They Shoot Black Men, Don’t They?: Sean Bell and the Internal (and Eternal) “Logic” of Racism

In case you were still wondering, black and brown lives count for very little in this country.

If they did, then the officers who killed Sean Bell wouldn’t have walked away free men last week, deemed by the judge in their case to have done nothing wrong–not even to have engaged in reckless endangerment–by shooting fifty times at the unarmed man and his friends outside a Queens, NY nightclub in November 2006.

Fifty times. Like this–count ’em out:

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

(Halfway done now, let us continue),

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam,

Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam.

Yeah, that ought’a do it.

That Joseph Guzman, Trent Benefield and Bell were shot by officers Oliver, Cooper and Isnora was “a tragedy” we are assured by the Judge, but not one for which there is any legal remedy in the criminal courts. Just as there was no remedy for those who murdered Amadou Diallo, or Patrick Dorsimond, or Frankie Arzuega, or Annibal Carrasquillo or Aswon Watson before them. Or, in places other than New York: Tyisha Miller, Dontae Dawson, Carl Hardiman, Tim Thomas, Michael Carpenter, Roger Owensby, Aquan Salmon, or Adolph Archie–the latter of whom was driven around New Orleans and beaten for over two hours by cops there in 1990, who suspected him of having killed one of their own. By the time they took him to the hospital, they had broken every bone in his face. He would soon die, and the cause of death would be listed by the coroner as “homicide by police intervention.” But no one would ever be punished for the murder: no prison time, no suspension, no anything.

Just like nothing is typically done whenever cops kill unarmed civilians; and indeed, most of the time when cops kill, the persons whose lives they take are unarmed; and disproportionately they are black or brown.

Because black and brown lives do not matter.

In case you were still wondering

Or if they do, they matter far less than the lives of whites. What seems “reasonable” to officers when confronting black men–that they probably have a gun, and hey, didn’t that one there just mention going to get a gun?–would never seem reasonable, and apparently never does seem reasonable when officers confront young white men (1). Because never–or at least so rarely as to constitute a level of occurrence too remote to notice–do cops seem to jump to such fatal conclusions when the men in front of them are lacking melanin. White boys don’t get blown away at traffic stops, and they don’t get shot in the back of the head like Arzuega was in Brooklyn over a decade ago, after which crime the cops didn’t even report the incident for three days. They aren’t felled in a hail of bullets reaching for their cell phone because police naturally and “reasonably” assume that the object to which they will soon be clutching is a firearm.

And the benefit of the doubt–the presumption of innocence and the assumption that white lives count for something–is why white folks get to keep breathing, even when they do pose a threat to police, unlike Diallo, or Dorismond, or, in the instant case, Sean Bell.

So, for instance, how long do you think cops would wait before opening fire on a black man who was throwing bricks at them? If you’re looking for an answer, you might want to ask Lorenzo Collins. Only you can’t, because he’s dead, his last moments spent encircled by fifteen of Cincinnati’s finest, while holding a single solitary brick, and merely threatening to throw it their way. On the other hand, there have been literally dozens of riots by drunken, white college students since 1995–mostly because of such earth-shattering events as the outcome of a sporting event or crackdowns on underage drinking–during which white males (and pretty much only white males) have chucked bricks, bottles, chunks of concrete, frying pans, rocks, frozen beer cans, and entire beer kegs at police. And not once have the cops shot a live round at anyone. Indeed, even at Washington State University, where 23 cops were sent to the hospital because of injuries done to them in a late ’90s white riot (including some sustained when a manhole cover was thrown at nearby officers), none of the violent white people were shot. None of their families were left to grieve. No “unfortunate tragedies” befell them, because they never do.

Indeed, at the 1999 Michigan State riot (one of several at the campus in the past decade, in which a white mob did $150,000 worth of property damage, all because their team lost a basketball game), a group of white students were actually seen by police trying to pry a loaded shotgun out of a cop car. One guess as to how long a black person doing the same would have remained a living organism. But in the case of the white boys, tear gas was sufficient, along with a gentle “step away from the car please,” shouted over a bullhorn.

Likewise, when thousands of whites at Woodstock ’99–a three-day music festival in Rome, NY–began looting ATM machines, overturning lighting scaffolds, setting multiple fires throughout the venue and committing dozens of sexual assaults in the mosh pit, there weren’t even any cops on the premises to deal with the chaos for nearly two hours: apparently no one thought that a quarter million mostly white people needed to have police around to maintain order. Once things began to get out of control, law enforcement had to be called in from surrounding communities, delaying the response and allowing things to proceed unabated far longer than would have been allowed had the event been one at which a large percentage of the crowd had been black. Of course, once they arrived, the cops shot no one.

Nor did white folks taste police lead when they rioted over inadequate beer supplies in Salt Lake City during the Winter Olympics in 2002. Nor last month at yet another riot at Michigan State, this one captured on YouTube, during which young whites (many of whom had had riot t-shirts printed up before the event, indicating the premeditated nature of their criminality) destroyed public property, threw rocks and bottles at the cops, and chanted, alternately “fuck the police,” and “we want tear gas, we want tear gas.” Because, after all, they have the luxury of viewing police brutality as some kind of a game–a rite of passage, if you will–unlike folks of color who know that saying “fuck the police” too loudly brands you a thug, and inviting an attack from cops might well end with folk straight slaughtered by those all too willing to oblige (2).

To cops, it is reasonable not to shoot at white people, no matter what they throw at you, because even when they are aiming right at your head with that brick, their humanity remains visible. Even when their alcohol-addled-Girls-Gone-Wild-little-brains spit venom your way, their humanity remains visible. Even when they reach for your shotgun, their humanity remains visible.

Even when they open up and fire on you, their humanity remains visible, as it did in Nashville back in 2001, when Sergeant Mark Nelson, angry at his ex (also a cop) for dumping him, went to the house of her new boyfriend to confront the couple. Unable to get into the house, Nelson began firing on officers when they arrived, having been called by the ex from inside the home. Nelson shot at police in their cars and shot at a police helicopter overhead, all just down the road from an elementary school–in effect, holding the entire neighborhood hostage–and this, for an amazing four hours, after which, and after police engaged in calm and rational discussions with the shooter, Nelson gave up and was taken in peacefully. That he would be pushing up daisies right about now were he black (even if he were a cop, let alone a “mere” civilian), should be so apparent as to warrant no further explanation.

White people’s lives, it seems, are always worth the benefit of the doubt. Black folks lives, especially those of black men, rarely are. Any false or sudden move, or any attempt to flee the scene because you have men pointing guns at you (who you can’t even be sure are cops, seeing as how they’re undercover and haven’t announced their employment status), becomes a rationale, in the eyes of the law, to kill.

And no, the fact that two of the cops who shot Bell and his friends were black does not acquit them or the incident of being racially motivated. Racism does not require that the perpetrator of the deed be white, merely that the direction of the oppressive institutional behavior be aimed at members of a racial group due to biases held about that group. Black folks are surely capable of internalizing and then acting upon the same anti-black prejudices and stereotypes as whites. Indeed, when I have done trainings with officers, I have found very little difference in most cases between the way that white officers and officers of color view communities of color and the people who live there. With some very notable exceptions, the culture of law enforcement encourages a siege mentality among its members, and this mentality often plays out in a blatantly racist fashion, no matter the color of the person wearing the uniform.

So, let us review the lessons here, because they matter, and we need, above all else, to be clear: First, we are to allow cops to get away with killing black people because they had reasonable suspicions about them (according to the white norms of the law). However, we are not to allow young black men to act reasonably: to be afraid and act nervous in front of cops, or to run away from them, even though doing so makes a lot of sense when police are known to kill you. No indeed. Reasonability is a one-way street.

And then a second lesson is this: If you’re a black male, you’d best not say anything that might even remotely sound like “gun,” in the presence of police.

Do not say, “Let’s go have some fun” to your friends at the beginning of the evening.

Do not say, “I gotta run” when you’re looking to head home at the end of it.

Do not say, “I wish we were getting more sun this week,” or “Man, I can’t believe the Jets won,” ever (not that you’ll likely have to worry about this latter one all that often).

Because if you do, you might die.

Because black and brown lives do not count.

In case you were still wondering that is.

(1) To Judge Cooperman, the shooting of Bell, Guzman and Benefield was reasonable because the officers had a legitimate reason to suspect they posed a danger to them. Why? Because they supposedly heard one of them mention that he was going to get a gun. But is this claim by the officers actually reasonable? Is it reasonable to believe that someone would claim to have a gun, and be going for it, when they obviously knew they had no gun to retrieve? After all, there was no gun found in the victim’s car.

(2) Not only do lots of whites seem to think riots are a game, they appear also to view them as just another part of growing up. According to research by Iowa State University sociology professor, David Schweingruber, 1 in 4 white males and 1 in 10 white women at the college say they would like to participate in a riot before graduating. This level of endorsement for mass violence would provoke howls of condemnation–even platitudes about the pathologically detached values of young people–if those aspiring to riot were black or brown. We would question their families and their cultures, and we would condemn them as a deviant underclass of thugs. But because they are white, and mostly middle class or above, no one says anything.

Leave a Reply