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Guns and Racism, on the Rocks

In Illinois, as in all the rest of the states, it’s legal to carry a concealed handgun, unless you’re at a ballgame or in the library or a number of other designated public places. But one of those places is not the corner of 71st Street and Jeffery Boulevard, in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood.

You mix guns with racism, and stir in some law and order, and it gets very confusing.

The one thing that’s not confusing is that Harith Augustus, a 37-year-old barber, father of a little girl, who lived and worked within a few blocks of that corner, is dead, shot by a police officer in the midst of a needless confrontation — and in utter violation of the Chicago Police Department’s own alleged policy: to respect the “sanctity of human life.”

Police shoot another black man, spark community rage, further destroy all trust and continue to behave not as protectors but as an occupying army. God bless America.

What happened was that Augustus was standing at the corner, minding his own business, on Saturday afternoon, July 14, when officers confronted him and a scuffle ensued. A department spokesperson later cited the official reason for the confrontation: Augustus was “exhibiting characteristics of an armed person.”

Uh, he was standing there, being part of the community.

Yes, there was a bulge at his waistline, indicating the possibility that he was carrying a gun. But this is where it gets confusing. This is Illinois, a concealed-carry state (one of 50). Why did that fact alone set a police confrontation in motion?

And yes, it turns out he was armed. It also turns out the gun was legally purchased. But apparently Augustus lacked a concealed-carry permit, which of course the police had no way of knowing in the moment.

I am not defending the fact that he was carrying a handgun, or suggesting that someone “exhibiting characteristics of an armed person” might not seem to be a threat to public safety. Certainly I am not defending the omnipresence and easy availability of guns in American culture, the lack of legal controls over their possession or the unshakeable belief among many Americans that guns are necessary for self-protection. I’m just stuck on the obvious racism of the matter: Harith Augustus committed the offense of carrying a gun while black, and that reason alone is why the police confronted them.

And he received the death sentence. As he struggled with the officers and tried — unwisely — to flee, he was shot multiple times.

As Mary Mitchell wrote the next day in the Chicago Sun-Times: “. . . this shooting once again raises questions about how police officers are engaging the communities they police.

“Did the officers who confronted Augustus even have a clue that he was known in the community as a barber, not a troublemaker? Maybe if that were the case, their approach would have been less confrontational.…

“Why can’t a black man, who isn’t bothering anyone, walk down the street in his own neighborhood without being accosted by police?”

In other words, why do the police patrol communities of color as an outside, occupying force rather than as part of the community? Why do they act as though their mission is to intimidate rather than to serve and protect? Why are there so many police shootings of black men, women and children?

The answer is obvious. This is the way it has always been in the United States of America. Officer Friendly’s clientele are white people. People of color … well, initially, of course, they were slaves or “savages.” This hideous stigma never quite went away. The U.S. legal system has always been at least partially in the control of racists, who are incapable of defining order as anything but us vs. them.

Certainly this is the way it is in Chicago, where I live. In recent years — in the era of the cellphone video — the city has drawn lots of unwanted attention to itself because of its violently aggressive policing in black communities. Following the national controversy over the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot in the back 16 times as he ran from a police officer, the city launched a task force to look into its police practices, concluding that “the Chicago Police Department’s own data showed a lack of respect for black lives, particularly when choosing whether or not to use force.”

As a result of the task force findings, and the eventual involvement of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Chicago Police Department announced that it would update its “use of force” policy so that didn’t disregard the “sanctity of life.”

How nice. And how meaningless. The police video of the Harith Augustus shooting shows lots of authoritative contempt and fear present during in the encounter — lots of business as usual — but no evidence of anything resembling respect for Augustus’s life. Apparently this is not something that can be instituted by bureaucratic decree.

In the wake of the tragedy, Chicago Police Chief Eddie Johnson defended his officers, noting: “These things happen at a split second and officers have to make decisions quickly. They don’t have the luxury of looking at video later.”

I have no doubt that this is true, and do not blame the officers for their action. I blame a closed-in, us-vs.-them job description. They came into South Shore much the same way U.S. troops enter Iraq: armed and fearful, not part of the community but “in control” of it.

When you mix guns and racism, tragedy is inevitable. Public safety begins only when we’re free of both.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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