Police Killing People of Color

In his bestselling book, Between The World And Me, an extended essay told as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “I am writing you because this is the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes…that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road.” If and when Coates’s book goes to paperback, there are likely to be many more examples of the epidemic of police violence. Pick a city, just about any city—or maybe even a smallish town—and there’s a good chance that sometime during the year on the front page of your local newspaper you’ll find a headline similar to: “Video puts new light on shooting,” which appeared in the December 12 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The headline topped a story about the fatal police killing of 26-year-old Mario Woods in the city’s Bayview neighborhood, earlier in the month. Surrounded by five police officers, Woods, with a knife in his hand, apparently had his arms down by his sides when the officers, claiming to be threatened, fired at least 15, and maybe as many as 20 shots.

According to the Chronicle’s Vivian Ho, a video “shows [that] San Francisco police officers fired a barrage of shots at [Woods] while he held his arms at his sides, an apparent contradiction to the Police Department’s account that he prompted his killing by threatening an officer with a kitchen knife.” In this age when just about everyone has the tools to take videos and then instantaneously post them, two phrases in Ho’s piece stand out: (a) “a video shows” and (b) “apparent contradiction to the Police Department’s account.” It is no great secret that official accounts by police—and corroboration by fellow officers—are justifiably, and all too frequently, suspect.

Regarding police brutality, Coates, a national correspondent at the Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues, recently stated: “The violence is not new, it’s the cameras that are new.” It seems that if there is no video, there is a good chance it will be business as usual and the police get away with murder. When there is video of an incident—especially one that surfaces after the police render their accounts of an incident and it contradicts their explanations—it becomes, as the Woods case has, an entirely different matter. In a column titled “Police killing of Mario Woods—unnecessary, not uncommon,” UC Berkeley law professor Franklin E. Zimring pointed out that, “Sanctioning unnecessary killings by police is common. As many of the 400 of the more than 1,000 killings by police each year are not in response to life-threatening assaults. Hundreds more killings involve shoot to kill shootings that result in multiple wounds to the victim and are not required to protect officer safety or law enforcement efficiency.” Zimring, author of the forthcoming book, When Police Kill, digs in on the use of knives against police in general, and the Mario Woods case in particular. Although knives cause 13 percent of all homicides against ordinary citizens, between the years 2008-13, “there was a total of two knife deaths” of police officers. He concludes that, “the death risk” to the five police officers that surrounded Woods “was zero.”

Just as police violence is epidemic, so is the cover up of such violence. It took more than a year for a video to surface showing how Chicago police brutally murdered African-American 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, shooting him 16 times. As “Democracy Now” reported, “For the first time in three decades, a Chicago police officer faces charges of first-degree murder for an on-duty shooting.” At the July launch of his book at the historic Union Baptist Church in his hometown of Baltimore, Coates stated: “It seems like there’s a kind of national conversation going on right now about those who are paid to protect us, who sometimes end up inflicting lethal harm upon us. But for me, this conversation is old, and I’m sure for many of you the conversation is quite old. It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new.” It is an appalling fact that in so many cases of police brutality, we as a society have come to depend on videos—either independently shot or shot by police—in order to ferret out the truth of a particular incident.

According to a Reuters report, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation plans to sharply expand the information it gathers on violent police encounters in the United States,” the Washington Post quoted a senior FBI official as saying: “The new system will go beyond tracking fatal shootings and will for the first time track any case in which a police officer causes serious injury or death to civilians, including through the use of stun guns, pepper spray or even fists and feet,” the Washington Post quoted Stephen L. Morris, assistant director of the Criminal Justice Information Services Division as saying.

At the end of an hour-long interview with “Democracy Now”,Amy Goodman asks Coates: “Where have we come in more than half a century?”

Coates: “I think there’s been some progress. I think if people like me appear impatient, it is with the fact that, you know, we are talking about a system that has basically been in place since 1619. Progress is good. But until we live in a country in which white supremacy has been banished; until we live in a country where one can look at prisons, if we are to have them, and not see an eight-to-one ratio; until we can look at a country and not see black men comprising roughly 8 percent of the world’s imprisoned population; until we can have a situation in which I can turn on the news or come on this show and be able to discuss other things besides Sandra Bland being threatened with being—to ‘light [her] up,’ as he said, over a turn signal; until we have a situation in which a Tamir Rice, you know, who’s out playing, is not effectively committing a lethal crime or a crime that threatens his life; until we have a situation where Kajieme Powell, for the mere fact of being mentally ill, is not shot down in the street; until we have a situation in which a John Crawford, who was shopping in WalMart, is not shot down and executed in a store—progress is nice, but it’s to be noted, and the struggle continues after that.”



Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.