Opinion

Why outrage over police brutality isn't enough

The only thing that will stop it is accountability

In the 15 months since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, our newscasts, social media feeds, and daily conversations have been marked by a constant cycle of outrage surrounding similar incidents involving African-Americans and police officers — and here we are again, angrily parsing the most recent horrifying event: the physical assault of a black teenage girl by a white police officer in a South Carolina school.

Of course, Ferguson wasn't really the starting point. Today's event-reaction churn may be fed and amplified by our ability to watch events unfold on our phones, but violence of this nature is far from new. The stories and histories of Civil Rights-era veterans, Black Lives Matters activists, and battle-weary African-American parents across the country attest to the mind-numbing regularity with which black Americans have always been faced with state-sponsored brutality; news reports and recent Department of Justice findings serve to powerfully underscore the point.

What we've seen in the last 15 months, then, is less an uptick in outrageous incidents and more an uptick in awareness. White Americans are increasingly aware of the realities with which black and brown Americans live; black and brown Americans are increasingly aware of the granular details of events beyond their own communities. And so as this week's video appeared on our screens, the outrage rose again, like bile at the back of our throats, and our awareness grew. Again.

What we haven't seen yet is change.

The fact that we're outraged today doesn't mean we won't see a near-identical video tomorrow. The bodies of black and brown Americans remain excruciatingly vulnerable to the whims and furies of people paid to serve and protect them — and the whims and furies of the institutional and governmental frameworks in which law enforcement functions.

Outrage and awareness are not ends unto themselves. They don't automatically translate to change.

In the fight for social justice, they are only ever tools, ones that we must use to achieve the only thing that actually can affect lasting change: accountability.

The Spring Valley High video is riddled with alarming detail: the palpable fear of the teenaged witnesses; the physical stillness of the victim in the instant before Deputy Ben Fields attacked her; and the confidence with which Fields manhandled, dragged, and threw a 16-year-old girl, half his size and offering no physical threat, across a room.

This was a man in his element, a man imposing his will, a man who felt no reason to restrain or disguise his violent intent — likely because he had no reason to believe that he would ever be called on it.

Fifteen months of videos — the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice; the choking death of Eric Garner (killed, in fact, weeks before Michael Brown); the dragging of another black girl by another police officer at a Texas pool party; on and on — neither these viral videos nor our fury about them appear to have produced a moment's hesitation on Fields' part.

And why would they? The Tamir Rice investigation grinds on, Eric Garner's killer went unindicted, and the officer in Texas was allowed to resign. Even as Americans argue the relative culpability of the victims in their own victimhood, the men responsible remain uncharged, often assured by police unions and higher-ups that they did no wrong.

The fact that Fields was fired in the wake of Monday's incident and that an FBI investigation has been launched is encouraging — but will the now-former police officer be arrested for assault? What if the FBI determines that no federal laws were broken?

Accountability takes many forms. We must draft laws that more fully support the Constitutional right of all American citizens to be safe from attack by law enforcement — laws that take into account the inherently racialized nature of so much of the brutality. We must interpret already existing laws to hold violent officers responsible, and deter any who might be tempted to escalate an encounter while cloaked in a blue uniform. We must acknowledge and support those officers who would never indulge in such tactics, and create space for them to be honest about what they have seen. We must advocate for reform from within. And we must make it clear that as a society, as a nation, we neither accept nor condone the entirely disproportionate violence meted out to black and Hispanic citizens.

These various forms of accountability — legal, institutional, social — all inform and undergird each other, making each more powerful as a result. We will need all of them in this fight.

Outrage is warranted and awareness is crucial, but they can't carry the weight on their own. Without genuine accountability, we can be certain that the next Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, or Spring Valley High is just around the corner, waiting to bring death or lasting trauma to our screens.

More From...

Picture of Emily L. HauserEmily L. Hauser
Read All
Princess Leia, feminist hero
Bow down before her.
Opinion

Princess Leia, feminist hero

The horrifying normalcy of Donald Trump's proposed ambassador to Israel
David Friedman is not shy about his opinions of Israel.
Opinion

The horrifying normalcy of Donald Trump's proposed ambassador to Israel

The shadow president
Mike Pence could be running the show.
Opinion

The shadow president

How to give thanks in the age of Trump
Two women embrace in front of the White House on Nov. 9, 2016.
Feature

How to give thanks in the age of Trump

Recommended

Purported spy balloon prompts hot air from pundits and politicians
Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder
To shoot or not to shoot?

Purported spy balloon prompts hot air from pundits and politicians

Yale honors Black girl who had the police called on her for spraying lanternflies
Spotted lanterflies
black girl magic

Yale honors Black girl who had the police called on her for spraying lanternflies

AOC delivers 'impassioned' speech in defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar on the House floor
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
house floored

AOC delivers 'impassioned' speech in defense of Rep. Ilhan Omar on the House floor

U.S. added 517,000 jobs last month
Now hiring sign.
crushing it

U.S. added 517,000 jobs last month

Most Popular

Republicans oust Ilhan Omar from House committee
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn)
Punitive politics?

Republicans oust Ilhan Omar from House committee

Japanese restaurants fight back against viral 'sushi terrorism' trend
Photo of Kura Sushi, a Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurant chain
save the sushi

Japanese restaurants fight back against viral 'sushi terrorism' trend

China says it successfully cloned 3 'super cows'
5 cows lined up at feeding trough.
carbon copy

China says it successfully cloned 3 'super cows'