When police went to Korryn Gaines’s apartment in Baltimore County on Monday to serve an arrest warrant for a low-level offense, she reportedly didn’t comply. According to police, she barricaded herself in her home with a shotgun aimed at the officers. She kept her 5-year-old son at her side during the hours-long standoff. She threatened to kill the officers. And she allegedly shot back at police after they fired one shot, leading to a shootout that got her killed and her son injured.
But despite her reportedly erratic behavior, Gaines has quickly become the latest face of the Black Lives Matter movement — with racial justice advocates still discussing her death days after it happened.
Part of the reason is her 5-year-old son was injured — and it’s impossible to argue, no matter what one thinks of Gaines’s actions, that he deserved it. Still, many people think Gaines shouldn’t have been shot either.
Why? There are three key things to understand here: For one, there are big racial disparities in police shootings, which activists would like to close even if it means embracing supposedly imperfect victims. There’s also no actual video of the police shooting, so all the reports so far have relied almost entirely on the police account. And while Gaines may have acted erratically, many activists feel it’s on the police to deescalate these types of situations — to prove black lives really do matter to the criminal justice system.
Behind all these reasons there’s a consistent theme: There is a lot of distrust in police — and that’s going to make people far more skeptical of any police actions until their trust is repaired.
1) There are big racial disparities in police shootings
It is the most important fact to Black Lives Matter supporters when it comes to police shootings: There are enormous racial disparities in how police use force.
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. (The data is incomplete because it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, but it shows the vast disparities in how police use force.)
There are all sorts of possible explanations for why these disparities exist. For one, cops are disproportionately deployed in minority communities — in part because these areas tend to have more crime as a result of socioeconomic issues, and in part due to incentives for cops to roam these neighborhoods and arrest as many people as possible. Studies also show that police officers have subconscious racial biases, which may drive them to stop, arrest, and shoot black Americans at disproportionate rates.
Whatever the cause, dismantling the disparities is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. Since activists would like to see these disparities come down, any death of another black person at the hands of police is widely seen within the movement as unacceptable — even if the person isn’t a “perfect victim” with a totally clean record.
2) There’s no video of the actual shooting
So far, we mostly know what police have said about the shooting, because there’s no publicly available video of the moments of the shooting. And for many Black Lives Matter activists, only having the police account is as good as knowing nothing, since they don’t trust police officers enough to take them at their word.
The lack of trust is largely on the criminal justice system and police. Over the past few years, as videos of police shootings have become more widely available, America has seen multiple police killings — Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, as two examples — in which officers claimed that a black suspect attacked an officer, only for video to show that nothing of the sort happened.
It’s under this context that many are skeptical of the official police story that Gaines acted erratically and threatened to kill police before they shot her. So until people see video, they’ll never really trust that police told the truth about what happened.
3) Activists feel that police need to prove black lives matter
Given the disparities and distrust, many activists feel that police need to prove that black lives really do matter to them — and that means showing that they’re doing everything they can to prevent another death.
So even if Gaines acted erratically and the shooting was legally justified, some activists argue that police could have done more to not shoot and kill Gaines.
For example, could the police have brought in a better-trained negotiator to help calm Gaines down and get her to surrender peacefully? Did police consider that shooting at Gaines could injure the child, or leave him without a mother if they killed her?
Did police account for other possible issues affecting Gaines — she may have suffered from lead poisoning, which can cause irrational behavior — possibly suggesting she wasn’t fully to blame for her actions?
Police said Gaines threatened to kill them, and then an officer fired at her once. So what if the officer didn’t fire at all, and the cops backed down and, perhaps, came back later? Could the shootout, which killed Gaines and injured Gaines’s son, have been prevented? Would one more black person, who was only accused of a low-level offense at first, be alive today as a result? (Although before police killed her, they did charge her with assault for threatening them.)
Why is it that police have resolved standoffs with heavily armed, predominantly white militias — such as the recent ones at a Nevada ranch and a wildlife refuge in Oregon — with few or no deaths, but a standoff with one black woman couldn’t be resolved peacefully?
These are the types of questions going through many activists’ minds today. For them, it seems like police really didn’t try everything in their power to avoid the shootout — and that suggests they really don’t value black lives.
The bottom line: For Black Lives Matter activists, trust in police is very low
The consistent theme in all of these points is clear: Black Lives Matter activists really don’t trust police. So they’re always going to question police’s claims and actions.
It’s very difficult for many people outside minority communities to understand the full level of distrust people in these places feel. But just imagine that every few weeks you see a murderer get away with killing people, despite solid evidence against him. Surely, that would cause you to lose a lot of trust in the justice system.
That’s how many felt when they saw police officers get away with killing, for example, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford. And now add in that they feel such killings — which you might not agree are wrongful, but they do — can happen at any time to them.
This is the crucial context behind the police shooting of Korryn Gaines. You may not agree with it, but it’s a very big sentiment among black communities and racial justice activists. Until that trust is mended, police are going to have a much harder time doing their jobs without facing a lot of questions from the community — and even a legally justified shooting will trigger a lot of outrage.