Young: ‘Overkill’: 21st century term for inexcusable policing |

Young: ‘Overkill’: 21st century term for inexcusable policing

When fire hoses sent black bodies skidding and writhing along the sidewalks of Birmingham in 1963, a lot of white people, high and dry, nodded, “Well, if that’s what it takes to keep the peace …”

And so it goes, 51 years later: different police-tactic horrors, but the same nodding of the self-satisfied and oblivious.

Here’s what also remains the same: the construction of straw men to allow the unaffected to dismiss the grievances of the affected.

When blacks marched in the South for basic human rights, the barkers of the status quo pointed to the influence of “agitators” like “known Communist” Martin Luther King Jr. Today, hear similar commentary aimed at Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

You know: “Those people” wouldn’t have a grievance if people like King, and Jackson, and especially Sharpton, didn’t show up to tell them they had one.

Also: “Sharpton gets face time when a white cop kills an unarmed black teen. Where is he when blacks kill blacks in Chicago?” Jon Stewart made note of that throw-away claim, one being trotted out on Fox News; then he rolled tape of Sharpton in Chicago urging an end to that violence.

What we are witnessing, whether in the robo-cop responses in Ferguson or those of the at-a-distance, “oh well” chorus, is the same mentality that objectifies those on society’s margins. Black Americans couldn’t possibly have grievances. Don’t we have a black president and Affirmative Action?

Yes, blacks have grievances, and too often they involve overzealous police.

Whether the situation is the offense known as “driving while black,” or the tragedy in which an unarmed black youth dies at an officer’s hands, black Americans cannot help but keep count.

In Ferguson, Missouri, we have a textbook example of how not to keep the peace — one that should cause observers to choose another term for that old standby, “police brutality.” Try “police overkill.”

It’s not just that an officer shot and killed Michael Brown. It’s that when the situation called for calm and conciliation, the police became the 7th Cavalry.

HBO’s John Oliver made hay of the Ferguson cops dressed in military gear, replete with camouflage. Camo? “If they want to blend in with their surroundings, they should be dressed like a Dollar Store.”

It would have been a lot more efficient to sweep the street of protesters and “Guantanamize” them as enemy combatants.

Overkill it was, whether the “combatants” were Ferguson residents or members of the media. In sum, the powers-that-be acted like rank amateurs instead of the professionals they are hired to be.

Maybe the most irresponsible thing the Ferguson police did was release the video in which Brown appears to rip off some stogies in a convenience store. This the nation saw before ascertaining anything real about the situation that led to his death.

This video, of course, is used by some to justify what happened to the young man. The video leaves little doubt that Brown broke the law. Then again, in this country’s history, many a young black man faced the ultimate penalty — hanging from a tree branch, in too many cases — for a petty offense.

Blown out of proportion by the media? Not a chance. What happened in Ferguson fully merits national inspection and introspection. One important consideration there and elsewhere: a scandalous paucity of minority police officers. Ferguson, a majority-black town, had only four black officers on a force of 50.

“When trust is absent,” writes Time magazine’s David von Drehle, “It leaves a peculiar vacuum that feeds flames rather than starves them.”

Some law enforcement agencies arm themselves for war when they should be building trust instead. The result: police overkill.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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