If you want to learn about privilege in this country, you only need to ask who gets the benefit of the doubt.
— Laila Lalami (@LailaLalami) August 15, 2014
Last week, I found myself in a conversation with some white friends that briefly heated up over the question of what had really happened in the police shooting of Mike Brown. First of all, a major reason that I don’t believe the police account is the way the police acted afterwards, even considering only the publicly visible actions. Not calling an ambulance? Leaving his body on the ground for hours? Refusing to allow his mother close enough to even identify him? And then showing up with a massive police presence designed to intimidate? Bringing dogs out against black protesters?
These are not the actions of a police department that was involved in a regrettable but necessary shooting. These immediately marked them as untrustworthy actors in my mind.
But as I reflected further on the conversation, I realized that it reminded me of what Melissa McEwan calls Occam’s Big Paisley Tie:
“Hang on, now. How can you be sure that it was because of your marginalized identity, and not just a misunderstanding, or a mistake, or a misspeak, or this thing or that thing or this other thing over here, because there’s surely a perfectly logical explanation for why this behavior that looks exactly like a million other bits of behavior that you and other people in this marginalized population have experienced is actually something TOTALLY DIFFERENT. Have you considered that maybe it’s just that you’re too sensitive?”
If Occam’s Razor is the principle by which the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, this urge to exhaust every possible explanation—no matter how convoluted, remote, unlikely, or totally fucking absurd—is Occam’s Big Paisley Tie.
I’ve encountered Occam’s Paisley Tie in discussions of sexism before, but this was the first time I recognized it in a discussion of racism. I’ve been paying enough attention to know that “the suspect reached for the officer’s gun and a struggle ensued” is said often, far more often than seems believable to me. I’ve been paying enough attention that when Shaun King said
What I know is this: when an unarmed Black man/woman is killed by police or by another citizen, a period of character assassination begins.
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) August 15, 2014
The police have a blueprint, a legal blueprint, for how to walk free when you kill an unarmed Black man. They are using it right now.
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) August 15, 2014
I remembered the media treatment of Trayvon Martin and nodded in agreement. The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag emerged to combat one element of that character assassination, as black people posted two pictures of themselves, one that looked tough, wild, or dangerous, and one that showcased their achievements, family, or professionalism,
#IfTheyGunnedMeDown which pic would they use? pic.twitter.com/aPMrRJcgIx
— Daniel José Camacho (@DanielJCamacho) August 11, 2014
and asked: if the police gunned me down, which photo would the media use?
Twitter activism isn’t real, but you see CNN changed #MikeBrown picture to him in a cap and gown. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown worked.
— KJ (@JonnyProton) August 16, 2014
I continued to listen/read and learn as black people spoke authoritatively about their experiences with police, both in Ferguson and elsewhere.
Several residents have corroborated that. They feel “police here (ferguson and surrounding areas) stop you for made up reasons. For revenue”
— Munk (@Felonious_munk) August 17, 2014
@Felonious_munk I assumed this was common place… because it’s like that in Maryland
— Raye Hino (@DivineJenRising) August 17, 2014
If you’re still not convinced that comments such as these qualify as reliable testimony, then you must read this very important article by Monica Potts, What Policing Looks Like To A Former Investigator Of Misconduct. Her first post-college job was with the complaint department of the NYPD, interviewing people, mostly young men, who complained of police brutality.
The story was so common I could recite it in advance. The men were so specific, and their complaints so similar to others, that it seemed like whole neighborhoods might be rehearsing their statements. When you start to hear any story enough, it sounds less real. And it does sound crazy, right? Cops don’t go around putting people in chokeholds, stomping on their heads! At least, that’s what I thought at first. I was a young white woman in a middle-class job. I’d never even gotten a speeding ticket.
In those days, she writes, there were rarely audio or video recordings of these incidents. But now there are videos associated with the assaults of Eric Garner, Jahmil-El Cuffee, and others.
There’s no video of the Brown shooting, but I can fill in the details in my mind. There’s video of the aftermath, of the people of Ferguson holding vigils for the young man, surrounded by police in riot gear. These all provide visuals for the stories I used to hear from the men, but their stories are no longer confined to a case docket. They’re spreading on YouTube for everyone to see, and allow us all to judge for ourselves.
She goes on to make very important points about the way that these communities are policed, and how the stories of the officers also sounded suspiciously alike, which I won’t go into here so please do go read the article.
But here’s the point I’m trying to make. If you originally dismissed the comments of the black people tweeted above, but now take them more seriously based on the word of a white expert, think about that. Think about that very hard.
And if you’re a feminist who gives the benefit of the doubt to women who say they were harassed or assaulted by men, but not to black people or other people of color when they say they were harassed or assaulted by police;
or if you’re a child abuse advocate who gives the benefit of the doubt to children who say they were molested or assaulted by adults, but not to black people or other people of color when they say they were molested or assaulted by police;
of if you’re a pro-GLBT activist who gives the benefit of the doubt to queer or trans folk who say they were harassed or beaten up for being queer or trans, but not to black people or other people of colour when they say they were harassed or assaulted for Driving/Walking/Shopping/Existing While Black,
then think about that very hard. This is what intersectional anti-oppression work is all about: the realization that the social dynamics of privilege are strongly similar across all axes of privilege, that we can spot these patterns when they are wielded against us or “our” people while being blind when we enact the same patterns of privilege against others. That’s why the description of Occam’s Big Paisley Tie is written generally, in terms of the experience of marginalized communities.
As Laila Lalami tweeted, “If you want to learn about privilege in this country, you only need to ask who gets the benefit of the doubt.” Listen to the discussion about Ferguson, and ask yourself that question.
An excellent discussion by Shaun King, discussing the testimony of the three eyewitnesses and the racist dynamics at play when people disbelieve three independent black witnesses and instead give the benefit of the doubt to the officer’s white girlfriend.
(And if you’re on Twitter, you seriously should follow @ShaunKing.)