Police Shootings: Black and Blue (Yet Again)

Here’s a quick quiz for you to take. On average across three sources (two national polls, and a keyword research tool study of people’s most common online search terms), what are supposedly the biggest fears of your fellow Americans? Put the following list of 10 options into the correct order, ranking them from first to tenth:

  • Rejection
  • Clowns
  • Public Speaking
  • Terrorists
  • Spiders
  • Failure
  • Intimacy
  • Heights
  • Death
  • Flying

Notice anything odd about the list? I do. Among the possible top 10 choices, other people only explicitly appear twice: as terrorists and, improbably enough, as clowns! But how strong is people’s fear of being socially embarrassed? Pretty strong I’d say, considering that everything from rejection to public speaking to intimacy and maybe even (being judged a) failure make the list of possibilities; and clowns could I suppose fit there, too, assuming that what a clown found or made funny might include aspects of one’s own behavior.

Seriously, though, I think the list is crucially devoid of honesty in one key aspect because it doesn’t include people who don’t look like us (skin color) or believe in what we believe in (religion, politics, and social customs). Let’s just call this category: others. The 10 options I gave you appear in inverse order, which means that “flying” is #1 and “rejection” is #10, with “people” and “criminals” being options that might fit “others” but didn’t get strong, consistent enough results across these three particular sources to qualify for the overall, composite top 10 list.

Under “others” could be DWB, the acronym ruefully used by African-Americans to describe the dangers of Driving While Black. And what a huge risk it is. In a suburb of my city, St. Paul, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez for shooting Philando Castile. In short, what began as a seemingly routine traffic stop because a brake light was out on the car being driven by Mr. Castile quickly turned deadly.

A dashboard camera video from the police car shows the exchange that resulted in Officer Yanez firing seven shots. In less than five seconds from the moment Castile finishes telling Yanez that he’s carrying a registered firearm, the shooting has begun, after a panicked Yanez repeats: “Don’t pull it out.” There’s no doubt that Yanez is scared, even “afraid for his life” as he testified in court. On the cop car video, Yanez’s rigid, frozen stance as he fires his gun, his hoarse voice, his panicked breathing, and his traumatized screams of easily a dozen instances of “fuck” after the shooting are fully evident.

As for the facial expressions of either Yanez or Castile, however, the cop car video is captured from too far away to tell us anything. But the victim’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was livestreaming the aftermath on Facebook, and from that video what’s remarkable is both her presence of mind to be able to record her summation of what she believes actually happened as well as her degree of calm. Yes, her eyes are wide and her mouth initially distorted with fear.  But otherwise she’s remarkably unflappable, reassuring Yanez that she’ll cooperate with his requests (“I will, sir. No worries, I will”), not giving in to anger, not yet experiencing much sadness (her eyes do close momentarily when she says, “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that”), and only once showing disgust (a raised upper lip when she says, “I’ll keep my hands where they are”). It’s not until she’s handcuffed in the squad car that a whimpering cry from her causes her preschool age daughter to comfort her by saying, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”

In Milwaukee, Tulsa, Cincinnati and elsewhere, the police shootings involving DWB go on and the trials that mostly lead to acquittals do, too. I have a brother-in-law who’s now retired from being a traffic cop in Seattle. From hearing him recount his experiences, there’s no doubt that fear exists on both side, for black motorists and blue-uniformed officers. Body cam video rarely if ever reveals people’s facial expressions, but the abruptness of the shootings is unmistakably evident. Two, maybe three seconds and somebody else is suddenly blood-stained and dying or dead.

With fear, it’s a matter of fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes the motorists freeze. Other times, they engage in attempted flight (running off or trying to drive away). For the cops, flight isn’t an option because it means they’re not doing their jobs and to freeze would be a greater risk to themselves than to fight by shooting a gun they’ve been trained to use.

Fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do.

The bottom line is that fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do. The fear that leads to abrupt shootings results in quick action, but the fear itself is long-standing and deep-rooted of course. The officers are scrambling to help maintain the status quo, the law of the land. They often live in dread while pledging to serve and protect the general public. Meanwhile, for their part it’s doubtful any black motorists would be surprised to know that when black veterans returned from World War One nearly a century ago, their newly acquired marksmanship frightened many whites. The resulting race riots of 1919 earned the nickname Red Summer, given the bloody and wrenchingly unfair outcome.

Trump Is Predominantly Fearful? Fuhgeddaboudit!

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Most times, I find plenty of merit in the viewpoints expressed by David Brooks, The New York Times columnist and PBS and NPR contributor. But I found myself less on-board recently when I read his comparison of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump: If Reagan’s dominant emotional note was optimism, Trump’s is fear.  If Reagan’s optimism was expansive, Trump’s fear propels him to close in. Then after a few of Trump’s foreign policy positions get mentioned, Brooks adds:  It’s not a cowering, timid fear; it’s more a dark, resentful porcupine fear.

Like Brooks, I’ve been watching Trump closely for a while now, partly as concerned citizen, partly as a pundit for CNN and Thompson-Reuters during the bizarre 2016 presidential race. Moreover, I’m finishing up my most recent book. This one has involved facial coding numerous photographs to arrive at the emotional profiles of over 150 famous people, including Trump. So I have a comparative benchmark.  Emotion by emotion I know when Trump’s amount of emoting is at, above or below the average of my 150+-person sample. In other words, which emotions characterize Trump and which don’t stand out in the mix? To keep it simple, let’s go emotion by emotion through what’s essential to understanding Trump’s personality, starting with where I’m in the most agreement with Brooks.

Anger:  If Trump were an animal, resentful porcupine would fit the bill nicely.  Anger is about wanting control, and hitting out to ensure it happens. Trump’s provocative tweets become Exhibit A here. But compared to other 150+ famous people analyzed for my latest book, Trump’s volume of emoting devoted to anger is actually no more than average. That’s because other negative emotions define Trump’s personality even more so. What’s unique about Trump is instead that, when angry, he’s very angry. Watch the way his lower lip bulges when he fumes or starts ranting.

Happiness: Just before the Reagan/Trump comparison, Brooks writes of Trump that he seems to suffer from an angry form of anhedonia, the inability to experience happiness. Bingo. Our new president is, indeed, notably lacking in happiness. Compared to the other 150+ famous people I studied, including past presidents, Trump barely registers on the scale at all. Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” appears to be in the Donald’s case a matter entirely of “pursuit” – with little in the way of “happiness” other than pleasure apparently taken in groping women.

Fear: While Brooks qualifies his statement that fear is Trump’s dominant emotional note by saying Trump’s fear isn’t of a cowering, timid nature, I still take issue with that premise. And here’s why. For starters, Trump exhibits only a very average amount of fear compared to the other 150+ famous people I studied. Second, fear means you sense a threat, to which most people’s natural reaction is to freeze. In Trump’s case, however, he’s compulsive and hyper-active.  Sweeping executive orders and provocative tweets show Trump so opposite to cowering that the notion of him as predominantly fearful becomes a non-starter, a definite no. Or as they say in Trump’s native New York City, fuhgeddaboudit!

Trump may very well be a fear-mongerer to attract support, but he’s not a fearful guy.  You can mock Trump, but a coward he isn’t.

Trump may very well be a fear-mongerer to attract support, but he’s not a fearful guy.

One striking autobiographical detail about Trump is that, as a boy, he would accompany his dad, Fred Trump, when Fred was making the rounds to connect rent from tenants in Brooklyn and Queens. Fred’s advice to the young Donald: always stand to one side of the door, never squarely in the doorway, just in case a bullet comes whistling by. Somebody with a different temperament (perhaps Donald’s own son, Barron), might have responded to Fred’s advice by becoming fearful. But not Trump, who’s notable for showing larger than usual amounts of two other emotions instead: disgust and sadness.

Disgust: Missing from Brooks’ characterization of Trump is another key, negative emotion that brings America’s 45th president into focus. Neither anger, nor fear but, rather, disgust begins to explain Trump better. Trump is both a germaphobe averse to anything “poisonous” (like booze) and “fed up” with most everything in the world. Disgust explains Brooks’ basic misstep here: Trump’s tendency isn’t to close in (fear style); he’s pulling back (disgust style). Trump scores higher than usual for disgust in comparison to the other 150+ famous people I studied. When disgusted, people’s noses wrinkle because they metaphorically can’t stand the smell of, for example, Washington, D.C., and so they want to “drain the swamp.”

Sadness: Finally, to truly understand Trump and his lack of happiness, we need to go to its opposite. Sadness is about the absence or loss of fulfillment, and a Trump specialty way beyond the average amount the 150+ famous people show. Anger has become so common in politics that it’s a commodity. Disgust combined with sadness is unique, and emotionally the combination helps to explain Trump’s victory. Sadness equates to pain, which many despairing citizens feel but they’re fed up with, disgust style, and don’t want to tolerate anymore. Make America Great Again is a cry for hope.

Time in the White House will tell whether Trump’s brand of sadness delivers on a promise of patriotic empathy by lifting the lives of economically-challenged citizens. If so, that goal will have to share air time with what I suspect really most actively drives Trump’s outsized sadness: thin-skinned narcissism involving the disappointment that others don’t applaud you enough.