For the first time a couple weeks ago, an article was rejected by the paper I write for. I was told that it was because it wasn’t clear, but I think it probably had more to do with the fact that it might scare away or otherwise put off advertisers.
Not wanting it to go completely to waste, I’m pasting it here for something a bit different. Behold!
Back in the late 1990s, the filmmaker Michael Moore had a show called The Awful Truth. If you’re familiar with his style, then I can tell you that it was pretty much the same as the rest of his work: he’s made a career of hounding and usually embarrassing powerful people in the pursuit of justice through a mix of persistent questioning and clever antics that do a fantastic job at balancing the humorous and the poignant.
In one particularly memorable episode, he talked about the frequency of incidences in which primarily black and brown people were shot and killed for carrying things in their hands that the police would later report they believed to be guns.
A common offender was, apparently, one’s wallet. To draw attention to the problem, he set up a “wallet exchange program” in which people could exchange their regular black wallets for nylon “safety orange” ones, thus ensuring the police would not mistake those wallets for guns. The police officers standing by who made it into the final cut of the episode were clearly annoyed.
Issues of police killings in the United States seem to have become worse since then, not better. The key word here, of course, is “seem.” Incidences like these have always been common; we just didn’t have the proof of what was actually happening until it became the norm for average citizens to carry around high-definition video cameras connected to the internet in their pockets.
The presence of those cameras and the evidence they give us have sparked many a protest, and even an entire social movement. My move to Mexico pre-dated the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I’ve watched from afar the reactionary “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” demonstrations as well.
To me, these movements were uniquely American. As a result of our difficult history, racism is baked into much of our national discourse north of the border. Regarding the movements above, it seems that most people can be divided into two camps: 1) “Hey, we see you behaving especially violently toward black and brown people and mostly getting away with it and it is not okay, man,” and 2) “We ask security personnel to risk their lives every day to protect us, it’s a stressful job, and if people are acting suspiciously, then they should know they’re going to attract the wrong kind of attention. The police are people, too!”
I myself am squarely in the first camp, having found my sympathy for people with weapons who can cart you off to jail fairly limited. I’ve rarely met anyone outside of the United States in the second.
So imagine my surprise when I read about marches being held around the country demanding that a group of soldiers, who had shot and killed five innocent people in a truck, be released from jail.
Huh? Honestly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.
Unlike in the US, it would be hard in Mexico to argue that the killings had anything to do with race. That’s not because racism is absent in Mexico, but because it’s a different flavor, born of a different history. The fact that average Mexican citizens do not and cannot own guns (and like it that way) also means that many killings that might otherwise take place simply do not. Here, they seem to understand on a deeper level what many of my fellow paisanos give little credence to: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Still, though, there are some eerily familiar elements: young men with guns, uniforms, and official authority: check. Suspicious, nervous young men (in this case, traveling in a truck with no plates or lights late at night, possibly up to some mischief but certainly not criminals): check. A panicked reaction from a scared driver who surely thought he was in trouble and knew the reputation of uniformed people with guns: check. Civilians failing to obey orders: check. The security personnel doing exactly what the victims feared they would, which is likely what caused them to try to flee in the first place: check.
I used to think that accusing victims of police violence of not having been perfect, model citizens who therefore “had it coming” for having spooked their stalkers was a uniquely US rhetorical habit. Apparently, that’s not necessarily true. The argument from the soldiers is a familiar one: things were chaotic, and the suspects did not obey orders. It’s a stressful situation, and they wound up doing what they’ve been trained to do: eliminate the threat.
What security and personnel on both sides of the border seem to need much more training in is successfully identifying threats and non-threats in the first place.
The armed forces, of course, are not without their defenders, President López Obrador being one of the most enthusiastic (to the surprise of many that voted for him).
But gosh, protests. To let soldiers out of jail for killing five unarmed men. I must be missing something, but what is it exactly?
Then there’s this question, repeated in my head with, I’ll admit, a derisive snort: The defenders need defending? If they do, then what are they even for? It’s a hard sell for me that people using guns against unarmed civilians are the true “victims.” The army is hardly defenseless. In fact, one could easily argue that it’s stronger than ever under the current process of militarization that the president claims is not militarization. The fact that the army is also expanding into the tourism business means that whether or not they get a big chunk of the national budget in the future will be practically irrelevant: they’ll have plenty of their own funds.
Yes, police officers’ and soldiers’ jobs are hard. Very hard. But they choose to do them; unlike “black lives,” “blue lives” is not a condition bestowed upon one’s birth.
What responsibility do people in the armed services have to those they are sworn to protect, even when those needing protection are behaving erratically or obnoxiously? I’d venture to say, “a lot.”
When the people they’ve sworn to protect wind up on the other side of their guns, that’s very worrisome. When average citizens are clamoring for them to face no consequences as a result, that’s downright perplexing.