People defending the way two white Galveston police officers handled the recent arrest of a homeless, mentally ill black man have at least one point. The officers weren’t necessarily motivated by some deep racial animus.
Several things could reasonably explain why they chose to tether Donald Neely and lead him behind two horses along a downtown street.
After talking to public officials, mostly off the record because they are bracing for investigations and civil action, we doubt the officers were motivated by racial animosity. We don’t believe they tethered and led Neely mostly because Neely is black and they are white.
We believe they arrested Neely because they had been instructed to, and led him behind horses because they had been trained to do that and then they walked off a political cliff they never saw.
It’s a narrow point, perhaps, but valid and important. And it raises a question about where this thing we call racism resides. Must racism be in the cause, or is finding it in the effect enough to call a thing racist?
We argue that both are important in different ways. People outraged about the way Neely was treated are absolutely justified. Black people are justified in being especially outraged about it given the long history of undeniably racist public policy and unpunished personal behavior that plagues this country still today.
The criticism coming from all quarters about this incident is the voice of the community — here, in the state, in the nation and around the world — saying clearly it expects better than this from public servants. It’s valid and the public organizations at which it is directed must heed it.
Sam Collins, who is well known for his work illuminating the history of race relations, the good and the bad, in Galveston County, made the point early on.
“If you took race out, nobody should be treated like this,” Collins said.
That is exactly what we hear in the voice of the community.
The officers’ motivation, the training, the logistical reality the officers faced that Saturday in downtown Galveston, none of those things invalidate the community reaction.
What the people are saying is that they don’t want anybody treated in degrading, dehumanizing ways by those empowered to act in their name.
Those factors, the motivation, the training, the logistical reality, are not beside the point, however, in determining what should be done in attempt to right this wrong.
There’s a real danger here in making these two officers — who appear to have somewhat haplessly stepped in the manure — pay for every wrong thing every bad cop ever did and got away with. There would be no justice in that.
People, including an attorney representing Neely’s family, demand the two be fired. Those demands are premature at best. It’s also premature and contrary to the public good to label the officers as racists. The officers deserve the same presumption of innocence, the same benefit of the doubt, the same possibility of redemption that our system is supposed to afford as a matter of course.
That’s a harder argument to make in light of the news today about a comment one of the officers made during Neely’s arrest, but we stand by it.
If we the people can’t find that higher path, refrain from rushing to judgment and scapegoating, we can’t expect the people and institutions acting in our name to do any better.
• Michael A. Smith