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Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort

Now that the Charlotte, NC Police Department has reluctantly released the body cam and squad-car videos in its possession of the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, which make it clear that nobody knew whether or not Scott even had a gun in his SUV with him, and that he apparently didn’t have one in hand when he exited his vehicle, and did not appear to be threatening anyone, one thing is abundantly clear: Whether he had a gun or not, there wasabsolutely no reason for police to kill him.

Scott’s only “crime” — a common one for frightened or confused people when suddenly confronted, initially in this case by armed plainclothes officers who may not even have identified themselves as policeman, and later by a bunch of shouting, angry armed cops with weapons aimed at him — was to stay put in his vehicle with the doors locked when ordered to get out of the vehicle.

Let’s think about this scene for a moment. Police supposedly got involved in this tragic situation in the first place because Scott pulled up next to a car containing two plainclothes police officers allegedly about to serve a warrant on another man, and proceeded to roll what they thought was a marijuana “joint.” Those officers reportedly claimed that they also saw him holding a gun (how do you roll a joint while holding a gun?). They left the scene in their vehicle and reportedly donned bullet-proof vests and called for backup before returning to the scene. According to Scott’s family, far from posing a threat to police and the community, Scott was at the time doing what he did every school day: waiting peacefully in his car for a young son to return from school on the bus. According to his family, Scott owned no gun and was reading a book, as was his habit.

But let’s assume the worst. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that for one reason or other, Scott actually was sitting in his SUV fondling a joint and a pistol, as police claim. First of all, in North Carolina, courtesy of that state’s right-wing legislature which has made open carrying of sidearms legal, that gun would be perfectly okay. Except that Scott is black, and as far as police are concerned, the state’s law about it being legal to carry a weapon in public on one’s person doesn’t apply to black people. (For blacks in North Carolina, as in other states, having a gun on you, even licensed and holstered, is a capital offense justifying whatever actions police might take, including summarily executing you.)

Okay, so let’s go a step further. Say one of the cops who arrived on the scene actually saw Scott sitting in the truck with a gun in his hand. Nobody has made that claim, but there is the claim that when they came back armed and ready to go after him, he was ordered to step out of the vehicle and to show his hands. When he didn’t do that, an officer, according to the police department’s official account of what transpired, is said to have came up to he car with a baton and reportedly tried to break the truck’s window in order to get the door open.

Now ask yourself, if Charlotte cops honestly thought Scott had a gun in his hand in the car with him, would one of them have walked up to that car door armed with only a baton and tried to break the window? I think we all know the answer to that is a resounding no. One thing we’ve learned about cops in today’s America: They don’t take any risks with their own lives. Like the black officer Brentley Vinson who killed Scott, they shoot first and look later to see if the dead perp actually had a gun.

There are a lot of cars with their windows full of bullet holes and blood on their seats to prove that point.

In any event, the police video shows that Scott then exited the vehicle. Police continued to shout at him as he walked away from them facing backwards to “drop the gun,” though even Charlotte Police Chief Kerr Putney concedes that it is unclear from the video that the slain man was even holding a gun. At that point he is shot four times, fatally.

In the videos released by police there is no evidence of a gun on the ground around the dying Scott lying on the pavement, but MSNBC has shown a slow-motion version of a video taken by Scott’s wife of her husband’s shooting which appears to show the black officer who shot him tossing something on the pavement [2] nearby that looks like it might be a black pistol like the one later claimed by police to be Scott’s.

That shooting was all unnecessary. Sitting in the car as he was, and surrounded by a dozen armed policemen wearing bullet-proof vests, Scott posed no immediate threat to anyone. And get this: His wife was on the scene shouting at police that her husband had a “traumatic brain injury” (from a year earlier motorcycle accident) which should have right away made them more cautious about jumping to conclusions and about terrifying him needlessly, and she was also offering to try and convince her husband to get out of the vehicle as suggested.

Did the police pull back from their assault mode and try to let Scott’s desperate wife talk with him? No, they threatened her and made her stay away. Why?

Would they have done that to a wife if she and the person in the vehicle were white? Again we have to ask this, and my guess would be no. They would have more likely pulled back a bit and given her a chance to talk her husband out of a tough spot.

Again I want to stress that there was no urgency here. Scott wasn’t going anywhere. His vehicle was hemmed in by cop cars, he was locked in it and surrounded by armed police, and if he had tried anything aggressive he would have been shot instantly. So what was the urgency of getting him out of the vehicle? Especially when there was a relative there offering to help?

Unless Charleston’s police department is concerned about paying for unnecessary overtime, there was absolutely no urgency about this situation. It was a in fact an incident that should have been dramatically amped down. There should have been no yelling. Perhaps a trained psychiatrist or negotiation expert should have been called in. The wife of the victim should have been interviewed at length and offered a chance to talk to her husband. If there were fears for her safety, she could have been given a vest herself, or at least a bullhorn so she could talk to her husband from a safe distance. There are, in short, lots of things that could have been done that would have left Scott alive.

Scott wasn’t holding a hostage, and he wasn’t at any point in this whole event pointing a gun at anybody. He was just sitting in his SUV.

Now he’s dead, and Charleston’s Police Department is trying to make that killing look “justified,” by claiming that the mere fact that Scott was holding a joint and a gun — the former a minor infraction, not a crime, and the latter completely legal in North Carolina — together made him a potential threat to police life and limb.

They cannot justify the killing of Keith Scott because it was simply gratuitous. There was no need for him to die.

So now we have a new capital crime: Parking while Black.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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