Racial injustice and the Kaepernick effect II


I thought I would take this opportunity, as unfortunate a time as it is, to provide a follow up to my previous post on Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem as a way to protest racial injustice and the continued deaths of unarmed black people.

Since he did it, numerous NFL players have joined in the protest, either raising a closed fist or kneeling during the league’s — and sports organizations’ — borderline neurotic, weekly homage to all things America. One has to wonder: If the police shootings persist, as they have now for years seemingly without any reprieve, at what point will these patriotic exercises become meaningless affronts to those we have lost at the hands of poorly trained and/or trigger happy police officers and the atmosphere of protectionism that pervades the entire criminal justice system.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Zaleski: Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith raises his fist during the national anthem prior to the game in Tennessee.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Zaleski: Raiders linebacker Malcolm Smith raises his fist during the national anthem prior to the game in Tennessee.

At least two more names, Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher, have been added to the scrolls of injustice since Kaepernick began protesting. Even as I’m writing this and trying to work out the calculus that could lead to such wanton, systemic disregard for human life, as laws and police ethics are seemingly tossed out the window at the slightest of offenses, or at the lack of any offense, the blood boils. George Zimmerman is exhibit No. 1. Zimmerman got little more than a slap on the wrist for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black kid, yet a driver who shot at Zimmerman during a road altercation in the spring of 2015 who, like Zimmerman, argued on the grounds of self-defense, was convicted of second-degree murder.

I will preface the rest of this post by saying that, as with nearly any case, we don’t know all the details, but we do know enough to conclude with concrete certainty that Scott and Crutcher should still be alive today.

‘Reacted unreasonably’

Crutcher, of course, was recently shot and killed by white Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby after fellow Officer Tyler Turnbough had already tased him. Crutcher was stopped in the middle of the road and was, according to accounts, moving away from the vehicle and claiming it was about to explode. As the incident escalated, an officer in a helicopter made the following half-cocked, unsubstantiated statement about Crutcher: “That looks like a bad dude, too. Maybe on something.”

After the shooting, police let Crutcher lie in the street for a full 2 minutes before returning to him, not to administer attention to the shooting victim, but to check his pockets. Another 45 seconds passed before someone offered medical assistance. For her part, Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter.

According to court documents, Shelby

reacted unreasonably (italics mine) by escalating the situation from a confrontation with Mr. Crutcher, who was not responding to verbal commands and was walking away from her with his hands held up, becoming emotionally involved to the point that she over reacted.

As I pointed out on a Twitter a couple days ago, “reacted unreasonably” has to be the understatement of the year. Shooting unarmed people without serious provocation is now considered merely “unreasonable” police work in 2016? What about: “Shelby failed to follow her police training and took justice into her own hands?” What about: “Shelby was not trained properly by the academy or by her superiors and should have never been put into a position to make life and death decisions on the streets of Tulsa?” What about: “The decision to put Shelby on the street represents a categorical failure of leadership at the Tulsa police department?”

As if Crutcher’s death was not shameful enough for Tulsa County, an unarmed black man named Eric Harris was shot and killed by a 73-year-old, white, reserve deputy in April 2015 after the officer mistook his pistol for a taser. He was charged with manslaughter.

Deadly force

Crutcher’s family could scarce get through the grieving process before another unwarranted shooting claimed the life of Scott, who, although we still don’t know whether he had a gun, was seen getting out of his SUV and backing away from the vehicle as Officer Brentley Vinson, who is black, opened fire. According to police, Scott was spotted with a marijuana cigarette and a gun, although his family claims the man had a book in his possession. Video of the incident is inconclusive.

What is conclusive is that police had no reason to believe Scott was dangerous; he was not a fugitive and was not wanted in connection with a warrant. He did serve time for shooting a man in San Antonio in 2005 and was not allowed to carry a weapon because of it, but as The New York Times points out, police on the scene would more than likely have no way of knowing this at the time. What is conclusive is that Scott was surrounded by officers with loaded weapons and, regardless of whether he had a gun in his hand or not, his arms were by his side and not in a raised position, and thus not actively targeting police, when Vinson opened fire.

What is conclusive is that in most of the police shootings garnering national attention in recent history, officers had little, if any, justification for using deadly force to subdue alleged perpetrators.

Here is what the National Institute of Justice has to say on the use of force by law enforcement officials:

Law enforcement officers should use only the amount of force necessary to mitigate an incident, make an arrest, or protect themselves or others from harm. The levels, or continuum, of force police use include basic verbal and physical restraint, less-lethal force, and lethal force.
Learn more about the use-of-force continuum.

The level of force an officer uses varies based on the situation. Because of this variation, guidelines for the use of force are based on many factors, including the officer’s level of training or experience.

An officer’s goal is to regain control as soon as possible while protecting the community. Use of force is an officer’s last option — a necessary course of action to restore safety in a community when other practices are ineffective.

And according to North Carolina law as related to the Keith Lamont Scott case, police are only justified in using deadly force:

a. To defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force;

b. To effect an arrest or to prevent the escape from custody of a person who he reasonably believes is attempting to escape by means of a deadly weapon, or who by his conduct or any other means indicates that he presents an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to others unless apprehended without delay; or

c. To prevent the escape of a person from custody imposed upon him as a result of conviction for a felony.

By what strained logic can police claim to have been following any of these stipulations in Keith Scott’s case?

Suppose that he was, as police allege, brandishing a weapon and, although we can’t hear it on the video, what if he was defiant, belligerent or even threatening officers? Why couldn’t police simply have shot him in an extremity to bring him to the ground? What possible justification did they have to shoot to kill? Even if perpetrators are wanted on active warrants, escape from prison or are fleeing the scene of a traffic stop, unless they threaten officers or others in the community, police don’t have the right to gun them down OK Corral-style, which is apparently what happened to Keith Scott and precisely what happened to Walter Scott last year in South Carolina.

The white response

Finally, coming back to the NFL, while more players have joined Kaepernick in protesting police shootings the last few weeks, all of the athletes that have stood or raised their fists during the national anthem, so far that I can tell, have been black.

If I may be so bold as to ask, where the hell are the white players standing in solidarity with their teammates and brethren to raise awareness about such a critical issue facing the nation?

Amid the circus of coverage surrounding Kaepernick, I think this has been a severely under-covered part of this story, and the white players who have spoken up about Kaepernick’s actions have largely been dismissive or negative toward the protests and, as I pointed out in the previous post, numerous league executives have gone so far as to demonize the quarterback as a “traitor.”

Are white players, who may be sympathetic to the plight of black America, simply not courageous enough to stick their necks out and support their teammates? Do they think that it would be overstepping their bounds? Are they embarrassed? Do they fail to understand the issue sufficiently? Does their whiteness make them feel ill-equipped to protest racial injustice? Or, perhaps it’s more likely the case that speaking out against injustice and effectively peeling back the layers of racism and prejudice that we long since thought were dead and buried, undermines the league’s role as America’s cheerleader-in-chief.

Certainly, if someone knows of a white NFL player who has stepped out in protest alongside his fellow teammates, by all means, fill me in, and I will write about it. In any case, it is incumbent on us, not as white people on the outside looking in, but as human beings, as brothers and sisters, to view racial injustice, not just as a problem for black people, but as our problem as Americans.

Just like slavery, forced subjugation, disenfranchisement and legalized segregation from previous generations, today’s systemic racism, institutionalized bigotry and police brutality are all of our problems. Anything short of this recognition renders all the blaring displays of patriotism little more than sound and the fury, signifying nothing but an abdication of responsibility to our fellow citizens.

[Artwork credit: “Police Brutality” by DeviantArt user The Rising Soul.]

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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