On 1 March of this year, Charly Keunang was killed by police officers in Los Angeles. He was unarmed and black — as if that cliche even has to be mentioned. But there is an issue that stands apart from the fact of unjustified police violence. As Janine Jackson reported recently, To LA Times, Meth in Skid Row Victim’s Blood More Important Than Gun in His Flesh. This refers to a headline in The Los Angeles Times, “Skid Row Shooting: Autopsy Shows Man Shot Six Times, Had Meth in System.” Because, you know, that explains everything. Just so you don’t think the headline distorts the article, this is the lede, “A homeless man killed by Los Angeles police officers earlier this year on downtown’s skid row was shot six times and had methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death, according to an autopsy report.”
There were other ways to report on the autopsy. Jeff Sharlet wrote, An LA Cop Pressed His Gun Into the Chest of an Unarmed Man And Shot Him Through the Heart. He was pretty clear:
But The Los Angeles Times’ reporting is entirely typical. The truth is that journalists have close relationships with law enforcement. They are great sources of tips for reporters. How else do you think that the newspapers find out that this or that celebrity was caught in a porn theater? So it isn’t at all surprising that it works the other way too: the police know they can depend upon reporters to create stories that spin the news in their direction.
For two decades now, I’ve been writing with some exasperation that our society thinks that drug use is worse than murder. There are many facets to that. For example, there is the way that drug felons on parole are required to do drug testing but paroled murders are in general not. Inside the criminal justice system, there really is the feeling that murder is just an unfortunate thing that happens to a large extent because of bad social environments. That’s true! But the same people who are understanding about this want to treat drug users in a particularly punitive way.
I’m constantly amazed how the specter of drugs can be used to totally invalidate wrongdoing. After George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, much was made of the fact that Martin had cannabis in his system. Many liberals were surprised at the time, “What does that have to do with anything?” But that is exactly the point. The idea is to paint the victim as one of “those” people who cannot be trusted.
In the case of Charly Keunang, the emphasis is more, “Who knows what he could do while on drugs!” But the same thing can be said without the drugs, “Who knows what he could do!” The actual evidence that drugs make people violent is only strong for alcohol. A big part of that is our society’s dysfunctional attitudes towards drugs. There’s no point in testing if heroin, meth, or cannabis makes people violent. They must be because they aren’t sanctioned by the government!
Meanwhile, Charly Keunang is dead. And The Los Angeles Times is there to run with old, biased stereotypes of drugs and drug users — all in the name of protecting a group of men who, under the cover of protecting the community, murdered an unarmed man.