This article has been updated to reflect the author’s views following news of the Eric Garner decision.
Did you notice? It seems that everyone you and I know became an expert on race relations almost immediately following news of a grand jury’s decision not to indict the now former Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
I wouldn’t have believed it possible if I hadn’t seen it unfold with my own eyes. To think, your friends, family members, and co-workers, all of them so dedicated to unraveling the nuanced implications of such a racially-charged incident as a white police officer gunning down an unarmed black teen, that they somehow managed to endure all the rigors of earning a college-level degree in sociology, with a special concentration in civil rights, in a matter of mere seconds, as if through osmosis.
It sounds farfetched, but how else does one explain the deluge of “informed” opinions — from both the right and the left — that flooded Facebook mere seconds after the court’s decision came down on the night of November 24, and that continued to reverberate across countless dinner tables over the Thanksgiving holiday? Surely, I thought, people aren’t so reckless as to fling knee-jerk reactions about white police brutality (or black teen thuggery, depending on your perspective on the case), without the benefit of measured, thoughtful introspection.
But then I remembered this is America.
You know that phrase, “opinions are like assholes, everyone has one”? Well, in this country, most people pull their opinions out of their assholes, too.
My aim isn’t to discourage people from talking about what happened that night in Ferguson or in any other instance of alleged police abuse; open dialogue is key to preventing a similar loss of life. But to spur arguments that are fueled by vitriol and holier-than-everyone-on-my-News-Feed attitudes does nothing to bring people together. These are wars of words in which every belligerent is a casualty. The only appropriate line of thinking right now is as follows: A kid is dead. A cop may have shot him for no reason, though we may never know for certain. What do we do now?
Here in New York, with yet another grand jury deciding not to indict a cop — this time Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke-hold death of Staten Island man Eric Garner — the line of thinking is different: A man is dead. We all watched a cop kill him seemingly for no reason. How could this happen?
I, for one, didn’t say a thing about Ferguson on Facebook. Not one peep. And though the Eric Garner case has caused a more universal outrage, I don’t plan on vocalizing about that either. I’ve become embroiled in my share of cringe-worthy online debates, and have learned my lesson about being too opinionated on the ‘Book. These days, if I have something remotely controversial to say, I share it on Twitter, because most people I’m friends with on Facebook — especially old people, like my parents — don’t know how to use Twitter.
It’s strange that I can cause more trouble for myself by posting something on Facebook, a closed community, than if I posted it on Twitter, where the entire planet can read it. I find myself thinking, “I shouldn’t share this with my family and friends, so I better share it with the world instead.” It sounds insane, but this is the mantra that now guides my hand on social media, especially when it comes to sharing opinions about controversial police incidents.
Without fail, whenever a police officer or officers are accused of using excessive force (which seems to happen quite regularly), someone I’m friends with on Facebook launches into the same, tired tirade about how every single police officer is a racist, murderous, fascist pig. Is it possible that there are police officers out there who are in fact racist, murderous, fascist pigs? Sure. John Wayne Gacy worked as a children’s clown before he was captured. Anyone is capable of anything no matter what kind of suit they wear (though come to think of it, I’m willing to bet that most clowns are actually serial killers, but enough about my childhood nightmares).
The point is, while many police departments around the country need to improve community relations (read: stop killing innocent people of color), not all cops are inherently bad people. No less than five members of my family work or have worked in some line of law enforcement, whether it be NYPD, New York State Police, Port Authority, or in the court system. I have the utmost respect for what they do. They’re exceptional men, and have put their lives in danger countless times protecting the millions of faceless people who inhabit this city and state. They risk never meeting their loved ones again, for people they will never meet at all.
I’ve felt inclined on many an occasion to defend my kin against those who paint the police with broad strokes on Facebook, but before I’m able to string enough words together to form a meaningful comment, another friend — usually some suburban cretin from high school whom I haven’t gotten around to de-friending — steps in and does it for me, but in the worst possible way. They speak from the complete opposite side of the spectrum, masterfully constructing a warped, convoluted “blame the black perp” argument in which the police are infallible and minorities are always looking for trouble — like Salvador Dalí if he had worked in the discipline of bigotry instead of surrealist painting. These extremes of opinion drown out the moderate voices, and with them, any chance for real, constructive dialogue.
So, what is a pro-cop, yet racially sensitive urban white guy like myself to do? I stay out of the tumult until the waters have calmed, avoiding topics like these at all costs, not only on Facebook but in all forms of communication. I’m like a guy living in the middle of the zombie apocalypse who chooses to make small talk about the weather, even as walkers are banging down his door. I know the trouble is out there; I can hear it, I can smell the foul stench, but making a loud scene won’t do much besides get me eaten by the roving, cannibalistic masses. Besides, there are a lot of other things to fight about on the Internet. That new Star Wars trailer was kind of lame, don’t you think?