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The Flattening

In a series of posts, Radley Balko sought to debunk what he calls the “retconning” of George Floyd stemming from a documentary that questioned whether he was murdered by Derek Chauvin with the support or involvement of people like  John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Bari Weiss and Coleman Hughes, among others. By “retconning,” Radley refers to the introduction of new information in order to change the narrative. He argues that after the initial consensus comes the “flattening.”

There’s a flattening that takes place after a high-profile incident of police abuse sparks civil unrest.

There’s the initial media coverage and viral spread on social media. This is followed by outrage, then protests. In some cases, the protests may be accompanied by rioting or looting. Much of that violence is often — but not always — in response to an overly aggressive police response.

Inevitably, all of this is followed by backlash. Police groups and conservative pundits seize on any violent incidents, then start to question the incident that sparked the protests to begin with. Sometimes, new evidence reveals that the precipitating event didn’t happen the way it was originally reported or portrayed on social media. Other times, the evidence confirms the initial account, or shows that the police abuse was even worse than initially thought.

While one can quibble with word choices, Radley isn’t wrong. But then, so what? In a culture of hot takes devoid of facts or reason, incidents go viral and tribes pick their sides and then set about rationalizing their positions. Sometimes the initial view turns out to be the right one. Sometimes not. For some of us, which is which matters. For others, not so much.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, every killing of a black person by a police officer became a cause based on nothing more than the race of the person killed and the occupation of the killer. Recall the shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, which was immediately condemned as another murder by a white police officer? Radley jumped on that one, later deleting his twit, and her name doesn’t appear in the current list of bad shoots.

But the point isn’t that the outrage is about any one death, but something else.

It’s the same story, over and over with these incidents. Freddie GrayTamir RiceElijah McClainLaQuan McDonald, and Breonna Taylor — these killings didn’t spark uprisings just because people were furious about one particular death. They all took place in cities with long, well-documented patterns of police abuse, corruption, and racism.

Yet again, Radley isn’t so much wrong as a bit too facile. There are “long, well-documented patterns of police abuse, corruption, and racism,” but that fails to answer the question of whether any particular killing was good or bad, right or wrong. That police have long had a culture of racism, the dual expectation that black people are more prone to crime and violence, such that they approach a black person with the assumption that they are guilty and dangerous, is beyond dispute.

What it does not answer, however, is whether every cop, every interaction, reflects this assumption, this culture. And yet, in the rush to judgment, he makes the same assumptions about cops that he accuses cops of making about black people, and is just as prone to rationalize the righteousness of his bias as he condemns of the “retconners.”.

I often see white people ask why we don’t see mass protest after white people are unjustly killed by police. This is why. Polling after George Floyd’s death found that 70 percent of black respondents had at least one bad experience with police. Nearly half feared for their lives. The corresponding figures for white people were just 23 and 16 percent.

White people look at the killing of, say, Daniel ShaverDuncan Lemp, or David Hooks and think it’s a terrible thing that happened to someone else. But many black people look at the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Elijah McClain and think, “That could have been me” — or a brother, sister, daughter, or son.

This is an important point, but one that needs to be considered in light of facts and reason rather than feelings and vibes. In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, there was a pervasive belief that cops were murdering black people right and left. People thought that thousands, tens of thousands, of black people were being murdered every year by dirty, racist cops. Radley is right that this belief informed the way black people perceived cops. The problem was that it just wasn’t true.

It’s entirely understandable that in the heat of the moment, and given the outrage of the unduly passionate, people will take to the streets upon the slightest provocation without regard to its merit or accuracy. And it will, in some instances, be accurate, even though looting and burning still can’t be justified no matter how strongly one wants to support the tribe.

But after the hot take cools off, it’s necessary for cooler heads to parse the facts, to consider with serious eyes whether the killing was more Elijah or Ma’Khia. And as for killings like that of Daniel Shaver, maybe it would be far more useful to urge white people to realize that there, but for the grace of god, they go rather than rationalize why white people have no reason to worry about an interraction with police that could end up taking their life.

If the point is to hold police accountable for wrongful conduct, then we would do better not to pigeonhole conduct by race to suggest that it’s only wrong when done to a black person. It’s wrong when done to any person, and the racism of police assumptions about black people needs to be recognized and condemned. But not every cop is racist and not every incident involving a black person is the product of racism. If it means “retconning” after the heat of the moment cools off, then flatten away. Facts still matter, even when there are “long, well-documented patterns.”

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