Words and facts matter, unless they don’t. Take New York Times writer Charles M. Blow’s definition of “infraction”, which encompasses robbery and counterfeiting. In an editorial appearing in the Denver Post on April 18th, 2021, Blow related the often-told story of Michael Brown “A Black teenager accused of an infraction in a convenience store just before his life was taken.” What Blow defines as an infraction Missouri criminal statutes define as robbery in the 2nd degree. “A person commits the offense of robbery in the second degree if he or she forcibly steals property and in the course thereof causes physical injury to another person. The offense of robbery in the second degree is a class B felony.”
The facts of this “infraction” involved Brown reaching across a convenience store counter and grabbing cigars then leaving without paying. The shopkeeper steps out from the counter to get between the not-so-diminutive Brown and the exit door. Brown grabs the shopkeeper by the neck and shoves him back against a rack of potato chips. When the shopkeeper recovers, he attempts to stop Brown again, but Brown turns and looms above him in a bear-like intimidating posture. But hey, infractions happen.
Blow’s apologetics for felons includes George Floyd “a Black man accused of an infraction in a convenience store”. Again, a shopkeeper is the victim and calls the police. According to the U.S. Department of Treasury possession of counterfeit United States obligations with fraudulent intent is a violation of Title 18, Section 472 of the United States Code and is punishable by a fine of up to $15,000, or 15 years imprisonment, or both. Floyd was attempting to purchase cigarettes with a suspected fake $20 bill. Another “infraction”.
Blow seems incensed that the police responded to a counterfeiting complaint. Apparently, Minneapolis Police do not have a category of felonies not worth investigating, so they investigated. A jury has convicted the arresting officer for murder arising out of force that he was not authorized to exercise. Whether appeals and further proceedings will sustain the jury’s interpretation of the facts or not, this was not a case of brutality based on an unnecessary arrest for an insignificant crime. The initial contact was completely legal, justified, and legitimate. The calculus a police officer makes is not “what if this litterbug or jaywalker resists arrest and the resistance escalates to the point where I have to use physical force?” The question is “is there reasonable suspicion of illegal behavior which I am obligated to investigate”?
Eric Garner is cited by Blow as another in-custody death (usually referred to automatically as murder by reporters) based on a minor offense of selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner was not killed because he was selling untaxed cigarettes, and officers were under no obligation to turn their eyes from such a minor offense. Whether New York’s minimum price laws and high cigarette taxes are good, they are the law and the laws are enforced by armed government agents. The NYPD officers arresting Garner were part of a designated enforcement effort to crack down on the unauthorized sales. In fact, in 2019 FedEx paid a civil settlement of over $35 million for their role in facilitating the importation of untaxed cigarettes into the city. As a prohibited item, like liquor during prohibition, the profit on the black market for cheaper untaxed cigarettes has attracted organized crime.
Blows list of barely lawbreakers included the more recent case of Daunte Wright in Minnesota. Wright’s case was notable due to a fatal shot mistakenly fired by an officer who thought she was deploying a Taser. The lethal moment is still under investigation, but the reasonableness of the initial contact should not be minimized. The probable cause for contacting Wright was an expired license plate. While minor, enforcement proper registration is well established as a legitimate law enforcement responsibility. In addition, license irregularities are associated with stolen vehicles and other criminal activity.
Wright’s mother reported that Wright called her during the stop and said he was stopped for having an air freshener. Obstructed vision from items on the windshield or dangling from the rearview mirror is sometimes used as a reason for a traffic stop, but only Wright’s mother made this claim which, even if true, would have been a legal contact. The stop was good and the warrant was quickly confirmed. Wright was accused of what Blow would apparently describe as another infraction. Two female victims reported that Wright and another man blocked their way. Wright then allegedly pulled a black handgun “with silver trim out from either his right waistband or his right coat pocket,” pointed it at the woman, and demanded $820 which he knew the women had according to court documents. When the victim asked if he was serious, he allegedly told her, “I’m not playing around.” Wright then allegedly choked the woman while trying to pull the cash out from under her bra, where she had tucked it away.
It takes some digging to find out about the facts in those court documents. The false reports that the stop was based on an air freshener, or that Wright didn’t know he had a warrant (even though everyone knows if you’re charged with robbery and don’t show up to court, there will be a warrant), and the arrest based solely on the license plate violation are all visible. Some articles will refer to a warrant. Most will not use the words robbery, gun, and choke as part of Wright’s criminality.
Discussions about what we want our armed government agents to do are appropriate. Maybe we shouldn’t send them after tax dodgers or expired plates. But we do, and that’s not the fault of the police. When offenders resist, the underlying offense alleged becomes irrelevant. Blow ends his column with the words “rage is the only language I have left”. Apparently, that leaves little room for the language of truth.