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The Killing Just Keeps Going On

It is a Monday in late November, 2020, and I catch Amy Goodman (“Democracy Now”) looking back on the weekend. A couple of months have passed since the massive demonstrations against police brutality, people shaking governments by the collar demanding that the pointless wanton arbitrary killing of black people stop. Organizations had formed and the movement had grown, hoping for a voice loud enough to be taken seriously. There is no democracy or justice when there are voices calling for justice that are not heard.

Yet here it is, the end of November, and the police killing is still going on. On November 13, two black teenagers are killed by cops in Florida. On November 19, a black man sitting in the back seat of a car, a mere passenger, is hauled out of the car and shot four times by cops. On November 23, a leader of the protests against the police murder of Breonna Taylor is targeted in the middle of the night and shot dead. In the same town, on the same night, a motorist is killed by cops during a traffic stop. He was white. His name was Brian Thurman. Like a black person, he had no one to protect him. And then, as if to reenact these tragedies as farce, a totally crazed man, a person of color, goes running around on Market St. in San Francisco wielding a frying pan and a kitchen knife, escaping a fire in his apartment of uncertain origin, moaning and screaming in inchoate pain, while fighting with a ghost. Maybe, in his duress, he had become a Roman gladiator whose frying pan was a shield and whose kitchen knife was a sword. Those with the ability to feel his distress might interpret him as personifying the total inability to make sense of this world. So he jousts with the psychotic spirit of senselessness. The cops who come to the scene, however, could think of nothing other than using him for target practice — beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, stun guns, and finally live ammunition. Somehow he survived. They let him live, which means he will be thrown in prison for his impersonation of official insanity. For the cops, his emotional distress was not a cause for empathy. Instead, it rendered him an enemy to be dealt with militarily.

All this in one “Democracy Now” broadcast, in late November, 2020, four hundred and forty years after the first Slave Codes in Virginia (1682) had established that a black person disobeying a white person could be killed outright. Under those codes, a black woman could not be raped because she did not have the right to say no. A black man could not be murdered because he would have to be granted his humanity first in order for his murder to even be considered “manslaughter.” Who was Messerle killing when he shot Oscar Grant in the back? What were the Berkeley cops sitting on when they sat on Kayla Moore and crushed her ability to breath?

As a final coda to these incidents on Amy’s broadcast, she talks about Chesa Boudin’s decision to open a case against a cop who killed a black man named Keita O’Neil, in 2017. On that day, a white van had been carjacked in one part of town by a black man. Some time later, another white van is seen on the expressway in another part of town. Two cops in a cruiser “decide” it is the stolen van and follow it. The van parks in front of a house, and the driver, who is black, walks calmly toward the cops in their car to find out why they had been following him. No gun in his hand, no scowl in his face, no hurry in his step, he walks over. The cop in the passenger seat of the cruiser shoots him as he approaches. He was in such a hurry to kill this man that he shot through the window of the car door. Obsession. What were the cops who sat on Kayla Moore obsessed with? Handcuffing her in her own home?

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Let us revisit the details of the incidents reported by Goodman. They belong to the world we live in and pretend to accept.

A couple of black teenagers in Florida borrow a girlfriend’s car, and start to drive somewhere. Angelo Crooms was driving. He is 16 years old. He had just turned the corner from the street on which the girlfriend lives (this is in a video), and two cop cars driving down the same street see the car and follow it (the rest is on dashcam). The cops see black people in the car and “decide” the car was stolen (the same way the cops in 2017 “decided” the white van they saw was the one carjacked), and follow it. It pulls into a driveway. The cops get out with guns drawn. Their target car backs out of the driveway, and goes around them, trying to get away from them. There is this 16 year old black kid finding himself confronted by men with guns drawn. Does anyone ever think about the terror that a person must go through, facing the threat of getting shot to death by a cop? The driver is killed. A bullet enters the side of car from a right angle, signifying that the shooter was off to the side of the car and not threatened by it (as he later claimed­). In other words, he was not shooting to defend himself. The bullet that made that hole, however, is the one that killed the other young man, Sincere Pierce, who was sitting in the back seat.

There was no traffic stop, no report of a stolen car, nobody doing anything dangerous; the cops didn’t even check the license plate number. They just had a desire to follow this car, and get out with their guns drawn. Same obsession, a desire to terrorize. It is reminiscent of the killing of Alan Blueford in East Oakland. He was standing around with some friends on a street corner, and two cops approached with guns drawn. He ran, and died.

You walk toward, you run away, you sit in a car, none of it makes any difference. There are no cops who will protect you from getting killed when you need it.

Is it important that the cop who did the shooting had problems with excessive force in the past? He had shot other people. Does that explain anything? Yes. What is important is that he was kept on the force. He was apparently the kind of cop the police force liked. He remained uncharged by the department or the DA for any malfeasance.

Kenneth Jones was sitting in the back seat of a car that was parked by the side of the road, with its hazard lights flashing. There were four black people in it. It is November 19, 2020, in Omaha. A cop sees the car, and he and his partner approach with guns drawn. He is yelling, “show me your hands.” There is no crime being committed, and there was no perceived threat. Nothing is happening that would require police actions. Yet the police are acting as if there were. The presence of a black person becomes a hallucinated crime scene for them. Back in 1682, blackness meant enslavement. In 2020, blackness still means a violation of some kind of unwritten law which men with guns hallucinate.

Three of the people in the car raise their hands. Jones, in the back seat, does not. Perhaps he has decided that he is not a slave, and he is not a criminal. So no white man has the right to arbitrarily order him to do anything. Especially something that would suggest he wasn’t a self-respecting human being. So he simply sits in the car, parked by the side of the road.

The cop, on the other hand, has been yelling, “show me your hands.” It is not a request, nor an order (as in the military). It is a transformation of these people’s status in the world. It doesn’t occur to him that he is terrorizing people. Or maybe it does, and that is the purpose. There is a logic to this. When you terrorize people, you often make them do things that will allow you to make your acts of terrorism look like defense against aggression.

The cop keeps yelling about Jones’s hands. He takes his flashlight and smashes the window of the back door, opens the door, and drags Jones out. If this was a traffic stop, why is he concerned with a back seat passenger? Or rather, what’s his concern with a backseat passenger in the first place? Jones has refused to obey him. The cop is back in 1682, when disobedience could be the cause of being killed. The cop keeps yelling about seeing Jones’s hands. He must have his command obeyed. The next thing that happens is Jones is shot, and falls to the ground. And the cop doesn’t stop. He is still yelling, “show me your hands” while Jones is lying there dying.

Like a crazed man, he doesn’t know how to stop yelling his order. He has become a command-yelling machine.

A similar thing happened in West Oakland two years ago. A fight broke out between two men in a strip mall parking lot across the street from the 7th St. BART station. A BART cop goes running over there with his gun drawn, repeatedly yelling “show me your hands.” The two men in the fight, who have been wrestling on the ground, stop fighting, and the one with his back to the cop straightens and raises his hands. The cop who is running over to him shoots him three times in the back, killing him. Against a command-yelling machine, one has no recourse.

Let us return to our gladiator, Antonio Estrada, wielding his frying pan on Market St. Whoever he thought he was fighting in his extreme distress, he couldn’t hear the cops yelling, “drop the knife, drop the knife.” People standing around on the sidelines were trying to talk to him, trying to get him to stop his performance because the cops were going to kill him. He hears nothing. He jousts at the air. They shoot bean bags at him. He gets up. They tase him, and he gets back up. They shoot him with rubber bullets again. He gets up again. The cops are simply waiting for him to make a single hostile move toward them (as if their assaults hadn’t made hostility an absolutely normal response) so they could kill him and claim that they did it in self-defense. They finally got their chance to shoot him. He doesn’t die.

Any normal person would have been able to think, “gee, this guy needs some help.” Not these cops. They were in their own alternate world. They had seen a non-white man with a knife, and they had clicked into a different universe where all they could think about was shooting something at him, probably already dreaming of his final sinking to the ground and breathing his last. Which one is more emotionally disturbed, a man with a kitchen knife jousting with hallucinations, or a man yelling commands at someone he has just shot to death? Which hallucination is more deranging, the one warded off with a frying pan or the one inherent in racial bigotry.

Does it ever occur to any of these cops that they are creating role models for the rest of society? When they face actual violent situations, do they imagine that it is their brutality that partially engenders it. Or conversely, do they hope that their own violence will spur other kinds in society at large, because that will then translate into overtime pay, or job security. Do they recognize an increase in gun violence as a possible opposition to the call to defund the police?

When other police departments, such as that in Berkeley, remain silent about the murders committed by their confreres in other jurisdictions, do they become accomplices? Have they become infected by the same bug? When cops act out their machinic attitudes toward people, is it a social illness? Have they become agents of contagion, carriers of a malicious consciousness that they can then spread like a virus? Maybe that’s what happened to Travis Nagdy in Louisville.

Nagdy was a nobody, a guy who didn’t know who he was. In and out of foster homes, juvies, constructing a record for himself out of small thefts. At one point, he found himself in a demonstration protesting the murder of Breonna Taylor, and it touched him. He heard the story, he listened to things he already knew about from his own experience with police impunity. He joined the drive to make the police accountable. He got a bull horn and found a voice for himself, singing and chanting and speaking – an organizer fearlessly insisting on justice for this woman he had never met. He builds an identity for himself, becoming a social person, someone who knows who he is, and can grasp the world with both hands. He becomes a man who doesn’t just speak truth to power, but goes beyond that to speak truth to the powerless.

Nobody knows who did it, nor how it happened. But one night, a little after midnight, he is standing on the street on a Monday morning, November 23, and someone shoots him. The rumor claims there was a carjacking, and some shots were fired at random. But he is hit with several bullets, and falls to the ground, dying. In other words, he was targeted. Somebody didn’t want him to become another Fred Hampton, so they made him into another Fred Hampton.

The cops say they don’t know who did it. They have no suspects.

It’s a familiar kind of event. One of the men who played an important role in the massive demonstrations in 1999 against the NYC police after they shot Amadou Diallo (thousands demonstrating for days at NY city hall) was set up for assassination. His name was Patrick Dorismond. After the cops who had killed Diallo were acquitted, Dorismond was approached on the street by a man demanding that Dorismond provide him with some drugs. He said he didn’t have any. A fight started, and Dorismond was shot and killed. The man who had approached him turned out to be a narc. That same month, another man named Malcolm Ferguson, who was also an organizer of those demonstrations, was shot to death openly by the police on the street.

For each story here and now, there is always an earlier version that elucidates it.

But killing Diallo also epitomizes the obsession being examined here. He was shot 19 times by the cops. What is significant is that the last two bullets to enter his body went through the bottoms of his feet. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to stop. They wanted to do more than just kill him.

It is said that there are police officers who “are not like that.” Why don’t they stop the killing? Why don’t they organize against those who give the police a “bad name” (terrorist)? But even the government is like that. Trump and Barr want to put 5 of the people on federal death row to death in the remaining few weeks of Trump’s administration. Trump wants to go out a killer. The cops are small potatoes.

This is the end of 2020, and the killing just keeps going on.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.

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