As a society, we watch the horrific video of that police officer killing Daunte Wright, an unarmed Black man, during a traffic stop in suburban Minnesota and tell ourselves — once again —this is not who we are.
But those words are a lie. This is exactly who we are, and it is what this country has allowed law enforcement to become, as evidenced by the endless, stomach-turning routine of police harassing, wounding or killing unarmed Black and Brown people.
If we’re going to halt this cycle of violence at the hands of the state — and not just give lip service to the idea — we must finally face the fact that the police are a reflection of this society. They are not some separate reality. They are America.
Policing sea change needed
There was a time just over a century ago when workers routinely were killed or maimed in the meat packing process. Workers getting ground up in machinery or falling into vats — that was just the cost of doing business.
“And when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,” Upton Sinclair wrote in his 1905 expose of Chicago’s stockyards, “The Jungle.” “Sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.”
But American society finally came to an understanding, in part thanks to Sinclair’s work, that it was unacceptable to allow the sacrifice of lives this way. It was morally wrong. Congress and federal and state regulators stepped in and instituted safety measures that no doubt have saved the lives of thousands of workers. An entire industry was substantially changed for the better from coast to coast.
American policing needs a sea-change of this magnitude and greater. But we as a society have to force it. We have to make it happen.
We certainly can no longer leave it to police to do it themselves. Kim Potter, the Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer who killed Daunte Wright last Sunday is proof enough of that.
Potter, who resigned Tuesday, claims she meant to use her taser to subdue Wright but accidentally shot the 20-year-old man in the chest with her Glock service weapon.
It’s an abomination that a 26-year police veteran would mistake a bright yellow taser, which she wore on her left side, with a much heavier Glock, which she held in her right hand and pointed at Wright, according to a police video.
Potter, amazingly, even yells “taser” three times before firing her gun.
A system as broken as this needs more than a little patchwork. It begs for a total reconstruction.
Daunte Wright was shot just north of Minneapolis, the city where former police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial at this moment for killing George Floyd, another unarmed Black man, last spring.
And calls for more narrow approaches to reform — a little better training, perhaps, or a tweak in this or that policy — strike us as ridiculous. Particularly in this instance. Potter was a field training officer. At the moment she killed Wright, she was actually breaking in a new cop.
Not just rotten apples
An equally absurd and reflexive response to the police violence that took Wright’s life is to brand the offending cops as mere “bad apples” — outliers. How tired we are of that line.
Let’s be honest: What cops do deadly wrong is often part and parcel of a culture in police departments — Chicago’s included — especially when it comes to encounters with Black and Brown people.
From no-knock warrants, which overwhelmingly are served in minority neighborhoods for low-level offenses, to suppressive, military tactics and gear, police too frequently cast themselves as occupiers, rather than peacekeepers.
All of which makes it ripe for traffic stops to escalate into violence.
In another police video making the rounds now, police officers in Windsor, Virginia, are seen drawing their guns and pepper spraying a U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant, Caron Nazario, after stopping him for allegedly having a missing license plate on his new SUV.
“What’s going on?” Nazario, who is Black and Latino and was wearing fatigues, asked the cops. “I’m honestly afraid to get out.”
“Yeah, you should be, get out now!” one of the officers, Joe Gutierrez, said.
Gutierrez was fired after the video of the December traffic stop became public this week.
Yes, fire the bad cops. Of course. But does anybody honestly believe anymore that’s the real heart of the solution? Can we please stop kidding ourselves?
And can we finally put an end to how cops like Chauvin, Potter and Gutierrez come to be?
Apples go bad faster in rotting barrels.
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