Police Reformers Need to Pick Their Battles

The conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd owes a lot to social media, which brought before millions of eyes the mobile-phone footage of a brave Black teenager named Darnella Frazier. That same social media, however, can also create and spread false narratives that do not further the cause of justice and undermine the moral integrity of police reform.

The original story of the death of Ma’Khia Bryant is that a 16-year-old Black girl in Columbus, Ohio, called 911 saying she was being threatened, only to have police drive up and fatally shoot her. This was at best misleading and at worst untrue. It was largely the account of a relative who had shared the account of another relative.

Upon the release of police body-cam footage, a different tale emerged. Police arrived at a chaotic scene, with one young woman wielding a knife and about to stab another. A neighbor’s garage camera appears to corroborate the view that Bryant was the aggressor.

Thus is raised an uncomfortable possibility: Even if the police officer had not discharged his weapon, a Black life that mattered might still have ended. Either way, it would have been tragedy — but it’s also very different than a police officer kneeling on a Black man’s neck for nine minutes as he expires.

The sheer number of high-profile police-involved deaths of people of color in recent years — with the police often walking away with no accountability — can be numbing. Yet each episode is distinct.

In Cleveland in 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a BB gun by himself in a park. After a 911 call in which the caller volunteered that the gun was “probably a fake,” a police car arrived. While the car was still in motion, an officer yelled at Rice to raise his hands, jumped out and shot Rice dead — all in the space of a few seconds. The officers, neither of whom was indicted, clearly should have stopped at a safe distance and assessed if Rice was a threat.

That wasn’t an option on this week in Columbus. One girl had a knife and was about to stab another. The officer had to make a split-second decision — and know that either choice could result in serious injury or death.

LeBron James, who presents himself to the world not only as a champion athlete but also as leader on civil rights, heard the original story and tweeted a photo of the police officer with a “You’re next — #Accountabilty” message. The tweet came just minutes after Chauvin’s guilty verdict, so the implication was that the Ohio officer was “next” to face a courtroom. Still, many saw it as suggesting a physical threat.

To his credit, James eventually deleted the tweet, noting its divisiveness and stating that he would wait for more information. In contrast, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey — the former mayor of a city whose police department entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department after years of corruption — has yet to delete or elaborate on a simplistic tweet that reflects the original version of the story.

Much has been made about how social media can be used to mobilize social activism. But social media also magnifies a major problem in today’s disaggregated social justice movement: Because there is no single leader, there is no one to assess whether it is worth risking the movement’s reputation by wading into the commentary and controversy over any given event.

Yes, in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But King and his contemporaries were also pragmatic. They picked their battles. They practiced discernment.

Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, for example, Claudette Colvin committed a similar act of righteous defiance. Yet she is largely lost to history. That’s in part because King and other leaders at the time thought a 15-year-old girl whose background could be painted as morally questionable was not an ideal face for the civil rights movement. The more modest and unassuming Parks was seen as the better champion.

Social activists now find themselves in a similar situation. The Chauvin conviction can be a major step toward making police accountability something not just real, but institutionalized. What it will require is the exercise of judgment.

Turning Ma’Khia Bryant into the latest victim of “police brutality,” and the officer who shot her into the next police supervillain, would undermine all who have spoken eloquently of George Floyd’s sacrifice. The current movement for social justice has engendered an enormous amount of good will. Its beneficiaries should be careful not to squander it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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