Systemic Racism and the Killing of Rayshard Brooks

The killing of 27 year old Rayshard Brooks on Friday, June 12th, in Atlanta, Georgia, occurred less than three weeks after the murder of George Floyd. Both were killed by a white police officer. It seems that 18 days of protests over the May 25 murder of Floyd did not deter from this new heinous murder. Brooks was shot in the back as he was running away from the two police officers who had fooled him by their seemingly cordial demeanor only to suddenly and unexpectedly handcuff him from the back.

I scoured the internet looking for a complete, untruncated video of the incident in order to understand the about-face that led to murdering a man in the process of running away from the scene, and who, consequently, offered no threat whatsoever to the lives of the two police officers involved. None.

The whole tragedy begins when someone has the deplorable idea of calling 911 to report an African American man sleeping in his car in the drive thru lane of Wendy’s on University Avenue last Friday at 10:43PM. Officer Devin Brosnan shows up to the scene, knocks on the window of the driver’s seat, asks Brooks to park in an available parking spot, and questions him. Shortly after, he calls for help and officer Garrett Rolfe shows up. Brosnan proceeds to tell his associate that Brooks was “passed out” at the wheel in the drive-thru lane and that he suspected he was drunk. While giving him this account, the placid facial features of Rolfe morph into an ugly mask of suspicion and hatred. In my view, this is when the murder began. This was the moment Brooks’s fate was sealed.

Rolfe starts interrogating Brooks at length, almost in the manner of a prosecutor in a court of law, asking precise details, personal and invasive questions such as, “who drove you here, how many drinks did you have, what did you drink, where did you go, who was you with,” and so on. Throughout this ordeal, Brooks responded with extreme affability, always smiling. Gentle, a bit garrulous, and obviously “compliant,” to use a detestable term from law enforcement glossary. Brooks repeatedly said that he did not want to cause any problems to anyone. He accepted to be body searched for weapons. He even disclosed the amount of money he carried when Rolfe had the audacity of asking him such a question after tapping his bulging pocket. Every time Brooks is asked yet another indiscrete question, he replies with gentleness and good humor and a “Yes, Sir or No, Sir” to mark his deference. In a show of good will, Brooks suggested to the officer to let him lock his car, walk down the street to sleep at his sister’s house where his 8-year old daughter was, having celebrated her 8th birthday the night before, and who was now waiting for her Daddy who promised her an outing. So far, things looked calm. Nobody could have foreseen the sudden shift that occurred. I even thought at one point that I was watching the wrong video!

Rolfe gave Brooks a rather lengthy field sobriety test which, in my estimate, Brooks by all means passed, having obeyed with alacrity the confusing instructions involved (for instance, to walk 9 steps, turn, take four little steps, and walk back 9 steps counting loudly, etc..) with his arms alongside his body, smiling, confident and trusting. There was something infinitely endearing about his debonair mannerisms.

Rolfe then offered to give Brooks a breath test, and Brooks kindly obliged, adding, “I don’t want to refuse anything;” did he fail the test? if he did, he was not told so. Instead, Rolfe suddenly said to him “you have been drinking and you should not be driving,” a befuddling pronouncement indeed since Brooks was not driving in the first place! Suddenly, Rolfe stealthily went behind Brooks’ back and proceeded to handcuff him. Taken by surprise and perhaps panicked, Brooks resisted the arrest. He was tackled to the ground by the two officers. In the scuffle that ensued, Brooks managed to snatch himself away, taking Rolfe’s taser with him—he had been threatened with it—running away, shooting with it then dropping it. Thereupon, Rolfe ran after him, shooting him three times in the back. Two of the bullets transpierced Brooks’ back as he fell down. He died in the hospital shortly after.

Brosnan was put on administrative duty and Rolfe was fired. Hopefully he will be charged with first degree murder, but chances are he will get away with mere manslaughter. Atlanta police chief Erika Shields resigned shortly after. The Union President of Cobb Fraternal order of Police, Steven Gaynor, who represents 700 police officers, said in a press conference that based on the videos he has seen, Rolfe’s act is “based on a split second; when the taser shoots at him, he makes a decision that he is going to shoot back with a deadly weapon.” Approvingly, Gaynor adds that Rolfe “had the right to return fire with a deadly weapon.” Really? Did he actually bother watching the full video before making such an egregious statement? No, I definitely agree with the statement made by Brooks family attorney L. Chris Stewart, namely that “what happened in that moment when (Brooks) resisted doesn’t allow a police officer to become judge, jury and executioner.”

The angst provoked by yet another killing of an African American at the wake of the protests that swept over the country is consistent with what Kenn Orphan in a recent article in CounterPunch qualifies as “the smothering, sanctimonious, and sexually repressive legacy of white American puritanism.” How many more murders of black people will take place at the hands of whites? When will the “qualified immunity” granted to the police force be abolished? It is obvious that when you give a person seeking power a gun alongside with immunity, the result is disastrous, especially so when racism lurks hardly beneath the surface.

Over the last three weeks, the poem by Claude McKay, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, has been pounding in my head. Titled “If We Must Die,” it was written in response to the 1919 Red Summer white mobs attacks on African Americans in cities across the US. I would like to conclude this short piece with it:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

F. Elizabeth Dahab is a Professor of Comparative Literature at California State University, Long Beach.