There were no mostly peaceful protests in Leonardtown, Maryland this week, despite the similarities between the 16-year-old high school student’s shooting death at the hands of a Maryland state trooper and the sensational death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland six years ago. Why is that?
Ham was fatally shot by a state trooper who had responded to two 911 calls about someone “acting suspiciously” and armed with a pistol. A witness to the event told police that troopers encounter Ham in a driveway “in a shooting stance” using an Airsoft gun. A trooper opened fire on the teen and wounded him. A second witness said the wounded boy then took out a knife and tried to get up, whereupon he was shot dead.
Airsoft guns are realistic replicas of real weapons. They shoot plastic BBs. My son collected them; once we had our parked car surrounded by police because he left some of them in the back seat. Pointing an Airsoft at a police officer is an excellent way to get shot, and justifiably so. But the reason there were no protests, demonstrations or riots after his death is that Peyton Ham was white. There is no other reason. (Well, it also wasn’t Portland. More about that later…)
Because the victim was white, there was no immediate presumption of racism and police brutality. Nobody argued that police should have tried to “wing” him. Nobody argued that a social worker rather than police officers should have responded to the 911 call. Ben Crump didn’t immediately make a statement that this was yet another “execution” of an innocent, promising young black man due to cop brutality and racism, and a racist system. The story wasn’t even national news.
Yet the family played by the script that has become so familiar. It quickly put out a statement that made Ham sound like the perfect son. It described him as “an incredibly smart, gifted sweet young man” with a “Alex P. Keaton” type personality, referring Michael J. Fox’s character on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”
“Our family is absolutely heart broken and shattered over this sudden, unexpected loss of life of a talented young man, filled with promise,” the statement says. “Words cannot express the gratitude our family is feeling with the overwhelming love and support being extended by our friends and family in our amazing community.”
Speaking to the AP, Ham’s mother described her son as “an awesome young man.” You know, like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. This kind of statement, which made no sense whatsoever in the context of the facts of Ham’s death, was calculated to spark anger and suspicion against the police, and to shift responsibility from the shooting victim to those trying to protect the community. If Ham had been white, there would have been the assumption of a cover-up, and the presumption of a deliberate racist killing of an innocent boy.
But “awesome young men” do not aim realistic toy guns at police. The story made no sense to me at all when I first read about it, and sure enough, the preliminary investigation indicates that the boy himself made those 911 calls that summoned the police who killed him, or, as a mob would have claimed had he been black, “murdered him.” His demise appears to have been “suicide by cop.”
At the outset, then, let’s establish a few things.
Peyton, like most of the black young men who have been shot in encounters with police, had serious problems. He wasn’t the model of young manhood portrayed by his family’s statement. If this was suicide by cop as it appears to be, he engaged in a horrible, destructive act against other innocent human beings, a classic Kantian breach of the categorical imperative, using them for a selfish personal objective. What Ham apparently did is even worse because he knew the current anti-police environment in his state, Maryland, and the nation. All right, some empathy and pity is in order because he was not an adult and suffering from some kind of emotional problem, but nonetheless, had he been black, what he did would have harmed many more people, including his family and the trooper, possibly businesses, definitely police, and perhaps the nation. Unless the boy was legally insane and could not determine right from wrong, he was culpable. He was the villain here, not the police.
Had he been black, none of this would have mattered, though. Yet at the very outset of the Black Lives Matter false narrative that the police were gunning for black men, professor and moderate black commentator John McWhorter wrote in part,
I seek progress on the main obstacle to getting past race in this country: the tensions between black people and the cops, including so many black people’s sense of the police as a racist occupying army.
The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose and others.
The simple fact is that this list exists….
This list of whites dying at the hands of cops must inform how we go forward in grappling with the issues. Hillary Clinton and President Obama have suggested that the time has come to revive a national conversation on race. Many might reasonably assume that on the topic of the police, the purpose of this conversation will be to inform white America of the role that racist bias plays in these lethal encounters. However, might we open up to the possibility that the conversation will also include black people learning that racist bias may play much less of a role in these cases than one might think?
A common response will be that cops kill more black people proportionately than whites. According to a survey by the Washington Post, whites are 62% of the population but were roughly half of those killed by cops since January 2015, while blacks are 13% of the population but were about a quarter of those killed. However, this isn’t the slam dunk dismissal it may seem….[M]any would argue that disproportionate poverty levels among black people render them more likely to encounter police officers in the first place—vastly unfair, but different from the problem being simply cops’ standing racist bias.
In any case, I’m not sure statistics of this kind are what truly undergird the hurt we feel in these times. When a black man is killed by a cop, do we grieve more because there are 46 million of us as opposed to 198 million whites? I doubt it: most Americans never hear about the white men’s deaths at all….we operate according to a meme under which cops casually kill black men under circumstances in which white men are apparently let off with a hand slap—and occasional cases of just that are what often get around social media, suggesting that they are the norm. That meme is quite understandable given the existence of racism in America. However, in 2016 that meme is vastly oversimplified.
Economist Roland Fryer’s conclusions, stunning even to him, that cops use more force against black people but do not kill them more than they kill whites is perhaps less perplexing than it seems.
…It can be hard to adjust the narratives we process life through, especially when the past and even present justify that narrative in so many ways. However, on black people and the cops, the stakes are grievously high. Our conversation must be based on facts, and the facts in 2016 are different than they once were. We can all agree that the police kill too many innocent people, but at this point, we can disagree—as eminently reasonable minds—that the cops kill out of bigotry.
Update: I was not aware when I posted this that McWhorter had just posted an updated essay on the same issue…here.
In 2021, however, very few have the courage to challenge the now standard narrative that racism is behind these shootings—when the victim is black. Indeed, to even question that assumption is considered racist itself. Refusing to support that assumption, and in the process the dangerous hatred and distrust of police, is likely to be attacked. Last week an Oregon newspaper was under fire for informing readers that a police shooting victim was white, in an effort to stave of “mostly peaceful” protests.
The Oregonian reported on a police shooting in which a man was killed after police were alerted that someone was seen with a gun at a park in Portland. Police said they confronted the suspect and fired a “less lethal” projectile before a second officer shot him fatally, resulting in the man being declared dead at the scene. The “gun” he had apparently had an orange tip, meaning it likely was an Airsoft like the the one Peyton Ham held.
The Oregonian reported that three sources had confirmed the man was a white male in his thirties. “The Oregonian/OregonLive is identifying the man’s race in light of social unrest prompted by police shootings of Black people,” a tweet from the paper read.
“The Oregonian is noting the race of the man who was shot in Portland because people won’t care enough to riot unless the victim is black and can use it to forward a political agenda. How instructive,” tweeted talk show host Jason Rantz. You bet it’s “instructive’! That’s exactly why it was important to point out the victim was white—that and the fact that readers have a right to know, and in the current race-obsessed environment, they need to know. And if the paper doesn’t want to spark more riots, it has an ethical obligation to tell them: “No, you can’t call this shooting racist. No riots. Sorry. Maybe next time.”
Oooh, mustn’t do that! Undermines the narrative!
Besides, this being crazy Portland where Black Lives Matter has the whole concept of policing on the run, news of the shooting alone was sufficient to spark an anti-police uprising. Within 90 minutes of the man’s death, protesters arrived at the park. The mother of Patrick Kimmons, a black man who was shot and killed by Portland police in 2018, used a megaphone to shout, “We’re sick and tired of you killing people!” About 100 protesters chanted “Justice Now!”—they had no idea what had happened or why, just that police had shot someone— and lined up against a flank of about a dozen officers in riot gear as police told protesters to leave the area or risk arrest. Some protesters threw sticks and full water bottles at officers, and the tires of at least one police car was flattened. Later they started a fire in a large recycling bin, blocked traffic and engaged in altercations with motorists. That night police declared a full riot when protesters smashed windows, burglarized businesses, and set fires.
The paper was immediately excoriated by fans of Black Lives Matter by not leaving the race of the shooting victim unmentioned. “So @PortlandPolice murdered a man in Lents Park today and the @Oregonian had the audacity to print this. Someone school them on what solidarity means. Protesting killer cops is going to happen regardless of the race of the victim. The Oregonian staff just showed their whole ass,” read one tweet.
Sure. “Mostly peaceful” protests have nothing to do with the race of the victim. You know, just like in Leonardtown, Maryland. What’s that? You never heard about the shooting there? I wonder why!
It’s instructive to observe Black Lives Matter activists, who have persistently claimed that the revision “All Lives Matter” is racist, now arguing that the race of a police shooting victim shouldn’t matter.
But the Oregonian still apologized and deleted the tweet, tweeting “We included information in an earlier tweet about why we identified the victim’s race that was poorly worded. It was not intended to minimize what happened, only to provide context.”