We are confronted this week with two—can you believe, two—new reports of unarmed black men being violently confronted by law enforcement, resulting in the death of one.
Twenty-year-old Daunte Wright died after being shot by a policewoman in Brooklyn Park Minnesota, just ten miles from where Derek Chauvin is on trial for murdering George Floyd. Just a few hours earlier, we became aware of an incident in Virginia, where Caron Nazario, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was driving to Petersburg, Va.—dressed in his fatigues—from a drill weekend when he was pulled over, allegedly for not having license plates. The Black Army medic was held at gunpoint, verbally abused and doused with pepper spray. The charge was bogus; Lt. Nazario had recently purchased the car and temporary plates had been taped inside the rear window—a standard practice. Video later showed the plates were clearly visible.
Both incidents occurred after non-violent, routine traffic stops for license plate and registration violations. Why is it that when Black men are accused of minor offenses (selling illicit cigarettes, passing a counterfeit bill, license and registration infractions), situations can escalate with breathtaking speed?
The officer who killed Wright thought her gun was a taser. This might be understandable if other guns were present at the scenes, if bystanders were being threatened with violence, if she was being physically attacked or in the heat of a high-speed chase. But the offense was an automobile registration violation and an outstanding warrant. Wright was shot once and moments later, he died. In Virginia, Lt. Nazario was accused of driving without a license plate, yet within seconds he was held at gun point, verbally assaulted and then pepper sprayed. And he was in uniform!
Fearful for his safety in a situation where it was dark, Nazario pulled into a lighted area where cameras could record the encounter he anticipated and still he was abused and pepper sprayed. In a soul-wrenching phone call, Wright was so fearful upon being stopped by the police that he called his mother to express his fear and seek her advice about how to react. Within moments, he was shot to death.
All this is happening against the backdrop of the trial of Derek Chauvin who is accused of murder in the death of George Floyd, it is mind boggling to consider that these incidents against Black men continue.
In this space almost a year ago, I posted a response to the nine-minute video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck entitled “Ho-Hum Racism.” I was particularly struck by Chauvin’s posture with his hand in his pocket: “If his hand was in his pocket, how could he be under threat? If his hand was in his pocket, how could he realize the full impact of his actions? If his pocket held his hand, what held his emotions? His empathy? His understanding of the sacred trust implicit in his job? Yes, I was sickened by the knee that Derek Chauvin used to kill George Floyd. But I was also sickened by the casual way that this police officer addressed his situation—with his hand in his pocket—and what this implies for our country.”
After yet another event when a Black man is killed by a white cop, commentary will no doubt focus on “rogue cops” and we will be assured that the vast majority of police are dedicated public servants, with best intentions for the communities they serve. But we can no longer dismiss these actions as done by rogue players like Chauvin (if we ever could have) and look at systemic causes that provide fertile ground for such incidents.
Kim Potter, the officer who shot Daunte Wright was charged with second-degree manslaughter. The charge came swiftly, which is an improvement over many cases that linger in secrecy for months—and are often revealed only when video of the incident is discovered—and Potter, along with police chief Tim Gannon, both resigned.
But systemic racism becomes apparent when the charges against Potter are compared to the outcome of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor, who is Black. Noor was found guilty of third-degree murder and manslaughter and sentenced to twelve and a half years for killing an innocent white woman who had called 9-1-1.
There is nothing ho-hum about this ongoing assault on Black men by the criminal justice system. The behavior cannot be explained simply by “rogue cops.” We must also probe questions of recruitment, training and the underlying climate of racism—implicit and explicit—that his plagued us since colonial days. The ongoing frequency of incidents when Black men are killed by police is alarming, heartbreaking and infuriating. It must stop.