Wapo Errs in Retracting ‘Hands-up Don’t Shoot’ Support

hands upto

On Sunday the Lexington Herald Leader here in Kentucky published an apology by Washington Post blogger and MSNBC commentator, Jonathan CapehartThe article was entitled “Ferguson policing concerns valid, but ‘Hands-Up’ not based on truth.”

Capehart’s retraction of initial support for the “Hands-Up” movement was based on his reading of the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that “filled in the blanks, corrected the record and brought sunlight to dark places.” The report forced Capehart (an African-American) “to deal with uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting.”

According to the Wapo journalist, his conclusion was based on the DOJ’s “exhaustive interviews with witnesses, cross-checking their statements . . . ballistics, DNA evidence and results from three autopsies.” All of these showed that officer Wilson “knew about the theft of cigarillos from the convenience store and had a description of the suspects . . . Brown fought with the officer and tried to take his gun.”

Capehart’s general conclusion: “. . . we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.”

Capehart’s conclusion is disturbing on at least three counts. It first of all ingenuously accepts the Department of Justice as a disinterested arbitrator.  Secondly, it simply accepts the false conclusion that Officer Wilson had no alternative but to kill Michael Brown, shooting him six times.  And thirdly, both Capehart’s article and the DOJ report reinforce the erroneous impression that police officers are under constant threat and so can be excused for their over-reactions.

Is the DOJ disinterested? Hardly – at least not if we keep the big picture in mind. Remember, there is an encroaching police state in our country defending the interests of the 1% against the rest of us. Under the aegis of the DOJ, increasingly militarized police forces have gradually assumed the role of occupying armies, especially in communities of color.

Moreover, in representing the elite, government agencies routinely lie to us. At what point do we conclude that they have lost credibility as disinterested investigators, and discard out of hand any claims that support the forces of DOJ-sponsored occupation?

However, even if we accept the Department’s report as endorsed by Jonathan Capehart, the question remains, did Officer Wilson have no alternative but to use deadly force on Michael Brown? Clearly the answer is no.

Wilson’s alternatives were at least three. He could have (1) stayed in his car and called for backup, (2) allowed Brown to “escape” and later arrest him (with suitable reinforcement) at Brown’s home which was known to the police, or (3) in the worst of circumstances, shot the unarmed Brown in the legs to wound rather than kill.

The fact that such alternatives did not occur to Wilson underscores the poor training of police in our country. Clearly all of them are instructed on how to use their deadly force weapons. Evidently however, they are not sufficiently trained on how and when not to use them.

As for the hazards of policing, it doesn’t even rank among our country’s ten most dangerous jobs. Those belong to loggers, fishermen, pilots, roofers, steel workers, garbage collectors, electricians, truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers.

That list puts into perspective the “I feared for my life” defense inevitably invoked by police allegedly mistaking wallets, pens, candy bars, and sandwiches for lethal weapons.

As retired NYPD detective, Graham Witherspoon puts it: if policemen are that afraid to put their lives in danger, they’ve chosen the wrong profession.  It would be better, he said, to “go home to mommy,” and find some other line of work.

Ironically, Darren Wilson and his defenders are correct in their claim that he was “just doing his job.”

That’s exactly the problem: the job of the law enforcement in our emerging police state is now to intimidate, control, and kill with impunity rather than to “serve and protect.”

In uncritically endorsing the DOJ’s “occupying army” model of policing, Capehart leads us to support (in the blogger’s words) a force that “would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Wapo Errs in Retracting ‘Hands-up Don’t Shoot’ Support”

  1. Excellent and thoughtful article. it is shocking and disturbing to witness the rise in police militarization in this country. The two best points of this article are the fact that police officers today are better trained at escalating non-lethal situations (simple traffic stops) into “life or death” situations and the fact that being a police officer is not a comparably very dangerous job. In fact, only 114 police were killed on duty in 2014, the majority of which were due to vehicular crashes, rather than violent gun assaults. The narrative that every police interaction with a citizen is a “life or death” moment needs to change and it needs to come from leadership within the DOJ, police ranks, and police unions.

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    1. Thanks, Patrick. I know you’re closely following the facts that represent the back-story of this posting. You’re actually the one who caused me to look up those facts about dangerous jobs. Thanks. And you’re right: there is no need to approach each traffic stop (especially of African-Americans and Hispanics) as a “life or death” moment.

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  2. Mike,

    Your assessment of police training and daily actions is incomplete, at least from my experience. I have firsthand information on police training and am somewhat intimately aware of what police personnel often do to serve and protect. Much like many unfortunate and maybe criminal actions by some professionals, the many good actions of, for example, priests, teachers, judges and, yes, police personnel are often overlooked. This is not to suggest that unwarranted shootings are tragic; nor am I arguing that such actions should require a close scrutiny of the facts by an unbiased investigator. It is also not to say that some police training in surely incomplete, like many professions. And, some police may, in fact, be in the wrong profession–as are some priests, teachers, etc. At the end of the day, however, police are asked to attend to the laws passed by legislative bodies, and they carry guns because our culture expects them to. My father, brother and son have a combined service of nearly 100 years on police work. They did not become policeman so that they could carry a gun; nor did they take any pleasure in drawing it. Fortunately, they never had pulled the trigger. I do know of many cases when they protected the lives of others, rescued children and abused mothers, apprehended dangerous criminals, attended to mentally ill people, administered first responder actions, and placed themselves in danger. When I was growing up we had a scanner in our home so that my mother knew each day what my father was facing. Where they perfect, surely not. Could their training have been better, always. Have all police departments become militarized, I doubt it. For those that have, I agree that local officials and voting citizens need to make it clear that such demeanor is unacceptable. At the same time, however, we need to recognize and honor all those professionals, police included, who get up each day to do their best work in less than desirable situations. Wouldn’t such a more balanced perspective, in long run, do more good than making broad generalizations that rightly speak to tragedy but wrongly accuse all of criminal action or behavior unbecoming of those commissioned to serve and protect.

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    1. Bill, I so appreciate your very thoughtful comment. And I respect the unquestionable and undeniable family experience it’s based upon. Surely, your father and son are the kind of excellent policemen who truly “protect and serve.” However, both of them joined the force and largely carried out their work before the recent militarization. My intention in the blog piece was to join our brothers and sisters in the African-American community (and so many others) in sounding the alarm about what’s happening not only in our culture, but world-wide — right before our eyes. And that’s the emergence of an all-controlling police state where dissent and self-defense against law enforcement officers is increasingly criminalized. I find that so alarming. It makes me think: this is how Nazi Germany took shape without resistance from so many people of good conscience. (BTW) I’m told by students that even Berea has recently been awarded an armored vehicle. I’ll have to check that out.

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