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  • Chazz Williams

The Trauma of Blackness: The Use of Deadly Force

Updated: Sep 12





“ In the Black community, when it comes to our son’s, there are two vital conversations we must have. One is to guard against bringing life into the world prematurely, and the other is to guard against prematurely losing one’s own life to police practices, while navigating through this world.”

The closest person I had to a brother growing up in Chicago was my cousin Blake. Blake had once purchased property on the south side of the city, not far where we’d grown up. With the property under construction for renovations, Blake with his construction crew, went for an inspection one evening. The property had been fenced in for safety, so they sought to enter through an external chained gate. Suspected of breaking into the property, Police were called and the young men were confronted by officers, ordered to step away from the gate and lay on the ground. While lying face down on the ground as instructed, Blake attempted to explain his ownership of the property, which agitated one of the officers. I recall getting the phone call informing me that Blake had been shot in the head and killed by a police officer.

For years I grappled with this question of how law enforcement officers, who I’d always believed were trained to handle conflict in ways that would make ordinary citizens marvel, would be so eager to use deadly force. Growing up in Chicago, I’d only seen Police violence against Black men and boys. I never understood why, but it seemed that Blacks were always getting ourselves into trouble, and whites were generally pretty law abiding. After all, the Black Panthers were getting arrested, the protesters during the Civil Rights marches on television were getting arrested, it only seemed to be happening to us. The trauma of losing Blake in this way, made death by police more real to me and something that has always concerned me.


One of the most devastating aspects of divorce, was the knowledge that I would no longer be a daily fixture in the lives of my children. The inability to consistently be present as your children’s protector is quite painful. One weekend, my kids were attending the Family Fun Center to celebrate a friend’s birthday. There was bowling, and pizza and skating for all to enjoy. I was not in attendance, but later received a call from my children's mom informing me of an incident that had occurred when she briefly stepped away from the table. She shared that while my kids were sitting down for pizza and fries, my son was attempting to open a package of ketchup in a way that would only make sense to a 7 year old boy. He lay the packet on the table and pounded it with his little fist. The ketchup sprayed out of the packet, and with laser accuracy landed in the hair of an elderly white woman, who was seated at a table across from my kids. At that moment, the woman noticed what had happened, got up from her table and approached my children. She proceeded to order my son out of his seat, so that she could apparently give him a good talking to.

Immediately the woman’s 30 something year old son joined her as they both cornered my son and began yelling at him. The woman (let’s call her Karen), threatened to call the police and have my 7 year old child arrested. By this time, his mother had returned to find our terrified little boy backed into a corner being accosted by two angry adult strangers. Listening to this account, I recall my heart racing and experiencing feelings of intense anger, when hearing about the threats to call the police. I also realized that I had to have “The Talk” with my son. Obviously not about the Birds and the Bees, although I would have preferred even that conversation to the one I was about to have. In the Black community, when it comes to our son’s, there are two vital conversations we must have. One is to guard against bringing life into the world prematurely, and the other is to guard against prematurely losing one’s own life to police excessive force practices, while navigating through this world.

Although the signs were not immediately apparent, my son and my daughter sustained trauma following that event, and I recognized an uncanny, yet familiar sense of fear surrounding that incident. One might argue that this could just as easily have happened to a little white kid, and while that is true, the important difference lies in the implications. The notion of police being called changes Everything for Blacks, because there are stark differences in the historical outcomes of such events.

Today, with current cell phone technology, we are able to view footage of Police officers using deadly force more and more. With all of the protesting about Police violence against Blacks, you’d think they’d be camera shy and at least try to straighten up in order to avoid disciplinary action. Instead, we saw lethal force used against them. What is it that emboldens law enforcement officers to take extreme measures against Blacks, despite the body cams, cell phones and street surveillance cameras on every corner? At this point, I thought it would be nice to be able to include the number of killings of Blacks by police officers in a given year, but the closest I could come was from Mapping Police Violence, a crowdsourced database that includes deaths by vehicle, tasering, or beating in addition to shootings estimates 25 police killings of unarmed Black men in 2019.


However, The Guardian reported in 2015 that the police killings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others who were unarmed when they died, were “missing from the federal government’s official record of homicides by officers because most departments refuse to submit data.” The numbers are likely much higher due to the consistent widespread underreporting.

That said, when we examine the cases that are brought to light, it’s alarming how many seem to be open and shut, and yet a legal precedent more often than not exonerates the accused officer. When there has been a conviction, as in the case of Amber Guyger, the police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man after invading his apartment, penalties amount to a slap on the wrist. In some video accounts, police are now seen taunting the individual with the camera, encouraging them to continue recording, one officer even being taped saying to the victim “You’re about to get your (double expletive) kicked in front of God and all creation!”

One strong argument for the emboldened behavior of officers is the legal doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity’s purpose was to protect government employees from frivolous litigation, but has instead become the shield in thousands of lawsuits that are seeking to hold police officers accountable when they are accused of excessive force. The law actually says that families of victims of civil rights abuses, can hold officers accountable, in an act passed by congress during Reconstruction called the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Interestingly, qualified immunity was not passed by congress, but was invented by the courts! It basically says, we don’t care about the KKK Act, we are going to make these officers immune, unless you can point to a case that involved the same conduct, and the same context, where the court told some other officer that it was wrong. From the years 2005 – 2007, 44 percent of cases of qualified immunity favored police officers, but in more recent cases, 2017 – 2019, more than 57 percent of qualified immunity cases favor police. Additionally, there have been a number of supreme court rulings in between, that have made it much more difficult for plaintiffs to overcome qualified immunity. Associate supreme court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been very outspoken against qualified immunity stating,


“It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.” - Sonia Sotomayor (Associate Supreme Court Justice)

Qualified immunity amounts to an open season hunting license for police officers to kill Blacks. It is a perfect example of what Dr. King called “white backlash”. King reminded us that “Whenever America has taken steps toward racial progress, it has simultaneously taken steps toward racial regression.” The Ku Klux Klan law of 1871, protected Blacks from lynching’s by civilians and killings by police, but qualified immunity by the courts has nullified that protection.

It often offends me how the proverbial eyes of my white friends glaze over when we discuss race and more specifically police brutality. Their explanations and rationalizations for why this happens is evidence of what James Baldwin calls “guilt by imagination”. Blacks have always been imagined to be a problem. We are called Thugs and Vandals, N words who need to be exterminated. In reality the trauma of the Black experience lingers as terrorism reinvents itself decade after decade. When I think of Police brutality and the violence against the peaceful protestors who advocate for Black lives, I am reminded of a time when Dick Cavett interviewed James Baldwin.

Cavett: {regarding Baldwin’s statements about police brutality} “ I do think that you overstate for rhetorical purposes sometimes… I just think that you risk being misunderstood by people who would be sympathetic by what sounds like too broad a statement”
Baldwin: “Historically speaking, it may have occurred to me now, that I have lived with your sympathy a long time and I can possibly live without it.” Baldwin goes on to explain that he is aware that all policeman aren’t bad, “but I’m talking about the structure with which these people work… Police in the ghetto are not there to protect My Life, they are there to protect Your Property.”

Say their names: Blake Todd, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ataliana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Janisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Gabriella Nevarez, Jamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, and the list goes on…


References: The Trauma of Blackness

1. #JamesBaldwin

2. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

3. The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871: Historical Highlights

history.house.gov

4. Qualified immunity /Wex/US Law/Legal information Institute

Cornell University

5. Mappingpoliceviolence.org A comprehensive database

6. Washington Post April 3, 2018 by Eugene Scott: Supreme Court justice affirms activists’ fears…



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