On Sept. 16, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher was waiting for help on the side of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, highway. He was fatally shot by a white police officer. Just days later, on Sept. 20, 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by police outside of his apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both men were black. Both of their lives matter. In the wake of these tragic shootings, white Americans often try to grasp onto any reason why an individual somehow deserved what happened. Here are five false narratives regarding police violence against black Americans, and how to counter them.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of black Americans said there needed to be more changes and progress for them to have equal rights in the United States. On the other hand, only 53 percent of white Americans agreed. In order to make concrete progress toward racial justice, it's important for white people to listen to black voices and believe and uphold their experiences. We cannot and should not debate the value of another person's life experience. White people hold a specific place of power in American society, and we have an important role in dismantling systems of white supremacy. In fact, it's on us and our silence in times of injustice speaks volumes.
Rather than stand by, if you hear someone you know — a white friend, or close family member — propagating a false and racist narrative of an encounter between a black American and a police officer, here are five ways you should counter them.
1. "The Person Was Armed"
Police go through training to de-escalate situations involving armed civilians. It doesn't matter whether an individual was armed or not. In July 2016, Philando Castile was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Yes, he had a gun, but that was also his legal right. Possessing a gun should not be punishable by death.
People often jump to the conclusion that, somehow, an individual deserved to be killed by police because they were carrying a weapon. However, that narrative is only mobilized in cases of police violence against black Americans. Consider how often white Americans carrying guns survive encounters with police. In 2014, a white man from Michigan pointed a rifle at officers outside of a Dairy Queen. Not only did he live, but he retrieved his gun from the police station the following day.
In his BET Awards acceptance speech, Jesse Williams put it clearly when he said, "Police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day."
An armed black person does not deserve to be killed by police.
2. "The Person Was Doing Something Illegal Or Working Illegally"
In 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown had allegedly stolen a pack of cigars from a convenience store before the encounter with law enforcement, prompting some to defend the shooting by suggesting that Brown committed a crime. In reality, it doesn't really matter whether or not he stole anything from the convenience store. Vox's Ezra Klein wrote, "The penalty for stealing cigars from a convenience store is not death."
Whether or not Brown shoplifted, he did not deserve to be killed by police.
Eric Garner was killed by police in 2014 after being stopped by officers while selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. An NYPD officer put him in a chokehold — a practice that has been banned by the NYPD since 1993 — which led to his death. He had reportedly been approached by the police previously for selling loose cigarettes.
Even if Garner was making a profit by doing work that wasn't legal, he didn't deserve to be killed by police.
3. "The Person Wasn't Being Respectful"
Maisha Z. Johnson wrote for Everyday Feminism that, "'Respectability politics' are rules for marginalized people to follow in order to 'earn' respect in mainstream culture." These rules might dictate a person's appearance, clothing, sexuality, or demeanor in different circumstances. When people invoke that someone wasn't dressed a certain way, or that they weren't speaking in a respectful way to an officer, what they're saying is that they deserved the outcome of that encounter.
The truth is, being disrespectful is not a crime. When you say that a black person deserved a violent encounter with an officer because they were not polite, this holds police to a different standard and suggests that they can engage in violence because of their badge.
"People generally have a right to mouth off to (or give the finger to) members of law enforcement, as long as they do not interfere with (i.e., obstruct) ordinary law-enforcement operations," Ira Robbins, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law told CityLab. Instead, what we should be asking is whether an officer is allowed to use lethal force just because someone used a specific tone or language.
Disrespect should not result in death.
4. "It's Not About Race"
In reality, there is a clear distinction in how white people and black people experience interactions with the police. Even if we look at the data alone, there are differences in the way black and white Americans are policed across the country.
According to Fusion, whose data came from the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of "black people say they're treated less fairly when dealing with police." Back in July, 790 people had been killed by police in the United States since the beginning of the year, and 194 of them were black, The Counted reported. That number has only grown. While the number of white people who were killed by police in that time frame is larger — there were a reported 384 — the population of white people across the country is also greater.
Black people account for just 12.3 percent of the entire U.S. population. This means that black men between the ages of 15 and 34 are "nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than any other demographic."
5. To Counter, "The Person Was A Good Citizen"
When narratives about victims of police violence focus on whether or not the individual was a "good person" or a "good citizen," we are also saying that it's OK for people who aren't "law-abiding" to be victims of police brutality.
So often when a black American is a victim of police violence, the narrative surrounding the incident includes the following questions: Did they have a police record? Have they ever done anything illegal? Where did they work? Were they hard-working? Were they respectful? Did they have an education? High school? College? Did they sell or consume drugs?
None of this matters. Black Americans have been victims of centuries-long violence — of capitalism, the criminal justice system, and a police state where 60 percent of people who are incarcerated are black.
The character of a black American who was killed by a state actor who is supposed to serve and protect their community shouldn't mean that they deserved to die.
It's important for white Americans to keep all of these narratives and factors into perspective. Every time a lethal encounter between a black American and law enforcement is reported, individuals will jump to these narratives in search of a reason for what happened. Practice empathy. Listen to black voices. Don't question people who are telling us they are tired. Start educating yourself and your friends, and start taking action.
The truth is: Black people don't deserve to be killed by police. Period.