No Real Angels in Hell: Police Violence, Black Lives and the White Obsession With Perfect Victims

It is increasingly apparent that white Americans hate the Constitution.

Not all white people and not the entire Constitution of course; but certainly a frightening lot of us and some of the most important parts. We love the Second Amendment — at least in so far as it protects our right to bear arms, even as we aren’t nearly so supportive of black folks trying to exercise theirs — but as for the quaint notions of due process or equal protection? Those are but trifles, orange cones on the highway of law and order, to which we are expected to pay some minor attention, but ultimately forget about in the name of the greater good.

And by greater good, I mean the apparent desire to rationalize virtually anything done to a black body by a blue-uniformed member of the nation’s law enforcement apparatus, usually by making note of the less-than-angelic history of the decedent before the bullets ripped flesh. Because to much of white America, only angels can be true victims and only saints deserve eulogy; and surely no lesser beings are deserving of the Constitutional guarantees referenced above, at least when the dead are black or brown. And so, in the most recent cases of Korryn Gaines and Paul O’Neal, we are instructed not to mourn them, and surely not to make them poster children for the black lives that we insist matter. After all, Gaines pointed a gun at officers and O’Neal stole a car, after which felony he proceeded to lead police on a chase. That both ended up dead is entirely their own fault, we are assured. To think otherwise is to make victims of criminals who brought their demise upon themselves. Surely we will soon hear this refrain again in the wake of yesterday’s shooting of an armed black man by Milwaukee police, which shooting touched off a night of violence in that city.

Theywerenoangels. Theywerenoangels. Theywerenoangels.

Say it three times in a mirror while spinning around on one leg, and then perhaps the ghost of Antonin Scalia or Andrew Breitbart will visit you and reassure you that all is right with the world. The scary black people are dead and we have to support our police and they do a dangerous job and you don’t want to do it and if your house was being robbed who would you call…a protester?

Of course there are fact patterns even amid this cacophony. And though they won’t matter to most of those who repeat the above formulations as if they were sacred omkara, perhaps it would do us well to remember them.

Like the fact that the police at whom Korryn Gaines pointed her weapon had come to haul her out of her house in the presence of her child for minor vehicle and traffic violations. Because the need for Baltimore County officials to serve arrest warrants on such hardened criminals as this is more important than the need for Gaines to live another day. And yes, perhaps if she doesn’t point that pistol-grip shotgun at officers and threaten them she’s still alive, and so in the proximate sense one can certainly argue that Gaines’s actions made her shooting legally justifiable. Yet the question remains: when Gaines pointed that gun at the officers, was their only recourse to fire upon her? Especially when they knew she had her five year old child huddled close by? Especially if they believed—rightly or wrongly based on previous encounters—that she may be dealing with some form of emotional or mental distress? If they had decided instead to fall back, de-escalate the situation and perhaps try again another time to serve whatever warrant they were trying to serve, what would have been sacrificed by such a choice? Nothing really, except perhaps pride. And ultimately it is that about which the Baltimore County police were most concerned. They could not, would not, allow this black woman to win the day. Even for some minor infractions.

And what of Paul O’Neal? Chicago police fired at his fleeing vehicle, in complete defiance of department policy, common sense and the law, then chased him, and when he exited the car on foot they proceeded to run him down and shoot him in the back as many as fifteen times. He was unarmed, he posed no threat to the officers, and his death was of such little concern to them that even as his body lay warm on the ground they were giving each other high-fives, complaining about the inconvenience of whatever investigation might follow, and checking to make sure their body cameras were turned off. Because to the CPD, a dead black man is less important than whatever vacation days they might lose as punishment for his murder. And after all, he stole a car—a crime for which the punishment is not, I beg to remind, execution.

But for Gaines and O’Neal, police could not let them live even as they figured out another way to uphold their duties. Because to do so would have been to allow Gaines and O’Neal—black people—to show them up, to put one over on them, to wound their fragile and racialized sense of white masculinity. And so they could not in either case extend to these two the same courtesies proffered to an entire gaggle of white men on the Bundy Ranch, who not only pointed guns at law enforcement, but promised to use them—and even to use the women on the ranch as human shields. Just for shits and giggles try and imagine what would have happened if several dozen of Korryn Gaines’s closest black friends had shown up at her house, armed and vowing to defend her against being arrested, all the while pointing guns at police? Now, feel free to locate a thesaurus and insert all the different synonyms for bloodbath here.

No, they couldn’t figure out a way to arrest Gaines or O’Neal without killing them, the way police did with this white man who actually killed an officer during a standoff while barricaded in a house.

Or the way they did with this white guy who killed a Pennsylvania State Trooper and then went on the run for 48 days.

Or this white guy — an Indianapolis police officer — who shot one of his colleagues and then led other officers on a chase until he was finally captured.

Or this white guy who opened fire inside a family restaurant in Louisville.

Or this white guy who stalked Portland, Oregon police for months and was finally arrested while parked outside a precinct station with a car full of guns and ammo.

Or this white guy in Idaho who killed a cop, went on the run, and then refused to come out of his hiding spot when police first cornered him.

Or this white guy who pointed a weapon at three New Orleans officers and told them to “drop your fucking guns.”

Or this white guy who shot up a movie theatre full of people and was arrested outside without a scratch.

Or this white guy who was walking around menacingly downtown in Louisville with an 18-inch knife.

Or this white guy who literally beat the crap out of two police officers before getting away.

Lots of people, as it turns out, fall short on the angelic scale. But some are still carbon-based life forms as I write these words and some are not; and the reasons for this, though not entirely about race, are certainly informed by it.

Ultimately, the search for the perfect victim is as impossible as it is insulting. It is impossible because there are few persons who find themselves attaining adulthood without having done something, often several somethings, about which we’d prefer others not know, and which, if they did, would likely serve to besmirch our character. It is insulting because it suggests that unless one has a relatively spotless record—and certainly unless they are free from any serious criminal activity—one should have no expectation of safety, security or even the luxury of another breath. It is to say that the Constitutional rights of equal protection and due process do not apply to those with criminal histories or who have a penchant for mouthing off to police or questioning their authority. It is to say that once one has done something defined as criminal that said person forfeits from that point forward any right they may have to humane treatment by police; that one’s past will always be one’s present; that there is no redemption, no restoration, no second chance, and no sympathy when things for such a person go sideways. In which case why even have trials? By the logic of such a standard we should simply check to see if people arrested have a record already, and if so, pronounce them guilty on the spot or maybe even put a bullet in their heads, thereby saving the state the expense of incarceration. The outcome would be exactly the same.

That we don’t really mean this of course, and that we only hold out such impossible standards for black people and the poor should be apparent. My guess is that if some member of the NYPD were to open up a clip on any of the Wall Street grifters who helped tank the economy in 2008—not that this would ever happen, but please, just play along—-few would rush to justify the killing on the grounds that the banker in question was “no angel.”

If police were to violently dispatch the lives of corporate executives or bosses who steal their employees’ wages by refusing to pay them for work done, or paying them less than the law requires, or cheating them out of overtime—and indeed, wage theft is a bigger problem, financially, than all the street robberies in this country combined, according to the FBI—it is unlikely FOX News would rush to rationalize the killing, by noting the far-from-angelic business practices in which the recently-deceased had engaged.

And the reason we would treat those kinds of cases differently is because we would know that the executive or the banker was not simply the sum total of their misdeeds. We would understand, intuitively, that their humanity was not defined entirely by the worst things they had ever done. We would not reduce them to an algorithm of pathology. We would not forget that they were somebody’s child, brother, sister, husband, wife, lover, friend, or parent. We would not deem them irredeemable. Would that the same could be said for Korryn Gaines or Paul O’Neal or any of the other names I could list here from the past several months, let alone years, let alone decades, to say nothing of centuries.

But for those latter souls, near perfection is required before compassion can attach. Otherwise they are disposable, only worthy of mention in so far as white folks can use them as examples of black pathology and dysfunction. Because white America dearly loves to use black death to teach a lesson, but never about our culture; rather, and only to teach a much more localized lesson to black people about theirs. And so we feign empathy as we prattle on about so-called “black-on-black” violence: an inherently racist term which suggests there is something about blackness that explains it, but which suggestion we don’t make in the case of the never-so-named “white-on-white violence,” even as it remains about four times more prevalent than its darker counterpart. We cluck our tongues about blacks killing blacks in places like Paul O’Neal’s Chicago, as a way to redirect black people to what we think the real problem is. But in the face of such entreaties as this, is not the intrinsic absurdity of the “they were no angels” narrative, obvious? After all, surely we must know that most of the black folks killed by other black folks likely had records and were also “no angels” for what that’s worth. Many were rival gang members. So are we supposed to believe that white Americans suddenly care about non-angelic black people when killed by other black people? Of course not. They are just stage props, or perhaps a magician’s trick we use to avoid the larger issue: that we view black life as disposable and have for a very long time.

We send that message in a million different ways. From the justice system to schooling to the labor market to housing opportunities or the lack thereof. That message—and one can say this without any fear of contradiction—was one of the seminal articulations of this nation from its earliest days, and has remained among its most stridently and consistently repackaged communiques ever since. At this late date then, it is more than a bit unbecoming for us to act surprised when those raised on a steady diet of it come to believe it, and act on the basis of it, either in the name of the state or the Gangster Disciples.

Bottom line: there are no real angels in Hell; and a kind of Hell is what we’ve allowed racial inequity to make of this place. Until that ceases to be so, and until we understand that black lives matter—all black lives, and not just the ones that make white people comfortable—we will sadly repeat this ritual over and over again, and likely far sooner than any of us would prefer to imagine.

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