By Jeneé Osterheldt * The Boston Globe
The killing of Daunte Wright in Minnesota should not be framed as an accident. Policing is violent.
As police lights glared behind him, he found a well-lit public place to pull over. Because safety.
Black folk know their very existence is perceived as a resistance. We need a witness.
But there was no shelter to be found at the Virginia gas station. Even with his arms raised, officers drew their guns. He was threatened and ordered to exit his car. They refused to give reason for the stop, even as he continually asked why he was pulled over.
“I’m honestly afraid to get out,” Caron Nazario, an Army second lieutenant, told police.
“Yeah,” Officer Joe Gutierrez said. “You should be.”
Nazario was pepper-sprayed, berated, forced on his knees, and cuffed. Gutierrez has since been fired. But this is why Black people are scared to pull over, to get out, to be detained.
How many times have we seen George Floyd lynched? At least a hundred between last May and the trial of his killer, Derek Chauvin. We recently learned it wasn’t a torturous 8 minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck. It was longer: 9 minutes and 29 seconds. With every replay, a little piece of our peace is stolen.
All month now, we’ve heard Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, argue that saying, “I can’t breathe” is a form of resisting arrest, that Floyd’s heart and addiction is to blame, and that Floyd’s killing could have been avoided had he just complied.
But as cardiologist Jonathan Rich testified on Monday, it was not Floyd’s heart nor drugs that killed him. It was low oxygen induced by Chauvin.
“Had he not been restrained in the way in which he was, I think he would have survived that day,” Rich said.
What does it mean when we have to survive the police?
There is a valid fear of policing in America. Black folk are more likely to be pulled over, searched, and arrested. We are over-charged and over-sentenced. In Boston, we make up a quarter of the city yet 69 percent of frisk-and-stops. Nationwide, Black people are disproportionately shot by police. We make up 13 percent of the population, yet we are twice as likely to be killed by the police and we account for 42 percent of the inmates on death row. That’s not justice.
Even if you survive your arrest, you may not be able to withstand what happens next. Remember Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder? We do not forget them. We carry our lost ones with us. We tell their stories. We remember Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and Amadou Diallo. We still say the names of Breonna Taylor and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. We learned about Martha and Ruth Lloyd and the Algiers Motel. DJ Henry remains on our minds.
This history we carry with us paints our present. It pulled at Nazario’s gut and told him not to exit his car. These fears are real.
It’s why I shiver when I’m pulled over. I phone a friend. I apologize even when I have done nothing wrong. No matter how nice the cop may be, I say a little prayer to live. This is the sad song of folks of color in America.
This is likely why Daunte Wright called his mama when he was pulled over on Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn Center, not too far from where George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Police stopped Wright over an alleged expired registration — something quite common in this season of COVID and social distancing. Oh, and the air freshener they called “an obstruction.” This is what Driving While Black looks like.
Only after they stopped him for something so minor did they find out he had a warrant for missing a court date to face misdemeanors. Minor.
I don’t know if it was fear that made Wright desperately want to evade arrest. I do know, the way police crowd your door and your person, the way they surround the car, is horrifying for a lot of us.
And the ease with which cops feel comfortable resorting to violence to force Black compliance is the crime.
He did not fight. He took flight. And Wright was recklessly, senselessly killed.
The Brooklyn Center police chief, Tim Gannon, released the video Monday, bracing viewers with a warning that it was “graphic and unedited.” Like police violence.
The officer shot Wright by accident, Gannon said. It is believed that Kim Potter meant to grab her Taser, as evidenced by her yelling, “Taser! Taser! Taser!” How does a 26-year police veteran mistake her gun with a Taser? Was a Taser necessary? Wright’s girlfriend was in the passenger seat.
Could it be that unconscious bias led her hand to her gun instead of the other side of her holster where her Taser should have been? We do not know. An investigation may not uncover that, either.
President Joe Biden called for calm and peace but the thing is, neither Floyd nor Wright can rest in peace any more than they lived in it. They are blamed for their own killings.
Black people have a reason to resist police.
George Floyd is dead. Alleged Atlanta mass shooter Robert Aaron Long was arrested alive. They said he had a bad day. You cannot keep expecting polite protests from the oppressed.
The trauma of the continued government-sanctioned killings of people who look like you is a terror that lurks in your mind. But it is not a boogeyman. It’s real. Did you hear the children testify the first few days of Chauvin’s trial? Some five witnesses between the ages of 9 and 19 told the court and the world how they’d seen Floyd killed.
And all of them carry a sadness of wishing more could have been done. Yet none of them should ever have to bear witness to police casually killing folk. Children taking the stand to testify in hopes that the system does better by Floyd after death than they did in life is more than any young person should ever have to shoulder.
The killing of unarmed Black folk isn’t just ending the lives of the victims. It’s a tragic legacy of trauma that alters the lives of every Black person in this country.
We’re tired of being scared. We’re tired of dying. We’re tired of complying to our profiling.
All police do not have to be bad for the system to be violent and unjust. And the system is by design, not accidental. We do not seek an equity in how the brutality is distributed. The mission is to end this brute behavior so that no one is on the receiving end of tax-funded oppression.
A 20-year-old, Daunte Wright, is dead. And George Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd is on TV mourning both men, telling us the pain he feels is only heightened by this latest death.
“I’m thinking about Black America,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon. “So many people who have lost loved ones.”
Do not dare to ask us for peace when this country has put us in a perpetual state of grief. Peace is a safe society. America made it so that you have to fight for it. Updated April 13, 2021
*Jeneé Osterheldt is a culture columnist who covers identity and social justice through the lens of culture and the arts. She centers Black lives and the lives of people of color.