Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Anthony Lamar Smith, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Terry Tillman. What do these names have in common? The first answer is fairly obvious: They were all black men killed by the police. What else they have in common is a much more interesting question, and the answer that a person gives reveals a lot about where that person stands politically.
On Black Friday people gathered in the St. Louis Galleria mall to protest the death of Tillman. They walked the mall for about an hour, chanting things like, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell,” and, “Indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail.” The location they chose for their demonstration had significance, as the police chase that led to the eventual shooting death of Tillman began in the mall. However, if the goal of the protest was to shed light on police brutality and bring people over to the side of the protesters, their efforts were doomed from the beginning.
There are many people who start from the position that any police shooting is unjustified until proven otherwise, just as there are many people who tend to give the officers the benefit of the doubt. In a perfect world, no one would assume anything and, instead, would reserve judgment until the facts are in. Only then would opinions be formulated. There are justified shootings, questionable shootings and bad shootings. The mistake protesters make is holding up justifiable shootings alongside bad shootings and making blanket statements about the state of policing while doing it.
Tillman was a convicted felon, currently on probation, with an active warrant out for his arrest. He posted videos of himself the day of the shooting, showing off a pistol with an extended magazine tucked into his pants. A convicted felon, with a warrant for a second felony, committing a third felony by possessing an unregistered firearm. When the Richmond Heights police officer approached Tillman in the mall, there is no doubt that Tillman was fearful, but it was not an oppressive system of which he was fearful. He was fearful probably because he knew he was actively committing a crime. He fled because he did not want to go back to jail, and when the officer says that Tillman raised his gun as though he was going to shoot, even a healthy amount of skepticism toward police does not make that scenario seem impossible.
A video that surfaced later showing a police officer carrying a gun while wearing a rubber glove sparked more controversy, as people began to question whether the gun found on Tillman had been planted. A simple question appears to shred this assertion. What is more likely, Tillman was carrying the gun he posted videos with earlier in the day, or that an officer happened to plant that exact gun on his dead body after the shooting? No rational person would believe the latter over the former, yet protesters do not hesitate, using a two-second portion of a cellphone video to call for more investigations into the incident.
Those reluctant to condemn the justice system as oppressive would likely not be convinced by the multiple assertions of injustice in cases like Tillman’s, Smith’s or Brown’s. Contrast those shootings with ones where there appears to be a universal condemnation, or at minimum, a plurality of support for the protesters. The cases of Rice, Castile and Scott, for example.
These latter cases are much more likely to garner support than those where the outcome can be more easily disputed. Cases like Tillman’s are divisive because the evidence of injustice is unconvincing, while ideologs on both sides retreat to their respective corners. Instead, if protesters focused on finding cases with more broad-based support, they would be more effective at bringing about the conversations on reform they wish to have.
Tyler C. Chrestman, of St. Louis, is a blogger and podcaster, who discusses politics and culture.