I can picture the scene in McKinney pretty well. The organizers promote a party on the internet. More people show up than they expect. They didn't think parts of it through, like whether or not they could invite a bunch of kids, some of whom they didn't know personally, to their gated community pool. It happens. If you've ever organized an event for more than twenty people, you know how easily things can get misinterpreted.
Then when neighbors get upset with the loud music and too many "guests" in the private pool, the teenagers get mouthy. I've seen it with crowds of teenagers in a dozen countries. They don't want to leave. They assume that something with fliers and on-line promotion is "official" so they have the right to be there. They came all that way. They demand their right to have what was advertised.
And crowds are hard to disperse whether you're the somewhat disorganized organizer or the police, especially when no one has a ride home yet.
Now the residents of the area are upset because the media and activists have turned it into a racial issue, because a lot of the kids who showed up for this advertised party were black and the police who came in response to calls from white neighbors were also white. And they contend that a lot of the residents there are also black, so it isn't a race issue. They just have rules about guests flooding their private pool for a public event.
I'm an ocean away and I wasn't there, so I'm not in the business of judging what I didn't see. But how the party was organized or why the kids were there is really not the issue.
There is one thing I can see. I can see the video made by a fifteen year old without an ulterior motive, a kid who was obviously a bit confused and then increasingly concerned by the reaction of a police officer. I can't hear who yelled what very well, but I can see well enough what happened and so can everyone else.
People all over the world can see.
And we don't care what she yelled or who said what. She was fourteen and the police officer was an adult. And you don't shove a person to the ground and use a girl's hair for a handle and put her face in the dirt over words, any words.
Sometimes I have to explain about things in America because I'm an American living in another country. It's expected. I know that although there is violence in America and police are too ready to fire their guns and especially ready if they're facing a black person, most American police officers are not out-of-control or insane and many of them are black. I've held conversations with people in Europe about this and said, "Yes, there is racism in our society and it affects the police but not all white Americans are overtly racist and not all the cops are murderers."
But what do I say now? The police officer in the video is clearly panicked, running from one side to another, shouting orders to random groups of kids who are walking around not threatening anyone, just looking confused and trying to figure out how to get a ride home.
Was there something violent that happened before that freaked him out? According to another video, there was a scratching, slapping fight between a woman and some teenage girls. But that's all. Why is this police officer so flustered? I have yet to see any reasonable reason reported. There was a restless crowd yes. Some of them may have yelled at him. But they were children, not even older teens for the most part. You expect me to believe that the police officer was that afraid of children, so afraid that he had to yank them by their arms, shove them down, use a girl's hair as a handle to force her head down and then pull a gun?
You can say this was just a cop with a mean, aggressive personality, but it didn't look that way. He didn't look like he was just abnormally aggressive. In the video he looks confused, irritated, panicked and frustrated that his orders are not being followed. Did he receive no training for dealing with a situation like this? Wait. No, as it turns out, he was the trainer, the senior officer in charge of new guys.
How could he not know that the first duty of a police officer is like that of a doctor. First, do not make the situation worse.
I'm sure there are plenty of rants out there on the internet about how bad cops are. This isn't one of them. I have seen police who lived and worked by the principle of mitigating harm and keeping the peace. I organized antiwar demonstrations in a major European city for a couple of years. We never had a riot or property damage or anything that made the international news, but there was the occasional tense incident.
I remember one in particular. It was one of the first big demonstrations, thousands of people, crammed into narrow, echoing medieval streets. We only had megaphones, no sound system. there was no question that we were going to really do crowd control. The best we as organizers could do was stay ahead of the crowd and gently guide it in the right direction.
Emotions were running high. The war in Iraq had just begun and European public opinion was aggravated by the policies of George W. Bush. And a fourth to a third of the demonstrators were Arabs, often very emotional Middle Eastern students. Riots had broken out in some cities. The police had reason to worry.
We arrived at the US Embassy to deliver our petition for peace and found that instead of the usual line of relatively friendly looking cops, we were facing a phalanx of riot police with shields and tasers, and no doubt, tear gas. The street was blocked with a barricade some distance before the Embassy. I definitely felt a bit nervous walking up to that in the front line of the march. I couldn't see it with my bad eyesight but others could see US Marines standing in the windows of the Embassy with guns.
Once we got the crowd stopped, we were negotiating with the police to let one of our organizers through the barricade, so that he could personally deliver our signed petition to the Embassy. A police officer asked him to take his backpack off and just as he was putting it down there was a deafening "bang!" It must have been a cherry-bomb-type firecracker, the type that could blind you if it went off in your face.
I was sure that things were about to go to pieces. I ducked down against the police barricade, hoping against hope that when the police charged they'd just somehow go over me. There were screams and yells of anger from the crowd. But the police didn't come.
Instead I heard a firm, loud voice of command moving down the line of police. "Everyone okay? Everyone okay?" The police commander was checking with every section of the line to make sure no one had been hurt by the explosion.
Slowly I stood up and looked back at the police. They hadn't moved.
I learned to respect the local police that day. They had trained to control their reflexes and not to panic in the face of a emotive and angry crowd. Over the next couple of years I was involved with several negotiations between them and demonstrators and we were always able to work things out. Not every city is that lucky.
And what happened in McKinney isn't unique. It is only in the news because a fifteen-year-old shot a video of it. Things like that happen all the time - worse things, incidents where people end up hurt or dead. And we usually only hear about it when it is so well-documented that there is no way to escape the truth.
I am not against police officers. I have deep respect for the job. I'm an activist but I don't believe that "the man" is all bad and we don't need any law enforcement. All you need to do to see how bullies and mobsters rule when there are no police is to look at the international scene where the one with the biggest military calls the shots.
But that does not mean that the police should become just another bully with a bigger stick and a readier gun. Just because someone wears the badge does not mean they are in any way outside either the law or basic ethics.
If I've told my kids once, I've told them a thousand times. I don't care what your sister said. I don't care if your brother spit at you. You don't shove. You don't yank hair. That's not okay. If you do it is the job of the police to come and stop you and put you in time-out. The police in your case being Mama. And Mama will be firm, but Mama won't swing you by your arm or use your hair as a handle to force your head down or scream profanity at you or bring out the big guns. Because the job of police (and of Mamas) is to mitigate strife and protect and to not make things worse.
As far as McKinney goes, I've heard the various accounts of the context. But just as when my kids squabble, context only matters so much.
Here's the bottom line. There's a fourteen-year-old girl and there's an armed adult. The adult has no reason to be afraid. She was not a threat. The guys who approached the police officer were not a threat. Drawing his gun was an escalation. It made things worse... much much worse than a crowd of young teens ever needs to be.
As to the racial tension inherent in the situation. How can that possible NOT come up? You have a white police officer attacking a black girl in a bathing suit, clearly treating her as a violent threat. He had just told a dozen or more black kids to sit down and ignored the white kid. Sure, the crowd was unhappy and milling in chaos. But no one with a day of crowd control training should expect any less. The kids weren't armed, and yet the police officer was panicked.
And that is where it seems racial.
How might that officer might have acted if faced with a crowd of white seventh, eighth and ninth graders who were confused because they showed up for a party and it turned out to be a problem and they don't have a ride home right now?
I am pretty sure what he would have done. He would have asked them if they had phones to call their parents. He would have asked them in a concerned tone to move a bit away from whatever altercation was going on nearby, if there was one. I've seen officers do this in similar situations.
But instead this officer panicked and went out of control. He didn't see those kids as reasonable or potentially in need of his protection and it's only chance that no one got shot.
Such things are not made by just one bad, overly aggressive, poorly trained cop. It takes a society that views black teenagers as dangerous, hostile and potentially armed to do this. And in this case they were quite the opposite. Given the chaos, I'd say he was getting a fair amount of compliance. The kids close by sat down and did as he said. It was unclear what he was saying to those further away, but the fact is that legally you are not required to sit down or come hither when a police officer says so unless you are under arrest or there is a state of emergency.
And so when European friends ask me about this I feel a sinking inside because I know this isn't just a bad cop. I know we've got problems far beyond that.
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