Over the course of nine minutes of cell phone footage, most of the world sees a straightforward picture. The amped-up white police officer violently subdues an otherwise compliant, 14-year old black girl in a bikini who had been standing on a sidewalk. When other children object and move closer, he pulls his gun and levels it at them. They see that same officer running and shouting and cussing at a crowd of kids who don’t appear to be doing anything inappropriate for a public venue.
Some people watch that same sequence of images and build a starkly different narrative. That’s what makes this incident so interesting and so telling. Video from the police confrontation at the public park in McKinney is a sociologist’s dream, a near-perfect litmus test to explore deep-seated cultural and psychological assumptions. The video snippets of the incident in McKinney aren’t half as interesting as our individual responses to what we see in them.
Here’s what we know about the incident. McKinney is a distant suburb of Dallas. The neighborhood, like the town, is overwhelmingly white. At a public park which adjoins a neighborhood pool open only to residents, someone staged a paid event with a DJ. It is not clear whether they had or needed any permit. Most of the participants were young black teenagers from outside the neighborhood.
Residents complained that party-goers were spilling into the gated, residents-only pool area. When confronted by security they claimed to have “guest-passes” and many refused to leave. Tensions escalated. According to several witnesses, a fight broke out when a white woman told a black teen to “go back to their Section 8 housing.” A separate video shows that fight. The police were called and the now-familiar footage was recorded.
City officials in McKinney have acted with remarkable decisiveness. The mayor and police chief unequivocally condemned the incident. The officer in question was immediately placed on leave and has already left the force. For a variety of reasons, this incident has unfolded in a manner different some instances of police violence elsewhere in the country.
Not everyone appreciates the firm action of McKinney’s elected representatives. Anyone who has friends or relatives in Texas may have seen comments like this Facebook post that showed up on your author’s news feed:
“Wake up people!! These disrespectful wild gang banging teens need to learn how to act! Shame on them, their parents and this godforsaken liberal media that gives these idiots more attention than they deserve!”
Some people watch that footage and see a courageous officer holding the line against a marauding onslaught of “gang banging” barbarians. They see the end of the world, or at least the end of their world, a world in which their interests, their property, their lives held a special place of honor above all others.
How “disrespectful” were these “gang-banging teens”? As a sample of their behavior the video shows a kid detained by Officer Casebolt mustering the temerity to mouth off by appealing, “Sir, we just came to a birthday party…” That’s right, “sir.” So, “shame on their parents.”
Some background might be helpful, both in understanding the history that led to this incident and understanding why McKinney’s response was so different from what we’ve seen elsewhere in the country. It starts with the death of public capital in the South.
Swimming pools have been a particularly touchy subject in the post-Civil Rights Era. Tactics used to evade desegregation of pools became a template for maintaining unofficial segregation right into our era.
From Alabama to East Texas, public swimming pools were among the first public institutions to be destroyed in order to thwart desegregation. Marshall, Texas blocked desegregation by closing down its public pool. It later re-opened the pool under private sponsorship, allowing the facility to remain segregated. The same mechanism was leveraged by Montgomery, Alabama until Federal courts struck down their effort in 1970. The same tactic remained in place elsewhere.
Over time, more sophisticated measures were adopted. Those tactics applied to public institutions of almost every kind. Basically whatever could not be privatized was either discontinued or starved of funding.
Major cities across the South still lack effective public transportation at almost any level. Some towns still have public pools, but white communities have their own facilities built into private subdivisions, like the pool in McKinney, allowing them to filter and regulate access. A subtle, entirely legal move toward carefully calibrated “privatization” has undermined the public character of every institution from schools to parks. Scenes from McKinney demonstrate in the most literal way possible “why we can’t have nice things.”
McKinney’s response to the incident also highlights something unique about Southern life, but from a very different angle. When Cleveland police last fall rolled up on a 12-year old black child with a pellet gun and immediately killed him, it took weeks for city officials to respond in any coherent way.
When a cop in the heart of the racist South put a hand on young black kid in an inappropriate and disrespectful manner he was out of a job in days. The family of Tamir Rice in Cleveland is still waiting for charges or disciplinary action six months after a horrifying incident of official misconduct that was recorded on tape. Meanwhile, McKinney has put a much less egregious issue very nearly to rest in less than two weeks.
McKinney, and the area in which it sits, has a miserable racial history, but it also lacks the sclerotic, corrupt public institutions that burden government and undermine its ability to adapt across much of the north. Police officers in Texas and across the South participate in employee unions, but those institutions have no power remotely approaching what their fellow institutions enjoy in northern cities. There is no institution in Texas with the built-in political power to shield police officers from scrutiny and discipline.
Baltimore and Cleveland have black Democratic leadership keenly sensitive to the needs of minority communities. McKinney, like Texas in general, is run by white Republicans almost entirely blind to minority concerns where they are not openly hostile to them.
However, there is no political force with the power to tame public employee unions in Cleveland or Baltimore or New York or Chicago. In McKinney, the government is capable of moving to rein in obvious abuses by public servants. Municipal governments all across the north simply lack that capability. McKinney has far more freedom to adapt to changing circumstances than Cleveland.
Against that backdrop of history and the footage of this particular incident, a fascinatingly diverse set of narratives have emerged. Consult your own Facebook or Twitter feeds, or your grandmothers’ forwarded emails for examples. What does your author see in this Rorschach? Hope and optimism.
In a place with an extremely dark racial history, I see an incident that might well have ended in tragedy instead tempered by restraint. I see young black kids confronted by absurd injustice responding with respect and decency, but also with a fresh new assertiveness. The kids in this footage are not cowering. They seem to recognize not only that they have rights and dignity, but that they have the power to assert those rights and that dignity.
Yes, I see a white police officer responding to a racially charged scenario with an arrogance born of a sense of supremacy. Right there with him though are two other white officers with cool heads and professionalism who calm the situation and prevent a tragedy. Most remarkable of all, I see a conservative white municipal administration that acted with surprising decisiveness when presented with clear evidence of abuse.
Like everyone else, what I see emerging from this scenario confirms my own bias. In this case, it’s my bias toward progress and my faith in America. This country is getting better. Young people, whether the kids at the pool or those very young faces in the police uniforms are building a better world than we imagined was possible. I hope you see it too.