Unreasonable fear of black bodies
Published by St.Louis American, July 20, 2017
People who don’t know me might think I’m a cop-hatin’, law-breakin’ sistah. I been working on police-community issues for more years than I care to say. I observe how police interact with citizens based upon their age, race and perceived economic status. I pay serious attention to what they say and do as individuals and as a department. I listen to their own words. I read their own words.
I heard Gary Wiegert, then prez of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, call me a “terrorist” on his WGNU radio program some years ago. I couldn’t judge his true state of mind since Wiegert was a lobbyist for legalizing marijuana at the time.
I listened when Heather Taylor, current prez of the Ethical Society of Police (advocating for black police officers) made a passionate case for why the police need raises. She cited her special-needs child as an example of the kind of expenses families incur outside of the realm of regular living expenses that can bring financial stress. This was particularly moving coming from a mother and because I’m on record opposing raises for police to keep brutalizing and terrorizing my community.
It was the words of former St. Louis cop Redditt Hudson that have set with me for several weeks. They have rattled inside my head with the latest acquittals of police who have killed unarmed, black citizens. Redditt says as he crisscrosses this country speaking to law enforcement, he puts out a challenge to find one black cop who has killed an unarmed, white citizen. The point he makes more eloquently than I ever could is that black and brown cops get the same training as white cops. The cops of color are confronted with dangerous situations daily – same as white cops. Yet. Yet, the black and brown cops manage to draw upon their training and to exercise restraint when dealing with citizens who don’t look like them.
It appears that the mostly white juries find it easy to understand the mythology that blacks are criminals and deserving of deadly force. But they have a hard time getting past the patent defense by police that works every time: I feared for my life. The acquittals of police in the face of clear evidence that unnecessary force was used only adds to the heap of injustices suffered by communities of color, particularly by the Black community.
Fearing for one’s life as a police officer can come within two seconds of seeing a little blackness. That’s how long it took police to mow down 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Syville Smith’s death came in 12 seconds. St. Louis native Philando Castile’s horrifying death took an entire 40 seconds by a suburban St. Paul cop.
Two reasons why police get away with using this excuse is that the black community has been criminalized and labeled violent so force is always appropriate and justifiable. The other reason is because the court has given them the legal cover to hide behind fear. The law states that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat, just that the officer feels threatened. In Graham v. Connor, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the unreasonable fear theory.
Any blackness is a threat. Ask the family of pregnant Charleena Lyles in Seattle. Any Black male is a double threat. Ask the families of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Dontre Hamilton, Ezell Ford, Tanisha Anderson, Tony Robinson, Freddie Gray and on and on.
Reason and logic, along with training and police protocols, get thrown out of the police car window when a black body is involved. How is it reasonable that one thinks a black man is literally getting bigger before their eyes? That’s what studies are documenting including one from the American Psychological Association. And will a black man be able to use the reasonable fear defense when he shoots a cop?
Juries who are sitting on cases involving police shooting black people should remember the challenge of Redditt Hudson. The reasonable fear defense cannot be used unconditionally. Let’s exercise some reason in those deliberations. When killing a black person is a racist fix, you must not acquit!
I have some tough advice to police who fear blackness so intensely that when they come upon a black person, they’re unable to take the time to process the situation. If the sight of a black body makes you wet your pants, makes you sweat profusely so that your hand accidentally pulls the trigger, gives you heart palpitations, I strongly urge you to consider a different career. Maybe like a web developer – it’s deemed one of the safest jobs in the country.