a lot. For my daily survival I needed to learn which areas of the school to avoid during certain times of the day. I needed to learn which faculty members were likely to look the other way when the bullying was going on. Everything was difficult; even something as basic as finding a restroom that was safe to use was a challenge.
In my adult life, I don’t experience much of that anymore. But, truth be told, when my husband and I travel, we go out of our way to avoid certain towns or states where we might not be safe.
As bad as that may seem, it pales in comparison to what life must be like for young black kids growing up today – even in a progressive city like Minneapolis. That makes me really sad. And that sadness is yet another filter through which I watched the videos of cops needlessly killing young black guys.
Because of my work advocating on behalf of companion animals, and the number of innocent family pets that are shot by cops each year, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the complex dynamics involved that lead to these tragic events. And, again, I don’t believe cops shooting dogs and cops shooting people are the same. I do, however, believe that the causes of both are largely the same.
It begins with ignorant, biased profiling that is hyped and inflamed by our media. It is exacerbated by the hyper-masculine, ultra-macho police culture that often mixes toxically with America’s irrational romanticizing of guns and power. The fact that many cops are former military, who may have come back from our seemingly endless wars suffering mental and emotional damage for which they get little or no help adds more fuel to the fire. The cop culture of “protecting their own” also gives too many cops a license to behave in ways we would never tolerate from any other group of people.
And, lastly, our culture is losing its sense of the value of life. That is fundamentally at the core of all of this, our perpetual wars, cops shooting dogs and people, and yes, even animal shelters that routinely destroy the pets they are supposed to be serving, you can wrap it all under the banner of “humans not valuing life.” That is what creates our culture of killing, in all of its forms. Recognizing our interconnectedness and the value of life is the only way to correct it.