Black Lives Matter. So Does Power. Following The Rules? Not So Much.

USA, Illinois, Metamora, Close-up of police officer holding handgun
USA, Illinois, Metamora, Close-up of police officer holding handgun

The other day, my younger son asked me if women could be sexist. Professor Mom explained that women could have stereotypes based on sex. (I figured I wouldn't hit him with the whole "social construction of gender" discussion until seventh grade.) And stereotypes are bad because they stop us from seeing people as unique individuals. However, stereotypes are not the same as sexism. Sexism involves political and economic inequities which mean that men can act on their prejudice to affect women's lives in a way that women, as a group, cannot do to men. We can make all the jokes we want about failures to read instructions or pick up dirty socks, but that does not affect men as a whole in the way that male stereotypes affect women. Sexism, in short, is less about stereotypes than about the power that men have over women. That power is not always wielded deliberately or even consciously, but it is wielded collectively, in and through every institution in our society.

The same holds true, of course, for racism. I hadn't considered writing about police shootings and the black lives matter movement because so much has been said, by smart and thoughtful people with whom I agree. In response to the counter-claim that "all lives matter," for example, I would echo those who say yes, all lives matter, but not all lives are equally at risk today. I haven't seen a good reason for me to repeat what many others have already said so well. And, of course, there are so many caveats: police lives matter too. We need stricter gun laws. We need better support for people with mental illness. And on and on. So many voices are involved in so many different conversations.

I may still simply be repeating what others have said, but I am no longer content to be a bystander. That's because of Charles Kinsey. Mr. Kinsey was trying to calm one of his patients, an autistic man who had gone into the street holding a toy truck. Someone thought the toy was a weapon and called the police. When the police arrived, Mr. Kinsey worried they would shoot the disabled man. (His fears were well-grounded, since people with cognitive disabilities are yet another group with a disproportionate risk of being shot by police.) Mr. Kinsey lay in the street on his back, holding his hands high in the air, instructing his patient to do the same. A video of the incident records Mr. Kinsey shouting, "All he has is a toy truck,. I am a behavior therapist at a group home." Mr. Kinsey recalled that at the time, "I was more worried about him than myself. As long as I've got my hands up, they're not gonna shoot me, that's what I'm thinking."

He was overly optimistic, and a police officer did shoot him. As Mr. Kinsey lay bleeding in the street, the officer approached. His victim asked why he pulled the trigger. He said, "I don't know."

Fortunately he did not kill Mr. Kinsey, but he so easily could have, still not knowing why. Regardless of what other complex motives and fears caused this particular shooting, surely one of the reasons is power. Cops have the power to shoot people. Like many other victims of police violence, Mr. Kinsey did everything he should have done. He obeyed the law, he followed instructions - and he was still shot. As the media discussed the incident, headlines like this were common: "Charles Kinsey Did Everything He Possibly Could Not to be Shot" (from Slate) and "Charles Kinsey Did Everything Right" (from the Daily Beast).

Obviously Mr. Kinsey was wrong when he thought "As long as I've got my hands up, they're not gonna shoot me." Yet this will not convince the people who keep insisting that people are only at risk if they disobey or threaten the police. Just today, my local paper printed is yet another letter claiming that the solution is for "civilians . . . to learn the laws of the land and respect the law and the police." The writer does not specify black civilians, yet surely that is what is meant.

When I was a recent college graduate, in the late 1980s, I lived with several other young white women in a rented house in Oakland, California. The neighbor kids liked to visit us, for our prolific plum tree and friendly dogs. One day a little boy, maybe seven or eight years old, repeated his mother's instructions for encounters with the police. "You just stand still and don't run," he explained. "Don't run. Hold your hands out. Say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir.'"

I think my parents told me to find a police officer if I ever got lost at an amusement park, but otherwise, I don't remember any advice or instructions regarding law enforcement. I didn't need any. I was a middle-class white girl, and it was unlikely, first, that I would have much interaction with law enforcement, or, second, that my manners or movements would have any bearing on whether or not I survived the encounter. The issue wasn't whether or not I would follow instructions. The issue was power, in this case the power of whiteness. My whiteness tips the balance in my favor, just as - surely no one can deny - Charles Kinsey's blackness tipped the balance against him.

Other times, my femaleness tips the balance against me, and here again we hear parallel arguments. If a woman doesn't go outside at night or wear a skirt that's too short, she won't get raped. If she follows the rules, the system will work for her. But it won't, because sexual violence is about male power. And just as rape is not about obeying the unwritten codes that govern "respectable" women's behavior, police violence is not about obeying the police or respecting the law. It's about power: who has it, and whose lives it can end.

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