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An Examination of Some Recent Police Killings

In recent years, violence perpetrated by police officers against civilians has gained national attention.

Steve Martinot

On September 18, 2012, about a hundred gathered in the Oakland City Council to support the Blueford family, whose son, Alan, had been killed by a cop in May, four months earlier. As of that meeting, the police had issued no report on the killing, nor had the many police accounts, which kept changing, held up under scrutiny or evidence. The family demanded the truth, and accountability. They had gotten neither. The council promised to produce the police chief to answer the family, and couldn't even do that. The hundred supporters of the family shut the council meeting down. Here is some of the background to that event.

Alan Blueford and Oscar Grant

The Trayvon Martin killing on February 26, 2012, alerted the nation to the fact that something was wrong, that something which had been protested, and which should have been stopped, could not simply be protested and stopped. The fact that a civilian presumed the same impunity as a cop in killing a young black man had a revolting familiarity to it, as did the reticence of the political and judicial system to indict him. It awakened the nation to the travesty of cops shooting men of color, almost on a weekly basis. In the Bay Area, on September 2, 2012, in Vallejo, police shot 31 rounds into a car, killing Mario Romero and wounding his friend as they sat there. Prior to that, Chavis Carter, a 21 year old black man, was shot in Jonesboro, Arkansas, on August 1, 2012. The police said he shot himself, though he was handcuffed behind his back in the back seat of a police car. The latest, as I write this on September 26, 2012, Hayward police shot and killed Edgar Alvarez. They said he matched a description of someone suspected of firing a gun earlier in a bar several blocks from where he was found sitting in his car, and they shot him for backing his car up toward the police as they approached him (though none were hit and the car did not crash into anything). We could add, in California alone, Marshall Tobin (7/5/12), Ascension Herrera (7/9/12), Jared Huey (7/3/12), Derrick Gaines (6/5/12).

One could say that a corner was turned with the murder of Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009. Since then, the list keeps getting longer. But we have to do more than just make lists. There is an epidemic in progress. Let us look at two very recent cases.

When Alan Blueford was shot, on May 6, 2012, the police said he had fired on an officer. The body was left there on the ground under police guard for hours. Then it was wisked away, and for weeks, the coroner's autopsy report was not released. When it finally came out, there was no gun-shot residue on Alan's hands, and most horribly, the bullets that killed him came from in front of him, but angled upward as if shot from below. In other words, he was lying down on the ground on his back when shot. One bullet passed upward through his body and grazed the inside of his arm, meaning that his arm was raised, which is the signal for surrender.

In the police account, two police officers, checking on a complaint, approached three high school students on a street corner at around midnight, and one of them, Alan, ran. One officer followed him. Alan pulled a gun and fired, and the officer returned fire, killing him. The coroner repeated the police version. However, there was no gun. If the police story was a lie, then the coroner was lying also in repeating it. Lying by public officials is a crime. When a hundred irate citizens prevented Oakland City Council from carrying on business as usual on September 18, 2012, it was in support of the Blueford family's demand, after 4 months of stalling, for the truth and for accountability.

But let us step back a moment. We have the cell phone images of Oscar Grant being shot. They went around the world. We saw Grant lying face down on a subway platform, with three cops on him. In one cell phone video (Cf. "Operation Small Axe," a short film by JR Valrey of KPFA), however, Grant is sitting on the platform between two other companions, leaning against the back wall, with police standing in front of them. Three cops from out of the frame approach Grant, pull him up off the platform, and thrown him face down in front of where he had been sitting. He has his hands under his body, in his attempt to break his fall. The cops want to get his hands in order to handcuff him, but prevent themselves from doing so because they are sitting on him. Mehserle was standing up over them all. He was superfluous, unnecessary to the scene, under no threat, and with nothing to be gained. There was no struggle other than that of the cops with themselves. Yet somehow, Mehserle feels the necessity to act, as if in answer to some hidden arbitrary psychological drive. He pulls out his gun and shoots Grant. His excuse is that he thought he was reaching for his taser, but that is totally false. The gun and taser are worn on opposite sides of the body. His taser was on his left side. He reached on his right side with his right hand, and pulled the weapon that was there. It is all on video.

What do I mean by a drive, whether psychological or cultural? We remember Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Tyisha Miller, all killed during the 1990s in massive fusillades from police guns. Forty-one bullets were shot at Diallo. The last two bullets to enter his body went through the bottoms of his feet. It was as if a rigor mortis had set in on the trigger fingers of the cops. Either that or their primary concern was the act of shooting someone, an act totally divorced from the reality of the situation, from the mere act of detaining or identifying a person, or stopping a threat.1  It happened again in Sean Bell's murder. He was sitting in his car talking to friends when the police (in plainclothes) opened fire. And again, Tyisha Miller was passed out in the front seat of her car, parked in a gas station early in the morning in LA. Four cops approached the car, banged on the window, and when she opened her eyes, opened fire through the windows.

Those killings have become iconic. But the epidemic now in progress has added something to that.

Oscar Grant was shot in the back while on the ground with three cops sitting on him. Alan Blueford was shot while lying on his back for having run from an arbitrary police challenge. Kenneth Harding was shot in the back for jumping a $2 bus fare. Gary King was shot in the back for walking away from an officer. Ramarley Graham, a teenager in the Bronx, was spotted by police going into his tenement and shot in his own apartment when they followed and broke down the door. Kenneth Chamberlain was shot in his own apartment for having refused to open the door to police answering an accidental and false medical assistance alert. In the aggregate, there is a common thread, one which throws out the old tired notion that these are rogue cops. Each killing was an immediate response to disobedience to a command. Each killing represents a demand for obedience. If there is a common thread, then it represents something departmental, as well as personal. Or rather, it is structural as well as individual. And if we examine the structure of these killings, we will see that even the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia follows suit. That was a killing in which the entire judicial machine of Georgia was involved.

The structure of the killings and the killers

With that introduction, let us begin with a closer look at Oscar Grant's killing. When the three cops picked Grant out, pulling him up off the ground in order to throw him back down on the platform, they did so as a simple show of force. They could have told him, "stand up, we're going to handcuff you, you're being arrested." They didn't do that. They pulled him up and then threw him down. There was no struggle, no resistance. And Mehserle is standing over them all.

Mehserle's act was not only unnecessary, having no role to play in any process of arrest, it was so arbitrary as to be irrelevant to the situation, totally disconnected from reality. Indeed, the situation itself was totally arbitrary, something the police themselves created by putting Grant in a position where he appeared to be disobedient because his hands were under his body. Grant was to be handcuffed and arrested for being the victim of an arbitrary police action. Mehserle's act of killing even went beyond the multiple criminality of the police instigating struggle, entrapping Grant in disobedience, and extorting submission. It was as if the only thing he could think to do was shoot this person. Its uselessness implies that it only answered a need and desire on Mehserle's part. In the absence of relevance, what Mehserle chose to do was express himself toward this inert body on the platform, and toward these other officers with whom he worked. That need and desire testifies to a fixation. It is a fixation simply with killing this black person.

Perhaps it was a psychological need. Who knows? Nevertheless, it has another component. It has an intentionality that contained two (perhaps unacknowledged) assumptions. First, killing a black person has an historically-conditioned cultural permissability about it in the US. Second, one can almost rely on forthcoming official approbation after the fact. These two assumptions were granted Mehserle by the media and his department. After the murder, he was put on administrative leave with pay, giving him the official benefit of the doubt. And the media refused any such benefit to Grant, looking for something in his past with which to disparage him, while dutifully reporting that Mehserle had made a mistake and had been reaching for his taser.

The killing of Alan Blueford reveals a similar fixation. When Blueford took off running, in the middle of the night, the cop chased him a few blocks. Finally catching up with him, he knocks Blueford to the ground and, though Blueford is on his back surrendering, shoots him three times, killing him. He then shoots himself in the leg to make it look like there had been a gun fight. It was as if the cop had decided in advance that he was going to shoot Blueford, regardless of any extenuating circumstances (such as surrender or incapacitation). Like Mehserle, he acted purely in relation to himself, to a necessity irrelevant to the situation and wholly internal to himself. His focus was on a need and desire to shoot this black man, not on the law nor on his job nor on what constituted criminal activity, nor on the possibility of his own criminality. This black man became an object to be used, abstractly, to fulfill a fixation with an internal need. Perhaps Blueford ran from the cop because he had an intuition of that fixation, that he was no stranger to it on the part of the police.

On July 10, 2012, Wichita police shot and killed Karen Jackson, a crippled grandmother who had not even the strength to lift her own grandchild, for attacking them with a knife, a whiskey bottle, and a fire igniter all at once, while carrying her purse in her hands. She's black (just to keep the thread straight). They shot her four times in the chest. DeJuan Colbert was shot by Wichita police who caught him robbing a Dollar Store. Three cops came to the door, and stopped. Colbert dropped his knife and said "I give up." And the cops shot him 13 times. A black man (or woman) cannot surrender to a cop who is intent on shooting a black person. White men can surrender, as did the Aurora killer, after shooting up a movie theater, killing many. Whatever it is that goes on in the cop's mind when he gets the idea that he has to shoot a black man, I am calling it a fixation, meaning that his action is guided by something for which there is no extant external necessity, nor threat. It simply refers to a fixated decision to shoot.

In Blueford's case, as in Grant's, the media reported the police account without interviewing any of the many witnesses that were there and saw the killing. The police, the coroner, the Oakland city administration and City Council have all conjoined in stalling the report of what happened. Four months later, there is still no report. Three threads are evident in the two cases. There is the arbitrary creation of a situation in which the police demand obedience; there is a fixation on killing in response to disobedience; and there is an endorsing collective hand on the gun that kills, a complicity with the shooter by the department, the media, and the political structure. As the media examines each participant - the police, the DA, the city council, the media itself - reviewing aspects of the event which it then declares valid procedure, according to regulations, the young man is killed again and again.

The same threads are evident in the killing of Ramarley Graham. A cop was driving by (February 2, 2012), saw Graham on the stoop of his building in the Bronx, and decided, all by himself, that Graham was armed. So he stopped. Graham saw him stop, turned and went into his home. The cop followed, broke down the door, found Graham in the bathroom, and shot him. This happened inside Graham's home, the house he lived in. There was no sanctuary for Graham from this cop's invented story about him. He was simply an object to be noticed. His command was that Graham open the door, and in the face of Graham's refusal to obey, he killed him. There was only that fixation on obedience, a fixation that made killing permissible to him. (But he went too far, and the city had to indict him for manslaughter, since it occurred in someone's house.)

In the case of Kenneth Chamberlain, the threads continue. This time, there are a number of cops demanding entry into Chamberlain's home, though only one does the shooting. None of the others stop him, so it occurs in the context of a kind of crowd hysteria. Chamberlain was a war veteran with a bad heart. He wore a device that monitored his heart and could signal a medical emergency to a local health care office. In the middle of the night, his device accidentally sent a signal. The health care dispatcher had no doctors to call at that moment, so the police were called. They came to the door, demanded entry, and when Chamberlain said he was all right, and that they should go away, they broke down the door and shot him to death. Again, a story was invented about what was happening inside this black man's house, a story that produced a totally self-oriented desire to correct the fantasy imagined by this group of officers, and a collective need to fulfill that desire. What they all assumed for themselves was the need to kill this black man, as a common fixation which drove them to break down the door. They saw it as their duty to make their need and desire into an element of law. The group of officers, the department in not charging them with a crime, and the media in accepting the police account, all constitute a collective hand on the gun again.

Rather than go over the different manipulations of the media in each case, we can get a sense of its role in one exemplary comparison. On April 2, 2012, an Asian man who was studying at Oikos college in Oakland brought a gun to the school and killed 6 white people. The media reported the event, and then spent a lot of time on the lives of these 6 victims. Who were they? What were they doing? What were their families like? What have other people lost by their deaths? With respect to the shooter, only the question of his motive occupied the media. What had led him to single out white people? Six days later, on April 8, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two armed white men drove into a black neighborhood and started shooting people at random on the street. They killed three and wounded two. This time, the media does not pay attention to the victims, nor what the victim's families and friends lost by these murders. The media focused on the shooters. Who were they? What were their families like? Where did they come from? About the victims' families, and how they lived in this black neighborhood, there is not a word. The media thus grants humanity and personhood to white people, and withholds it from people who are not white. In the police murders we have been listing here, the media has dutifully played that role.

Trayvon Martin

Now, Trayvon Martin follows suit, revealing these same threads. Yet how he was killed on a rainy night in February in Florida marks an historical turning point, not in the course of history but in our awareness of it.

George Zimmerman sees Trayvon Martin walking home with some groceries in Sanford, Florida. He follows in his car, and calls the police to tell them what he sees. The police say they will send a squad car, but Zimmerman continues to follow Martin. In fact, he gets out of his car and stalks him so overtly that Martin turns and cries out, "why are you following me?" Nevertheless, after he shoots Martin, Zimmerman claims self-defense, that Martin hit him. The police do not place Zimmerman under arrest because they say that have no evidence one way or the other (photos or otherwise) if it was self-defense or not. In addition, the Attorney-General of Florida called the Sanford police that same night and told them not to arrest Zimmerman.

Three weeks later, a photo is produced of Zimmerman with his face bruised and his nose bleeding, which would have been evidence of his having been attacked. But at the time, the police said they had no evidence, which means they didn't have that photo on the night of the killing, and only obtained it afterward (by what means?). Had those bruises been in evidence on the night of the shooting, we can only imagine the spectacle the press would have made of it, denouncing what this black guy had done to a responsible citizen. Instead, the media simply reports Zimmerman's story that he acted in self-defense, that he was attacked by this young man who he himself was criminally stalking. The next day, a video surfaced (and was shown on network news) showing Zimmerman walking into the police station that same night, with no wounds and no blood on his face.

In effect, officialdom from the top to the bottom of the judicial machine (from the Attorney-General to the police and the media) united in endorsing Zimmerman's story of killing in self-defense. Zimmerman was given every benefit of the doubt, and not even arrested, while Martin was condemned. He is labelled a trouble-maker in the media because of some minor teenage independence in school, as if to say that he deserved it. Zimmerman was commended under the "Stand-Your-Ground" principle recently legislated in Florida – though Martin was the one standing his ground against someone who was stalking him with a gun. In effect, the media reduces the victim's humanity to a question mark, as a means of valorizing Zimmerman's story. It takes weeks of demonstrations around the country, and federal intervention, to finally indict the killer.

The thematic threads we have identified are all in place here. The situation is created by a white man who notices a black man, who would otherwise be simply some guy walking somewhere, perhaps home. It is an arbitrary situation, devoid of any necessity, other than the white man's need to do something to this black man. That is, Zimmerman is fixated on this black teenager when he gets out of his car and follows him. In so doing, Zimmerman is creating the raciality of this situation. He is enacting the idea that race is something that one group of people does to others, that white people do to those they define as "other." He has a gun, he purposefully makes his stalking of Martin a provocation, and shoots him. The killing is the direct outcome of a fixation that brings him out of his car and to Martin's attention, a desire and need to get that attention, to provoke in order to claim self-defense. It is the same kind of fixation Mehserle revealed, and with the same presumption of impunity. Insofar as the police and political structure refuse to arrest Zimmerman, they all join the killer in concert, and the crime becomes a collective crime, with a metaphorically collective hand on the gun.

Troy Davis—institutions do the same kind of killing

Having identified the common threads in so many of these incidents, these murders, let us look at a case in which the immediacy of momentary interaction is absent, the case of Troy Davis.

Davis, a black man, was indicted for a murder that occurred in a mall parking lot late at night in Georgia. He pleads not guilty, and states that he wasn't even there at the time of the shooting, though he says he knew the man who was arguing with the victim, and had quickly left the area out of a premonition that something bad was about to occur. The trial produced no physical evidence to tie him to the killing; there was no ballistic evidence, no GSR. There was only the testimony of seven witnesses, only two of whom were at the scene. He was convicted, and appealed. The media presents his trial as a fair trial, an instance of equality before the law, while Davis himself is demonized and denigrated as an unemployed vagrant who is often in trouble with the police (without mentioning their profiling black people).

His appeals occurred with minimal funds. In each of his three attempts to put together the reality of the absence of a case against him, he is unable make a full case. It means interviewing, reinvestigating witnesses, getting police statements, and examining police reports and evidence. His appeals fail. In each case, he or his supporters (such as the Southern Law Center) run out of funds, before they can collect evidence for a full argument. He does get to the Georgia Supreme Court in 2000, and loses again there. After he goes through these appeals, and is turned down owing to a refusal on the part of the Georgia judicial system to take his partial arguments and put them together into a whole argument (on its own, in the interest of justice), a mass movement forms to get his sentence commuted or his execution delayed – in the interest of justice. Six of the witnesses recant their testimony, claiming the police pressured them to tell a different story than what they saw or knew. One witness refuses to, the one who was there in the parking lot, arguing with the man who would become the victim. Oddly, he was also not tested for GSR, nor did the police do ballistics examination on his gun. Yet his testimony was believed over Davis's. A petition calling for a retrial garnered a million signatures. A million people called for justice for Davis. The Georgia judicial system refused. In March of 2012, Davis was executed by the state.

In effect, the entire judicial system in Georgia was united in ratifying a corrupt and insubstantial process of conviction, over the course of 20 years, in order to kill this man. Here, the issue of a fixation with killing a black man occurs at an institutional level. The state had no necessity to kill him, nothing to prove by doing so in the face of contrary accounts, the recantations of testimony, and the absence of concrete evidence. Nothing in the case was "beyond a shadow of a doubt." There was only a need and a desire to kill this man on the part of a social and political institution, a collectivity of people at the judicial, the political, and the media levels. Just as in the case of Zimmerman and his killing of Martin, there was the same unity and mutual support, extending over 20 years, to culminate finally in the killing it collectively desired. To understand that fixation with killing a black man to extend over a 20 year period in the face of what contradicted it renders that fixation a cultural fixture, far from the notion of a "rogue" element in the judicial machine.

The substance of these threads, which involve the collectivity of the killer, an impunity in the act of killing, the fact of political policy, the assumption of cultural approbation, and a judicial immunity from disrespect and condemnation for the killer and the killing, conjoin in a collective meaning, a social act of valorization of the killer. All these threads stretch from Georgia through Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin to the Oakland City Council and its stonewalling of the Blueford family.

There is a complex relationship here between the one who pulls the trigger and an institutionality. It is not a political relationship, because no policy is made – the policy had been made all along. It is not an economic relation, because there is no gain or asset created, and nothing in the job description of these people, the cops, the white vigilante, and judges and DAs, that require these killings. It’s a cultural relationship, a relationship between an identity, the identity that allows a killer to assume a certain social approbation for his act, and the institutionality that will continue to respect and support him in its wake. Indeed, the killer himself, in each case, has some confidence that it will support him, and even valorize the killing. In the killing of Trayvon Martin, only popular outrage across the country transformed that valorization into an indictment.

The confidence in institutional solidarity that the killer must feel becomes critical here precisely because there was no extant necessity for the killings. Only the fixation of the killer and the social context they can assume, drives them. That fixation, in the moment preceding the killer reaching for his gun in self-designated necessity, already contains the assumption that what he envisions will receive cultural approval. The killer cannot make the same assumption with respect to a white person as potential victim. The cops don't shoot white people arbitrarily, but only in hostage situations, or some such emergency in which the subject is actually threatening someone with a weapon. But he can make that assumption here before he allows himself to enact his fixation on killing this individual. After that, nothing holds the killer back. He knows that the performance of killing will occur within a cultural framework that will valorize if not wholly legitimize it. And that envisioned valorization is enough to make it permissible. And the confidence of that vision is rooted in a cultural institutionality that already renders each victim beyond the limits of humanity, as fair game. The killer knows he will be breaking no taboo. His act becomes the performance of an act of social racialization.

Thus, there are two relations involved in each killing. The first is the positioning of the man of color as the object of a fixation. It is a cultural fixation, not a psychological one. The second is the killer's confidence in being valorized after the fact by a vast social institutionality before pulling the trigger. The act of killing becomes the performance of more than an established police procedure. Insofar as it is something that happens often to people of color, and rarely to a white person, it becomes an essentially racializing act. The police, and civilian police surrogates such as Zimmerman, are providing a lethal component to a racial dividing line that the white society, since the civil rights movements, has been intent on reconstituting.

The meaning of obedience

These killings represent the fact that this nation has turned a corner. It had turned a corner when the FBI invented its Cointelpro program to disrupt or destroy radical organizations that were actively demanding equality and justice (as opposed to simply petitioning for it). Though these movements essentially wanted the US to live up to its democratic ideals, they were suppressed for that very reason. The US had turned another corner when it decided to expand its prison system to hold the massive numbers of people being criminalized, arrested, and removed from the very communities for which those radical organizations had been demanding equality and justice – a process designed to severely disrupt those communities. It has turned another corner with the emergence of the current epidemic of killings.

But why obedience? When laws are passed, or when social conditions are established, that violate human rights, or which simply violate Constitutional provisions and ethics, even while pretending to be democratic, then absolute obedience is required. We have seen this demand for obedience in the past. During the 1840s and 1850s, after free black people in the north had been disenfranchised, Mexican territory had been assimilated, and slavery was being extended to the new territories with an ever increasing slave trade, all of which stood in direct violation of both human rights and Constitutional guarantees to persons, obedience was required on the part of all those subject to these oppressions and deprivations. And it was enforced with utmost murderousness toward any black resistance, and some white resistance. After Reconstruction was overthrown by para-military gangs throughout the south, and Jim Crow laws were passed to re-enslave black people to debt servitude, the contract-leasing labor system, and the chain-gang, in violation of human rights and Constitutional guarantees, obedience was again required and enforced through mob murder, increasing over the decades until well into the 1930s. And so it is now, a murderous demand for obedience, having built the largest prison system in the world, and having created new levels of impoverishment for black and brown communities through deindustrialization.

In the wake of the three moments of hope for equality and democracy in US history (after the revolution, after the Civil War, and after the civil rights movements), conditions for black and brown people just got progressively worse, and more lethal, over the succeeding decades. It has happened three times now. We have to understand what corner the US has turned, and what the pattern from past epochs tells us about it.

1But we do not tend to remember Patrick Dorismund or Malcolm Ferguson. Diallo and Bell were frontpage news for a few days, but little was said in the media about Ferguson or Dorismund. Both were active in organizing and rallying the outraged people of NYC, demanding the prosecution of the cops who slaughtered Diallo. Both were killed by cops during the month following the four cops' acquittal. In those cases, what the media presented was the police account of who they were. A serious demonization for being drug traffickers or parole jumpers was heaped on the victims. In Dorismund's case, he was approached by a narc seeking to "buy" drugs, and when Dorismund told him to leave him alone, shot him. They were both likely in the cops' cross-hairs because of their activism.

A significant incident occurred during Dorismund's funeral in Brooklyn. There was a rally, and then a march down to the church where the funeral was going to take place. The cops broke up the march about 50 feet from the church, and started beating people at random. A black reporter from WBAI was on his cell phone reporting live (on the air) about what was happening right in front of his eyes. The cops saw him and started beating him, obviously because he was black, since there were white reporters who didn't attract the cops' attention. He was on the phone saying, "They're beating me up right now," and this is going out over the air. The reporter ended up in the hospital, and nothing ever happened to those cops.

Steve Martinot is a human rights activist and community organizer living in the Bay Area. He has worked as a machinist and truck driver in New York City and Akron, and taught writing and literature in Boulder and San Francisco. He has organized unions, led a wildcat strike, and edited underground community newspapers. He has seven books published on philosophy and historical analysis. Among them are The Rule of Racialization, and The Machinery of Whiteness, both from Temple University Press. His latest is a pamphlet on “The Need to Abolish the Prison System.”

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Copyright © Steve Martinot. All rights reserved.