The night of April 29, 2017, a Jordan Edwards was shot by the police. He was African American. He was fifteen years old.
This could have been one of many trigger-happy cases, another hate crime to add to the pile. Instead, it will be remembered among the few where the Blue Wall of Silence was tore down – something that rarely happens.
Police officer Roy Oliver was charged with the murder of Jordan Edwards, and recently found guilty. Oliver and his partner responded to an anonymous call reporting underage drinking in Dallas, Texas. At the scene, they fired into a car full of unarmed teenagers and Edwards was killed. In their initial statement, the policemen claimed that shots were fired because the car “reversed in an aggressive manner” towards them – a claim later proven wrong by bodycam video. Then, the shooter’s partner came forward and provided a more accurate account of the facts.
Everybody knows that convicted cops are in for a rough time in jail. Fellow inmates can be particularly vindictive towards former policemen, especially if delation was involved. However: Roy Oliver is a caucasian (former) officer of the law, convicted in Texas for killing a black teenager. According to the Anti Defamation League (ADL), Texas is one of the states with the highest amount of racial hate-related incidents. It also holds the fastest-growing white supremacist prison gangs in the Union. The ADL refers:
“(…) though they are called “prison” gangs, groups like the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, Aryan Circle, European Kindred and others are just as active on the streets of America as they are behind bars, plaguing not only inmates but local communities across the whole country. (…) between 2000 and 2015, one white supremacist prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, was by itself responsible for at least 33 murders in communities across Texas.”
Oliver might or might not find the protection of white supremacists behind bars, but the destiny of his ex-partner is certain and somber. There is a reason why this particular case made such an impression on both media and the public: ‘Cops don’t tell on cops’. Ironically, the chances of becoming a social pariah are far greater for the law abiding cop than for his former partner.
The Blue Wall of Silence, or ‘blue code’ for shorts, consist of a series of unspoken rules that policemen learn the hard way. In the line of duty, having the back of a colleague might mean the difference between life and death. Trust is everything in a job where life is always at stake, and you have to rely on your partners. At the same time, police work is about doing the right thing – an oath to protect citizens. There is a necessary conflict between doing the right thing and supporting a partner who has gone astray – doing the right thing could mean losing the support of colleagues, or being labeled as a rat. It could even be a career ending move. “The vast majority of officers who would like nothing more than to get rid of these guys who are doing the bad stuff, if they open their mouths, the culture tells them that they’re gonna be the ones who pay”, says Chicago University Law professor Craig Futterman.
The blue code of silence is the main responsible for ongoing structural violence. Often called institutional violence, it refers to use of power to cause harm (ie. violation of human rights) and to enforce structural oppression. Everybody can become a victim of institutional violence, although minorities are the most frequent victims. Police brutality is systematically reinforced by this unspoken contract between law officers, an agreement of violence disguised as camaraderie.
We are currently experiencing a resurgence in race related crimes that is nothing short of worrisome, especially because those who are supposed to protect us are greatly responsible for it. But the victims have found an unlikely protector: technology. Ultimately, the resolution of the Edwards case was enabled by bodycam footage. Where the deed not caught on tape, who knows if Oliver’s partner would have had the courage (or the obligation) to come forward?
Sadly, surveillance tapes and videos recorded by the very victims’s phones provide the ultimate protection against police brutality. Throughout the past decade, social media has proven an enourmous aid to the oppressed. You may remember the heartbreaking killing of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African American who was shot point blank by a Minnesota police officer who made Castle pull over while he was driving. Castile’s 4-year-old daughter and his girlfriend were in the car too, and the latter Facebook live streamed the whole thing.
In South Carolina, a bodycam footage shows a black man running from his car after a traffic stop by a white officer. He was shot dead after the chase.
At times it acts like an example because, with technology out there, the police just have to assume that their acts are going to be recorded on videotape. How many acts of violence must have been self restrained, out of fear of national exposure? I dare say, more than a few.
Last but not least, social media establishes networks of solidarity and emphaty throughout society. It exposes the cover-up, it shows the victim’s point of view and encourages people’s participation. After watching Philando Castile bleed out…who could ever be the same?