Different Questions

On Sunday June 7, 2020, citizens gathered in Reno City Park to protest George Floyd's murder while in Minneapolis police custody and to call for police reform in Nevada - photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

Here’s a story from a time long ago in southern Idaho, back when possessing marijuana was a serious felony, and only the hippest folks smoked. My parents and their artistic circle of friends certainly counted themselves among this select group. But also among the family friends was a deputy sheriff. So, for our annual Halloween party, he suggested he show up costumed in his uniform. My mother, in her mischievous way, thought it was a great idea. The only condition was that he stash his gun belt in the oven for the duration. Talk about making an entrance. People weren’t exactly diving out of windows and running for the hills, but things were definitely tense until everybody caught on.

Another family member is currently a deputy in that same county sheriff’s office. Knowing them both, it would be unthinkable to describe either one as racist. But then there are the experiences of friends, in that same town where I grew up. I had a black friend from high school, and we both went to the small state college in town. One time he remarked how the campus cop had taken to following him around, and even accosting him if he was ever on campus after dark. Another white friend was dating a black student, who was very popular and well-known in our community. Their game, if a patrol car happened to pass them on the street, was to guess how long it would be before they cruised by to eyeball them again.

There is the slimmest of contradictions between my deputy friend and family member, and the avalanche of evidence catching racist police in the act. I would like to believe my friend and relative represent most, if not almost all police—but I don’t know that. We can’t just take the “few bad apples” theory at face value anymore.

I won’t go into the history tracing the recent outrages to the systemic racism which is, no less, central to the existence and practice of policing in our country. Systemic racism reflects a certain, enduring attitude predominant among powerful segments of society. Lacking some sort of mass, come-to-Jesus moment, we cannot extirpate racism from policing any more than we can eliminate racism from society. But it is well within our power to identify racists and racist behavior, and permanently expel them from policing.

If this succeeds, “reaching for his waistband,” or whatever euphemism serves the moment, will no longer be a death sentence for black men. But eliminating the element of racism might still leave us with an absurd, “equal opportunity” situation in which the number of black and white men killed by police more closely tracks their respective proportion of the population. Would anything change in our gun-infested society beyond the color of the victims’ skin?

It is not unreasonable for a police officer to worry that anyone they meet might well be armed. The consequences can be fatal, as with two recent cases I can pull up off the top of my head. A Carson City deputy was killed in 2015 while responding to a domestic violence call, when the killer burst out of the house and opened fire. A Highway Patrol officer was killed in March of this year when he stopped to assist a motorist on Highway 93 near Ely. The motorist, recognized as mentally ill, shot the officer with one of the multiple weapons he possessed.

This common sense fear is the seed that grows into the attitude that a “furtive move,” or some such, requires an instant, deadly response—race notwithstanding. It is lamentable that too often these tragedies prompt nothing more than political hyperventilating and proclamations about how officers risk their lives every day, how they die for us. They don’t die for us. They die because even in the gut-wrenching aftermath of bullets tearing into a body no one asks “How is it a killer like this has a gun?” “Where did he get it?” “How is it these people are allowed to possess deadly weapons up until the moment they demonstrate for all the world they should in no way be allowed to do so?”


Erich Obermayr is a columnist for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his writing.