This came out of a conversation Allison, Jamie Kilstein, and myself had on Citizen Radio today. I’ll let you know when it runs, but read this NOW. Also, I’m performing on Citizen Radio Live on May 24 in NYC.
Detroit and Missouri: a tale of two police raids
Aiyana Jones is the 7-year-old girl who was recently killed during a raid on her home. Allegedly, the police launched a flashbang grenade through the window of the apartment where Jones was sleeping, and the device set Jones on fire. Her grandmother, quite understandably, got into an altercation with the armed men who stormed into their home, and during the struggle, the police claim an officer’s gun discharged accidentally, killing Jones.
This official narrative is being disputed by the family’s attorney, who claims video footage shows the police fired into the home at least once after lobbing the grenade through a window – before grandma and the officer ever had their interaction.
This terrible tragedy follows an incident that received considerably more (especially on-line) media attention — a Missouri SWAT raid.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t write this as a way to cast blame. After all, I covered the Missouri incident extensively. The Missouri raid is something that should attract a significant amount of media coverage. And there are several important differences between the story that might explain why one incident went viral, while the other remains in danger of being buried by the Next Big Thing to come along.
Unlike Detroit, the Missouri raid was videotaped, forever capturing the terrible drama of the event, while Jones’s last, awful moments will only be memorialized in the testimony of cops and her family. Additionally, the Missouri raid demonstrated the overzealous, destructive police response to the unwinnable War on Drugs, which 40 years after its implementation, has cost over $1 trillion, failed to meet any of its goals, while “drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.” Most Americans believe the War on Drugs is failing, so video proof of the militaristic behavior of the police during drug raids reinforces widely held, negative views about drug criminalization. Simply: people like to watch what they already know.
The Detroit raid is much more complex, and reveals a more sinister reality. A little poor, black girl dying during a police raid in Detroit is considered as a somewhat normal event in America. It’s terrible, yes. It’s something that makes Americans tisk and shake their heads over, but many view Detroit as a kind of third world country in which terrible things happen. The ghetto is a poor, dilapidated place under constant siege by the police so as to keep the undesirables in order.
To reject the idea that the ghetto should be a bad place entails rethinking much larger American issues: race, class, poverty, wealth disparity, social hierarchy, the two-tier justice system. It’s much easier to accept that bad things happen in the ghetto and move on.
Meanwhile, much of America has moved on, and left behind Detroit. The city is experiencing a mass exodus. The auto industry is extinct, and around two million people have fled the city. Unemployment is around 30 percent (nearly three times the national average,) and 55 percent of the children in Detroit live in poverty. The former industrial interior (what Time calls “the remains of Detroit“) – and the fields of abandoned homes — look like corpses in a war zone.
The Jones family are just more unfortunates left behind in the wasteland.
According to her family, the homicide suspect the police were looking for was arrested in the apartment opposite where Jones was shot, and at the moment, it doesn’t seem like the suspect had taken a hostage. This raises the question: who are the police protecting? If the Detroit police are indeed protectors of the citizens of Detroit, then they are as responsible for the safety of the Jones family, and all the tenants of the apartment building, as they are for the wealthier and more connected members of society. As my co-host, Jamie Kilstein, asked today on our show, “If police are going to negotiate situations like this, why don’t they just bomb banks that are being robbed?”
These larger questions concerning the militaristic behavior of the police, and how much authority they should be invested with by citizens and the government, never come up — especially when victims are poor minorities. Perhaps, in a deeply subconscious way, middle class (even liberal) Americans write off such events as things that inevitably happen in the ghetto. Sure, it’s not the kid’s fault she got killed, but bad things happen in those places, and maybe if her parents hadn’t been so damn lazy, they could have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and [insert Rush Limbaugh closer here].
Now, imagine if the Detroit raid went down in a wealthy, white suburb. If police set fire to, and then shot, a flaxen JonBenét Ramsey while she slept, I’m sure Fox News would run the story on a loop until the end of time. But since the story occurred in Detroit, we’ll get a few weeks of “Isn’t that a shame?” before the media moves on.
To me, the most striking difference between Missouri and Detroit is the cost of the raids. In Missouri, the police shot a dog. In Detroit, the police shot and killed a 7-year-old child. Yet, the media’s reactions don’t match the different degrees of the crimes. A wounded animal is a terrible thing, but a dead child should be a national outrage.
This was best summarized by our most recent guest, W. Kamau Bell. While we were discussing the Detroit raid, Bell asked, “What is the value of a black life?” If we were to gauge it based on media reaction, the answer would have to be: as much as — but no more than — the value of a dog’s life.