It’s becoming clearer and clearer. We live in a post-reality world. Whether or not an event is actually real is secondary to the question of its utility and perceived virtuousness. In recent months we have seen a doctored video making Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden appear as word-slurring geezers and craftily edited social media videos that had some pundits literally calling for violence against an entirely innocent child (16-year-old Nicholas Sandman of Covington Catholic High School) for inflaming a racial confrontation that unedited raw video demonstrates was actually started by his opportunistic antagonist, Nathan Philips.
Three events — one over a half century old, one in New York City, and one right here in Basalt — have me wondering: Can you tell what’s real and truthful anymore?
The summer of 1963 was a hot one in Birmingham, Alabama. Civil rights protestors took to the streets seeking equal rights, paid for a century before with the blood of a half million Americans. But segregation remained the law of the land. Our nation’s inability to rise to the aspirational call of its founding declaration, that all are created equal under God, was palpably on display for the world to see — and no one questioned whether or not it was real, or true. It was both.
Black and white newsreel accounts show, among other things, white Birmingham firefighters using high-pressure fire hoses on black protestors, presumably to disperse the protesting “mob” in the interest of public safety. But the white police officers moving in to block the protestors’ retreat dispels that assumption.
To the contrary, the intention of the officers, unaccustomed to the presence of that newfangled device called television, and unaware of the persuasive power of its widely viewed images, was to do what they always got away with before: trap and punish the black protestors for their crime of peaceful assembly. The nation, at least the part north of the Mason Dixon line, was mortified by the true face of “separate but equal” and a very real movement to overcome a very real wrong moved forward.
Flash forward 56 years. Viral videos from New York City show police officers being assaulted by local citizens wielding bottles and buckets of water. In decidedly un-law enforcement fashion, one officer endures an entire bucket of water being dumped over his head from behind and another actually allows a thrown bucket to bounce off his head without so much as a physical response. The officers make no attempt to defend themselves or engage the assaulters. So, what is going on here?
Some blame it on what they call the “Panteleo effect,” a reference to a 2014 case where New York police officer Daniel Panteleo contributed to the death of a petty crime suspect while restraining him. A grand jury and the Justice Department both recently declined to bring charges against Panteleo, resulting in protests and threats against Panteleo.
Police supporters argue that the lack of support for Panteleo from New York’s police and political leaders, including the presidential candidate Mayor Bill de Blasio, has created a chilling effect. Officers feel as though efforts to protect themselves will result in retribution by their leaders.
But something in the back of my mind makes we wonder if I am seeing the whole picture through the viral videos and pundit interpretations splashed across my high-definition video screen. In a recent television interview, even Mark Fuhrman, retired L.A. detective of O.J. Simpson trial fame, faulted the assaulted officers’ lack of action to defend themselves as more deleterious to officer safety than the perpetrators themselves. To Fuhrman, a lack of political support is no excuse for inaction, which will likely lead to emboldened perpetrators and increased danger for fellow officers.
Closer to home, there was no “Panteleo effect” last week when a jury found Aichardo Mandez-Ramirez guilty of second-degree felony assault on a Basalt police officer and the misdemeanor of resisting arrest. Mandez-Ramirez used harsh language and spewed saliva in his assault (although he denies spitting on anyone). Perhaps he should have taken his show to New York, because while both harsh language and projectile saliva are unfriendly gestures, they are not in the same category as the repeated and unimpeded affronts to several of New York’s finest.
It’s a remarkable contrast. In one case officers are repeatedly doused with water by unflinching scofflaws without the slightest fear of arrest. In the other case, a bicycle-riding pedestrian is mistakenly arrested, loses his cool and is ultimately convicted of a felony for swearing and spitting on a Basalt police officer.
To Furman’s point, the NYPD officers just did not seem to behave like police officers are supposed to behave when under assault. Is it possible that unlike their Birmingham predecessors from 56 years ago, being fully aware of social media’s power to persuade through viral videos transmitted worldwide, they tacitly permitted these assaults, at least in part, in order to wage a political battle with their unsupportive leaders?
My personal instinct tells me no, absolutely not. I want to believe that their inaction in response to these assaults was a truthful consequence of a very real lack of support from their political leadership. But the ethic of objectivity drilled into me by my college professors, and my recent observations of the manipulation of social media for political ends, both tell me otherwise. If all I have to go on are viral videos combined with news media pundit spin, I simply don’t know what is real or what is truthful.
And that is one sad conclusion.