Scandal 4×14, “The Lawn Chair” is not something I can do my usual recap and review piece on. Writing about Washington D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) sleeping with the President, having a father running a secret CIA-like operation on American soil, and being kidnapped to force the President to start a war in Angola, has nothing to do with my life – or the lives of 99.9 percent of the general population. Although there were pieces of other storylines going on, this episode has one giant thruline: the Ferguson-like case that Olivia finds herself dealing with. It’s this story that the episode gets its title, and it’s this story that hits me close to home.
In 2014 the names of Michael Brown and James Gardner became synonymous with racism in our police forces. Their deaths at hands of police officers sparked protests, riots, articles and the social media trends of ‘Black Lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.” With the issue of black men being killed by white officers so high in the U.S. consciousness, it’s impossible to not have thoughts and feelings about it.
However, the situation in the U.S. between the various police forces and the African-American community, especially between the police and African-American men has never been one of ease. This quote is from FBI director James Comey, who gave a speech on the issue of policing and African Americans
“All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty,” he said. “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.” (www.nytimes.com)
As a black woman in the U.S. it was good to hear Comey acknowledge the things that are common knowledge to African-Americans – not just the issues of the past, but how those issues and biases affect things that go on today.
However these facts aren’t what makes covering “The Lawn Chair” so personal for me. I was already angry and upset about the underlying, at at times blatant, racism that runs through the narratives of too many shooting and killings of African-Americans by those who are sworn to protect and serve. While most officers in general do their best, the systemic biases in law enforcement and in our country have ended up in too many dead in at best questionable circumstances. This fictional story of yet another deadly shooting and all that occurs with the police system wasn’t eye-opening so much as giving voice to thoughts I and many others have witnessed playing out in the news, and at times our neighborhoods.
What made “The Lawn Chair” intense and hard to watch was the journey Olivia takes in the episode. Writer and show creator Shonda Rhimes writes Olivia’s reality in a way that is painfully recognizable. No, Olivia’s never been to that neighborhood before, but she knows of it. While she feels sad about the dead young man, Brandon Parker, (Washington plays that moment beautifully) she knows what her job is: to “handle the optics” and prevent a riot.
Chief Conners (Chris Mulkey) is quite worried about there being a riot.
Chief Conners: “I run a clean force. The last thing I want is a riot that sets my city on fire.”
Maybe that should have been Olivia’s first clue that something is wrong. Call it a freudian slip, but Conners doesn’t think of the city as belonging to the African-American community that he polices. Apparently, he doesn’t think of Olivia as belonging either – even though she’s whom he called to deal with “the optics. Even though he knows she’s the best, she’s also part of the optical solution. He assumes that her color will make the job easier to handle this problem in “his” city. It’s not “the” city, or “our” city – it’s his city.
Now, no one wants a riot – but there wasn’t a riot happening. There were people gathered around looking at the body, much in the same way people stop and look at a traffic accident. They stop and look at the cars, then discuss whose fault it must have been, based on where the cars are. This is why Olivia wants the body moved. With no body, there’d be nothing to look at, and hopefully the crowd would disperse. It’s a logical choice, but it’s also one that assumes nothing is wrong. It assumes the shooting is legitimate. At a crime scene nothing is moved until everything is photographed and checked for evidence.
When Brandon Parker’s father Clarence (the amazing Courtney B. Vance) shows up and fires a shotgun in the air, my first thought is that he’s lucky an officer didn’t drop him right there. That may have been the hardest part to go with. How did he get into the middle of the circle around the body with that shotgun. The place is crawling with cops? Still, it’s TV, and I’m willing to go with it.
Olivia gets that the man’s in a lot of pain and probably isn’t thinking straight. He doesn’t deserve to be shot. Yet, having grieving angry man – black or white – standing in the middle of a crowd with a loaded shotgun just adds to the powder keg that could go off at any moment. If the police shoot him or he shoots someone, it’s all going to blow up. She’s his only chance to get out of there alive.
The first thing Olivia does is remind Chief Conners of the cell phones recording everything. She creates the specter of what could happen if not one, but two African-American men are killed by cops at this scene. It will make things look worse than they already are. When it looks like Conners isn’t sure what he’s going to, she walks out towards the father and starts talking. With Olivia out there, Conners has his men stand down. The last thing he wants to do is get Olivia Pope shot. This is really where the difficult part of things for Olivia starts and where her realizations begin.
What is it like to be the one black person in the area confident enough in her status to know the police won’t shoot at her? We all know Olivia is one of the most powerful people in Washington, and she’s counting on her status to protect her from the police. At the same time, she’s counting on her color to keep the father from shooting her. She’s right on both counts. The scene shows Olivia as a double agent, but also that she knows the score. There would be no real negotiations with Clarence Parker if she didn’t start them. Shots would be fired, most likely by the police taking him down.
Clarence: One of them murdered murdered my son. How do you think cops that murdered my son are gonna handle the crime scene?
Olivia’s confidence in her status is such that she promises Clarence that she can get US attorney general David Rosen (Joshua Malina) to come down and oversee the case. Clarence’s response is classic.
“Who are you?”
I don’t blame him. Who in general has that kind of clout, never mind someone black. The thing is, while Olivia’s situation is extreme, I know there are African-American’s who have never been poor, who’ve lived in affluent mostly white areas, have gone to great universities, and gotten into great careers . They have parents who gave them every opportunity they could: swimming lessons, trips to Europe, private schools. That place where race and class intersect – we don’t talk about it much beyond discussions about Ebonics and who wears saggy pants.
The thing that isn’t talked about – feeling like you’re living life as a double agent – gets seen in this episode. The optics may look good, but it’s a lonely place. David doesn’t see the importance of what Olivia is talking about. Brandon Parker is not a senator, or governor, or like any of the number of cases he’s stepped in on that she shouldn’t have called him for. Has Olivia ever called him for something that was minor? No. I’m not saying David should have dropped everything and run right over, but his singular dismissal of her saying this was important stung me almost as much as it did her.
Then there’s the way that the activist, Marcus Walker (Cornelius Smith, Jr) doesn’t trust Olivia. How could she want justice if she was working with the police? How much could she really care if she’s never spent time in that neighborhood? The mistrust is fair enough. They live in two different worlds. The mistake is thinking that Olivia’s world makes her oblivious to the injustices leveled upon his, and it assumes that being in powerful circles and having lots of money means she never faces issues of discrimination or racism.
As things progress the answer to how Olivia could care is simple. How could she, seeing what she’s seeing, not care? There comes a point when she can’t be diplomatic, where she has to take a stand. Yes, part of Olivia crossing over to the other side of the police tape and joining in with the chanters is knowing the police are less likely to shoot into the crowd if she’s standing on the other side of that police tape. More importantly, she knows that the right side of the issue she’s witnessing, is on that other side.
In this fictional case, the right side of things becomes very clear cut, but we know in reality that the way this case ends isn’t usually what happens.
Having proof that a cop planted evidence, disregarded protocol, and let go of suspects to facilitate a cover-up, makes a case like this easy. Officer Newton ranting about the racism that runs through his heart, is icing on the case. His rant displays some of the valid frustrations – and invalid premises – that are part of today’s law enforcement system.
The issue of cops not living in the neighborhoods they work in has long been seen as a problematic situation in urban areas. It adds to the “us vs. them” mentality and make it easier to dehumanize the people in those poor and working class black and latino urban areas where the officers work.
In a similar vein, Newton describes the people from Brandon’s neighborhood as “takers,” and implies all that the have has been given to them by people like him (as in white). He’s hitting all the racially charged buzzwords were being used by presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and other republicans in during the 201 2 presidential election: coded talk about welfare and African Americans (www.thewire.com).
Most of all, Newton brings up the issue of respect and how one should act with a police officer. When he mentions Black on black crime and the risks police officers take every day, those issues ring true, but that doesn’t excuse racial profiling. He goes on and on about the people he polices having no respect for police authority, and seeing the police as the enemy. He sounds more like an overseer than what you’d expect from a modern day police officer, and with that kind of assumption in a person’s head it’s no wonder that a simple move to get a receipt is misinterpreted.
We’ve seen in reality that being more polite is no guarantee of safety. The nation was in shock when the video of an officer shooting a man at a gas station. (www.youtube.com). The victim was polite and compliant. His move to retrieve his license from the car is interpreted as him reaching for a gun. The officer is still shouting at him to get on the ground after shooting him when the victim is already down. Like in “The Lawn Case” evidence of wrong actions on the part of the officer in the gas station were clear. Similarly, the officer in question was also shown to have issues, removed from duty, and criminal charges were filed.
One could argue that these things are the acts of the individual officers. There is truth in that, but it doesn’t change the truth of there being a systemic problem. Even studies conducted by law enforcement note that an officer – black or white – is more likely to shoot a black male suspect because of bias (www.policechiefmagazine.org)
With a conscious or subconscious racial bias built into an officer’s mind, manners don’t change outcomes – which is why why the idea that if one were only more polite these shootings wouldn’t happen is ludicrous. On the flip side, when the mayor of New York City spoke of teaching his biracial son on the proper way to interact with the police if he were stopped, he was slammed by many NYPD officers and officials for saying that he does so. (www.nydailynews.com). So, people aren’t respectful enough to the police is said to be why situations escalate, but if you say that you are teaching your black son to be respectful and to avoid any movement that could be mistaken as combative then you’re still not doing it right?
Getting back to our Scandal episode, I don’t believe Olivia ever didn’t know the right side of things. It’s more that she thought that staying neutral would make it something she could fix. When she realizes that it’s not a one person problem and that she alone can’t fix it, there’s no point in neutrality anymore. There really isn’t.