Politics·Analysis

Shootings raise unanswered life-or-death question for black men in America: Neil Macdonald

"Comply, comply, comply," Philando Castile's mother says she used to tell him if he's ever stopped by police. It's as common for black parents to have that talk with their kids as it is for white parents to warn about talking to strangers. But supine compliance does not guarantee survival at the hands of police if you are black in America, Neil Macdonald writes.

Compliance doesn't guarantee survival at the hands of police if you are black in the U.S.

Several protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside the convenience store in Baton Rouge, La., where Alton Sterling was killed during an altercation with two white police officers. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

In the racially electrified fog of fear and rage following the events in Dallas Thursday, one question remains conspicuously unanswered: If you are a black man in America, how are you supposed to cope?

President Barack Obama has no real answer, nor do the members of Congress who bowed their heads in memory of the slain Dallas police officers, nor does Dallas's anguished police chief, a black man himself.

The only advice black Americans seem to get is to respectfully submit when some cop calls them out on the street, or looms at the door of their car, or shows up at their home, no matter how terrified they may be. 

'Comply, comply, comply'

For heaven's sake, don't give the officer any lip, or try to run away, even if you aren't guilty of anything, and no matter how abusive the cop may become.

Because if you are black, that policeman is far more likely to gun you down, or choke you to death, or Taser you, or beat you into a coma.

"Comply, comply, comply," Philando Castile's mother says she used to tell him. "Comply — that's the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police."
Mother and uncle of 32-year-old black man shot dead by police in Minnesota appear on U.S. network TV Thursday morning 1:10

Perhaps Alton Sterling's parents gave him the same counsel. It's as common for black parents to have that talk with their kids as it is for white parents to warn about talking to strangers.

But of course supine compliance does not guarantee survival at the hands of police if you are black in America (or, to be honest, if you are Indigenous in some parts of Canada, but that's a separate discussion).
Philando Castile (R) was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minn., on Wednesday evening. Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, La., early Tuesday. Both shootings were recorded on camera phones. (Alton Sterling/Philando Castile/Facebook)

Philando Castile was evidently complying with the Minnesota policeman who'd pulled him over for a broken tail light this week when that policeman opened fire through the driver's window. The police force has not said otherwise.

And a day earlier, Alton Sterling was pinned down, hands free of weapons, when two Louisiana cops shot him in the back and chest.

After the Castile killing, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton stated the obvious: "Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver and the passengers, were white? I don't think it would have …"

There is simply no question that your race can determine whether you live or die at the hands of police in America. If you are black, you are several times more likely to be killed. 

Benefit of the tiniest doubt

And, chances are, your killer will walk away, unpunished, and likely consoled by his fellow officers for having had to go through such trauma.

Yes, a few officers, recorded by smartphones basically executing black men, currently face criminal charges, but they can be reasonably confident of a not-guilty verdict; the justice system tends to give police the benefit of the tiniest doubt.
A man holds a sign in front of a newly painted mural of Alton Sterling outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, La., where 37-year-old Sterling was shot and killed by police. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Look at the trials of the Baltimore police charged in the death of Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was severed while he was shackled in a police van in 2015. The coroner ruled the death a homicide, and the state prosecutor declared that Gray had committed no crime warranting his arrest.

So far, three of the six police charged have walked away from court, one because of a hung jury and two cleared by judges.

Or the case of Eric Garner, who was wrestled down and choked to death by police in Staten Island for the crime of selling loose cigarettes on the street. The policeman who killed Garner used a forbidden chokehold, yet a grand jury declined to indict him, and the head of the New York police union blamed Garner.

After all, said Patrick Lynch, Garner did choose to resist. And, he sneered, anyone who can gasp out that he cannot breathe, as Garner did, is lying: "If you're speaking, you can breathe."

After each outrage, politicians and prosecutors declare such deaths unacceptable and utter bromides about the need for more racial sensitivity.

Going on for ages 

President Obama, who no doubt knows the fear of being rousted for being black, has tried, characteristically, to bridge the divide.

Several times, he has voiced anguish over police killings of black men, most recently this week.
U.S. president recites some facts and figures on police shootings 3:07

The racist brigade on Twitter is now actually blaming Obama for encouraging the gunman who went hunting police in Dallas Thursday night, something Obama has said there is no possible justification for.

And obviously, there is not.

But Dallas didn't happen in a vacuum.

The evidence is manifestly clear: Police forces across America, which are increasingly militarized and which enjoy tremendous discretion to act, not to mention effective immunity for their actions, have racists in their ranks who are more inclined to kill a black suspect than disarm him or talk him down, which is what they more often do with white suspects.

When right-wing former Congressman Joe Walsh declared on Twitter after the Dallas shootings that "this is now war," he was in a sense quite correct. There's just nothing "now" about it. It's been going on for ages.

And what's coming next is likely to be even uglier.

Forced to choose between averting its eyes and taking power away from police who protect them from the terrors of their heavily armed streets, American society will choose the former. And, there will almost certainly be some sort of police payback, somewhere, after Dallas.

The question remains

The Dallas shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, chose murder, killing several police who were simply doing their jobs.

He is now dead and reviled, as he should be, although had someone like him done such a thing in apartheid South Africa, there would certainly have been more discussion of causality.

No, America is not apartheid South Africa. Of course it isn't. But Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Freddie Grey and all those other young men are no less dead, and their living peers are no less frightened and enraged.

So. The question remains: What is a black man in America supposed to do when he sees his brothers dying, or when police arrive at his door?

Resist? Comply? Hope love can conquer all? Or just die quietly, for the greater good of society?

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.