When a cop pulled the trigger on Charles Kinsey, a Black behavioral therapist working with his autistic patient, it revealed everything that is wrong with policing in America.
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It’s getting so that the names of Black people brutalized and murdered by America’s police are coming so fast and furious that they’re running together in a tragic dirge: Philandro Castile. Alton Sterling. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. And . . . And … And …
Last week, Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist was shot three times by a cop in Miami. The incident went down while he lying on his back with his hands clearly up in the air, as he did his job trying to comfort his 23-year-old autistic patient, who had run away from a group home and was holding a toy truck.
“Why did you shoot me?” asked Kinsey as the officer approached.
His question reveals a certain level of faith in a system of fairness and justice. Because he expected it. His surprise after being shot reflects his willingness, in the face of a barrage of evidence to the contrary, to trust that his compliance and innocence would be acknowledged.
It’s ironic that a behavioral therapist was the one who got capped by the police. One must wonder: What was going on in the officer’s mind for him not to be able to see that Kinsey was unarmed and that the man next to him was mentally disabled? What in the cop’s mind caused him to reach the conclusion that he had to pull the trigger? It seems that the police officer needs to be seeing a behavioral therapist.
“I don’t know,” the cop responded.
Of course he doesn’t. Because the police are trained to shoot first and ask questions later—no matter the circumstances. That officer’s answer to Kinsey is also evidence of another enormous problem: Militarized policing in America has gone mad. Kinsey thankfully survived, but the citizen is generally presumed guilty until proved dead. And if you’re Black, be prepared for anything, because cops have been coming up with the weirdest shit to mess with us when we least expect it.
Like helping an autistic client, or riding in a car with our 4-year-olds, or biking to our jobs, or leaving our car in the parking lot of our workplace hustling to put food on the table for our family. Police might stop you, interrogate you, and when panicked enough . . . they might even shoot and kill you. If you comply too slowly the police may kill you. If you comply too quickly the police may kill you. If you move toward the police they may kill you. If you run from the police they may kill you. If you stand still with you hands up, they may kill you. If you lay down on the ground you might get shot. It seems that if you are black or brown you are already assumed to be guilty and dangerous so anything you do is perceived as a threat.
“Why did you shoot me?”
Because the police are thinking in terms of what is necessary to keep their jobs in a time of growing distrust and upheaval. Because using cops to generate revenue for the city, as one Dallas police officer that broke rank says, “has rendered the department ineffectual in dealing with issues of greater importance.” The pressure officers are under to filling arrest quotes is contributing to predatory policing by emboldening cops to abuse the people they ought to be protecting.
The fact is, we are living in a police-state psychology with deadly consequences when “race” is a trigger for their action. Which means tunnel vision and following procedures, and that has devastating consequences for people of color. We have police procedures that make no sense to people but are a logical outcome of how cops are deployed in communities. What they are doing defies common sense as well as any basic sense of justice.
In the latest shooting, unable to deploy the usual playbook of “criminalizing black corpses” or concoct
lies a police report that would justify the killing, the police instead told the public that the officer was aiming for the autistic man with the toy truck that was mistaken for a gun. And yet after the officer shot Kinsey, they immediately turned the bleeding victim on his back and handcuffed him.
Despite the cop’s feigning ignorance, and his bosses failed attempt to rationalize the shooting as a part of their new public safety initiative, we know all too well the answer to Kinsey’s “why.”
Their “shoot first” training regime, the increasingly militarized policing, together with the false narrative about the “war on cops” and a longstanding history of white racist aggression has produced a culture and climate of shoot-to-kill no matter the circumstances.
“Why did you shoot me?”
Because the “police are at war with people. For more than 50 years, the ‘war on cops’ story has provided both public support and material resources for the war that metropolitan police departments have waged on mostly poor Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. The ‘war on cops’ may be an old story, but it is a useful one,” writes Dan Berger in Truth-Out.
“The ‘war on cops’ narrative helps explain how the United States ended up with a police force that functions like a series of military battalions. The idea behind the ‘war on cops’ treats police like soldiers: going into battle every day, serving as symbols of their country with the overriding objective of winning the war (on crime, drugs, or terrorism) at all costs.” It is no wonder that people, particularly, black, brown, and poor communities, are guilty until proven dead.
The effort to reduce each shooting down to the individuals involved belies the pattern and practices throughout the nation. The machine is in motion and the pattern is clear: Officer attacks or kills. The department justifies it. The media parrots the report of the police department as if it is gospel. If there is a trial, the victim’s corpse is tried for his own murder. In most cases, cops escape any serious consequences. Much of White America celebrates the exoneration of their heroes in blue, those empowered to “protect and serve them” through not only brutalizing and controlling communities of color but ignoring their own criminal activities.
“Why did you shoot me?”
The “why” exists in this history, in the racial history of the police, and in the condemnation of blackness. The “why” is the number of officers caught posting racist rants on social media. It rests in those recorded saying they want to hunt ni**ers. It exists in references to “broad noses” Sometimes they are reprimanded or fired yet the culture and institution of policing remains unscathed.
The justifications emanate from a media and politically driven narrative that Blacks are inherently violent, dangerous, and volatile. Calls for “law and order,” and adherence to white-supremacist stereotypes about black dysfunction and the ghetto apocalypse justifies the existence of violent militarized police forces.
To ask why after each incident ignores history, ignores the institutionalized white supremacy, and the epidemic of black death. As the late historian Howard Zinn said, “The police are not neutral.” And they don’t exist for justice. The thing is, the more unequal and socially immobile our society becomes, the more militarized and scary the police are going to become. That’s because a force of coercion is needed to prevent people from rising up in a society like ours is becoming.
Still, some Black folks continue to insist that there are more “good cops” than “bad cops,” and that we shouldn’t let this turn us against law enforcement. Some communities have pushed aside organizing for cookouts and dance contests in an effort to break down the division between police and the black community. The “why” is not about distrust and division; it is not about misunderstanding or tragic mistakes.
Clearly, this goes way beyond notions of “good cops” and “bad cops” and a few bad apples “spoiling” the bunch. The evidence is clear: Black lives and bodies will never mean more to U.S. authorities—including the first Black POTUS—as the lives of the police who are hired, trained, and paid to control us with impunity. We’ve stopped holding our breath for justice to be served in any of these cases. If there is a potential justifiable reason for why it is OK to shoot a person doing their job, sitting in the passenger seat, selling CDs, searching for help, or countless other everyday realities, we have already lost in the battle for justice.
The violence isn’t new. We’re just more aware of it. And with citizen video replacing the sanitized propaganda of mainstream news, we’re better able to know the truth. Social media enables us to share and process in community, and to speak out publicly against these atrocities. We’re fed up with being admonished to “stay calm and peaceful” when our righteous rage erupts in peaceful demonstrations or fiery riots.
All this madness started with a pattern of disproportionate law enforcement responses to relatively minor infractions. This was compounded by patterned law enforcement jury acquittals or district attorneys refusal to indict in the face of overwhelming evidence of police misconduct and over reaction. Ultimately, the federal government’s failure to protect the most basic civil and constitutional right proved a most undeniable conclusion.
“Why did you shoot me?”
Because the police have become immune from prosecution because they are always “scared for their life.” Just say those magic words: “I was scared,” or “He lunged,” or “She swung on me,” or “He was going for my gun,” or “It looked like he had a weapon.”
There is no longer a comfort zone or buffer for Black people in America. And low- and moderate-income white people cheer, as they did last week at the Red Neck Convention in Cleveland when news came that yet another officer had been acquitted of murdering Freddie Gray. Why are so many white people cheering the police when the same style of policing puts Black people at greater risk, but also screws them too?
If anything, Kinsey’s question to the cop who shot him was rhetorical. Because what Black folks know is that we are all potential victims of this terrorism, which could target any one of us at any time under any circumstance. There is no presumption or judicial declaration of our innocence—even if we’re just living life, going to Bible study, driving down any street, trying to make a few bucks to feed our families, sitting in our cars, or whatever.
“Why did you shoot me?”
Because you are Black. That is the answer over and over again.
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