Language Manipulation and Police Violence

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credit: Ellis family

Another black man, Manuel Ellis, was asphyxiated by the police in Tacoma, WA. Medieval restraint methods and all – it makes me ill reading the details.

I’m increasingly aware and angry about how language is being used in these cases. The lying by the police is obviously pervasive – and ham-handed in the face of clear video evidence to the contrary. What’s more insidious though is the careful wording of the official statements that essentially deny direct responsibility for the crimes.
Here’s the mayor of Tacoma, “Manuel Ellis and too many other black lives have been lost…We can no longer allow black residents or any residents of our community to die in the hands of our police officers because of broken processes and systems.”
This is an infuriating jumble of accountability denial.
For starters, “…black lives have been lost,” sounds like an umbrella went missing. There is no perpetrator in that sentence and therefore no responsibility. It just happened. We’re familiar with this kind of passive voice skewing of the crime from rape cases: saying, “A woman was raped,” or, “She was assaulted,” instead of, “Brock Turner raped her.”
Then there’s this: “In the hands of our police officers,” as if it happened while he was in custody (notice the comforting ring to it), vs. “AT the hands of our police officers,” which would indicate that the officers were his killers.
Most notable is that last qualifying ‘because’ clause which displaces the blame onto “broken processes and systems,” rather than the officers themselves.
Blaming “processes and systems” FIRST serves to neuter what should be the primary focus, namely the indictment of the criminal actor. Addressing the much longer-term and thorny problem of “what to do about the American police state” gets top billing even though it is a separate and secondary priority in the handling of a murder case. (Any reform would also presumably be handled differently if it were based on stopping the murder of black citizens rather than some vague indictment of police misconduct.) It reminds me of focusing on “campus culture” or alcohol in the prosecution of collegiate rape instead of, oh, I don’t know, the rapist.
The mayor is not wrong that this is a systemic problem and there is ALSO an overhaul of the system that needs to happen to address it (not “more funding for training” btw because that demonstrably does not work). But there was a murder. By the police. And that is the lede.
These are conscious linguistic choices. This kind of language manipulation assists in the effort to cover up the crime. It is insidious and intentional.

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