OPED: Authoritarian big picture around Stephon Clark's death

Sasha Abramsky
Tribune News Service

"Say his name: Stephon Clark," protesters have chanted, repeatedly, these last weeks, as Sacramento has found itself in the international spotlight over the police killing of an unarmed black man, living with his grandparents in a poor neighborhood of town that, I would guess, most Sacramentans have never set foot in.

There is, in the American legal system, a presumption of innocence. It is, ostensibly, a core part of how the system functions.

Yet there is an informal corollary at work, too, especially in poor and racially segregated communities, or in wealthier neighborhoods when it comes to men of color. Here, a presumption of guilt holds, of young men, especially, being "up to no good," an assumption that they are, simply by virtue of who they are and not what they have done, dangerous.

It is no coincidence that so many poor people and young men of color are gunned down, shot with stun guns, beaten senseless with fists and clubs, by police officers and sheriffs' deputies. Just as it is not random bad luck that as America's incarceration system has ballooned over the past four decades, so more and more and more young men of color are spending their formative years behind bars. Just as it is no accident that as inequality has risen, so our default response to the poor has been to demonize them and to punish them for their poverty.

Any social system is a complex set of values and expectations and community relationships, of hierarchies of control, of participation in and exclusion from economic and political institutions. How that system is policed, how those on the edge of that system are treated, both determines and reflects the society's values.

That's why, more than a century on, the Victorian workhouses, within which England's destitute were forced to work long hours in exchange for miserable gruel and cell-like living conditions, remain so etched into folk memory in England. It's why, I suspect, the prisons and jails, the ghettos and the police killings of our era will, generations hence, occupy a similarly seminal place in how future Americans understand today's United States.

The Washington Post has compiled a database of recent police killings nationally.

It includes 987 people killed in 2017, 457 of whom were white, and 223 of whom were black — meaning that blacks, as a percentage of the population, were over-represented at least two-fold in these deaths. Similar numbers exist for 2016, and for 2015, and for 2014, and so on.

More:Family of Sacramento man slain by police skeptical of change

No other wealthy democracy comes close to these numbers of deaths at the hands of police.

These killings, so routine in early 21st century America, are symptoms of a deep societal malaise, a systemic crisis — a peeling back of the veneer of civility and a glimpse of the raw, authoritarian currents coursing through our body politic and culture. They cannot be understood in isolation from the rise of mass incarceration, and the simply vast numbers of Americans who now spend time either living behind bars or, in the case of prison guards and other staff, working behind bars.

They cannot be understood in isolation from the government's embrace of torture in the endless wars against terrorism. They cannot be understood in isolation from the rounding up and deportation of vast numbers of immigrants, the deliberate rending of families by ICE. They cannot be understood in isolation from the rise of "alt-right" movements, and the denigration, by the president and others, of "sh—hole countries" and those who originated in said countries.

We are doing a shockingly effective job these days of dehumanizing entire groups, of rendering their sufferings somehow less meaningful than the sufferings of those with higher, more secure "status" in our system. We are, in essence, saying that the pain of some is less important, perhaps even less painful, than the pain of others, and we are tolerating state-inflicted violence as, somehow, a "price" worth paying for enhancing overall levels of security.

But a young black man's body bleeds no less calamitously after being hit by eight bullets than does the body of anyone else. A protester in a poor neighborhood hit by a sheriff's department vehicle that fails to stop after knocking her to the sidewalk suffers no less agony than does any other victim of a hit-and-run.

As our system becomes more unequal — the richest three Americans are now worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans combined — so the brutality we are unleashing to keep that system functioning intensifies.

Police killings of unarmed young people are the cruelest of these facial expressions. We all, rich and poor, white, black and brown alike, have an obligation to confront this systemic crisis and the collapse in empathy that makes such violence commonplace.

— Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is "Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream."