Photo Credit: Getty Images—Loyola University students Kate Spence (L), 21, and Kassina Dwyer, 18, work to clear and landscape the garden in front of a large memorial mural of Freddie Gray
Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the laws’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony.—James Baldwin, No Name in the Street
It’s been four years since 20 children, between the ages of 6 and 7, were shot and killed by a man at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And how has the American government intervened on their behalf, or on the behalf of others we’ve lost since, to mass shootings (and there have been many since)? “Politics” people often say or shrug, to explain away the lack of action in response to such heinous crimes. But when the government really cares about a particular group of people, it seems that “politics” aren’t so difficult to overcome. The bodies of dead children don’t seem to carry much weight. And the bodies of people (particularly black people) killed by police officers, carry even less—often scorned, and presented as bodies that didn’t really deserve to live anyway. You may not see a ready connection between these two groups of people, but both tend to come into great focus during conversations about violent deaths and political concern (or lack thereof) for such violence in America. One question we might ask (a question with a fairly simple answer) is, if children’s lives don’t matter much, and black lives matter even less, whose lives will the government intervene to protect? Whose bodies, according to our politicians, deserve expressed, written protection by the American government?
On May 11, 2016 the House of Representatives passed the Federal Law Enforcement Self-Defense and Protection Act of 2015. The bill is meant to offer further protection to federal police (specifically that they “remain able to ensure their own safety, and the safety of their families, during a covered furlough”), and its language suggests—along with the rhetoric of the mythical “war on police”—that those working to protect and serve are under constant threat:
Congress finds the following:
(1) Too often, Federal law enforcement officers encounter potentially violent criminals, placing officers in danger of grave physical harm.
(2) In 2012 alone, 1,857 Federal law enforcement officers were assaulted, with 206 sustaining serious injuries.
(3) From 2008 through 2011, an additional 8,587 Federal law enforcement officers were assaulted.
(4) Federal law enforcement officers remain a target even when they are off-duty. Over the past 3 years, 27 law enforcement officers have been killed off-duty.
(5) It is essential that law enforcement officers are able to defend themselves, so they can carry out their critical missions and ensure their own personal safety and the safety of their families whether on-duty or off-duty.
(6) These dangers to law enforcement officers continue to exist during a covered furlough.
Findings 2 and 3 tell us that federal law enforcement officers are frequently assaulted—or at least, they were between 2008 and 2012. But these numbers highlight assaults, not deaths. And while I certainly don’t wish more death upon such officers, I couldn’t help but wonder at the shockingly low number offered up in finding 4: in three years, only 27 law enforcement officers were killed while off-duty?
It’s a sad day when 27 dead bodies can be registered as “shockingly low,” but I live in America. And the reality is that Adam Lanza killed 26 people at Sandy Hook in total, in one day. In America, 27 dead bodies over the course of three years sounds—and I cringe to say this—idyllic. It sounds like a statistic from one of those other countries, over there, where police rarely fire their weapons, where every massacre is a national day of mourning; unbelievably tragic, rather than tragic, but routine and predictable. But the House, in passing this bill—a bill which was introduced just one year ago—and in using the language outlined in its findings sends a strong, familiar message about the lives that matter in this country. These lives, it seems, are the lives that see the swiftest justice and have the most protection under the law.
This new bill means that, while under a covered furlough (leave of absence), federal law enforcement officers will retain the right to carry their firearms. The supporting argument being that the lives of these officers are so endangered, we’ll need more guns on the streets to keep them—and ultimately all of us—safe. And this is the problem. We keep adding more guns. It’s like building more prisons to solve issues of poverty and systemic racism. Now, here we have, a new bill contrived so that off-duty officers can hold on to their weapons. As our Politics Editor Shane Ryan said after the Roanoke shootings, this country is infected.
This year so far American police have killed 397 people, and counting. Read their stories—not just the police reports (many of which, as we’ve seen with victims like Chicago’s Laquan McDonald, turn out to be falsified). All those citizens slain were not violent criminals, and they were not all putting officers’ lives in danger. But there will be no bills passed in their honor; that kind of respect for “ordinary” lives happens in fantasies, and on episodes of Scandal. Those are not the lives for which the government will intervene.
And while this new bill targets federal officers, it’s interesting that it passed, just as the FBI released statistics that categorically prove there is no war on cops:
41 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2015. This is a decrease of almost 20 percent when compared with the 51 officers killed in 2014.
Again, shockingly low numbers for our America, a country known far and wide for its gun violence. Those people whose line of work puts them, allegedly, most at risk, seem to be faring better than our students, Planned Parenthood employees, Sunday worshippers and certainly residents of neighborhoods like Freddie Gray’s in Baltimore.
Freddie Gray—who did not commit a crime on the day he was arrested and killed, whose family has yet to see justice in the trials of the six officers connected to his brutal murder. Meanwhile the teenager who protested Gray’s murder by busting the windows out of an unoccupied police car was initially sentenced to 12 years in prison (his sentence was later drastically reduced). And none of that surprises me. In the same way that I’m not surprised that, four years after Sandy Hook, and countless other massacres, most politicians still offer up prayers, rather than policy change, in memoriam of slain children. I’m not surprised that this same government offers up policy change, rather than prayers, for federal officers. Not surprised, but like many Americans, I am disgusted.
Whose bodies, according to our politicians, deserve consistent, expressed, written protection by the American government? Maybe you don’t especially care about the Black Lives Matter movement, and maybe you don’t have children in elementary schools, practicing lockdown drills. But, unless you’re a member of one of the elite and protected groups of this country, you should be disgusted too. Or are you convinced that your life and your body is truly protected? Are you [yes, even you—privileged, white, male] so sure that your life matters too?
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.