When I was in the Peace Corps in Africa, we were told about “mob justice.” In a place with few public services, like fire, rescue or police, people were on their own. We had serious debates over whether it was better to get one of the two or three passenger spots (on one seat) in the cab of the pickups that provided transportation, or to be in the covered bed, where two wooden benches would hold seven people each (room for five with blood circulating to the legs), and then six or eight or ten more people would be sardined in, crouching over the seated passengers, breathing on those on one bench and butts in the faces of those on the opposite bench, holding a rail attached to the ceiling. The thinking was, with the prevalence of head-on collisions due to pot-holed roads and overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills at a pedestrian pace, and also, especially before cell phones, the impossibility of first aid or getting to a hospital, perhaps it was better to die instantly in the front rather than to die slowly in the back, where who knows whether you would even be able to get out, but then again, maybe all those bodies in the back would cushion each other, and one would survive.
Mob justice was another moral dilemma, also life or death.
When people couldn’t call the police, they would yell “thief,” and the public–well, mostly if not exclusively men–would chase, catch and beat the culprit, too often to death. As privileged Americans, easily identifiable not only by our white skin, for many of us, but also by our fancy shoes, unfaded clothes and cameras that cost more than typical family’s annual income, we were targets. A pickpocket would not be wrong in thinking that we wouldn’t be devastated by the loss of the money in our pockets, which could feed many mouths unaccustomed to regular meals. I never, ever had a problem. I fainted from overheat and low blood sugar in the long-distance bus ticket line in the capital–a place notorious for pickpockets–and people took care of me; nothing was stolen. So it wasn’t like lawlessness ruled.
We were told to be careful but to never yell “thief,” because it could lead to an execution…for what? pocket change? A camera? Are they worth a life?
I have been thinking about this with the video of Amy Cooper, whose name will now be in history for using her white privilege to deflect from her own misbehavior–and there are few things I despise more than loose dogs–to call the police on a bird watcher because he was black and had the temerity to tell her to leash her dog. She did this knowing that cops coming to rescue a damsel in distress from a black man with something in his hand (a phone) might shoot him immediately because he’s so incredibly threatening by virtue of…his skin color. Happily, the dispatcher sized up the situation, and the whole thing was on video.
Unhappily, even on video, four Minneapolis cops decided to do some mob justice. Passing a forged note is either a misdemeanor or, if a felony, carries a sentence of a couple of years. The police took it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner of an unarmed man suspected of a nonviolent crime. How do four guys with guns feel so endangered by an unarmed man who was drunk or high?
It is just too blatant, the way black citizens, including many who are minding their own business, are executed without trial by police whereas police manage to capture armed, dangerous murderers without a problem. The same week that George Floyd was executed, Peter Manfredonia was captured without incident after having allegedly murdered two people and injured another then being a fugitive for a week. What about the guy who killed nine people in a Charleston church? He was armed to the teeth yet captured without incident, and the police even picked up Burger King for him. Last week, another double-murder suspect was arrested, given water and his wounds dressed in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, while around the U.S police were attacking peaceful protesters.
I have talked to people who side with the police. They blame the victim–should have used a turn signal, should have fixed that tail light, shouldn’t have run or been high or walking in the street. Cafeteria worker Philando Castile shouldn’t have driven with a broken brake light. But should he have been shot seven times within 40 seconds of being pulled over? A brake light isn’t a public menace worthy of death. These folks who take the police’s side also have driven with broken brake lights (just until it could be fixed), don’ wear seatbelts (just a short errand), speed, turn and change lanes without signaling. They jaywalk. They do a little of this or that outside the lines of rules and laws. Nothing serious. They do little things that almost never hurt anybody, knowing they will never be called out by law enforcement, and, even if that were to happen, could talk their way out of a ticket. And even some bigger, more serious things were just boys being boys.
I understand this to a point. I like to peek into houses under construction to check out the floor plans for good ideas. I don’t get hunted down for it, as Ahmaud Arbery was. My walks during the lockdown took me several meters, maybe 100 or more, beyond the one-kilometer limit. I never encountered anybody–it did no harm–but it was technical violation. Somehow technical violations assume severity only for one portion of the population.
These hardliners also consider themselves to be on the right side because the mostly have nuclear families, go to church, coach their kids’ teams–they have all the trappings of stability. What I see on YouTube and TikTok is homogenous–people, mostly teens, in the same kinds of houses with beige wall-to-wall carpets and ceiling fans and identical bathrooms and kitchens, filming their same interactions with pets, friends, family, music. We have such an intimate (and not in a creepy way) look into each other’s worlds, which are so incredibly similar. Every time I see a boy in a video, I think about how, in circumstances that wouldn’t warrant police attention if it were me or one of my family, he wouldn’t be seen for his dazzling smile or acrobatic skills in a police encounter; only that his skin is dark, and so he’s a threat worthy of lethal force. A decision too often made in seconds. It took just two seconds for police to fatally shoot Tamir Rice, 12, for the crime of playing with a toy gun in a park, as most boys I know have done. Those officers were not charged.
This is wrong. Something has to change. It isn’t the job of people whose only “offense” is merely living while black. That’s blaming the victim. Do what you can to make a difference. A big one is vote.