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If you don’t understand Black Lives Matter after Terence Crutcher’s death, you never will

His car broke down. An officer said he looked “bad.” Now he’s dead.

Countless studies, statistics, investigations, and anecdotes tell us that a person’s race can determine the kinds of interactions he or she will have with the police — and how likely it is that he or she will survive the encounter.

At this point, this reality is largely beyond debate.

Yet the topic of unarmed black people being killed by law enforcement officers at wildly disproportionate rates is often dubbed controversial, and is framed as an issue about which reasonable people can disagree. It’s not.

Many characterize the dilemma as the result of a lack of “trust between police and communities.” That obscures the problem.

The phrase “black lives matter,” which has been used to draw attention to the problem, has inspired its own pushback, with critics suggesting it means that “blue” (police) lives, or nonblack lives in general, aren’t important. That’s hugely confused.

But any sincere confusion about what the Black Lives Matter movement means and what motivates critics of racialized police violence should end with the news of the circumstances of 40-year-old Terence Crutcher’s death in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week (to say nothing of the police shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina, of Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday night, the details of which are still unfolding).

After Crutcher’s car stalled on the highway, police responding to a call about an abandoned vehicle saw Crutcher — who video shows was following instructions and who police have admitted was unarmed — and deemed him “a bad dude” who would need to be tasered. Moments later, officer Betty Shelby shot him dead.

Anyone should be able to see that this was wrong. The fact that it happened, that the officer may or may not be held responsible, and that it hasn’t led to national consensus of horror and outrage paints a clear, simple picture of the reality that people are protesting against when they say “black lives matter.”

This shooting, the latest in a long, long string of similar cases, stands out. Because of the specific circumstances, it’s a tragedy that even people who hold deeply misguided beliefs about black criminality or intense loyalty to police officers should be able to see as such. There are no distractions. Those who can’t identify injustice in this latest textbook example of how racial bias can lead to death probably won’t see it anywhere.

It’s Black Lives Matter 101.

Crutcher’s death proves that you can get killed while doing absolutely nothing wrong (let alone anything that justified deadly force)

This interaction reportedly began because Crutcher’s car broke down. As police responded to the scene of the stalled vehicle and Crutcher followed instructions to hold his hands over his head, an officer can be heard on video saying he looked like “a bad dude.” Seconds later, he was lying in a pool of blood.

Keep in mind that Crutcher did not commit a crime and was not suspected of one — not even a small, harmless one like selling untaxed cigarettes or having a broken taillight. He didn’t struggle with an officer. He didn’t run away. He wasn’t being pursued because there was a warrant for his arrest. He wasn’t holding a toy gun in a Walmart that sold toy guns in an open carry state. He wasn’t a child who an officer thought looked like an adult, holding a toy gun that an officer thought looked like a real gun (also in an open carry state). He wasn’t even a 13-year-old with a BB gun whom police confused with an adult armed robbery suspect.

None of the details above made the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Tyre King, or others any less painful. But they did often create messier public debates, and enough material to meet the very low bar for legal arguments that officers felt threatened and that their use of force was justified.

There’s none of that here, except the officer’s lawyers’ allegation that Crutcher — who wasn’t suspected of a crime, didn’t have a weapon, and was doing exactly as he was told in all of the video footage made available — suddenly failed to follow orders in the few seconds not caught on camera. There are no “Well, if he hadn’t done X, he would have been fine” counterfactuals that even come close to passing the straight face test in this sad story.

All of the available evidence leads to the conclusion that there was nothing Crutcher could have done differently to avoid his fate, except to have been a person whom police didn’t see as bad. In other words, a person who wasn’t black.

It’s a reminder that race can — and does — shape who’s seen as “bad”

Crutcher’s twin sister speaks to the press, saying, in part, “That big ‘bad dude’ was my twin brother. That big ‘bad dude’ was a father. That big ‘bad dude’ was a son. That big ‘bad dude’ was enrolled at Tulsa Community College — just wanting to make us proud. That big ‘bad dude’ loved God. That big ‘bad dude’ was at church singing, with all his flaws, every week.”
Tulsa World TV

That’s right. Crutcher might not have been seen as bad and might not have been killed if he’d been white. In fact, he likely wouldn’t have been seen as bad and been killed if he’d been white.

His death is a distressing reminder that race informs which people are seen as threats, which in turn affects whether police encounters turn adversarial, which in turn determines people’s likelihood of being killed. You don’t have to be black to imagine the terror people feel knowing that their skin color means there’s a chance they will at some point be seen as a threat, a police officer will react to them as such, their every hesitation or terrified motion will be interpreted as failure to comply, and they will end up dead.

Worse, accountability will be unlikely because police are so rarely determined to have improperly used deadly force. And of course, even if someone were charged, the person whose skin color set off this chain of events would still be dead.

It’s not just the mountains of historical and anecdotal evidence about how African Americans have had to live in fear of police that support this claim. And it’s not just recent examples like that of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, who justified killing unarmed teen Michael Brown by explaining that Brown seemed to him like “Hulk Hogan” or "a demon” and expressing a concern that Brown could have possibly killed him with a single punch to the face.

As Vox’s Lauren Williams wrote after Brown’s 2014 death, the “giant Negro” trope, which reveals how white people can see black people as larger — and scarier — than life, is nothing new:

The Journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science recently released a study that suggested white people hold a "superhumanization bias" against black people. As Jesse Singal of the Science of Us explained, "The researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks than whites with superhuman words like ghost, paranormal, and spirit; are more likely to think a black person as opposed to a white person has certain superhuman abilities; and that the more they think blacks are superhuman, the less they view black people as having a capacity to feel pain.

We don’t have to imagine what the video doesn’t show — that Crutcher probably would have survived his car troubles had he been white. Generally, data backs that up, as Vox’s German Lopez has explained:

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox’s Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."

And there’s good reason to believe that racial bias is a factor:

Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

It’s a reminder that it’s not random tragic mistakes, “bad apples,” or a “lack of trust” that kills innocent black people

An officer with the St. Paul Police Department lets children sit on his motorcycle during an August 2016 “Safe Summer Nights” event designed to let police officers interact with the communities they serve.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

It’s often suggested in conversations about police violence that while most officers are good, a few “bad apples” kill people when they shouldn’t. But judgments about the nature of officers’ individual characters are not only so subjective as to be useless but they also miss the point. The video footage of Crutcher’s death illustrates that.

The officers seen and heard in the video laid eyes on Crutcher and seemingly automatically saw and treated him as a threat. No rogue officer said, “Forget the law! I’m doing what I want.” Instead, the officer in the helicopter remarked, “This is a bad dude,” and two officers turned their weapons on Crutcher — one with a gun and the other with a Taser.

It’s fairly clear that these men and women were not actively conspiring to break the law or to kill an innocent man for sport. But their mindset and intentions didn’t save Crutcher’s life.

Departments full of regular cops — not just bad apples — who do despicable, unconstitutional, and often deadly things to African Americans (as well as exhibiting all sorts of other dysfunction and corruption) have been well-documented recently in the Department of Justice’s investigations of Baltimore and Ferguson.

But even if you suspect that level of misconduct is rare, these examples demonstrate the way a department’s culture can exert influence over officers who very well may have intended to bravely and fairly serve their communities when they first put on their uniforms.

It shouldn’t be surprising that officers who took their jobs hoping to do good, and cops of all races, take part in the kind of conduct that makes unarmed, innocent black people like Crutcher more likely to be killed. Lopez also wrote about how systemic racism can entangle all officers:

Racial bias isn't necessarily about how a person views himself in terms of race, but how he views others in terms of race, particularly in different roles throughout his everyday life. And systemic racism, which has been part of the US since its founding, can corrupt anyone's view of minorities in America.

In the case of police, all cops are dealing with enormous cultural and systemic forces that build racial bias against minority groups. Even if a black cop doesn't view himself as racist, the way policing is done in the US is racially skewed — by, for example, targeting high-crime neighborhoods that are predominantly black.

These policing tactics can also create and accentuate personal, subconscious bias by increasing the likelihood that officers will relate blackness with criminality or danger — leading to what psychologists call "implicit bias" against black Americans.

Combined, this means the system as a whole — as well as individual officers, even black ones — by and large act in ways that are deeply racially skewed and, potentially, racist.

"The culture of policing is one that's so strong that it can overwhelm individual racial differences," L. Song Richardson, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, previously told me. "People are cops first, and they're their race second."

It doesn’t matter whether police officers aim to protect and serve, whether they are brave, whether they want to keep communities safer, or whether their friends and family insist that they’re heroes. We will likely hear all of these things about the officers involved in Crutcher’s death. What matters when it comes to whether black people survive encounters with them is what the people in uniform do. And what they did here was kill a person whose only crime was having car trouble.

It’s laughable to believe that these tragedies can be addressed by the barbecues, ice cream parties, and dance-offs that are often lauded in the media as ways to increase understanding between police and black communities. Crutcher’s death drives home that it is neither a few bad guys nor the need for cops and citizens do fun activities together that’s leaving unarmed black people dead. It’s everyday police seeing deadly threats when there are none, and using force inspired by their wild and racially biased imaginations.

It spotlights a heartbreaking lack of compassion and empathy by many people whose race generally protects them from police violence

Students gather at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte on September 21, 2016, for a protest against police brutality following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott nearby the previous day.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, told ABC News that Crutcher was left on the ground, bleeding, for almost two minutes before anyone checked on him. This, he said, shows “how little regard” Tulsa police have for the community’s minorities.

African Americans are well aware of this lack of regard for tragedies that befall black people, and it’s not just on the part of police officers. While it’s worth noting that a lot of the groups that have protested racialized police violence in recent years have been extremely diverse, there’s a huge racial divide when it comes to how people see the problem of police violence against unarmed citizens.

One great example: In the wake of Crutcher’s death, many social media users this week have drawn disgusted and astute contrasts between the intense outrage expressed by their white peers when 49ers player Colin Kaepernick and other athletes took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence, versus the notable absence of distress over the actual loss of life.

This represents a larger pattern. Just recently, Pew found big differences in the way white and black Americans assess “race relations” in America. Twice as many black people said the status of race relations was “bad.” Meanwhile, almost twice as many white people said there is “too much focus” on race and racial issues.

The lack of compassion from fellow citizens adds another layer of pain and hopelessness to the distress caused by the deaths themselves. In a prime example of this detached condescension, the New York Times’s David Brooks wrote just last week that black high school athletes should not protest police violence during the national anthem because doing so risks suggesting that we’re not “all in this together.”

Crutcher’s death, and the response to it, is just the latest and clearest reminder that in many ways, we’re not.


Watch: Why recording the police is so important

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