One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…. in rapid succession, bullets tore through bones, tissue, sinews, rupturing blood vessels, severing the connection between brain and legs, possibly confining a 29 year old father to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
After the fact, people sit back like Monday morning quarterbacks and dissect the circumstances. Dissect his life….
First, they question his actions, they wonder about his past, they postulate that he must have done something to trigger the trigger (if you will). Then they suggest that the shooting may have been justified, and that quick decisions have to be made in the field, rapid assessment of danger, and snap judgements.
Dr. Renee Grinnell describes “Just World Theory” as “the idea that people need to believe one will get what one deserves so strongly, that they will rationalize an inexplicable injustice by naming things the victim might have done to deserve it.” So essentially, the idea that bad things happen to bad people, so if something bad happened to you, you must be bad. The flip side of this conversation is self-insulating and self-comforting, I am good, so bad things won’t happen to me. Throughout our history there has been a clear delineation along racial lines, as to whether America is perceived as just or not. Black Americans know that bad things do happen to good people, and therefore have no comfort or security in believing that these things won’t happen to us.
In his book “Blink”, Malcolm Gladwell discusses snap judgements and how we as humans rapidly form impressions of other people, and how we use these impressions to guide our actions and interactions. Consider the case of Amadou Diallo.
In the early morning hours on February 4 1999, Four white plainclothes police officers wearing jeans, baseball caps and bullet proof vests, pulled up in an unmarked Ford Taurus. They approached a young African immigrant who was getting some fresh air on the steps of his Wheeler Avenue apartment in New York City. They fired 41 bullets, 19 of which found the mark, as 23-year old Amadou Diallo was trying to pull his wallet from his pocket either to show identification, or because he thought he was being robbed. (We’ll never know) He was dead before he hit the ground, arm outstretched, a rectangular black wallet in his open palm.
The officers were indicted, and at trial, they said they thought he had a gun. According to the transcripts, as they cruised slowly past the young man, they sized him up, and said they thought he looked suspicious. They backed the car up to take a second look, and Diallo didn’t move. The officers said they thought this was brazen, and they decided then, that he was dangerous. They approached him, he retreated toward his apartment simultaneously trying to pull his wallet from his pocket. They fired. Two of the four officers fired 16 shots each, emptying their clips. As the bullets tore through his body, he slumped into a crouched position, with his arm outstretched, still trying to give them the wallet. They said, he appeared to be in combat stance, and they continued shooting. Defense attorneys argued that it was just a horrible accident, and that police officers have to make life or death decisions in conditions of uncertainty…The jury agreed.
Diallo’s life was over from the moment they made that initial assessment that he was a potential criminal. They all testified that they never considered that he actually might have lived in that building. In 2014, young Tamir Rice’s life was over within 2 seconds of the officer pulling up to the park where he was playing with a toy gun. The assumptions that were made, triggered the fatal events that followed.
Research published by the American Psychological Association (2014) tells us that by the age of 14, kids of color are no longer viewed in the same way as white kids. They are no longer considered to be children, to have the innocence of childhood. They are now perceived as much older than they actually are. Girls of color are perceived to be sexually promiscuous, and boys of color are thought to be dangerous. So when (not if) our girls and young women are assaulted, “they were asking for it,” and when (not if) our boys and young men are killed, “they were suspicious and dangerous” even if merely standing outside their own homes. These assumptions based on negative stereotypes and biases, so rapidly and devastatingly escalate into tragedy and loss of precious human life. As Diallo’s mom’s tells it, in this short reflection 20 years later, “reaching for a gun is a perception” and that perception is colored by a history of racism in this country.
“Amadou Diallo, reggae music knows your name…” (Ziggy Marley circa 2000)