Protest and Murder: Confronting the “What About” Syndrome

This past Saturday night we were confronted with the agonizing story of another unarmed Black teenager shot to death on the streets of his southside Chicago neighborhood. Fifteen-year-old honor roll student Demario Bailey was shot as he attempted to defend his twin brother Demacio from a group of youths who demanded the jacket that Demacio was wearing. A total of four suspects aged 16 and 17 are in custody.

While statistics indicate that the number of murders in Chicago is decreasing, each killing of a young person brings with it a unique version of a familiar story: a family whose pain and grief are palpable and a community in shock and anger as another family is added to those who have lost a child to gun violence.

There was a small community demonstration in response to the murder of Demario Bailey. The now familiar slogan “Black Lives Matter” was printed on a card attached to a jacket placed at the crime scene. But I doubt that there will be the massive outpouring of protest that we have seen in recent weeks and months over the killings of unarmed Black men in Missouri and New York. Demario’s killer wasn’t a white police officer. The killer of this unarmed Black child was another Black teenager who apparently rejected the idea that Black lives matter.

The protests against police shootings of unarmed Black men have become a regular – and regulated – part of daily life in a number of American cities. Police have created areas where the protesters can march without disrupting the comings and goings of the busy populace. The protesters, for their part, refrain from violent and disruptive behavior. Arguably, the protests have been co-opted. Unless there is another egregious police shooting of an unarmed Black man, it is a matter of time until these protests, like those of the occupy movement, fade from the scene.

In this context, thinking people are challenged to confront the racism that leads both to the violence inflicted on Black men by the “justice” system and its agents and the incessant violence inflicted on Black youth by seemingly uncontrollable criminal elements in the city’s Black communities. Already I note some frustrated Black voices dismissing the relevance of the Ferguson and New York inspired protests in the face of the all-too-familiar pattern of killings in Black communities.

Nonetheless, we must avoid the “what about” syndrome that has been adopted by (mostly white) apologists for the system who seek to discredit the multiracial protests that have taken place throughout the country. I don’t know when and how “what about” became a “thing”. I have heard it regularly used by Stephanie Miller and Chris Lavoie on The Stephanie Miller Show, to refer to people who evoke false equivalencies in an to attempt to refute a position with which they disagree, but against which they have no evidence-based argument. (“What about the people killed with hammers?” “What about terrorists that might be sneaking into the country with those undocumented children?”)

In formal logic this kind of reasoning is classified as the fallacy of irrelevance. Not that the premise is inherently irrelevant in itself; it is irrelevant to the conclusion that is being debated. We see this in comments like those of the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley (“The problem is not cops shooting Blacks but Blacks shooting each other…”) and Martha MacCallum of Fox News (“What about Black-on-Black violence?”) and The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson (“The near-constant background noise of Black-on-Black violence is too often ignored.”).

These comments ignore actions taken over decades to stem the tide of gang conflict and gun deaths (often of uninvolved bystanders) in poor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. A brief internet search yielded page after page of websites about programs at the national, state, and local level that have been set up (and in some cases later dismantled) to prevent or stop gang violence. Begun at the neighborhood level, these programs have often drawn government funding, at least for a while.

But in the long run, very little has changed. In Chicago, as much as we look forward with hope to the end of winter, we also look forward with dread to the almost certain outbreak of shootings and killings that comes with the warm weather. It is very likely that by spring the “Ferguson” protests will be last year’s news.

It seems obvious that our society needs to eradicate both police violence and gang violence.  What is lacking is a comprehensive, transformative set of initiatives that involve every institution that has an effect on the communities in need. So I’ll end with a few “what abouts” that may be relevant to the problem of violence in Black communities.

  • What about a community building effort equal in scale and duration to our “nation building” projects in Iraq and Afghanistan?
  • What about educating entire communities rather than only the children?
  • What about showing teens the myriad jobs that people do to earn a decent wage?
  • What about subsidizing apprenticeships for young people of color to help them to become socialized into the culture of work?

Nothing on my list has anything to do with law enforcement or the criminal justice system. I haven’t mentioned gun regulation or drug laws. I’ll leave those for someone else’s “what about” list.

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