As you've surely heard, at the start of Sunday's game in St. Louis, five members of the St. Louis Rams emerged onto the field making the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture that has become an iconic part of protests in the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing. In an era when athlete activism is thought to have been at a pretty low ebb, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and now Brown have elicited pointed responses from the sports world, an arena dominated by young black men who have every reason to see in Martin and Brown their own possible fates.
Because significant swaths of white America still believe that it is they, not young black men, who are under siege (and yes, I am aware of general crime statistics), the backlash against these sorts of gestures and protests has been strong. Leaving aside the 24/7 white grievance performance that is FOX News, anger against the five protesting Rams has come from a number of places, including the St. Louis Police Officers' Association (SLPOA). The SLPOA has asked the Rams to apologize for, as Keith Olbermann put it, the players' "exercise of free speech" and wants the NFL to punish the players for, as Olbermann again puts it, "being Americans." (The NFL says it has has no plans to do so.) Jeff Roorda, speaking on behalf of the SLPOA, dismissed the notion that players have free speech rights and intoned instead that cops have the free speech rights that count. The implication, as Roorda's fuller statement makes clear, is that cops around the country will mobilize to boycott the Rams and, perhaps, the NFL until they receive the appropriate apology.
Good luck with that. If Roorda and his ilk want to organize a boycott of the Rams and pro football because they find intolerable the suggestion that any of their actions could ever be called into question, that is their right. But there is legitimate concern about how often cops kill young black men. And research suggests quite clearly that the official data vastly understate the extent of the problem.
I've written before that the use of the term "political correctness" has become a nearly useless phrase except as an (unintentionally) ironic effort at ideological enforcement in the guise of opposition to ideologically enforced restrictions on speech. This Rams episode is a good reminder of that inverted and perverted reality. When someone makes a statement that can be construed as racist or sexist or homophobic -- that is, directed at an historically mistreated group -- the speaker and his supporters will frequently defend themselves by asserting that they are courageous opponents of political correctness. This is the kind of thing out which O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity and so forth have made a career.
Indeed, it is the critics of major American institutions with a strong authoritarian bent, including organized conservative Christianity, the military or the police who typically face real ugliness. That the Jeff Roordas of the world are engaged in a truly insidious form of PC -- trying to shut down free speech in service of ideological enforcement benefiting the powerful -- ought to be obvious. Instead, the term is never applied in such circumstances, because what's being attacked isn't an historically marginalized group but instead an institution whose prerogatives are typically viewed as above reproach. Cops have really hard jobs. That doesn't mean it's off limits ever to question the manner in which some of them fulfill their responsibilities or to raise serious concerns about the institutional racism that undeniably pervades our culture and inevitably affects how policing is carried out.
For the SLPOA to act as if a) it is a put-upon and aggrieved entity merely because five players made a gesture signaling their alarm at the frequency with which young black men die at the hands of police officers, and b) to demand that anyone who dares express such alarm be immediately shut down is an audacious act of delusion and hypocrisy.