Police Shootings: Black and Blue (Yet Again)

Here’s a quick quiz for you to take. On average across three sources (two national polls, and a keyword research tool study of people’s most common online search terms), what are supposedly the biggest fears of your fellow Americans? Put the following list of 10 options into the correct order, ranking them from first to tenth:

  • Rejection
  • Clowns
  • Public Speaking
  • Terrorists
  • Spiders
  • Failure
  • Intimacy
  • Heights
  • Death
  • Flying

Notice anything odd about the list? I do. Among the possible top 10 choices, other people only explicitly appear twice: as terrorists and, improbably enough, as clowns! But how strong is people’s fear of being socially embarrassed? Pretty strong I’d say, considering that everything from rejection to public speaking to intimacy and maybe even (being judged a) failure make the list of possibilities; and clowns could I suppose fit there, too, assuming that what a clown found or made funny might include aspects of one’s own behavior.

Seriously, though, I think the list is crucially devoid of honesty in one key aspect because it doesn’t include people who don’t look like us (skin color) or believe in what we believe in (religion, politics, and social customs). Let’s just call this category: others. The 10 options I gave you appear in inverse order, which means that “flying” is #1 and “rejection” is #10, with “people” and “criminals” being options that might fit “others” but didn’t get strong, consistent enough results across these three particular sources to qualify for the overall, composite top 10 list.

Under “others” could be DWB, the acronym ruefully used by African-Americans to describe the dangers of Driving While Black. And what a huge risk it is. In a suburb of my city, St. Paul, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez for shooting Philando Castile. In short, what began as a seemingly routine traffic stop because a brake light was out on the car being driven by Mr. Castile quickly turned deadly.

A dashboard camera video from the police car shows the exchange that resulted in Officer Yanez firing seven shots. In less than five seconds from the moment Castile finishes telling Yanez that he’s carrying a registered firearm, the shooting has begun, after a panicked Yanez repeats: “Don’t pull it out.” There’s no doubt that Yanez is scared, even “afraid for his life” as he testified in court. On the cop car video, Yanez’s rigid, frozen stance as he fires his gun, his hoarse voice, his panicked breathing, and his traumatized screams of easily a dozen instances of “fuck” after the shooting are fully evident.

As for the facial expressions of either Yanez or Castile, however, the cop car video is captured from too far away to tell us anything. But the victim’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was livestreaming the aftermath on Facebook, and from that video what’s remarkable is both her presence of mind to be able to record her summation of what she believes actually happened as well as her degree of calm. Yes, her eyes are wide and her mouth initially distorted with fear.  But otherwise she’s remarkably unflappable, reassuring Yanez that she’ll cooperate with his requests (“I will, sir. No worries, I will”), not giving in to anger, not yet experiencing much sadness (her eyes do close momentarily when she says, “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that”), and only once showing disgust (a raised upper lip when she says, “I’ll keep my hands where they are”). It’s not until she’s handcuffed in the squad car that a whimpering cry from her causes her preschool age daughter to comfort her by saying, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”

In Milwaukee, Tulsa, Cincinnati and elsewhere, the police shootings involving DWB go on and the trials that mostly lead to acquittals do, too. I have a brother-in-law who’s now retired from being a traffic cop in Seattle. From hearing him recount his experiences, there’s no doubt that fear exists on both side, for black motorists and blue-uniformed officers. Body cam video rarely if ever reveals people’s facial expressions, but the abruptness of the shootings is unmistakably evident. Two, maybe three seconds and somebody else is suddenly blood-stained and dying or dead.

With fear, it’s a matter of fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes the motorists freeze. Other times, they engage in attempted flight (running off or trying to drive away). For the cops, flight isn’t an option because it means they’re not doing their jobs and to freeze would be a greater risk to themselves than to fight by shooting a gun they’ve been trained to use.

Fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do.

The bottom line is that fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do. The fear that leads to abrupt shootings results in quick action, but the fear itself is long-standing and deep-rooted of course. The officers are scrambling to help maintain the status quo, the law of the land. They often live in dread while pledging to serve and protect the general public. Meanwhile, for their part it’s doubtful any black motorists would be surprised to know that when black veterans returned from World War One nearly a century ago, their newly acquired marksmanship frightened many whites. The resulting race riots of 1919 earned the nickname Red Summer, given the bloody and wrenchingly unfair outcome.

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