A decent attempt by the Times: The premature death of a decent person is no joking matter.
As a general matter, the same is true of the (frequently clownish way our "journalism" works. The same is true of the heavily tribal nature of our heavily war-inclined species.
Still and all, every once in a while, a person will perhaps be permitted to chuckle. We'll admit that we chuckle, or at least roll our eyes, every time we read this account of the late Rayshard Brooks' recent death:
What happened during the incidentBrooks was able to obtain the Taser! It almost sounds like he sent away to Amazon, or had somehow managed to prove that the Taser in question really belonged to him.
...According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, which is investigating the shooting, the officers gave Brooks a sobriety test, which he allegedly failed. The GBI says that when the officers then went to arrest Brooks, he “resisted and a struggle ensued,” prompting one of the officers to deploy their Taser. Brooks was able to obtain the Taser before trying to run away, according to the GBI, and then “officers pursued Brooks on foot, and during the chase, Brooks turned and pointed the Taser at the officer. The officer fired his weapon, striking Brooks.”
Meanwhile, does "a struggle ensued" sound a bit like President Nixon's famous "mistakes were made?" The death of Brooks is no laughing matter, but the way our species is inclined to function may sometimes seem like a joke.
It was New York magazine which let us know that Brooks "was able to obtain the Taser." That said, similar fudging of language—accompanied by fudging of facts—has been fairly routine as our "journalists" attempt or pretend to describe what happened that night.
Also, as public officials may perhaps seem to align themselves with the tribe. As such officials may possibly seek to further their own interests.
The occasional journalist bravely resists this impulse. For one example, consider what Rachel Maddow did when she interviewed Paul Howard last night.
Howard said, just a few weeks ago, that a Taser is considered a deadly weapon under George law. He made the statement as he "charged six Atlanta police officers with using excessive force in pulling two college students out of a car during a protest."
Last night, Maddow played the videotape of Howard's recent statement! She then gave him a chance to discuss the claims that this recent statement may undercut his murder charge against former officer Garrett Rolfe.
She also asked Howard if his unusually quick action in charging Rolfe and Officer Devin Brosnan was affected by his upcoming run-off election, part of a re-election campaign in which he's been running behind.
She even asked Howard to address the charges of sexual harassment he is currently facing, along with the charges of financial impropriety. It was an unusually tough interview, unlike the softball session she conducted, long ago, when Colin Powell agreed to appear on her air.
Oh wait! Maddow didn't mention any of those matters during last night's interview! We saw the tape of Howard's recent statement, and heard a brief mention of the other matters, as we watched Tucker Carlson fume about the end of the American experiment on Fox News last night.
On our own liberal cable, Maddow joined Lawrence O'Donnell in kowtowing to Howard and applauding his recent decisions.
When Maddow described the claims Howard has made against Officer Brosnan—the officer who didn't shoot Brooks—she didn't bother telling viewers that Brosnan's attorneys have challenged the accuracy of several of Howard's claims.
Fawningly, the claims were repeated. Viewers weren't even allowed to know that the claims have been denied.
For students of anthropology, this latest deeply unfortunate case offers a brilliant case study in the tribal sifting of logic, information and fact. Depending on which news organizations you frequent, you're being exposed to highly selective accounts of what happened, accounts which are marinated in selective applications of logic.
If you watch the PBS NewsHour, you've seen some highly speculative assertions pass without challenge or comment. If you watch Carlson or Laura Ingraham, you may be exposed to videotape and information you'll see nowhere else, though such exposure may be accompanied by hopelessly ridiculous frameworks.
(Although that isn't always the case, we find ourselves forced to suggest.)
This morning, the New York Times offers a perfectly decent attempt to assess the decisions made by the two officers who encountered Brooks that fateful night. The hard-copy headline says this:
Experts Debate Police Decisions In Atlanta StopIn a lengthy, 44-paragraph front-page report, Fausset and Dewan quotes various things various "experts" have said about the two officers' conduct. To their credit, the reporters are willing to offer a range of viewpoints about various bits of the officers' conduct. They even mention this, though not until paragraph 36:
"Georgia officers are taught that Tasers are a deadly threat because they can disable officers long enough for their guns to be seized..."Warning! That statement is part of a larger presentation about the legal status of Tasers under Georgia law. For those who are seeking to assess the charges against former officer Rolfe, a second consideration is mentioned, and then perhaps a third.
Indeed, the reporters are willing to quote an expert who opines, at one point, in favor of Rolfe. The question at issue is this:
When Rolfe shot Brooks, should he have known that the Taser Brooks had been able to obtain had already been fired twice? On that basis, should Rolfe have known that the Taser was no longer operative?
In his public statement charging Rolfe, Howard expressly stated that view. Today's report includes an alternate expert opinion:
FAUSSET AND DEWAN (6/19/20): Use of force should be proportional to the threat, the experts said.Should Rolfe have known that the Taser which Brooks had obtained couldn't be fired again? At least as presented in this report, that's what Villaseñor seemed to suggest, though he makes no such direct assertion.
But whether the officer should have known how many times the Taser had been fired—or could have reacted quickly enough to that knowledge—was a separate question.
“That’s a high expectation in the middle of a fight, that an officer is going to know every single fact that we get to see after the fact with an analysis of the video,” said Roberto Villaseñor, a former police chief in Tucson, Ariz., and a member of former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
“There’s a lot of things that occur in a dramatic, volatile situation that you might not be aware of,” he continued. “You have adrenaline pumping, you’ve got fear working, you’ve got the fight-or-flight syndrome going on—you’ve got a lot of things that are affecting your perceptions.”
Even here, a basic question went unasked, even as this discussion proceeded. Was there any way for Rolfe to know that the Taser had been fired twice?
In the first such incident, Brooks apparently discharged the Taser against Officer Brosnan, briefly disabling him. Did Rolfe even know that Brooks had done that? At no point in the Times report was this question asked or answered, or even opined upon.
Is it possible that Rolfe didn't know that the Taser had already been fired? Is it even possible that he might have thought, in the heat of the moment, that the Taser away from which he ducked might have been Brosnan's gun?
For ourselves, we have no idea about such matters. And when we watch our favorite shows, we see massively-paid corporate superstars rushing right past such questions
Despite its omissions, the Times report makes a decent attempt to puzzle out what happened. Indeed, the Times report spends a lot of time on a questions we've been exploring:
On the fateful evening in question, should the officers have let Brooks "walk home" or to his (alleged) sister's (allegedly nearby) house? That's what Butler told NewsHour viewers. Should Brooks have been allowed to do that?
The fact that they didn't let Brooks walk away was cited by Butler as an apparent sign of their racial bias. In this morning's report, the experts discuss this topic at some length—but one basic question still doesn't get asked:
FAUSSET AND DEWAN: Some observers have said the shooting death of Mr. Brooks could have been avoided if the two officers, who are white, had declined to arrest him. According to the footage from Officer Brosnan’s body camera, Mr. Brooks maintained that he had not had more than two drinks that night.These experts today! Some of the experts will say one thing, while others will say something else!
But he also made a suggestion: “I can just go home.”
It seemed like a simple request. “Why didn’t they just let him go home?” Mr. Brooks’s father, Larry Barbine, asked in an interview with The Toledo Blade.
Dr. Ture, a former law enforcement officer, said he likely would have written a citation but not taken Mr. Brooks to jail, particularly given the presence of the coronavirus in many detention facilities.
“I’d have said, ‘Mr. Brooks, I’ll offer you a ride wherever you want to go, however, I’m going to take your vehicle keys,’” Dr. Ture said. “If I was so concerned I might even tow the vehicle. But I might not even take Mr. Brooks to jail.”
But other experts said that for decades, the police have been told that society wants law enforcement to take a zero-tolerance approach to drunken driving, the No. 1 cause of death on U.S. roadways.
“Like with so many other social problems, we put officers at the forefront of dealing with D.U.I.,” said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches law at the University of South Carolina. “So it should be no surprise that officers arrest someone for D.U.I. That’s what we’ve been telling them to do for a long time.”
Vince Champion, the southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the Atlanta police union, said there were limits to an officer’s discretion.
Mr. Champion said he once let an inebriated driver walk home a short distance and the man was struck and killed. His supervisor, who had approved the move, was demoted, he said. Such episodes can lead to lawsuits.
“We’ve had to go away from trying to be nice,” he said.
For ourselves, we'd like to see as few arrests as possible in all types of situation. To their credit, the Times reporters presented several points of view in the particular passage we've posted.
Various experts said various things. But even in this relatively lengthy discussion, one basic question remained unasked:
Under department protocols, were the officers required to make a DUI arrest? Given the policies of their department, were they empowered to let Brooks "walk home?"
Last Monday night, the highly placed William Bratton seemed to say that the officers were required to make an arrest. But we don't know if that statement was accurate, and since that time, we've seen no one pursue that question.
As of this morning, that includes Fausset and Dewan. These reporters today!
Where factual questions get ignored, novelization takes over. Pundits like Butler appear on shows like The NewsHour. They start telling the highly selective stories they very much like and prefer.
People like Judy Woodruff stare into air as unfounded speculations emerge from their high-profile broadcasts. In this way, "Joe Sixpack" starts ingesting the selective narratives which have always fired the war-inclined hearts of those in our various tribes.
Or so top anthropologists tell us. Those experts always seem highly despondent when they appear in our rooms.
In the last two weeks, we've seen a pair of presentations which come close to defining the current field of play. One statement was made by Jelani Cobb. The other statement was made by Andrea Ritchie, right there on the NewsHour.
In a rather unusual statement, Jelani Cobb offered this on MSNBC's The Beat:
COBB (6/10/20): One other point that I have been making a lot, I have been making all the time, is that one of the reasons that this problem has been allowed to persist is that people have the perception that this is a black and brown problem.In a highly unusual statement, Cobb seemed to say that we have a general problem with police killings—a "fundamental" problem which isn't restricted to the (presumably unwarranted) killing of those who are "black and brown."
But if you were to discard all of the incidents involving black and brown people, what you would find is, there are a heck of a lot of white people, unarmed white people, who are killed by police each year.
We have a fundamental problem with policing in this country, whose most extreme violent forms are witnessed in how we see black and brown people treated by law enforcement.
Given current tribal narrative, that was a highly unusual statement. Six nights later, following Butler on the NewsHour, Ritchie offered this in a discussion which centered on the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a wholly innocent person:
YANG (6/16/20): Louisville has banned—in reaction to this, banned no-knock warrants. They called it Breonna's Law. How effective do you think that will be?From that presentation, and from Ritchie's full interview with John Yang, a viewer might form a picture of "the whole truth" which is very much unlike the picture suggested by Cobb. In this instance it was Yang, not Woodruff, who sat mutely by as preferred stories were told.
RITCHIE: I think it's good that we're stepping back to look at how those police officers came to be at her door and looking to interrupt one of the mechanisms that has resulted in her death and also in the death of—I can name five other black women killed by no-knock warrants, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, Alberta Spruill, Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
So, there's many—this is not the first time. And so I think that stopping no-knock warrants is important...
It's true that, before the shooting of Breonna Taylor, quite a few other people had died during no-knock raids. Next week, we'll discuss the egregious case from Houston in 2019—a case you've never seen mentioned.
We'll also start to review the numbers which lie behind the statement by Cobb. We'll look at the numbers nationwide, and at those from Minnesota.
We'll think about the possible survey we sometimes wonder about. After reading Wesley Lowery's Atlantic essay, we imagined several survey questions which could be asked, mainly involving this one:
How many "white" people do police officers shoot and kill?How many respondents would lean toward "none?" In part, that's a question about our comically awful journalism. It's also a question about the way our human minds tend to work.
Next week: The victims who get spoken about, along with the victims who don't
Minnesota dreamin': Minnesota's numbers can be found within the Washington Post's invaluable Fatal Force site. Lowery was involved in this site's creation.
We'll guess that those Minnesota numbers would seem surprising to some. We may sift those numbers next week.
Also, what effects flow from the stories we tell? From the facts we agree to share? From the facts we agree to omit?