Police Kill Black People, Get Rewarded

Rekia Boyd, Eric Harris, Natasha McKenna, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. Just some of the recent names in the scourge of black people who are killed every 28 hours by police in the U.S. And, each time police kill black people, it seems they are rewarded. The policeman who shot Michael Brown became a millionaire because of the crowdfunded support he received.  The prosecutor, Daniel Donovan, who failed to indict any of the officers who killed Eric Garner has recently been tapped by the Staten Island GOP to run for a plum senate seat.

Rekia Boyd

  • Rekia Boyd.After midnight, on March 21, 2012, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was hanging out with friends in a Chicago park. Dante Servin, an off-duty cop who lived nearby, called to report a loud party in a park near his home. He left his home to get food, armed with an unregistered semiautomatic handgun, and got into an altercation with the group of people hanging out. He fired several shots, one struck a young man in the arm, another shot struck Boyd, who was unarmed, in the head. She was taken to the hospital where she later died. On April 20, 2015 a Cook County judge acquitted Servin (who is white/Hispanic) of several homicide-related charges. It was the first time in 15 years that a police officer had been charged in Chicago for a fatal shooting.

 

Eric Harris and his brother Andre

Eric Harris (right) with his brother Andre.

 

(Image source: © Courtesy of Andre Harris/Smolen, Smolen & Roytman, PLLC via BCN)

  • Eric Harris. Harris is the 44-year-old man in Tulsa, Oklahoma who was shot and killed April 2. Video footage from the scene, captures Harris saying, “I’m losing my breath…” and an officer can be plainly heard telling him “Fuck your breath.” The 73-year-old volunteer sheriff’s deputy who shot Harris – saying he mistook his gun for his taser – is taking a vacation in the Bahamas ahead of his court date for manslaughter.

Natasha McKenna

 

  • Natasha McKenna. McKenna, 37, of Fairfax, Virginia, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.She had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment and was subsequently charged with felony assault for allegedly punching an officer in January, 2015. On February 3, 2015, McKenna was scheduled to be transferred to another location for a hearing. Then, according to published reports, this is what happened next:  McKenna initially cooperated with deputies, placed her hands through her cell door food slot and agreed to be handcuffed, the reports show. But McKenna, whose deteriorating mental state had caused Fairfax to seek help for her, then began trying to fight her way out of the cuffs, repeatedly screaming, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!” the reports show.Then, six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, dressed in white full-body biohazard suits and gas masks, arrived and placed a wildly struggling 130-pound McKenna into full restraints, their reports state. But when McKenna wouldn’t bend her knees so she could be placed into a wheeled restraint chair, a lieutenant delivered four 50,000-volt shocks from the Taser, enabling the other deputies to strap her into the chair….

The multiple, high-voltage shocks killed Natasha McKenna, who was shackled and masked and weighed all of 130-pounds. No actions have been taken against any of the six people in Virginia who were involved in her death, nor against the manufacturer of the Taser. In another case in which an officer tasered a woman to death, the officer was cleared of all charges.

Walter Scott, Coast Guard veteran

Walter Scott, Coast Guard veteran

  • Walter Scott. Walter Scott, 50-years-old, father of four children, studying massage therapy while working as a forklift operator, and a Coast Guard veteran had recently become engaged to his longtime girlfriend, when he was stopped for a broken tail light on his car.  The routine traffic stop on April 5 in No. Charleston, South Carolina turned into a deadly shooting when officer Michael Slaeger opened fire on Scott who fled the scene because of a bench warrant for failure to pay child support (see this for more on this vicious cycle of failure-to-pay and job-loss). After a citizen-video emerged of the shooting, Slaeger was fired and charged with murder. The reward here was more immediate and visceral for Slaeger, who in an audio recording describes the “adrenaline pumping” from the shooting. This is similar to the research that Scully & Marolla did with convicted rapists, asking them why they raped; for some, it was simply for the “thrill” or the adrenaline rush.
Freddie Gray

Freddie Gray

  • Freddie Gray. We don’t know much yet about Freddie Gray, except that he was 25-years-old, African American, lived in Baltimore, and now he is dead after an encounter with Baltimore PD. He died Sunday, April 19, after being taken into police custody. It’s still not clear what he was charged with or what happened after his arrest, but a picture is beginning to emerge. Again, citizen-capture cellphone video is helping to build a record of what happened at the scene. Initial video shows Gray shouting and moving his head as he was carried into a police van. Later, he had three broken vertebrae. Gray lapsed into a coma, was resuscitated, underwent extensive surgery and eventually died. Protests surrounding Gray’s death have begun in Baltimore and six officers involved in this case have been suspended, with pay. So, that’s like early retirement, I guess.

This litany of names-become-hashtags is a recitation of black bodies sacrificed at the altar of white supremacy. As Steven Thrasher points out, while it is hard for black people to breathe these days, yet for those who do the policing, they are breathing quite easily.

"I Can Breathe" T-shirts at Pro-Police Rally -  by Steven Thrasher

“I Can Breathe” T-shirts at Pro-Police Rally – by Steven Thrasher

This is what white supremacy looks like in practice: the routine, systematic killing of black people and a reward system for those who do the killing. More diversity in police forces will not fix this. More cameras-on-cops will not fix this. More black elected officials, as in Baltimore, will not fix this.

The only thing that will fix this is to work on dismantling a system of white supremacy that rewards the killing of black people with freedom from consequences, keeping your job, getting promoted to senator, million-dollar crowd-funded jackpots, paid suspensions, vacations to the Bahamas, and adrenaline rushes. As Toni Morrison observes, “the hostility, the racism — is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.”

Until we can disrupt that connection between the hostility and the reward, we will continue to recite this litany of names-become-hashtags.

No Indictment in Eric Garner Case

On July 17, 2014 Eric Garner was approached by NYPD officers on a street in Staten Island. The NYPD suspected Garner of selling untaxed cigarettes, not in packs or cartons, known as “loosies”, a violation of the law usually handled by a ticket. This interaction quickly escalated and ended with the death of Mr. Garner at the hands of NYPD officers.

GarnerProtests_Lynchings

  (Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Almost all of the interaction between the NYPD and Mr. Garner was recorded on a cell phone video camera. One officer, Daniel Pantaleon, can clearly be seen pressing down on Mr. Garner’s body while several other officers gather around his body. On the recording, you can plainly – and painfully – hear Mr. Garner yelling,“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” The person who recorded that video, Ramsey Orta, was indicted on a previous and unrelated charge.

Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. And, in August, several thousand of us from around NYC marched on Staten Island to protest this death at the hands of police.

GarnerProtest_Justice

(Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)

Yet, today, a grand jury on Staten Island decided to not to indict Pantaleon. The reporting by most mainstream news outlets here in New York is focused on the scurrilous “will there be ‘rioting’ in the wake of this decision?” angle. But make no mistake, the no-bill decision by the grand jury in New York is not a local issue. As Nick Mirzoeff argued in a post earlier today about the Mike Brown case in Ferguson:

This is a systemic failure, not a local issue in St. Louis. For the election of Barack Obama has not changed the underlying structures of what Joe Feagin and Sean Elias call “systemic racism,” which “refers to the foundational, large-scale and inescapable hierarchical system of US racial oppression devised and maintained by whites and directed at people of color” (Feagin and Ellis 2013: 936). As Angela Davis has argued, the penitentiary system was a vital pillar for the white supremacy created after the abolition of slavery (2007). Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has called her analysis of the New Jim Crow at work in today’s prison-industrial complex, a “racial caste system” which is “creating and perpetuating a racial hierarchy in the United States” (New Jim Crow: 16).

In short, white supremacy and racial hierarchy are not incidental parts of the justice system as we now have it but are constitutive of it. What Ferguson has made visible cannot be simply “fixed” by a review of the grand jury system or other tinkering. White supremacy is the system. Many (white) people are not ready to go there yet. We have to help them.

Just as the decision in Ferguson to not indict Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown is not an aberration, so too is the decision to not indict Daniel Panteleon in the death of Eric Garner. This is the system of white supremacy at work, and it works with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Justice isn’t merely indicting one officer or locking up one cop, it’s changing the whole system. Justice means dismantling the machine of white supremacy so that it no longer churns up black bodies with regularity.

Rodney King speaks with fans before pres (Rodney King)

Right now, there are many people that I respect who are calling for body cameras on police as a way forward to racial justice, but a video didn’t make a difference for Eric Garner. And, a video helped ACQUIT the officers who beat Rodney King nearly to death. So, even as President Obama goes ahead with a request for $263 million of dollars for body cameras for 50,000 police, I’m not persuaded this is a solution. While I get the desire to “do something” in the face of the ongoing injustice, body cameras seem like a techno-solution to systemic racism that needs to be addressed by other means. The fact is, the system of white supremacy keeps churning in a way that protects (white) cops and keeps damaging black bodies.

Police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extrajudicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012. A recent report by grassroots activists estimates that every 28 hours a black man is killed by police. While the report can and should be faulted for not paying enough (or, indeed any) attention to the extrajudicial killings of cisgender and transgender women of color, the report is valuable to the extent that documents killings that the federal government is not.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, hundreds of police killings are not counted in federal statistics (paywall).  The report looked at data from 105 of America’s largest police agencies and found that it is “nearly impossible to determine how many people are killed by the police each year.” They also found that the FBI numbers about police killings vary greatly from those provided by the Centers for Disease Control and by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. According to the report:

“more than 550 police killings between 2007 and 2012 weren’t included in the FBI’s national tally.  The Journal looked at internal FBI records and found that while the 105 departments had 1,825 police killings, only 1,242 were reported as “justifiable homicides” by the FBI. The Journal “identified several holes in the FBI data” — of the 105 agencies contacted, justifiable police homicides from 35 agencies weren’t in the FBI records at all. Police in Washington, D.C., for example, didn’t report police killings to the FBI from 1998 to 2008, when the city “had one of the highest rates of officer-involved killings in the country.” In 28 of the 70 agencies that did report homicide data, the FBI report was missing records of police killings. And “missing from the FBI data are killings involving federal officers.” (from Meghan DeMaria, The Week)

Instead of body cameras on police, I’m more inclined to want to see federal action to collect data on police involved killings. Yet, the research tells me that gathering statistics is not likely to change the system of white supremacy either.

As Jamelle Bouie noted in his piece about the research of Jennifer Eberhardt, we know that—among white Americans—there’s a strong cognitive connection between “blackness” and criminality. “The mere presence of a black man can trigger thoughts that he is violent and criminal,” observes Eberhardt and colleagues in a 2004 paper. Basically, the twisty-racial dynamic plays out like this: tell people that blacks are over-represented in prison, and it triggers thoughts of crime, which leads to fear, which causes people to follow their fear and embrace the status quo of unfair, overly punitive punishments, like not indicting NYPD cops for homicide.

So, what is to be done to dismantle this system of white supremacy? To paraphrase Ella Baker, until the killing of black people is as important to the whole nation as the killing of a white person, we cannot rest.

GarnerProtest_EveryMothersSon (Image by Jessie Daniels – CC – attribution, non-commercial)