Two Shades of Blue: Waco, Ferguson, and Contrasting Public Reactions to Policing
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On May 17, 2015, a melee between rival motorcycle gangs erupted at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, TX. The brawl escalated into a shootout involving gangs and local police. By the time order was restored, nine were dead, 20 injured, and 177 arrested.
Amid bloodied bodies, damaged property, and shaken restaurant workers, authorities found scores of knives, an assortment of handguns and assault rifles, brass knuckles, and other devices scattered throughout the premises; all toll over 300 weapons. The incident set off a flurry of lawsuits against the Twin Peaks franchiser and franchisee, both having been warned of the powderkeg created by inviting gangs to the establishment.
On Tuesday, District Attorney Abel Reyna announced grand jury indictments against 106 defendants on charges related to organized crime activities. Reyna indicated that the grand jury will return as early as Nov. 18 to hear charges against the remaining 71 members of Bandidos and Cossacks, two gangs at the center of the incident.
As with virtually every incident that involves police use of deadly force, the Waco incident is drawing mixed reactions from the American public. Arguably the most telling, however, originates in conservative circles where voices of dissent can be heard in what is typically a unified chorus of support for Blue.
A recent Facebook thread on the grand jury indictments posted by conservative Fox News drew a number of anti-police/anti-criminal justice visitor [unedited] comments, including:
“Hopefully the cops that murdered those bikers are in that 106.”
“Weird that the cops start a gun fight and the bikers get charged…”
“How many cops being indicted on executing the bikers? The biker community know it was a law enforcement setup.”
“Waco better get ready to pay a lot in taxes for this many trials. The district attorney has to have a 100% conviction rate across the board too or all the trials will fail and the City/County will be sued. How do you prove participation in organized crime by just wearing a biker vest?”
“you need to turn all them bikers loose we may need them for homeland security because we do not have a president that is going to back American up”
“Police planned this shooting and need to be held responcible./ what do you expect out of a BAPTIST city”
A Sept. 22, 2015 article by Conner Friedersdorf that appeared in The Atlantic focused on the deadly force exhibited by police called to the Twin Peaks ruckus. Friedersdorf ends the article by asserting,
If it turns out that some of the bikers in Waco died from police bullets, authorities will have shot people dead, arrested all the witnesses, and prohibited them from speaking out under penalty of contempt. It’s long past time for state overseers to step in.
The local justice system in Waco is a farce.
Suspicion and outright hostility towards police and the entire criminal justice apparatus in the Waco biker gang incident contrast public support in a number of controversial cases involving police deadly force. Deference for police and stern criticism of citizens routinely follow highly publicized encounters between officers and African Americans. Such is the case, even in situations that leave children, such as Tamir Rice, seriously injured or dead. In cases where zealous tactics prove fatal as in the police killings of Eric Garner and Sean Bell. And where snap judgments that reflect race-bias result in unnecessary deaths as in police fatal shootings of Oscar Grant and Amadou Diallo.
Unlike public reactions in the Waco incident, police are lauded for bravery. Officers are given the benefit of the doubt for possessing a high level of integrity. Blame is readily rebuffed. And even when incident narratives are most implausible, deadly actions against African Americans are summarily deemed justified.
Indeed, the dead are left to die a second death of their humanity. Whether Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, or Nathaniel Jones, the reported offender was a menacing figure. A beast. Depraved. Lacking the most basic faculties that one should find in an ordinary human being. A sociopath and thus deserving of no more consideration than the public good served by whatever actions were taken by law enforcement.
The Waco shootout, however, involved primarily white assailants. And here, public animus appears to morph into empathy. Ad-hominem assaults on the humanity of an individual serve little purpose. And yet, if the incendiary language to describe a reported shoplifter in Michael Brown shooting is warranted, what language must the media, political pundits, and John Q. Public invoke to describe individuals that would arrive at a family restaurant, armed with a cache of deadly weapons that serve no other purpose than wanton deadly violence?
If labeling sign-carriers in Baltimore and traffic-stopping protesters in Ferguson as anti-social deviants, worthy of deploying armored vehicles and war-capable ammunition, how should the public characterize individuals firing rounds in the midst of frantic waitresses and the force used by local authorities.
One contributor on Right Wing Watch, a blog published by ultra-conservative People for the American Way, notes this dichotomy by recalling comments by American Family Association governmental affairs director Sandy Rios:
Police have their hands full fighting our real enemies, the cartels, the Islamists, and now they’re fighting motorcycle gangs? I find myself thinking, let’s have a little retraining for motorcycle gangs and put them on our side fighting our enemies. That’s what we really need.
Brian Tashman writes:
Of course, a right-wing talk show host suggesting that the government work with white gang members to fight “our real enemies” is totally acceptable, whereas a right-wing talk show host like Michael Savage can stir up panic in his base by claiming that President Obama is planning to deputize members of the Crips and Bloods.
The tone reflected of sentiments such as the above regarding the Waco event strongly suggests that white Americans filter ideas about police and police tactics through cultural lenses. Namely, that the killing of Michael Brown rightfully leads to, for instance, a party where the featured performer does a rendition of Bad Bad Leroy Brown that promotes police and mocks the dead teenager. Whereas an incident that endangered the lives of restaurant workers and guests at a Waco Twin Peaks elicits public backlash directed at the Blue and advocacy for individuals armed with a cache of deadly weapons.
Further, responses to the Waco Twin Peaks incident is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather come as the most recent in a long lineage of reactions to past events from Kent State to Ruby Ridge. Majority population considerations of maintaining law and order, police mandates to protect and serve, and similar notions relative to situations involving whites all too often differ greatly when situations involve black citizens. Whether in the case of the May 13, 1985 bombing of MOVE residence in Philadelphia or in the fatal shooting or choking of unarmed black citizens.
Had police confiscated the weapons taken from the Waco Twin Peaks shootout during a raid on Crips and Bloods at a local iHop or TGI Friday’s, would the public in any way, call for the gang members to be hired to protect our borders? Would citizens question police actions as having “set up” the gangs?
To the contrary, quite possibly Congressional hearings would be underway right now to calm the fears of a concerned public that heavily-armed black men are roaming the streets of America and convening in peaceful establishments!
White America denies partiality in its reactions to law enforcement issues. Criminal justice statistics, some might suggest, reflect the disproportionate level of criminal activity that concentrates in minority populations. Others might concede partiality when incidents involve African Americans (and Hispanic-Latinos), but stop short of examining the implications of biased reactions. In essence, the “Sure, but so what”, assessment.
If biases were confined to hidden perceptions about certain groups, perhaps their impact would be nominal at-best. However, a bias that categorically hails police and demonizes blacks, while only critiquing police when incidents involve white offenders – that kind of bias is all but harmless. This, among other things, enables duplicitous treatment of minority groups throughout our criminal justice system – from the beat cop to the grand jury and up through court systems. Public responses create an environment of acute distrust among minorities, which poses challenges for well-intended public safety innovations such as community policing. And to the extent that the public harbors contempt for and forms a priori conclusions, little motivation exists for policymakers to seriously address the broken aspects of our criminal justice system.
Consequently, after decades of grievances and smoldering relations, our nation remains two. There is a Waco reaction and a Ferguson reaction, with a chasm as wide in 2015 as it was during the height of the riots of the 1960s. With Waco, Ferguson, and similar events in our nation’s headlights, we stand at most opportune moment to ask the inconvenient questions.
Is white supremacy, white privilege, and all things white the underlying influence that shapes public response to high-profile policing? If not, how do we otherwise explain that very different public reactions to policing arise from objectivity, without respect to race? If so, what measures can our society pursue to confront and eradicate biases.
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