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How to survive with a gun and a cop...

by nashville man Wednesday, Jun. 06, 2001 at 2:03 PM

A confrontation between a gun-wielding individual and guns-wielding police.... who win, in this case it's not the same old story.... read on...


May 22, 2001

Shot by Cops? Not If You're White

By Tim Wise

After my recent article excoriating the Cincinnati police

for their well-documented brutality against black residents

(including the shooting of an unarmed young man wanted for

seatbelt violations), I received many an angry e-mail from

folks proclaiming that I just didn't know how difficult it

was to be a police officer. As such, they insisted I

shouldn't be so quick to judge cops who shoot criminal

suspects. After all, hesitation in the face of danger could

cost an officer his or her life, not to mention the lives of

innocent bystanders. When a criminal brandishes a weapon (or

even when he doesn't but is thought to have one), the police

have little choice but to shoot, said my detractors -- no


Yeah, well, tell that to the Nashville police department.

Apparently it is quite possible to hold fire and defuse a

dangerous situation when one feels like it. It is quite

possible not to shoot a suspect, even when he most

definitely has a gun and is firing it directly at officers

and their cars. All that is required for police to show this

restraint is that the suspect must be an officer himself.

Last week, 13-year police veteran, Sgt. Mark Nelson,

distraught over being dumped by the female officer he'd been

dating, went to the apartment of her new boyfriend (also a

cop), while both were inside. He attempted to gain entry,

fired bullets randomly into the air, and when police

arrived, proceeded to shoot at three officers and put bullet

holes in their vehicles. He then threatened to shoot down a

news helicopter, and held an entire neighborhood essentially

hostage for four hours: all down the road from an elementary

school that was letting out for the day.

Now imagine that this overwrought, bullet-spraying

individual had been a civilian -- especially a young black

man. How long do you think it would have taken for police on

the scene to drop him in a hail of bullets? In a nation

where black men are shot dozens of times for brandishing

wallets and cell phones, it doesn't take a genius to guess

that the time needed to "resolve" the situation would have

been well short of 240 minutes.

But in Nelson's case, his fellow officers insisted that he

posed "no real threat" to them or the general public. After

calm and rational negotiation, he laid down his weapon and

was taken into custody.

Apparently, who constitutes a "real threat" is in the

none-too-objective eye of the beholder. Unlike the black

officer who was beaten senseless a few years ago by white

Nashville cops who didn't recognize him as "one of their

own," Nelson was immediately considered family. Never mind

that he pointed and discharged his weapon at his brothers in

blue -- Mark Nelson was a friend, a colleague, and white. So

the danger that would likely have been assumed had he been

dark and a civilian was dismissed. He was cut slack.

How nice it would be if we could say the same about Timothy

Thomas in Cincinnati, or Amadou Diallo in New York, or

Tyisha Miller in Riverside, California, or Carl Hardiman in

Chicago, or hundreds more I could name had I the space to do

so. Hell, in the case of Nashville police, two young men

(one white and one black), were recently shot in the back of

the heads for trying to back up their cars and escape

arrest. And why? Because their vehicles were seen as threats

to the officers' lives in a way that Mark Nelson's bullets

were not.

Funny how some folks are seen as dangerous and others

aren't; some worthy of harsh treatment, and others not.

Consider recent goings-on in the state of Florida, for

further confirmation.

With the convictions of Lionel Tate and Nathaniel Brazill

for murder (both black, both just into their teen years, and

both going away for a long time) the Sunshine State has

demonstrated that so far as they are concerned, one can

never be too young to go to prison. However, apparently one

can be too white to go there. That's right: late last year,

a Tampa judge refused to send a 41-year old white drug felon

to prison, despite his having violated parole, for no reason

other than he was white, and thin, and would be "impossible

to protect" in the Florida State Penitentiary. In other

words, he would most certainly be gang-raped by black men,

who apparently are never too thin or too weak for a cozy

jail cell. According to the judge, "I'm not going to send a

man like this to Florida State prison. That is cruel and

unusual punishment in my book."

Don't get me wrong: I certainly don't fault a decision to

send a drug offender to rehab instead of prison, nor to hold

fire in the case of Mark Nelson. Both were humane and

appropriate decisions. But in these cases, said decisions

were made for entirely inappropriate reasons. Drug offenders

shouldn't go to jail, not because they are white, but

because imprisonment is an absurd response to drug use or

abuse. Whenever possible, criminal suspects shouldn't be

shot, not because they are white or fellow police officers,

but because of a little thing called due process, and the

need to restrain law enforcement from becoming judge, jury

and executioner.

Unfortunately, the humanity and restraint shown in these

incidents is mostly extended to those lacking a certain

degree of pigmentation. Our perceptions of danger and

deviance skew the treatment meted out to folks all

throughout the various stages of the criminal justice


It's why Santee school shooter Andy Williams could be taken

alive, despite having a loaded gun pointed at officers when

he was abducted, while 14 year old Aquan Salmon had to be

shot dead for running away from police in New Haven,


It's why Bernhard Goetz could be viewed not as a dangerous,

off-balance predator, but rather as a real-life Charles

Bronson-type character, gunning down black men for the

safety of all white Americans.

It's why a recent study at Washington University in St.

Louis found that the mere presence of dark skin increases

the probability that an object (perhaps in the person's

hand) will be misperceived as a weapon.

It's why white drug offenders in New York City, though they

make up the majority of drug users there, are less than 10

percent of the persons locked down for a drug offense, and

are taking nearly three-quarters of the treatment facility


And still, white Americans wonder why their black and brown

counterparts question the fundamental fairness of our

criminal justice system? But why ask why? The answers become

more and more plain every day. They are as blatant as the

daily headlines. And it takes a special kind of

color-blindness not to notice them.


Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer

and antiracism activist. He can be reached at:


Copyright (c) 2001 AlterNet. All Rights Reserved.



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