“Michael Brown... was no angel.”- New York Times
“The April 19 death of Freddie Gray, the son of an illiterate heroin addict, made him a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police.”- CNN
“That looks like a bad dude too. He might be on something.”- Tulsa Police Officer on Terence Crutcher
There is an ancient Black girl proverb that says, “And?” My spirit and tongue often invoke this wise conjunction whenever police officers try to justify a murder with questionable information about the victim.
Before Terence Crutcher’s flesh came to live and dwell among us as a hashtag, a police officer in a helicopter said that he looked like a “bad dude” who was probably “on something.” Deeply problematic, likely racist, and perhaps miscalculated, the officer started a familiar narrative that is often used to justify two types of violence. First, it justifies police escalation while the person is still alive. Second, it starts to rationalize police action once the victim is killed.
Time and time again, families are expected to come to the defense of their loved ones. Family reunion and graduation photos start circulating. Michael Brown just beat the odds by graduating high school and was on his way to college (Crutcher had recently enrolled, too.). Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were good fathers. Tamir Rice was a cheerful and playful twelve year old.
“I just want them to know who Michael Brown was. That’s my purpose. My son was not a bad person, he was not a thug, he didn’t have a rap sheet, he didn’t tote a pistol, he was not like that at all.” - Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown Jr.’s mother
“I truly feel that my father was a good man and he will always be a good man.” - Cameron Sterling, Alton Sterling’s son
“You all want to know who that big ‘bad dude’ was... 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.”- Tiffany Crutcher, Terence Crutcher’s twin sister.
Police departments, prosecutors, and mainstream media fall deeper into character assassination after the victim’s death, releasing untimely or irrelevant information to further rationalize the killer’s actions. The public quickly learned of Michael Brown’s encounter with a store clerk before his murder, and of the autopsy report revealing marijuana in his system. A prosecutor suggested that Tamir’s family had “economic motives” in the outcome of the grand jury process. News outlets chose to circulate Sam DuBose’s mugshot, the victim, and not Officer Ray Tensing’s mugshot, the one charged with his murder. Now, the nation has learned that officers found PCP in Terence Crutcher’s truck after his death. And? Even if true, his hands were still visible, up, and non-threatening. An officer pulled the trigger anyway.
“We must resist attempts to divide Blacks into good and bad; We are human.”
These strong narratives that so many are forced to combat are misleading and distracting, intentionally.
Because people with drugs found in their cars have rights. People who say “Fuck the police” have rights. Thugs, people with mugshots, and ex-felons have rights. Armed people have rights (not just armed white people, even though police kill Black people for having weapons in open-carry states). Our cousins who have pictures of guns on Instagram have rights. People who break the law have rights, too. Dylann Roof, who is alive, in jail, and even treated to Burger King while in police custody after massacring a church full of Black folk, has rights.
In fact, have you ever wondered why the legal system is called the “criminal justice system” and not the “victim justice system?” It is supposed to ensure that people who may break the law are treated fairly through a system of due process. A police officer is not supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner— which is why so many have called police killings “lynchings.” America supposedly has a system where people who are suspected lawbreakers must be found guilty.
But what exactly did Terence Crutching do that was illegal? What was his crime? And if there was a crime, was death the logical and probable consequence? Did police officers have the right to choke the life out of Eric Garner’s body over a petty crime? Does shoplifting at Wal-Mart justify a police officer shooting into a car with adults and children because they drove away? Was two seconds enough time to decide that Tamir should die on a playground?
He was someone’s father. She was a good woman. Communities feel compelled to humanize victims because hashtags are not ideal reincarnations. But simply using these traits to defend against police brutality shifts the inquiry to whether the victim is responsible for her own death rather than the violent or illegal actions of the officer. We must resist attempts to further divide Blacks into good and bad; we are human. Distancing ourselves from those who we think that the police are more likely to target will not save us— and it will only make them more vulnerable.