In the days and weeks following George Floyd’s death in May, activists flooded the streets with placards and slogans to denounce racism and police violence. But the zeal with which they mobilized support for their cause frequently clouded complex issues and events that demanded greater scrutiny than conviction and piety provide. For partisans on social media, hearsay and rumor became grist to ideological mills and facts were only relevant if they were politically useful. An inquisitorial climate developed in which everyone was expected to take a side without unseemly hesitation. Are you on the side of social justice or are you on the side of racial oppression? Silence on this question is violence, we were told. As a result, a rush to judgment is disfiguring how we consume and understand reports of events unfolding rapidly in confusing circumstances. The political biases of the loudest voices may be obvious and their manipulations may be crude, but doubt and restraint risk accusations of callousness and racism, which is often motivation enough to declare one’s allegiance before the facts are in.
When a white police officer named Rusten Sheskey shot a 29-year-old black man named Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23rd, a viral video of the incident sparked immediate protests and riots. As nuances began to emerge that placed the shooting in its proper context, they were either dismissed as unimportant or ignored entirely. The police, it turned out, were responding to a call from Blake’s girlfriend Laquisha Booker, who dialed 911 to report that Blake was on her property in violation of a restraining order and that he had stolen her car keys. The restraining order had been issued following an incident on May 3rd, during which Blake had broken into Booker’s home at 6am (ostensibly to collect his belongings) and allegedly sexually assaulted her by penetrating her with his fingers. Before the officers arrived at the scene, the dispatcher had notified them of Blake’s outstanding warrants for felony sexual assault, trespassing, and disorderly conduct.
The account of the subsequent escalation between the cops and Blake is presently incomplete, but several crucial details have come to light. Raysean White, who recorded the shooting, said he saw Blake scuffling with the officers and heard the officers yell, “Drop the knife! Drop the knife!” White also claimed he “didn’t see any weapons in [Blake’s] hands; he wasn’t being violent.” Police union lawyer Brendan Matthews has since stated that Jacob Blake “fought with the officers, including putting one of the officers in a headlock.” After both officers failed to subdue Blake with tasers, they followed him with their firearms drawn as he walked to the driver’s side of a gray SUV and opened the door. As he leaned into the car, Officer Sheskey grabbed Blake’s tank top and fired seven times. Four of those shots struck Blake in the back. Three of his children were in the car at the time.
At a press conference on August 26th, Wisconsin Justice Department’s Attorney General Josh Kaul revealed that a knife was in fact recovered from the driver-side floorboard of the SUV. Kaul also revealed that Blake had “admitted that he had a knife in his possession” during the initial interaction. The Wisconsin Department of Justice expects to complete its high-profile investigation “within 30 days,” and in the meantime questions remain. Was Jacob Blake reaching for a knife? Was he holding it at the time he was shot? And did Officer Sheskey have a reasonable fear for his own safety—or the safety of others—when he shot Blake? Emerging details appear to support the officer’s story, but unanswered questions remain critical to our understanding of the altercation. We simply don’t yet have enough facts to conclude whether the shooting was definitively justified or not.
Notwithstanding the revelations of Blake’s criminal history and noncompliance at the scene, many remain sympathetic to him. Being shot multiple times in the back at such close range does seem excessive, even if the officer had reason to fear for his own safety. Some have objected that the officers should have found a way to de-escalate the situation before a recourse to potentially deadly violence became necessary. However, Officer Sheskey did not know if Blake had a gun or some other weapon concealed in the car, nor what he planned to do with such a weapon had he been allowed to retrieve it. And had Blake been allowed to get into his car and drive away in defiance of the officers’ attempts to take him into custody, the possibility remained of a high-speed chase which could have put many more lives at risk, including those of his three children.
Instead, Blake was paralyzed from the waist down after the bullets shattered his vertebrae. The shooting occurred in front of his sons, who are aged three, five, and eight. No doubt they will be traumatized by what they saw. Millions of people have since watched Raysean White’s recording of the incident. The video naturally evokes moral repulsion, but that shouldn’t determine our interpretation of the facts. In its reporting of the Blake shooting, much of the media has discarded careful analysis and due process. They sought to capture and define the moment with headlines like CNN’s “Jacob Blake’s shooting shows America has a long way to go in its journey toward a racial reckoning.” The day after the shooting, David A. Graham, a staff writer at the Atlantic, flatly declared that, “It’s nearly impossible to imagine any way that his shooting was justified.”
Wisconsin governor Tony Evers, meanwhile, told the press that “The previous protests across the state of Wisconsin are absolutely evidence that we’ve got 400 years of systemic racism in this country.” On Twitter, he announced that Blake is “not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country.” He also condemned the “excessive use of force” applied to black Americans. Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes told a press conference that “we don’t need an investigation to know that Blake’s shooting falls in a long and painful pattern of violence. And this is a pattern of violence that happens against black lives too often across this country.” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden tweeted “Once again, a Black man—Jacob Blake—was shot by the police. In front of his children. It makes me sick. Is this the country we want to be?” Not to be outdone, his running-mate Kamala Harris blithely announced that “the life of a black person in America has never been treated as fully human.”
Reactions extended well beyond the realm of politics. Blake’s shooting influenced the Milwaukee Bucks to boycott their scheduled first-round game 5 matchup against the Orlando Magic. This triggered the postponement of a number of scheduled sporting events, with staged boycotts by athletes in the NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS, and WNBA. The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens demanded that the officer who shot Blake and those who killed other African Americans must be brought to justice as a way to “accept accountability and acknowledge the ramifications of slavery and racial injustice.” Perhaps the most astonishing statement came from tennis player Naomi Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, who took to Twitter to condemn what she called the “continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police.” (According to Washington Post and National Weather Service data, an unarmed black man is more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by the police.)
A number of performers in the 2020 Video Music Awards took the opportunity to participate in some social justice activism of their own. Rapper DaBaby stomped on the roof of a police car onstage in front of a burning cityscape, and several popular figures commented on the Jacob Blake shooting. Rapper 50 Cent described it as “attempted murder.” In a tweet that hasn’t aged well (and it’s only days old) comedian Kevin Hart complained that Blake “could have been tased” instead of shot. In a letter for Vogue, prominent singer-songwriter Demi Lovato opened up about her “privilege” as a white person and lamented: “I hated that I shared the same skin color as the people accused of committing heinous crimes against Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many, many other Black lives… So here I am, sitting in a home that I was able to afford with the money that I have from singing, while people of color are fearing for their lives every day.”
Those demanding that everyone speak up and speak out may not like what they hear. Observers who reserve judgment until the facts emerge do not always end up ratifying received wisdom, because tidy political narratives rarely reflect the complexities of reality. It is worth remembering that, in the wake of the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, it was generally agreed that Brown died while trying to surrender, his hands raised as he begged the officer not to shoot him. But “hands up, don’t shoot” did not happen. Wilson was cleared of all charges in two state investigations and by Barack Obama’s Justice Department because the evidence supported his version of events. The truth of what happened in Ferguson remains disputed to this day by those whose biases preclude a fair-minded assessment of the facts. On August 9th, Joe Biden tweeted, “It’s been six years since Michael Brown’s life was taken in Ferguson—reigniting a movement. We must continue the work of tackling systemic racism and reforming policing.”
On May 25th, George Floyd died as four officers from the Minneapolis police department tried to take him into custody. Cell phone footage of his last moments appeared to show that he had been suffocated by racist cops as he begged for his life. Massive nationwide protests against police brutality and racism spontaneously erupted, some of which quickly escalated into riots. In response to demands for immediate justice from across the political spectrum, Minneapolis authorities charged Officer Derek Chauvin with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter within four days of Floyd’s death. Days later, the first charge was upgraded to murder in the second degree and Chauvin’s colleagues were charged with aiding and abetting that crime.
To most people (myself included), Chauvin’s conviction initially looked to be a foregone conclusion—the crime had, after all, been committed in broad daylight in front of multiple witnesses, one of whom had recorded it and broadcast it on social media. But this narrative has been complicated as more information has become available. The toxicology results included in the Hannepin County Medical Examiner’s Report revealed that Floyd had taken a potentially lethal amount of an extremely powerful opiate the day he died. Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, concluded that the autopsy “revealed no physical evidence suggesting that Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation,” that Floyd’s level of fentanyl was “pretty high” and was potentially at a “fatal level.”
According to the medical examiner’s autopsy report, Floyd subsequently died of cardiopulmonary arrest, a not uncommon consequence of fentanyl overdose, an outcome possibly aggravated by the discovery that Floyd was suffering from two underlying cardiac conditions: arteriosclerotic heart disease (described as “multifocal” and “severe”) and hypertensive heart disease. In a June 1st memo, the attorney general declared that “[Baker] said that if Mr. Floyd had been found dead in his home (or anywhere else) and there were no other contributing factors he would conclude that it was an overdose death.” The officers’ body cam footage, meanwhile, has revealed that when Floyd was approached by officers called to the scene after he passed a counterfeit bill in a convenience store, he was acting erratically, resisting arrest, foaming at the corners of his mouth, and complaining of respiratory distress before he was restrained on the ground. Furthermore, the “conscious neck restraint” technique used to subdue Floyd was in fact permitted in Minneapolis under such circumstances by the official use of force policy.
Now, on present evidence, one may reasonably contend that the cops were nevertheless negligent in failing to heed Floyd’s distressed pleas and continuing to restrain him after he lost consciousness. But there is as yet no clear evidence of racist motivations (the officers at the scene were a racially diverse quartet), nor of brutality. That an uncooperative and intoxicated suspect died in police custody does not necessarily mean he was murdered. We do not yet have a complete account from the officers of their own decisions, which will no doubt be revealed at trial. But it will be the jury’s task to examine the particular facts of what happened that evening, not to adjudicate grand media narratives about systemic racism, even though that is how this case was tried in the media.
When Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot by Atlanta PD officer Garrett Rolfe on June 12th, the media once again concluded the killing had been motivated by racism before any evidence supporting that conclusion had emerged. MSNBC, CNN, and the Daily Mail all described Brooks as “unarmed,” but the facts tell a different story. Brooks wrestled with and assaulted two officers during a routine DUI inquiry, stole a taser, and fired it at the officers as he fled. In a detailed New York Times video investigation, Brooks can be seen with his body tilted towards Officer Rolfe with the taser still pointed directly at him, when Rolfe fired. Impervious to these crucial details, demonstrators burned down the Wendy’s restaurant where the shooting took place, set fire to several nearby cars, and an 8-year-old girl called Secoriea Turner died in the subsequent rioting when the car she was in was shot at by someone at the scene of the protest. Yet, few will have heard Turner’s name since her death doesn’t indict systemic police racism.
They may not have heard the name of David Dorn either, a 77-year-old African American retired police captain fatally shot by a looter during the Floyd protests in St. Louis. In the same city, Officer Tamarris L. Bohannon (who was also black) was shot in the head and killed last Sunday in the line of duty after tracking a shooting suspect. On August 30th, the same day Bohannon died, two officers in Chicago were shot during a traffic stop. Police Superintendent David Brown said the officers spotted a gun in the vehicle and broke the windows when the suspect refused to comply with their commands. According to the police statement, “While attempting to place the individual into custody, a struggle ensued, and the offender fired multiple shots, striking both officers.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot pointed out that this incident challenges the notion that “defunding” the police department is a particularly smart idea. This tragedy followed an August 5th shooting in which another Chicago PD officer was shot and injured while responding to a domestic dispute. Statistically, an American cop is shot nearly every day in the line of duty, and officers often have to make critical, split-second decisions when their own lives—or the lives of others—are imperiled.
On August 10th, 2020, hundreds of people rioted in downtown Chicago. The mob was likely incited by a false rumor circulating on social media that police officers had just killed a 15-year-old black kid. It took the police hours to restore order, and Superintendent David Brown declared, “This was not an organized protest. Rather, this was an incident of pure criminality. This was an act of violence against our police officers and against our city.” The actual event that triggered this riot was not the shooting death of a 15-year-old, but the shooting of 20-year-old Latrell Allen, who allegedly fled from the authorities and fired at them. When two officers returned fire, they hit him five times but didn’t kill him because all five bullets missing his vital organs.
Outrage does not bring about justice; it does precisely the opposite. The reaction to the shooting of Jacob Blake was immediate and intense. A riot has engulfed Kenosha in violence, and two protesters were killed as they rushed an armed teenager from Illinois. Kenosha is a small city of around 100,000 people, and in the wake of “protests” that CNN notoriously described as “fiery but mostly peaceful,” millions of dollars’ worth of damage has been done to public property, and tens of millions in damage has been inflicted upon private property. Car Source, a dealership owned by an Indian immigrant, was attacked by a mob. Car windows were smashed and vehicles were set alight. Over $2.5 million of damage was done, and the insurance company might not cover these losses, since it may decide that the destruction was “domestic terrorism.” In a heartbreaking interview, the owner stated “I’m a minority too. I’m a brown person. I have nothing to do with this.” He added: “This is not the America I came into.” The city’s large-scale damage will have long-term ramifications. Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian said the city will request $30 million in aid from the state to help rebuild. Other cities such as Chicago, have lost an estimated $60 million to physical damage in the downtown area, contributing to the crime-plagued city’s historic $1.2 billion budget shortfall, which will undoubtedly lead to funding cuts that only exacerbate racial inequality.
In contrast to the rioters and looters on the street, Jacob Blake’s mother Julia Jackson has comported herself with great dignity and restraint in the aftermath of her son’s shooting. “I want it to be known that I have the utmost respect for our police departments, and I don’t believe that all police officers are monsters or anything like that,” Jackson told MSNBC. “There’s a few bad apples in every walk of life. And people make bad decisions, and they have a horrible job. And it’s scary, I get that.” She added, “I just wish there was more training, more something that they would choose better and learn how to diffuse a situation instead of shooting people when not necessary. In some cases, it may be necessary, but in this case, and several, several others, it was not. So I’m not trying to, just for the record, I’m not trying to demonize police. I have some officers that I am very close to and have a good relationship with them.” Jackson also condemned violence and looting without equivocation: “My family and I are very hurt and quite frankly disgusted. And as his mother please don’t burn up property and cause havoc and tear your own homes down in my son’s name.”
On September 1st, Jacob Blake’s family held a community gathering, including a clean-up of the wreckage in ravaged segments of the town. Those closest to the victims of alleged police brutality are often more averse to riots (as with George Floyd’s family and many others) and looting than social justice activists who demonstrate on the streets.
And yet we are seeing the fraying of order, reason, and due process as radicals and arsonists attempt to burn down the supposedly endemically racist structures of American society. Regions such as Portland and Seattle, and now small-town Kenosha, are suffering from the complete collapse of the rule of law as weak and cynical politicians and ideologically motivated pundits exploit anarchy for political advantage. It wasn’t long ago that Barack Obama declared he had “no sympathy” for violence and sent 1,500 National Guard troops into Missouri to quell riots in the aftermath of Ferguson. But today, partisan local officials obstinately reject federal aid and President Trump adds gasoline to the fire by lambasting Portland mayor Ted Wheeler on Twitter. On a cultural level, emphatic condemnation of riots has become heretical even in mainstream journalistic and educational circles. Under the guise of social justice activism, “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,” according to the New York Times‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Three new incidents have emerged in recent days in Los Angeles, Rochester, and Washington, D.C. Once again, determinations are being made by commentators and activists about excessive force, racist motives, and systemic causes before the facts are in. The time has come for a serious conversation about police brutality, criminal justice reform, and how political polarization prevents progress. Until due process is enshrined in our political zeitgeist and lawlessness is tamed, the disintegration of civil society will only amplify racial inequality, embolden extremists on both sides, and exacerbate ideological tensions.
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