When headlines scream “UNARMED BLACK MAN SHOT BY POLICE,” a wave of national outrage is sure to follow. But far less anger ensues when armed black men are killed by police, even when they aren’t brandishing their weapons or posing any apparent threat at all, as appears to be the case in the two latest high-profile victims of America’s shoot-first-ask-later police culture.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were probably both armed. But it is highly doubtful whether Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five who was selling CDs outside a Baton Rogue, Louisiana store on Tuesday and who was pinned to the ground by multiple officers when he was shot at point-blank range at least half a dozen times, could have reached what police claim is a gun they pulled from the slain man’s pants pocket. And Lavish Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, says he told officers who pulled him over in Falcon Heights, Minnesota for a broken taillight late Wednesday that he had a pistol and a concealed carry permit.
That apparently didn’t matter to the officer who shot Castile as he was reportedly complying with an order to hand over his identification. “He was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm,” Reynolds said as she courageously live-streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. “He shot his arm off.”
“Please don’t tell me this, Lord. Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone,” Reynolds pleaded in the recording. “Please, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
“It’s OK, I’m right here with you,” her 4-year-old daughter, who also watched Castile bleed out and die without medical care, says in the recording as she tries to calm her traumatized mother. Instead of consolation, officers handcuffed the distraught woman and placed her, and her little girl, in police custody.
This sort of thing happens all too often in “post-racial” America. A pair of incidents, just a day apart, in Cincinnati earlier this year illustrate just how dramatically different outcomes of police encounters can be depending on the suspect’s race. On February 16, Cincinnati police were called to a Mount Healthy home to investigate a report of an assault. Responding officers were met by 26-year-old Christopher Laugle, a white man who pulled out a gun and pointed it at them. The officers involved later said they “felt threatened” by Laugle, who resisted arrest but was peacefully apprehended into custody. It turned out his gun was fake.
A day later, 37-year-old Paul Gaston, who was black, crashed his pickup truck into a telephone pole. He stumbled from his vehicle and when police arrived and ordered him to the ground he initially complied, but appeared to be confused. Bystander videoshows Gaston on his knees with his hands raised in the air as he is surrounded by officers with their guns drawn. After lying on the ground, Gaston rises to his knees and is suddenly cut down by a hail of police gunfire. Officers claimed he’d reached for a gun in his waistband. Like Laugle’s, it turned out to be a fake. But while Laugle got away with a menacing charge and a $2,000 bond, Gaston paid with his life.
So did Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Cleveland boy who in November 2014 was shot dead by police who mistook his toy gun for a real one even thought the 911 caller who reported the child said it was “probably fake.” Timothy Loehman, the officer who fatally shot Rice, fired his gun within two seconds of arriving at the playground where he and his sister were playing. While quick to shoot, officers did nothing to save Rice as he lie dying on the frozen ground. They did, however, tackle and handcuff his traumatized 14-year-old sister, a scene surely familiar to Philando Castile’s girlfriend and the many black witnesses and victims who are too often treated like criminals in the aftermath of police shootings.
Fast-forward to February 2016, when two brothers, one of them Rice’s age, were confronted by police in the Cleveland suburb of Parma for playing with BB guns in a park. Like Rice, the boys had removed the bright orange barrel tips that identified their guns as toys. But unlike Rice, both of them are still alive. They were charged with inducing panic, a charge that may be dropped, and ordered to write essays—about Tamir Rice—as punishment. Speaking of dropped charges, no charges were filed against Loehman, an all-too-common outcome for white officers who kill unarmed blacks.
There have been many incidents in which white people with guns have gotten away with acts that would surely have resulted in severe injury or death had they been black. Here are but a few:
- On Tuesday, Wake County, North Carolina deputies responding to a report of a man pointing a shotgun at passing motorists confronted William Bruce Ray, 62, of Raleigh, who responded by pointing the gun at a deputy. Quick reflexes may have saved the officer as he brushed the shotgun aside, but Ray was quick too and drew a pistol which he then fired at the deputy. “Luckily, nobody got hurt. That’s the good thing. God was looking out for us,” the local police chief said. “[Ray] was very fortunate that he didn’t get shot, very fortunate that anybody didn’t get shot.” Very fortunate, and very white. Ray was arrested unharmed.
- Open carry activist Joseph Houseman, 63, attracted plenty of police attention—but no bullets—when he stood in front of a Kalamazoo, Michigan Dairy Queen drunkenly menacing passersby with a rifle in May 2014. Although Houseman was combative with officers and asserted what he believed to be his legal right to threaten them and their families, he was not shot. Police spent 40 minutes convincing him to lay down his gun. Not only was Houseman not arrested, he was allowed to retrieve his rifle from police custody the following day.
- In January 2015, 25-year-old Jed Frazier of Texas drove his car into a ditch in Pennsylvania. When responding officers approached the vehicle, Frazier pulled out a gun and pointed it at them. They then broke a window, pulled the suspect out and arrested him without firing a single shot.
- In September 2014, Jesse Deflorio, 22, was taken into custody, with bail set at $5,000, after he fired a BB gun at Concord, New Hampshire police engaged in a traffic stop.
- Lance Tamayo could have died from being shot in the stomach after pointing a gun at San Diego police officers and a police helicopter in August 2014. Although the suspect’s gun was within reach after he fell wounded to the ground, officers chose to call his cell phone and reason with him for 15 minutes, leading to his peaceful surrender. Tamayo was later sentenced to three months in jail for a crime that has gotten many a black man killed.
- In December 2014, Julia Shields, clad in body armor, went on a vehicular shooting rampage in Chattanooga, Tennessee, firing at multiple vehicles before leading police on a chase and pointing her gun at officers. Shields was arrested without incident or injury.
- Also in December 2014, two drunken buddies entered a Post Falls, Idaho Walmart store and shot the place up with BB guns. They were soon arrested without incident. (Compare and contrast with the tragic case of John Crawford III, who picked up a BB gun while shopping in an Ohio Walmart in August 2014 and was promptly shot dead by police. Crawford was 22 years old. And black.)
It’s not just day-to-day policing, but also the very laws and their application, that reveal racial bias against black men, armed and otherwise. The trial and acquittal of Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, brought national attention to “stand your ground” laws, which permit the use of lethal force in self-defense situations. But what the national media largely failed to report is that killings of black people by whites are more likely to be deemed justified than the killings of white people by blacks. Far more likely—in “stand your ground” states, a white person is 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than the other way around.
Not only does fear of armed black men prejudice the outcomes of “stand your ground” cases, it has even led to the passage of gun control legislation. In 1966, black activists Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale Black founded the Panther Party for Self Defense in Oakland, California to combat rampant government and police racism and brutality. The Black Panthers believed in exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms—openly and in compliance with California state law—as a means of protecting themselves and “policing the police.” The sight of armed black activists terrified many whites, and in response Republican state lawmaker Don Mulford introduced legislation banning the open carrying of firearms. The bill, which enjoyed the full support of the National Rifle Association, passed and was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan, who would later campaign for president as a champion of the right to bear arms. But not for everyone, apparently.
The racist double standard applies to armed groups and individuals alike. In January 2016, around 150 members and supporters of an anti-government militia linked to outlaw Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Haney County, Oregon, triggering a 40-day armed standoff with federal, state and local law enforcement officials. Although they rejected the legitimacy of the US government and militia leader Ryan Bundy threatened to “kill and be killed if necessary,” law enforcement opted for a cautious wait-and-see approach that ended in the peaceful surrender and arrest of the militiamen. Only one person, who allegedly reached for a gun after fleeing from police near the occupation site, was killed.
The outcome of a similar standoff in which all of the participants were black was quite different. In May 1985, members of the black liberation group MOVE, who believed in living a natural lifestyle free from cruelty to humans and animals, barricaded themselves in a row house in the densely-populated Cobbs Creek neighborhood of Philadelphia. Espousing similar anti-government beliefs to the Bundy militia, MOVE members had amassed weapons and threatened to defend themselves if police or the government attacked them. On May 13, 1985 nearly 500 officers, many of them armed with military-grade weaponry, surrounded the MOVE house on Osage Avenue in an attempt to evict the group following neighbor noise complaints. Police deployed deluge cannons and tear gas in an attempt to soak or smoke out the residents, who included as many as a dozen children. When someone from inside the home fired at police, officers responded with a barrage of 10,000 bullets over the next hour and a half. After police explosives experts failed to blast their way into the home, a helicopter dropped a bomb on its roof. Firefighters—who were under orders from the police commissioner to “let it burn”—stood by and watched as the raging inferno sparked by the bombing spread quickly and destroyed 65 homes in the middle-class black neighborhood. Eleven people, including five children, were killed during the police attack. Another 250 were left homeless by the worst residential fire in Philadelphia history. Only two MOVE members made it out of the doomed house alive.
This isn’t to say that whites with guns aren’t targeted by police, as the 1993 Waco siege and slaughter and other incidents attest. But in a nation in which police who kill blacks enjoy impunity in case after case after case after case, in which the narrative always seeks to find fault with black victims, and in which police, media and politicians portray peaceful black protest movements like Black Lives Matter as “terrorists,” “criminals” and “thugs,” a racist double standard is clearly at work. This is true in cases in which black victims are unarmed, and ones in which they’re exercising their constitutional right to bear arms.
“A white man with a gun is ‘exercising his rights’, yet a black man just suspected of having a gun is a deadly threat,” Jack Miller, a press aide to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, tweeted in the wake of the Castile shooting.
“No matter how well you follow the rules, you can still be dead because you’re black,” activist and former Obama White House policing task force member Brittany Packet told The Guardian. Relatives of police shooting victims know this all too well.
“We’re being hunted every day. It’s a silent war against African-American people,” Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, said in an interview with CNN. “A lot of our African-American men, women and children are being executed by the police, and there are no consequences… I feel like it’s becoming more and more repetitive… I believe because everyone is getting acquitted it’s like open season. If you don’t hold people accountable for what they do then they feel like they can just do anything.”
In an unusually frank admission in the wake of the Castile shooting, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton asked, “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver were white?”
“I don’t think it would have,” he answered, confirming what most black Americans have long suspected