Thursday, April 9, 2015

American crime: The killing of Walter Scott

WHEN YOU SEE the video of what happened after a routine traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C. on April 4, there’s a sense of disbelief of what you’re seeing as an event in the real national life. You look and watch and think this must be something from the bizzarro world, it must be a malign invention of the movies or a video of a training exercise on what police officers are not supposed to do. This can’t be freakin’ real.

And then it hits you. Its harsh documentary finality. What happened in the full light of day and documented in a YouTube video seen around the world was as real as real gets for black Americans in 2015.

There will certainly be other revelations that emerge, officially and otherwise. In our wired world, someone else will come forward with another video, and a third and a fourth, like the forensic evidence of an assassination. Other literal views are certain to emerge in the postmortem of this latest American tragedy.

But whatever else is revealed by way of the reflexively forensic technology of our time, it’s got to contend with the inescapable chronology of the moments before and the moments after:

Walter Scott, an African American man, was running away from Michael Slager, a white police officer, and Slager shot Scott several times in the back, a consequence of firing eight shots. Whatever the antecedent provocation might have been, whatever set it all off besides the stop of Scott for a bad tail light, has to be weighed against an outcome that indicated deliberation, a thought process, before the gun went off.

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This was no rash, momentary action. Look at the physical posture of Officer Michael Slager. Note the calm, procedural adoption of the classic Weaver stance as he fires, rear foot positioned to absorb the recoil. He might as well be on the firing range at work.

But that deliberation was hardly the worst wound, bad as it was. The worst one is the one inflicted on a nation of African American men grappling with not just with what it all means — we know that already — but also with what this incident announces to the world. How it tells the world what we know already, and what the world has either questioned or refused to believe.

Absent other transformative evidence, the killing of Walter Scott is precisely the deeply corrosive confirmation of what black America has known and internalized for generations: that, more than most of America’s citizens, black African American men are at nothing less than existential risk that is creeping toward the panoramic, a risk too often powered by the police forces sworn to protect them — and the rest of America’s citizens.

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THIS IS NOT a corrupt fantasy. It’s not all in our heads. It’s not the figment of a tortured imagination. Like so many cases before this one, the case of the execution of Walter Scott reveals the depth of law enforcement’s institutional cement, its cold calculus of the value of African American life.

And that’s where this malign statement gets greater, wider. Because whether he’s convicted in a court of law not, this is an American crime right now. It may or may not rise to that threshold at trial, but it’s already an American crime in the larger, wider sense: considering what this did to this nation’s already fragile racial fabric, how it feeds an increasing tolerance for injustice; what it does to the psyche of black Americans in general and black men in particular.

This kind of damage has precedent, and it’s very much a matter of current events, even in ways that at first blush might not quite seem real. Consider the very identity of Walter Scott, and how his passing — even his existence — has been hard to come by on the Internet. At least the Walter Scott just killed by Michael Slager.

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It was the Walter Scott who was the celebrated Scottish novelist, critic and poet who wrote “Ivanhoe” and “Rob Roy,” who had pride of place on the Google search page several days after the controversy over the extrajudicial killing of his African American namesake. Trying to narrow the search to “Walter Scott photos” wasn’t much help.

Narrowing the search terms like that got you first-mention reference to paintings and sketches of Walter Scott the Scottish writer, not the photographs of Walter Scott, the victimized black American. You had to dig for those. You had to really hunt for images of the 50-year-old father who’d just died days or weeks before.

You’re hard-pressed to ascribe to an algorithm the human attribute of discrimination, but you’re left to wonder: What else could explain the submersion of anything related to the Walter Scott of North Charleston, S.C., and the curious rise of SEO visibility for Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, of Abbotsford, Roxburghshire, Scotland? Indiscriminate convenient memory? A search engine’s passion for European literature?

Maybe this SEO event doesn’t rise to the level of anything worthy of conspiracy theory. But still. It shows how we feel about the present day; it suggests some perverse preference for the past over the present, the archival over the immediate. It tells us about Walter Scott the accomplished 19th-century novelist all day long. Walter Scott the ill-fated modern-day forklift operator? Not so much.

For African Americans, it’s all of a piece somehow, and what we’ve reluctantly come to expect, today’s wound, the everyday dismissal, the worst kind of a disturbance of what’s left of the peace in the united fugue states of America.

Image credits: Killing of Walter Scott: © 2015 Feidin Santana. Scott: The Scott family. Slager: South Carolina booking photo. Walter Scott search page: © 2015 Google.

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