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The Fog of Tragedy

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eye on the news

The Fog of Tragedy

If we’ve learned anything from recent police shootings, it’s to wait for all the facts to come in. July 7, 2016
Public safety

Here we are again, watching gruesome cell-phone videos of deadly encounters between white cops and black men. Here we are again, jumping to conclusions about what happened and why. Here we are again, resorting to the default convictions of our instinctual allegiances: the victim must have done something; the cop was probably a racist.

Earlier this week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two cops responded to a call that a man selling CDs in a convenience-store parking lot had been waving a gun around, threatening someone. The cops confronted 37-year-old Alton Sterling and wrestled him to the ground. During the ensuing struggle, one of the cops yelled that Sterling had a gun and was reaching for it. One or both of the officers fired their weapons at Sterling, who was beneath them on the ground. He was killed. Two short videos of the incident surfaced immediately. Neither showed what happened before the struggle began; they only showed the violent end of Sterling’s life. The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the incident. When concluded, it should bring some clarity to what happened and why the officers felt that Sterling was a threat, even as they had him pinned to the ground.     

Yesterday, in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, a policeman shot 32-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop. In a cellphone video that was livestreamed on Facebook, Castile’s girlfriend announced that he had just been shot “for no apparent reason.” Yet, there’s almost certainly more to be learned about the incident, as Castile was a licensed gun owner who allegedly told the officer that he had a firearm in the car. The officer can be heard in the video saying, “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand out.” Did Castile follow the officer’s instructions? Did the officer panic and shoot when he shouldn’t have? These questions remain to be answered.

Both of these tragic incidents have at least one thing in common: we know less today about what actually happened than we will in a week, a month, or a year. The August 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was presented initially in the media as a case of cold-blooded murder. Witness claims that Brown had been executed with his hands up traveled around the world in the blink of an eye. The narrative congealed into a protest movement that swept the nation. Only after a Justice Department investigation released in March 2015 was it proved definitively that “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” was 100 percent fiction. Not that it mattered to the activists and agitators in the days and weeks after the incident—or even now. They were eager to hit the streets with signs and placards emblazoned with the slogan.

Similarly, the protests that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore last year were based on misleading information. A judge ruled last month that cops hadn’t given Gray a “rough ride” in the back of a police van, as activists initially claimed, or ignored his requests for medical attention. It’s possible, in fact, that Gray’s spinal injury was self-inflicted. Another arrestee in the back of the van initially told police that Gray had been banging his head and “trying to knock himself out or something.” Gray, 25, had been arrested 18 times and had a history of injuring himself while in custody in hopes of winning cash settlements. We may never know for sure what happened in the back of that van, but there was more to the story than was initially reported—and initially believed by some.

The anti-cop Left never hesitates to run with its preferred narrative—that racist police are hunting down young black men and murdering them. But those with an interest in truth and justice should wait for the facts. It could turn out that the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were entirely unjustified, much like the 2015 death of Walter Scott, shot eight times in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer as he tried to flee. Or, it could turn out that Sterling did have a gun, and that Castile either argued with the officer or disobeyed his instructions (which may or may not justify the officer’s actions). We just don’t know yet. Until we do, reckless allegations and media-driven narratives won’t do us any good.  

Matthew Hennessey is a City Journal associate editor. Twitter:@matthennessey.

Photo by mokee81/iStock

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