This weekend, at a counter-protest against the Ku Klux Klan in Pelham, North Carolina, a coterie of police officers followed a peaceful march, urging silence. In response, the crowd broke into a chant that captured one flavor of the current political mood:
“Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”
That chant circled through my head as I tried to find the words to talk about a South Carolina jury’s failure to convict Michael Slager in the murder of Walter Scott this week. The facts of the case were simple. After a traffic stop, Slager, a police officer sworn to protect the public, shot Scott in the back as Scott was running away. Slager, in an attempt to obfuscate the truth, planted a taser on Scott’s dead body, and then lied in his “official account” of the incident. Slager also said that Scott stole his taser, a lie, and that Scott was shot in the midst of a scuffle, a fiction.
The reason we know that Slager lied in his official account is that a bystander recorded the incident on video. The video shows Slager murdering Scott, from behind, at a significant distance. The video also captures Slager planting a taser on Scott’s dead body to bolster the falsehood. In fabricating a story to evade accountability for murder, Slager protected himself, abdicated his duty to protect people like Walter Scott, and further compromised the reputation of an American criminal justice system whose legitimacy is on life support.
Who Do You Protect?
If Slager was sworn to protect the public, Walter Scott, by definition, lived outside of Slager’s definition of that public. That Walter Scott was Black, and Officer Slager is White, does not confuse the situation, rather, it is explanatory, as Slager’s racial mechanism for splicing the definition of “the public” is as old as our country itself. While Walter Scott’s race did not play a significant role in Slager’s trial, imagining a scenario in which Walter Scott were White strains belief. If Scott were White, none of the sequence of events is believable: the pursuit, the assassination, the complicity of the justice system in protecting the assailant, and the failure of a jury to construe one man shooting another in the back as murder.
This racially constrained definition of who belongs to “the public” is most transparent when it is exercised in violent ways.
Who Do You Serve?
Subtler ways of defining the boundaries of “the public,” however, bubble-up every time a pundit reaches for euphemistic definitions of the Donald Trump coalition. When an editorial page construes global White nationalism as an expression of “populism,” the authors draw explicit lines around who belongs to the aforementioned populace. A populism inclusive of White nationalism leaves out the members of the American public who are not White, while the version of American politics that centers the interests of the “White working class” must de-prioritize those of the non-White worker.
The legitimacy of public service, and its practitioners, depends on an inclusive definition of "the public." The Trump brand of populism is narrow enough to accommodate active practitioners of White supremacy, who want to define “the public” as inclusive of White identity and exclusive of all others. For the vast majority of American history, this cleavage was enshrined in statute; the balance of our history has relied on extralegal enforcements of said personhood. Defining the public as White is the most efficient foundation for oppression, and that is the definition of “the public” that must have been in Michael Slager’s head when he found his calm stance and shot Walter Scott in the back. While it is convenient for public servants, and the public to which they are accountable, to believe that White supremacy evaporated in the last half century, men like Michael Slager, and the juries that don’t convict him, strain that belief.
Ta-Nehisi Coates posited in Between the World and Me that, “the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.” In keeping with the historical hierarchy of American personhood, the Michael Slager jury once again confirmed that White official is more worthy of protection than the Black person. There’s not a policy change in the known universe that would have made a difference in delivering justice to Walter Scott’s family. The only thing that would have made a difference for the Scott family would have been if either Michael Slager, or every juror at his trial, considered Walter to be fully human, a member of the public. As long as there are White people with a vested interest in thinking otherwise, we should expect our culture to churn out both more Walter Scotts, and more Michael Slagers.