Unacceptable: Evers and Biden Inflame Insurrectionist Passions

Whatever one’s opinion of the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23, Wisconsin governor Tony Evers’ statement on the matter is reckless and inflammatory. It is arguably an incitement to riot. Given everything that is going on in our country, and recognizing the importance of an unbiased investigation and possibly of a criminal trial, that the governor would issue a statement like this is, frankly, astonishing. He’s putting his thumb on the scales of justice. As the governor of a republic organized by the rule of law with the presumption of innocence, his statement tramples his duty to the citizens of Wisconsin to be fair and impartial on matters of justice.

“Jacob Blake was shot in the back multiple times, in broad daylight, in Kenosha.” That’s the first sentence of Evers’ statement. The phrase “broad daylight” leaps out. It’s like the hackneyed phrase “senseless death.” Why not throw in “at point bank range”? Those are the sorts of connotations “broad daylight” conveys. It should not have appeared in his statement. “While we do not have all of the details yet,” Evers continues, “what we know for certain is that he is not the first black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.” “Mercilessly” means pitiless or cruel. The governor admits that he doesn’t have all the details, but even with what he has on hand, how can he tell that the officers act pitilessly or cruelly? The choice of the word “mercilessly” suggests a gangster-style execution, a man begging for his life with his hands tied behind his back. Evers associated this characterization with other shootings “at the hands of individuals in law enforcement.”

I don’t think Evers is so stupid as to think that coming out immediately with a statement that reflexively sides with Black Lives Matter would quell the predicable riot (indeed, Kenosha is in chaos). He had to know that matters put this way would likely only inflame the insurrectionist passions rampant in our society these days. Such rhetoric gives the mob permission. Is it not Evers’ duty as the leader of Wisconsin to try to calm down the situation not inflame it? Yet here it is: “We stand with all those who have and continue to demand justice, equality and accountability for Black lives in our country—lives like those of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, Tony Robinson, Denise Hamilton, Ernest Lacy, and Sylville Smith. And we stand against excessive use of force and immediate escalation when engaging with Black Wisconsinites.”

The case of George Floyd is pending, and new developments cast doubt on the initial narrative taken up by a media bent on inciting “peaceful protests” across America. Breonna Taylor was killed in an apparent no-knock raid of the sort Radley Balko writes about in his useful The Rise of the Warrior Cop. The Tony Robinson shooting was ruled a lawful use of deadly force. Ernest Lacy’s death occurred in police custody back in 1981. The reason for its inclusion in Evers’ list is probably because Lacy died in a manner similar to Floyd. (Deaths from immobilization techniques are quite rare and have resulted in the deaths of whites, as well.) In the Sylville Smith case, Dominique Heaggan-Brown, a black police officer, was found not guilty after a criminal trial. Evers adds Blake’s name to this problematic list and strongly implies, without having all the details yet, that this is a case of “excessive use of force and immediate escalation.”

I have watched the video several times (you can easily find the video online). I see a man not complying with the lawful orders of police officers with guns drawn appearing to first reach into his waistband and then reach into a car followed by shots fired. It is a difficult scene to watch. It always is hard to watch a person being shot. The reaction of those present adds to the drama. But however dramatic the scene, it is irresponsible to characterize what we see on the video without asking several questions. What was going on before the clip begins? What do the police officers know about Blake? (With more video of Floyd’s death now available we have a lot of context to digest—context that appears to support the medical examiner’s conclusions. Moreover, we now know about Floyd’s criminal history.) What was the motive behind trying to stop Blake from getting into the car? Did the officers know it was Blake’s car? (Was it?) Did they know whether there were weapons in the car? Did the officers know there were children in the car? If they did know there were children present, did they know they were Blake’s children? In either case, assuming he was trying to drive away, were officers prepared to allow Blake to leave the scene with children in the car? Why was Blake not following the officers’ commands? Did Blake know there were children in the car? Was Blake known to officers? Did he have a criminal history?

With all these questions in the air, Evers ties the shooting to the claim of systemic racism, a claim that finds no support in an extensive body of research focused specifically on this question. “In the coming days, we will demand just that of elected officials in our state who have failed to recognize the racism in our state and our country for far too long,” Evers says in his statement. But Evers cannot possibly know whether racism has anything to do with this.

One eyewitness account should have told Evers to be cautious with his words. Raysean White, who filmed the video clip, describes Blake arriving in the car and ordering a child into the vehicle. Then Blake walks into a home. When White next witnesses what was happening, he sees Blake wrestling with police officers. He starts videoing the incident after Blake breaks free and starts walking to the vehicle. In the police call, the dispatcher tells officers that Blake “isn’t supposed to be there” and that he took the complainant’s keys and refused to leave. This indicates a very serious and dangerous situation. We also know that officers had already used a Taser on Blake before the shooting. According to the website Heavy.com, which is a reliable source for facts ignored by establishment media, Blake had a warrant issued for him on July 6 of this year on pending accusations of several charges including criminal trespass to a dwelling and felony third-degree sexual assault, all with domestic abuse as modifiers. He was also listed as not having a driver’s license. It also appears that he resisted arrest during a traffic stop after pulling a gun at a Racine bar in 2015. He injured a police officer in the incident. “As always,” said Pete Deates, president of the Kenosha Professional Police Association; “the video currently circulating does not capture all the intricacies of a highly dynamic incident.” He then states, “We ask that you withhold from passing judgment until all the facts are known and released.” Why couldn’t Evers do this?

Jacob Blake’s Facebook cover image

You won’t get any of these details from the establishment media. NBC carried the story with the following description of the incident: “Police shot Jacob Blake, 29, multiple times in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday as he opened the door to a vehicle where, an attorney hired by his family said, his three children sat. Blake was taken to a Milwaukee hospital and is stable after coming out of surgery.” The paper continued, “The shooting, the latest in a string of police violence against Black Americans captured on video this year, sparked uproar and protests against systemic racism in Wisconsin. Democratic politicians called not only for justice for Blake but also for changes to address systemic racism at the root of excessive use of force against Black people.” (Evers has called for an emergency legislative session to do just this.)

Not to be left out of a chance to advance the systemic racism narrative, presidential candidate Joe Biden said that cops in Wisconsin “must be held accountable” for the shooting of Blake. “This calls for an immediate, full and transparent investigation and the officers must be held accountable,” Biden said in a statement Monday. Was an immediate, full, and transparent investigation not expected? Moreover, wouldn’t that be necessary before demanding that “officers must be held accountable”? “These shots pierce the soul of our nation. Jill and I pray for Jacob’s recovery and for his children,” the former vice president continued. “Equal justice has not been real for Black Americans and so many others. We are at an inflection point. We must dismantle systemic racism. It is the urgent task before us.” A man who wants to be president of arguably the most racially diverse nation on the planet asserts the existence of a phenomenon that is falsified by empirical science.

Both Biden and Evers are blowing a perfect opportunity to be real leaders. They are missing a chance to plead with the public to obey the commands of police officers, especially when there are children and bystanders present. Put your hands in the air and comply, I always tell my students when I teach them how to interact with police officers. That and a lot of other things. If the officers are wrong, then you may file a complaint later. Being alive or conscious is necessary for this to happen. Follow orders and you are very likely to leave the situation intact. You may not even be arrested. Resist and it is almost certain that bad things will happen.

Evers’ reckless use of language signals to the public that law enforcement is illegitimate and one does not have to comply with an officer’s commands. It undermines a crucial piece in officer-civilian interaction that keeps people safe: compliance in an inherently coercive situation. Like correctional officers, police officers are permitted to use force to carry out their duties. Coercion is inherent in the nature of police work. That will never change. There are bad people in the world and they mean others harm. Officers may rationally use force to compel a person to comply in order to effect an arrest or detainment or prevent wrongdoing or harm. If officers wrongfully apply force, then there is a mechanism by which this may be adjudicated.

When you put into the heads of people the notion that defying the commands of police officers is justifiable because police officers are aggressing upon you because of your skin color, then you set up persons for further use of force and possible injury and even death—you also set up our cities and town for riots. In Jacob Blake’s case, the police had to stop a man who was where he should not be either from obtaining a weapon or leaving the scene of an investigation or possibly an arrest with children in the vehicle. Whether they used excessive force or whether they were motivated by racism is unknown at this time. But we do know that if the man had complied with their commands it is very unlikely that he would have been shot. And there would be no riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin today.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.