White bodies have demanded obedience, submission, and respect from black bodies since this nation was founded, even before.
Things have improved, slowly, but white supremacy is still alive, even thriving. In policing, it can show up as intimidation, excessive force, and death for Black bodies.
It is easy for those of us who are white (including this author) to “other” the police, as if we haven’t benefited from their policing and other forms oppression that have led to gross racial inequalities in our communities. We are part of that same social conditioning into white supremacy.
Black men, women and children who died in police confrontations
I have gaping holes in my understanding of the history of police violence against Black, Indigenous and other people of color. As part of my own education, I started reading more news accounts. Some I knew, some I didn’t. What follows is only a partial list.
This post is targeted to a white audience. I’m sharing this brief chronology for those who are in my position and trying to learn.
- Tamir Rice, 12, was playing with a toy pistol in a Cleveland park. Responding to a citizen call, police drove to the scene, yelled at Rice “Show me your hands!” and shot and killed him before the squad car had come to a complete stop.
- John Crawford III was shot and killed by police in an Ohio Walmart because he picked up a BB gun — one sold at the store — and carried it around with him. Police responded to a call from the store of a man with a gun. They shot Crawford while he was talking on a cell phone. Crawford got little if any warning.
- Eric Garner died following an altercation with police who confronted him alleging he was selling individual cigarettes from packs without tax stamps.
- Michelle Cusseaux was killed by Phoenix police responding to a mental health wellness check. “She answered the door while holding a hammer in one hand; police shot her through the heart,” USA Today reported. Her death “was the catalyst for the #SayHerName campaign.”
- Walter Scott got pulled over in South Carolina for a non functioning third brake light. Scott, who had been drinking and using drugs, fled on foot. Officer Michael Slagel pursued, and eventually shot Scott five times in the back.
- Sandra Bland got pulled over by a State Trooper in Encinia, Texas for failing to signal a lane change. The situation quickly escalated. He ordered her out of the car. Threatened with a Taser, she complied. Bland was arrested. After three days in jail she was found hung in her cell. Officials ruled it a suicide. Bland’s family continues to dispute that finding.
- Tony Timpa, who suffered from schizophrenia, was killed by Dallas police after he called in his own mental health crisis.
- Philando Castille got pulled over on a traffic stop in a Twin Cities suburb. An officer thought he and another passenger looked like burglary suspects. Castille notified the officer that he had a licensed gun. The officer told him not to reach for it, Castille said he wasn’t and reached for his drivers license. The officer shot and killed him.
In 2018: Stephon Clark was shot dead in his grandmother’s back yard by Sacramento police officers canvassing the area for someone breaking windows. A helicopter operator saw someone breaking windows and radioed his position. Police responded and told Clark several times to show his hands. They believed he had a gun, and fired 20 rounds. Clark had a cell phone, not a gun.
- Javier Ambler II got pulled over by county sheriff’s deputies in Texas because “he failed to dim the headlights of his SUV to oncoming traffic,” USA Today said. “Twenty-eight minutes later, the black father of two sons lay dying on a north Austin street after deputies held him down and used Tasers on him four times …”
- Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed in her own home by Fort Worth police. Jefferson’s neighbor made a non-emergency call to police saying Jefferson’s front door was open. Officers arrived and walked the home’s perimeter. One officer saw Jefferson in a window, yelled “show me your hands,” and within seconds shot and killed her.
- Elijah McClain was killed in Aurora, CO following a confrontation with police while he was walking home from the store, doing nothing wrong.
- Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville, KY police who were executing a search warrant, seeking evidence of drug sales by Taylor’s ex-boyfriend. Police executed the search after midnight, breaking down Taylor’s door with a battering ram. There’s a dispute about whether the police announced themselves or not. Believing it was intruders, Taylor’s new boyfriend got his gun and fired. The officers’ return fire, 32 rounds, killing Taylor.
- George Floyd was confronted by Minneapolis police for using a fake $20 to buy cigarettes. (We don’t know if he knew it was counterfeit.) He complied with officers during the arrest, but resisted getting in the squad car, saying he was claustrophobic. He died in police custody. While subdued, handcuffed, and lying on his stomach, police continued to pin him down, effectively suffocating him.
- Daunte Wright got pulled over in a Twin Cities suburb for expired tabs (and an air freshener hanging on the rear view mirror.) The officer found out he had outstanding warrants. Police were handcuffing him next to his car. He got free and got back inside the car. An officer announced she would Tase him, but, by her account, she drew her service weapon by mistake and shot and killed him.
Police violence: Symptom of a larger problem
Holding individual law enforcement officers accountable for acts of excessive force is necessary, but insufficient to address the problem. Without a major systems shake up, the cycle above will keep repeating itself.
The problem needs to be understood not as individual acts by police, but the predictable outcome of a white supremacy culture.
One example is the “Blue Wall of Silence,” where officers don’t criticize each other’s actions, even when they cross the line. It tacitly condones violence and fosters a lack of accountability. (The Chauvin trial is a notable exception. Even the Minneapolis Police Chief testified against Chauvin. It remains to be seen if that’s a momentary blip or a trend.)
Police reforms have been tried and failed. The Brennan Center, a nonprofit that stands for equal justice and the rule of law, writes that police implicit bias training has been ineffective because of the problem is overt racism:
Explicit racism in law enforcement takes many forms, from membership or affiliation with violent white supremacist or far-right militant groups, to engaging in racially discriminatory behavior toward the public or law enforcement colleagues, to making racist remarks and sharing them on social media. While it is widely acknowledged that racist officers subsist within police departments around the country, federal, state, and local governments are doing far too little to proactively identify them, report their behavior to prosecutors who might unwittingly rely on their testimony in criminal cases, or protect the diverse communities they are sworn to serve.Brennan Center
The law enforcement system has worked to keep the worst excesses of white supremacy policing from the public.
Body cams and bystander videos are changing that, as was the case in George Floyd’s murder.
For example, in 2015 Officer Slagel lied about the facts surrounding how he shot and killed Scott. In Slagel’s report, he said he and Scott scuffled and he feared for his life because Scott grabbed his Taser. So he shot.
A bystander video showed Scott 15 to 20 feet away from Slagel, and fleeing in the opposite direction when he got shot in the back. Slagel is now serving a 20-year sentence.
That’s that exception. Police typically aren’t charged with crimes.
In Crawford’s killing (for carrying a BB gun sold by Walmart in a Walmart) police tried to create a narrative to protect themselves. They pressured his girlfriend, threatening jail time, to testify that Crawford brought the BB gun into the store.
Blandin’s family is still trying to find out how she died in jail. It says officials withheld evidence.
A grand jury indicted a Texas County Sheriff for evidence tampering in Ambler’s death. Sheriff’s deputies chased Ambler (for having his high beams on) while participating in a reality TV show called “Live PD.” The Sheriff was indicted for allegedly destroying show video of the incident.
One in five medical examiners “reported being pressured by a politician or the police to change cause-of-death determinations” in police-involved killings, Mother Jones reported last year. It interviewed Justin Feldman, a Harvard researcher who investigates police violence and medical examiners.
Coroners also make lots of mistakes—in more than half of cases Feldman studied, they didn’t classify police killings as police killings. And certain medical researchers, along with the company Axon, which produces Tasers, have collectively made it easier for investigators to blame deaths on drugs instead of police force.Mother Jones
Black bodies are policed differently by white cops and other white bodies.
Members of the public call the police when they see a Black body doing something they find suspicious, and set in motion some tragic events. For instance, a man called police to the Walmart because he saw Crawford carrying a BB gun and thought it was a real gun. Police arrive on the scene with their adrenaline going.
Black bodies are racially profiled and over policed. (Police had pulled over Castille 52 times for minor traffic violations before the incident where he was shot. He received 86 citations; more than half of them were dismissed.) Many Black bodies know the experience of being stopped by police for little or no reason, or have friends and relatives who have had those experiences.
As for police, their job can be stressful and dangerous. They train for, and try to anticipate, the unexpected.
So police interactions with Black bodies are strained from the start.
Are white police more suspicious of Black bodies? Do white police feel more threatened by Black bodies? Are police more prone to anger if they perceive a Black body is showing disrespect?
I believe the answer is “yes,” and it applies to white supremacy culture generally not just police. It’s just with police, those judgments have more life-threatening consequences.
Here are a few examples that tell particularly striking stories of how police have had extreme and violent responses to Black bodies.
Eric Garner tried to walk away from police officers who claimed he was illegally selling individual cigarettes. He denied the charge and said he was tired of being harassed.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, approached Garner from behind, with the intention of handcuffing him. Garner pulled away, saying: “Don’t touch me, please.”
“Pantaleo then placed his arm around Garner’s neck and wrestled him to the ground. With multiple officers pinning him down, Garner repeated the words “I can’t breathe” 11 times while lying face down on the sidewalk. After Garner lost consciousness, he remained lying on the sidewalk for seven minutes while the officers waited for an ambulance to arrive. Garner was pronounced dead at an area hospital approximately one hour later.Wikipedia
Why so much anger against a man who at worst was selling individual cigarettes? Was it simply because the police felt disrespected by a Black body that was trying to walk away?
Timpa, who initially told police he was in a mental health crisis, ended up with Dallas police pinning his shoulders, knees and neck to the ground. He pleaded for help.
After Timpa fell unconscious, the officers who had him in handcuffs assumed he was asleep and didn’t confirm that he was breathing or feel for a pulse.
As precious minutes passed, the officers laughed and joked about waking Timpa up for school and making him waffles for breakfast.Dallas Morning News
Ambler, the man who failed to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic, ended up getting Tased repeatedly. He pleaded for mercy. He told deputies he had heart problems and couldn’t breathe, USA Today reported. “He cried, ‘Save me,’ before deputies deployed a final shock.”
The fact that the deputies knew they were being filmed as part of a reality TV show and continued to shock Ambler is chilling.
Floyd ended up face down on the sidewalk, hands cuffed behind his back, with Minneapolis police officers on his back, crushing him. At least one officer stayed on top of him for several minutes even knowing told Floyd had no pulse.
McClain was a musician, massage therapist, and also autistic. Someone called the police because of his ski mask. (McClain had anemia and wore the mask to keep warm.) The caller said there was nothing suspicious.
Police drove up to McClain as he was walking home and started with “Stop. Stop right there.” McClain’s only apparent crime was that he didn’t stop right there when told to do so. He kept walking.
The officer said “I have a right to stop you because you are acting suspicious,” when in fact McClain had done nothing suspicious.
McClain told the officers he was an introvert and asked them to respect his boundaries. Nine seconds after exiting his squad, one officer initiated physical contact, according to a video posted by NBC that narrates the scene. By all appearances, the officers escalate the confrontation, which resulted in 700 pounds of police taking down the 140-pound McClain. Police applied a choke hold.
“I can’t breath. Please stop,” McClain said. “I’m different.”
McClain was clearly scared and near tears. One officer tells him in a threatening tone: “You keep messing around and I am going to bring my dog out and he’s going to dog bite you. Do you understand?”
Where did the anger come from? McClain had done nothing wrong.
McClain would later die from a heart attack after paramedics gave him too large a dose of ketamine to sedate him. The police suggested the ketamine, suggesting McClain had “manic delirium.”
A later investigation would show police had no cause to stop McClain, let along confront him.
Last summer, three Aurora police officers were fired for taking pictures near the McClain Memorial, smiling and mocking his death, the New York Times reported.
Caron Nazario had a frightening exchange with police earlier this year, one which the U.S. Army Officer survived. But it’s a powerful and transparent example of white police rage. Even though Nazario did all the right things, he still could have died.
Officers from the Windsor, Va. police department saw Nazario’s SUV didn’t have a rear license plate. They put on their lights to pull him over.
Nazario’s crime appears to be similar to McClain’s; he didn’t stop immediately when told to do so.
Nazario, who is black and Latino, didn’t want to stop on an unlit road. He signaled his intent to stop soon. He put on his flashers, drove below the speed limit, and continued driving for less than two minutes to get to a gas station.
Nazario had a temporary license taped to his back window, making him legal.
The police apparently were too angry at Nazario to notice. They emerged from their squad, weapons drawn, yelling at him to “Get out of the car!”
Nazario asks why he was stopped but gets no answer. He tells officers he was afraid to get out of his car.
“You should be,” one officer responded (clearly not the recommended response from deescalation training).
A particularly telling moment was when one officer angrily shouted at Nazario: “You received an order. Obey it!”
What the officer seemed to want more than anything was obedience.
At most, Nazario would have received a traffic ticket, and in this case not even that. Nothing that happened would suggest that Nazario was a threat. He had his hands outside the window.
Nazario was the only who kept his emotions in check.
Turns out Eric Garner was an uncle figure to Nazario, and Nazario watched him die at the hands of police in 2014.
What could systems change look like? It could include a new ways to respond to mental health crises, one that doesn’t involved an officer with a gun being the first contact with the person in crisis.
It could include creating dedicated traffic enforcement agency with unarmed staff whose sole mission is road safety, an idea recommended in a recent Washington Post Op/Ed. Citing University of Arkansas law professor Jordan Blair Woods, they said such a system “could enforce routine traffic laws with less violence and damage to communities of color.”
NPR reported this year that since 2015, police had “fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide … More than a quarter of the killings occurred during traffic stops.”
More on these topics in later posts.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately characterized George Floyd’s arrest. He complied with officers initially, then resisted getting in the squad car, saying he was claustrophobic.