One has to admire the way we, as a country, have paid tribute to the lives of Rafael Ramos and Wenijan Liu, the two New York police officers shot to death while sitting in their police cruiser. We have rallied to support their families across ideological lines, demanding that they be remembered with dignity and honor.
But, juxtaposed against continued protests over police mistreatment of black men, they also help to highlight the fact that other lives are not valued at all.
Michael Brown was left dead in the street for four hours after being shot by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. Eric Garner lay dying on a sidewalk after being choked in Staten Island, surrounded by the NYPD police officers who exhibited no sense of urgency to help him. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was playing with a toy gun when he was shot dead less than two seconds after being confronted by a Cleveland police officer.
Rather than unifying in similar grief over these deaths, news outlets helped to justify the killings by dehumanizing the victims. We learned that Brown had been in a scuffle once, that he dabbled in drugs and that he may have stolen some cigars earlier on the day of his death. We were told that Garner had a history of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street and that he was out on bail at the time of his death. And while Rice was too young to have amassed any documented life-mistakes, the media wasted no time letting us know that his father had a history of domestic violence.
Of course, none of this information had anything to do with the actions of police. While we would rightfully have been disgusted at the media’s attempt to dig up minor transgressions slain officers Ramos and Liu may have committed, we tolerated this reporting because it fit into our accepted narrative that some lives are less valuable than others.
The closing weeks of 2014 saw grand juries refuse to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Brown and Officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Garner to death. These decisions stirred the nation. Some, viewing them in isolation, demanded the two officers be punished as justice for the families. Others, focusing more broadly on police abuse against black men and boys, demanded an end to unlawful use of force by law enforcement. They demanded video cameras on police, civilian-review boards, and federal investigations of local police shootings. They demanded that police departments demilitarize and stop treating the communities they police as the enemy.
But these verdicts underscore not just how people of color are treated by the police but an entire system that monitors, arrests, prosecutes and incarcerates Americans based on class and race. The vast majority of poor people and people of color whose lives have been lost to this inhumane system are never shot or beaten by police. They are not victims of unlawful abuse that can be caught on camera or ferreted out through federal investigation. They are victims of a lawful system of mass incarceration.