I feel like I am in a never ending nightmare every time I hear about another black person who has died at the hands of a white police officer. Last week, we witnessed the horrific deaths of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were killed by police while doing nothing wrong. Sterling was selling CDs in front of a convenience store before he was shot. Philando Castile was pulling out his ID — at the officer's request. Both left behind partners and young children.
Black people have done so much in this decade, and beyond, to empower ourselves. We made it to the Oval Office, redefined beauty standards, became entrepreneurs, social media champions, and social justice warriors. But when one of us is killed in another act of police brutality, it feels like we are being told that our lives don't matter as much as we think they do — and this message is especially strong in situations when the white police officer whose actions caused the death is not charged. It makes it feel like we take 10 steps back for every five steps we take in the right direction.
The following 10 cases cover some of the most horrifying police brutality situations in recent history, though this list is far from comprehensive — according to The Guardian UK, at least 136 black people have been killed by police officers in the U.S. this year alone. The "lessons" these killings teach us are heartbreaking, ridiculous, and continue to make us feel unsafe in a country we should be able to call home.
1. Don't Stand In Front Of Your Building At Night
Amadou Diallo’s death in 1999 was the first major police brutality incident I was exposed to as a child. I had no idea what police brutality meant, and did not know that it would continue to affect my community almost 20 years later.
Diallo, a West African man, was standing outside of his building one night. Four police officers observed him; during their trial after his death, one of the officers claimed they thought Diallo fit the description of a serial rapist that police were on the lookout for. According to police, the officers approached the unarmed Diallo, 22, and told him to show his hands. Diallo ran into the apartment building, but the officers could still see his silhouette in one of the windows. As he pulled out his wallet, they mistook it as a gun, and fired 41 shots at him.
A grand jury indicted all four officers involved in Diallo's death, but a jury acquitted them of all charges. In fact, Kenneth Boss, one of the officers involved, received a promotion and raise last year, much to Diallo's mother's dismay.
2. Don't Break Up A Fight At A Nightclub
Abner Louima, a Haitian man, was arrested at a Brooklyn nightclub in 1997 after trying to intercede in a fight between two women. When the cops came, he was reportedly accused of punching one of the officers (which he did not do), and arrested. In the police car, the officers allegedly beat him. At the station, Louima was sodomized with a broken broomstick. This broomstick was also jammed into his mouth, damaging his teeth. According to the New York Times, Louima "suffered a ruptured bladder and colon and spent two months in the hospital." One of the officers involved in the attack, Justin Volpe, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
3. Don't Have A Bachelor Party
Sean Bell was killed during a 2006 shooting incident at Club Kalua, a strip club in Queens, New York, where he held his bachelor party. Club Kalua was being investigated by police who believed that prostitution may have been occurring at the club; according to New York Daily News coverage, undercover cops believed that guns were present at the club, as well. The cops followed Bell and several friends to his car. Bell hit an unmarked police van with his car as he was driving away, and police reportedly opened fire. According to the New York Daily News, "An undercover detective, three plainclothes detectives and a police officer in civilian clothes hit Bell's car with 21 rounds," killing the unarmed Bell. His wedding was to be the very next day. Three officers involved were indicted; all were found not guilty by a New York City judge.
This case, like so many others, has many discrepancies among witnesses regarding the events and decisions made. However, it remains clear that because Bell was in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was automatically misjudged as being a threat.
4. Don't Go To 7-Eleven With A Hoodie On
In February 2012, a 17-year-old was shot dead in Sanford, Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie and had just left a 7-Eleven with Skittles and iced tea; on his walk back to the home where he was watching a basketball game, Martin was followed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who called 911 to report Martin, and chased after him despite the fact that a 911 dispatcher specifically told Zimmerman not to. Witnesses reported that Zimmerman then became involved in a physical altercation with the unarmed Martin, and fatally shot him. The actions Zimmerman committed that day was not a part of his job description as a volunteer. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, and was acquitted of all charges by a jury.
Trayvon Martin's death has led my mom to warn my brothers and I not to wear hoods outside. Many black parents feel they have to prepare their children for the world and this kind of prejudice, because exhibiting the smallest stereotypes can lead to our demise.
5. Don't Forget To Turn On Your Signals While Driving
It’s been almost a year since Sandra Bland died, and her death still remains a mystery. On July 10, 2015, she was stopped by a state trooper for a minor traffic violation. This led to a verbal dispute, and the trooper, Brian Encinia, ordered Bland to step out of her car. Dashcam footage of Bland's arrest was released by the Texas Department of Public Safety; in it, Encinia can be heard threatening Bland with a Taser. In an additional video taken by a bystander, Bland can be seen on the ground, with Encinia standing over her; in this video, Bland can be heard saying that the officer slammed her head into the ground while trying to apprehend her. She was arrested, and three days later, was found hanging in her jail cell. Encinia was fired from his job, and indicted on a perjury charge related to the case, but no one was indicted in Bland's death.
What makes Bland so memorable is her positive voice in spreading black empowerment. Months before her death, she began sharing inspirational videos under the name Sandy Speaks. Her positive voice will live on beyond her death.
6. Make Sure Your Car Doesn't Break Down
Corey Jones’ 2015 death occurred while he sat in his disabled car, calling family members and waiting for a tow truck. A plainclothes officer, Nouman Raja, spotted the car. According to the Miami Herald, "In charging documents, prosecutors said that Raja did not announce himself as a police officer, that he fired at Jones even after Jones threw his weapon down and ran away, and that he also appeared to lie to 911 operators." He fatally shot Jones six times. Jones had a license to carry a concealed firearm. Raja was charged with culpable manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder, and pleaded not guilty. He is currently awaiting trial.
Armed or not, any person alone in their car, calling for help, does not deserve to die due to these circumstances.
7. Don't Play With Fake Guns
Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old boy who was playing in the park with a fake gun in 2014. Someone nearby called 911 and told them a boy was playing with a gun, noting in the call that it was probably fake (a fact that the 911 dispatcher failed to pass on to police).
According to The New York Times, police shot Tamir within seconds of arriving at the scene. Tamir's mother, Samaria Rice, noted that when Tamir's 14-year-old sister ran over moments later, police tackled and handcuffed her before she could wrap her arms around her dying brother; Samaria also said that police threatened her with arrest for attempting to come to her son's aid, as well. The officer mistook Tamir for a 20-year-old — a mistake that is as ignorant as it is racist. A grand jury declined to charge the officers involved in Rice's death.
8. Don't Sell CDs In Front Of A Store
Alton Sterling was selling CDs in front of a convenience store. Someone called 911, claiming they saw Sterling with a gun. Video footage taken by witnesses show that two cops came to the scene and wrestled Sterling to the ground before fatally shooting him. Sterling's gun was reportedly kept in his pocket during his entire interaction with the police, which is not unlawful due to Louisiana's open carry laws; he never it used as a threat of any sort towards the police.
Sterling was found to be a sex offender with a past criminal record. However, this information has no relation to his death. The media often paints black victims as wrongdoers deserving of their deaths, and run the story with a negative photo of the person (like a mugshot). Conversely, white criminals are often depicted as good individuals who had one bad slip, and presented with a photo that furthers this narrative (see the case of Brock Turner).
9. Don't Reach For Your ID
Only days after Alton Sterling’s death, we learned of another case of police brutality in Minnesota. Philando Castile was fatally shot at a traffic stop while taking out his ID for an officer. What makes this case even more horrific is that his girlfriend and daughter were in the car when he got shot.
Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, says she always taught him to comply whenever he found himself faced with officers — she told CNN, "I always told them, whatever you do, when you get stopped by the police, comply, comply, comply." She admitted that black parents usually have to teach their children “proper etiquette” in the presence of the law. But even when he followed a policeman’s order, he was shot.
10. Don't Shoplift
Michael Brown’s 2014 death is probably the most well-known recent police brutality death, sparking a wave of protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, 18 walked down the street with his friend, Dorian Johnson, after they reportedly stole some cigarillos from a store. Police officer Darien Wilson was nearby in his car, when he heard of the recent convenience store theft. He noted in his grand jury testimony that when he saw the two young men walk by, he believed Brown and his friend to fit the description of the people cited in the convenience store theft.
Wilson became involved in an altercation with Brown, shot Brown from his car seat, and eventually exited his car to chase Brown and his friend on foot. MSNBC reported, "The police say the officer shot Brown after the teen shoved the officer and tried to wrestle the officer’s gun from him. But a number of witnesses, including Johnson, refute those claims." He shot Brown as he ran, even though Johnson said that Brown raised his hands and begged Wilson not to shoot. In no way is his death justified because of the theft of a pack of cigarillos.
These stories, and others like them, communicate messages about what we should not do if we want to survive. Although some cases start with altercations, and others without any ignition at all, none of them should lead to death. At the end of the day, these stories seem to teach the same "lesson": don't be black.
White men who commit crimes don't tend to follow this pattern. White criminals are often arrested politely, and police officers walk them to jail with care. They do not "mysteriously" die in police custody. They are treated like humans, even when they commit inhuman acts.
Meanwhile, black men and women who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, who wear the wrong clothes, who fit descriptions, who talk back, are often killed immediately — even when they raise their unarmed arms in the air, begging police officers not to shoot, they meet the same fate.