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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
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
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
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.
The A-Infos Radio Project
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