...as part of a "gruesome cycle:" In yesterday's report, we offered background information on one of 61 events. Or possibly on one of only six.
We offered background information on the shooting death of Robert Christen. In September 2015, Christen was shot and killed by a police officer in Mora, Minnesota.
According to the Washington Post's Fatal Force site, Christen is one of 61 people shot and killed by police officers in Minnesota from the start of 2015 on through to the present day.
Christen is one of only six such people the site describes as being "unarmed" at the time they were shot and killed.
Local reporting on Christen's death was remarkably poignant. Christen's mother, Pam Christen, described Christen as "such a wonderful son." More specifically, she was quoted saying this:
“When he was not sick, he was a very loving and wonderful person. He was such a wonderful son.”
So spoke a loving mother. Unfortunately, Robert Christen had apparently been extremely sick at the time of his death. He'd long been dogged by extremely serious mental illness, his mother was quoted saying.
She said she'd seen him hospitalized 50-60 times. She was quoted interpreting her son's behavior on the night of his death in the following way:
FAURIE (3/3/16): People who knew Rob told investigators that he had recently been struggling with mental health issues and were worried that his text messages and phone calls were hints at a suicide attempt. “He was very sick,” said Rob’s mother, Pam Christen. “My husband and I basically believe this was suicide by cop.”If we can believe the things we read, Pam Christen didn't blame the police officer who shot and killed her son.
“I want it very clear that we hold no ill will against the police officer," Pam Christen was quoted saying. "She was put in a terrible position and she did what she had to do."
So it went as the hometown newspaper reported this shooting death. For more details concerning the incident, see yesterday's report.
We reviewed this incident because it was recently cited in a high-profile piece of journalism. We refer to a high-profile essay by Wesley Lowery which recently appeared online at The Atlantic—an essay which Lowery and The Atlantic's editors specifically describe as a "story."
For reasons which were never explained, Christen's death was cited by Lowery right at the start of his essay. Headlines included, the essay starts like this:
Why Minneapolis Was the Breaking Point/According to Lowery's essay, Christen's death had been part of a "gruesome cycle" in which "the police" killed someone and than, after activists protested, "the police" killed someone else. As for the asterisk which appears at the end of the highlighted sentence, this explanation appears at the end of Lowery's piece:
Black men and women are still dying across the country...
MINNEAPOLIS—Miski Noor watched just the first minute of the video of George Floyd’s killing before closing the tab and walking the two blocks to join the protests already forming at the scene. The days since have been filled with a maddening sense of déjà vu.
Noor had joined the Movement for Black Lives in 2014, after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The 34-year-old activist’s first protest was that December, a demonstration that shut down the Mall of America during the peak of the holiday shopping season.
Noor soon became intimately familiar with the gruesome cycle: The police killed someone. Activists protested. Small reforms were won. The police killed someone else.
In Minnesota, St. Paul police killed Philip Quinn, a Native American man in the midst of a mental-health crisis, in September 2015. One week later, a Kanabec County Sheriff’s deputy killed Robert Christen, a white former fullback for the Wisconsin Badgers who was enduring a mental-health crisis of his own.* Two months after that, in November 2015, Minneapolis police killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man. Hundreds poured into the streets.
*This article previously misspelled Robert Christen’s name and misstated the affiliation of the officer who killed him."Whatevs!" an experienced cynic might cry. Who cares about stupid sh*t like that when we're performing the type of work which is now being widely described as "the journalism of the saints?"
In fairness, everyone makes mistakes. Lowery's pair of mistakes suggest the possibility that he hadn't devoted a lot of attention to the details of Christen's death, which he decided to cite in his essay's fourth paragraph.
That said, our analysts say that a larger question arises in the passage we've presented—a passage which appears right at the start of Lowery's self-described "story." That larger question would be this:
In what way did these three incidents constitute a "gruesome cycle?" What point was Lowery trying to make by citing these deaths at the start of his essay, then linking them in that way?
Presumably, we'd all prefer that police officers never shot and killed anyone. Presumably, we'd all prefer that there would never be any such shooting deaths.
That said, what point was Lowery trying to make about the three incidents he briefly cites in that paragraph?
According to Lowery's account, two of those deaths arose out of mental health crises. Was Lowery suggesting that it would be better to send mental health specialists, not police officers, to the scene of such events?
In the rest of Lowery's essay, there's little evidence that he was trying to make some such suggestion Instead, it becomes clear that he is, in the main, attempting to address claims of racism on the part of American police.
As the essay's first section ends, a photograph of Noor shows her in a t-shirt which says, STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE. Later, he quotes Noor saying this:
LOWERY: “We want justice for George Floyd, but we know justice isn’t enough,” Noor said. “That’s why we’re demanding bigger and bolder things. Now is the time to defund the police and actually invest in our communities.Noor seems to care deeply about such matters, as indeed she should. That said, we're evaluating the journalists here—Lowery and the Atlantic's editors.
“These systems were created to hunt, to maim, and to kill black people, and the police have always been an uncontrollable source of violence that terrorizes our communities without accountability,” Noor added. “Black communities have been and are living in persistent fear of being killed by state authorities.”
For himself, Lowery refers to the United States as "the country whose police officers are carrying out the extrajudicial killings of black people." More specifically, he describes Barack Obama as "the former chief spokesperson for and political figurehead of the country whose police officers are carrying out" those crimes.
Stating the obvious, there's nothing wrong with examining the way American police officers and police departments have behaved, and are behaving, toward the nation's black citizens.
Lowery's essay was offered in the aftermath of the brutal killing of George Floyd. It's fairly clear that his chief focus involves the claim that police officers and police departments are deeply involved in the kind of misconduct described by Noor.
If he chooses to stand trial, former officer Derek Chauvin will have a chance to explain his conduct on the day George Floyd was killed. That said, it's hard to imagine what he could say to make his conduct seem less vicious that it looks on videotape.
Racial justice is a deeply important concern; it has been for a long time. That said, at least as a matter of theory, intelligent journalism is highly valued too, though it's a practice which is valued mainly in the breach.
After reading Lowery's essay, we looked into the facts surrounding the three shooting deaths he cites in his fourth paragraph. We'll only say this:
In the case of the late Robert Christen, the mother of the deceased says the officer did nothing wrong. In the other two cases Lowery cites, it's much less clear what actually happened—but it isn't clear than the officers in question did anything wrong in those cases either.
(For an account of the death of Philip Quinn, including dashcam videotape which is unhelpful in the end, you can just click here.)
Very few people are going to doubt that Derek Chauvin behaved in the most egregious way possible when he took the life of George Floyd. (It's also true, as mentioned above, that he still has a right to due process.)
For better or worse, other cases are harder to judge—until we turn the story-telling over to revolutionary figures like Lowery. Until we adopt the story-telling procedure we began describing, all the way back in 1999, as the "novelization of news."
Out of curiosity, we also checked Minnesota's data from the Fatal Force site after reading Lowery's "story." When we took a look at the record, this is what we found:
According to the Fatal Force site, police officers in Minnesota have shot and killed 61 people since the start of 2015. According to the site, ten of those people were black; an additional 37 were white. The full listing looks like this:
Shot and killed by police in Minnesota, 2015 to the present:The site says that six of these 61 people were unarmed when they were shot and killed. Five were white, including Christen. The sixth unarmed person was, in fact, Jamar Clark.
Native American: 5
Middle Eastern: 2
Unknown race/ethnicity: 1
The site says that at least 21 of the 61 victims had been involved in an episode involving mental illness. Some others had been involved in reams of ludicrous conduct.
Such ludicrous conduct will sometimes put police officers in very difficult circumstances requiring instant decisions. So it was in the case of Christen, who was apparently undergoing a major mental health breakdown.
Why was Robert Christen's death placed at the top of this "story?" Were readers supposed to assume that the officer whose affiliation Lowery misstated must have done something wrong in killing the person whose name Lowery couldn't spell?
Were readers supposed to assume that some act of misconduct by that (female) deputy must explain why this event had been part of a "gruesome cycle?"
Were readers expected to make that assumption? People, of course they were! In fairness to Lowery, it's possible that he hadn't ever checked to see how that event had gone down.
It's possible that he didn't know the first freaking thing about this part of his story. So it may tend to go when saints start practicing journalism.
When we read Lowery's story in The Atlantic, but especially when we read his featured essay in Sunday's New York Times, we thought of headstrong Diomedes being chastised by the much more experienced Nestor not far from the high walls of Troy. According to Homer, Nestor admired Diomedes' spirit, but he felt that his judgment might be somewhat poor.
Tomorrow, we'll look at a reference Lowery makes in the second paragraph of his Atlantic essay. On Friday, we'll look at the inchoate mess the New York Times inevitably decided to publish last Sunday.
This is the way our discourse may tend to go when we practice the journalism of the saints. On the other hand, some will say that no major change ever occurs, in any society, without a few journalistic eggs possibly being broken.
Tomorrow: Lowery cites Michael Brown. Also, back to what Cobb said