Protests are the true voice of Democracy

While watching the news on television last week, a certain 28-second news clip sent my heart plummeting. In Philadelphia, police had apprehended a black suspect after a lengthy police chase. The reason this story made the headline news and not another mundane episode of “Cops” is because of what happened in those 28 seconds. I thought the Rodney King beating was happening all over again.
The news clip showed officers dragging Thomas Jones from the police car he had recently stolen. Then the officers began to kick and beat him. And we’re not talking about one or two officers. It was more like ten to fifteen. Watching this image — officers surrounding and beating a solitary individual — could not help but evoke memories of the 1991 Rodney King beating. But were Rodney King and Thomas Jones the same type of victim? They both seemed to receive the same treatment from officers. That, however, is where the similarities end.
The beating of Rodney King had only one face and a single motivation. This disturbing incident was an unnecessary, pointless assault based on racial prejudice. The Jones case does not fit this criteria, though, because it is much more complicated. Thomas Jones led police on a 20-minute chase in a stolen car. Reckless driving sent him crashing into other motorists as well as onto a sidewalk crowded with funeral mourners, risking the lives of many innocent civilians. He refused initial attempts to be subdued by biting officers and even shooting one. He was then shot himself only after he tried to make a second escape in a police car. It was after he was pulled from this police car that the controversial 28-second tape was filmed.
We have two different incidents which both reached the same end: the beating of the alleged guilty party. Yet these situations include two different individuals, with two distinct records. If we agree that Rodney King didn’t deserve what he received, does that mean that Thomas Jones did? In my opinion, no — the police action did seem excessive. But that doesn’t mean we should be so surprised by what did happen.
If we remove the police from the scene and imagine that the people attacking Jones are average citizens, suddenly the situation, no matter how disturbing, becomes more agreeable. Then we have the brave souls of Philadelphia who chased down and apprehended a career criminal who had shot someone, bitten someone, nearly ran several people down and stolen two cars. We would not necessarily cheer the fact that several of them were kicking this man, but we would be happy with the average citizen who had put a stop to this small fraction of America’s criminal element. After all, Thomas Jones is not a shining star in society. He is a man with a record of convictions for burglary, theft and assault and whose low points include snatching purses from women and stealing a bike from a 12-year-old child.
For some reason, when we return the police to the crime scene, we are suddenly more appalled. The chase and pursuit didn’t go smoothly; that part is a given. Even top Philadelphia brass admit that. But not all chases do go smoothly. Our society has this misconception that the police will swoop down like they do on television or at the movies and make an effortless, errorless arrest. And if there is one thing I learned in my criminal justice class, it is that this does not happen. In most cases, the criminal has more influence on how smoothly the arrest procedure carries out than do the authorities. Had Thomas Jones immediately surrendered, the chase would never have occurred, and I would be writing about something else. Criminals can be desperate and unpredictable people, and police are human beings. We cannot expect them to rid us of so complicated a problem so easily and effortlessly.
We are horrified that the police beat this man when we should probably be stunned that it doesn’t happen more often. Our country holds police to a superhuman standard that they must take any and all types of abuse and still calmly maintain control of the situation. When my uncle worked security for a local retailer, he was told that guards could never show anger or excessive force. In one particular incident, a thief kept biting, swearing and spitting at him. My uncle had to calmly put the cuffs on and ignore the abuse. The average human being, myself included, would retaliate if treated in such a way by someone else. Yet we are surprised when the police use excessive force.
In Jone’s situation, we have to remember that an officer was shot as well, and that Jones had already ignored countless attempts at an orderly arrest. This might help explain the irrational, unnecessary behavior of the police. Think about how willing you would be to kick an individual who had shot a member of your family or your friend. A policeman’s fellow officers are like family and are likely friends as well. That is probably why both black and white officers were involved in the beating. This wasn’t an issue of racial hatred. Rather, it was an issue of police fighting for the injuries to one of their own. This still doesn’t make it right but easier to comprehend.
The Thomas Jones beating is surely a shocking, disturbing half-minute of video. Some would say this is another example of the rising level of police brutality in our society. Others would say it is the result of the frustration generated by career criminals emboldened by a feeble judicial system. Either way, it shouldn’t be considered a case of police brutality on the level of the King beating. Where one was completely wrong, the other was simply unnecessary. In a utopic world, police would never do anything outside of the proper arrest conduct code. They would never swear, hit, beat, kick or shoot at another person. And in a utopic world, perhaps we would return the favor.

Chris Schafer is a Daily columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected]