The Blood is at the Doorstep

The Blood is at the Doorstep is a documentary about the 2014 Milwaukee police killing of black civilian Dontre Hamilton.

Hamilton suffered from mental illness, including some degree of schizophrenia, but my impression from the film is that he was more quirky and mildly off than full-blown, scary crazy. The day of his killing, he was lying around in a small urban public park—not typical behavior for this area or this particular park I take it, maybe against some park rule, I don’t know, maybe creating an impression to some of being homeless and thereby making them uncomfortable, but in any case nothing all that objectionable that would constitute a legitimate threat to anyone—and an employee at the Starbucks alongside the park called the cops to report him. The cops came out, spoke to him briefly, apparently saw no cause for concern, maybe told him not to lie down on the ground—I don’t remember—and left. The employee called again a little while later to report that he was still loitering in the park (why this bothered her to this degree is unclear). This time Officer Christopher Manney was the one to come out and investigate. He and Hamilton had an exchange and got into a scuffle, with Hamilton grabbing Manney’s baton according to some accounts, and Manney shot him 14 times.

In the film we hear the recording of Manney radioing in to report what has happened and to get assistance. He sounds like a frantic, panicky young person who responded very shakily to a pressure situation, more than a cold-blooded, racist killer who acted out of malice.

The Blood is at the Doorstep is a solid, well-done documentary. Yet it didn’t draw me in as much as it probably should have, I suspect for multiple reasons.

For one thing, I saw and wrote about the short documentary St. Louis Superman on the Michael Brown killing just recently, protests against police killings like this have been huge in the news lately as I write this, and in general I feel like I’ve thought about this issue of police killings of black people quite a bit lately to where I wasn’t all that keen to jump back into it and try to come up with more to say. (Of course I’m not in any way saying that I wish people would stop talking about this or stop making films about this because it’s a stale issue for me. The only sense in which I’d prefer people stop talking about it is if they do so because it stops happening.)

I also just often am not in tune with typical documentary methodology. So, in this case, for instance, reading a little about the film in advance and thus being familiar with its subject matter, and then seeing the first few minutes of it, I was preferentially primed for a kind of objective, investigatory approach. I mean, I want to know the truth. I want to know, relative to all the relevant, available evidence, what most likely happened exactly? What caused or influenced what happened? What then ensued from what happened? What are the most justified moral and political positions to take on what happened?

That’s where my mind goes. That’s the kind of thing I want to be informed about.

It’s kind of like if I were some sort of judge or in charge of some sort of government commission, and I sent my team of researchers into the field to investigate this case fully, and I asked them not just to submit a written report of their findings, but to report in video form so it could also include audio and visual material. That’s what would most fit my interest in this kind of subject matter.

But documentaries virtually never work like that. If they address questions like that at all, it’s more in the nature of an advocacy thing, where they’re making the best case they can for one side. More often, though, it’s just kind of a scattershot, impressionistic work structured more for its emotional impact than as a cogent, rational argument.

With documentaries, I often have to kind of consciously step back and remind myself that because it’s a documentary it’s highly unlikely to approach things my way, and I should try to appreciate it for what it is and take what value I still can from it.

So I don’t come away from a film like this with a highly confident opinion of exactly what happened, who was in the right, who was in the wrong, to what degree, etc. I mean, I have a little more evidence than I started with to speculate about that kind of thing, but the film is only of modest assistance for that purpose.

Instead I can just think back on a few striking scenes or quotes—trees rather than the forest—discrete elements that maybe reached me emotionally, gave me some insight into something, surprised me, whatever.

One of the more intriguing characters is the police chief. At first he seems clearly to be one of the “bad guys.” While the mayor takes a more liberal position on the shooting, the police chief seeks to control the narrative with the usual “blame the victim” blather that we always see in these cases. You know, a black person gets shot by a cop, the community is up in arms about it, and the local officials, conservative pundits, etc. go into “Hey, hey, he was no choir boy!” mode and dredge up every instance, real or rumored, of the dead person’s having served time, been arrested, used drugs, had some association with a gang, expressed criticizable opinions on social media, committed an act of violence, cursed in front of his grandmother, or whatever. Which is all either not relevant at all or only modestly relevant to what happened in the incident in question and whether it was justified to shoot him. (Not that the other side doesn’t do it too, painting all such victims as being as pure as the driven snow. It’s bullshit framing either way.)

The police chief succeeds in seemingly getting Officer Manney off with a slap on the wrist—no murder or other criminal charges, just suspend him from the force with no further punishment to get rid of him, and move on quickly and get this thing behind us and forgotten.

But then when we get more context it turns out the police chief is trying to maintain a delicate balance somewhere in the center on this issue. While the activists on the left and in the black community are obviously unhappy with him from one side, local conservatives and most importantly the rank-and-file cops serving under him are aghast at what they see as his mistreatment of Manney.

Manney fights to be reinstated to the force. Actually he doesn’t even want to be a cop anymore—he has been traumatized by what happened and intends to leave the force for the medical reason that he is emotionally no longer capable of doing the job regardless—but the difference is that if he is formally reinstated and allowed to leave on his own terms then he will still get his pension and whatever other benefits he stands to lose by being kicked off the force.

The police officers’ union, appallingly, votes 97% to 3% to support Manney in his struggle against this alleged injustice. I say appallingly not because I think there’s zero doubt that Manney acted in a blameworthy fashion. Certainly I lean toward the view, based on the limited evidence provided here, that he was unjustified in what he did and that he’s getting off very, very easy just by losing his job and not going to prison. But I’m not saying it’s impossible that a reasonable person could disagree, could assess all the evidence and side with Manney. What’s not possible, I don’t think, is that 97% of reasonable people could come to that conclusion.

What that 97% to 3% vote tells me is that the cops were not acting as reasonable, objective folks assessing the evidence and seeking the most justified conclusion. Instead they took the approach of, “My brother officer (or my union brother), right or wrong!”

I don’t believe in that kind of loyalty, of choosing who to favor in a dispute based on whether they’re on your team or an opposing team. Never have. I feel zero obligation to agree with someone because we’re both Americans, we’re related, we’re both Marines, we both go to Florida State, we’re fellow convicts, we’re both white, or any of that. The truth is still the truth. Group loyalty shouldn’t trump that.

So I don’t respect that they’re manifesting solidarity and standing by their brother.

Now, it’s different if they’re being supportive of a fellow union member by making sure he has competent legal counsel and receives a fair process, or if they’re visiting him and staying in touch with him if he is incarcerated, or they’re collecting donations for his family if he is unable to support them, etc. Being loyal to him and being supportive in that sense is great. But insisting that he’s innocent and becoming enraged because he might suffer consequences for what he did—not based on the merits of the case but based on his being your fellow cop—that’s baloney. I’m almost always pro-union, but not here.

So the chief is under fire from activists for going easy on Manney, and at the same time the officers serving under him hate him for being a traitor.

Manney, incidentally, loses his appeal and the suspension stands. This is presented as a victory from the standpoint of the activists. Certainly they would like more given that he killed somebody in dubious circumstances, but at least he got booted from the police force.

But it’s really not such a victory. Because, evidently in order to placate the other side, they subsequently issued some kind of ruling that he would get the benefits he was seeking without being reinstated anyway. And really that’s all he wanted; like I say, he wasn’t expecting or intending to go back to work as a cop.

Maybe you could say there was still some symbolic victory in his not being reinstated, but that’s pretty thin gruel.

At least that’s how I think it went down, if I’m understanding those scenes in the documentary correctly. I’m not sure, though, since they still present it in the end as the activists prevailing, when to me it seems more like a 98% defeat.

I appreciated the time spent with Hamilton’s family, especially his mother and brother, how they speak of the emotions of losing a loved one, their painful recounting of how the cops didn’t bother to inform them of Hamilton’s death at their hands for over nine hours (because, “We thought you would have seen it on TV”), the story of how they gradually became leaders of the local protest movement that arose in response to the killing.

I don’t know that I would say they were radicalized, though, as they retained a gentleness about it, a discomfort with rage and violence, a willingness to negotiate and listen. There’s a scene at a public meeting where an assertive activist from out of town seeks to get the attendees riled up and pushes for more confrontational, direct action, and the family pushes back against this. There’s a tense moment, but I think both sides have an awareness that they really shouldn’t be seen as turning on each other right now, so it doesn’t escalate.

I don’t know that the out-of-towner guy is necessarily some manipulative showboater looking to exploit a tragedy to further his own power or ideology. That’s one way to read him certainly. But maybe a fuller picture of him would show him to be a well-motivated person seeking justice, not wanting to get people to respond forcefully to this incident to “exploit” it, but because the cause is righteous and protest is justified. I don’t know. But the family lets him know that, yeah, we’re gonna need you to cool it a bit, that’s not really the direction we’re looking to take this in.

I’m sure there’s more worth mentioning, but like I say I wasn’t as engaged in this film as it probably deserves on its merits. I’d recommend it though.

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