We all want to believe that we live in a color-blind society where there are objective truths not colored by race or experience – but, while that day hopefully will someday come, it is not here yet, not even close.
While I have been thinking about writing this column for some time, I have paused – looking for the right words to express this very delicate point. Finally someone this week said, just write it, the conversation needs to happen even if you get blowback from some of your readers.
The point I am going to make is this. I am a white man. That gives me certain privileges within society that some would rightly call white privilege. My personal experiences with the police – even when I am given the unpleasant task of receiving a ticket – have been positive. I get treated, generally speaking, with respect and have even been given the benefit of the doubt in a number of circumstances.
The last few weeks and more so over the last 11 years, I have spent an inordinate amount of time talking to people of color in our community and elsewhere and, to put it plainly, their experience with the police does not match mine. I will go so far as to say their experience is fundamentally and quantitatively different from mine.
There are many people in this community who have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the police. Unfortunately, what I have found is that people of all races and ethnicities tend to universalize their own experiences. They assume that the treatment they have received is the treatment that all have received.
More and more we know that is simply not true.
Stanford researchers recently did a study using the transcripts from traffic stops of people in Oakland and found, “Officers’ language is less respectful when speaking to black community members.” This finding held regardless of the officer’s racial background and regardless of where the encounter occurred.
We can see this at play in the traffic stop data that came out of Sacramento. The Bee, in reviewing traffic stops over a 10-year period ending in February 2017, “found black drivers, especially men, are pulled over more often than others in the city – and have been for years.”
After Nandi Cain was beaten by a police officer after he crossed the street, the Bee also found, “Jaywalking tickets disproportionately given to black people in Sacramento.”
This week Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the shooting of Philando Castile, whom he fatally shot last year, claiming that he feared Mr. Castile was reaching for his gun – which he had informed the officer that he had in his vehicle. “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me,” Mr. Castile informed the officer.
Instead of asking to see his permit, Mr. Yanez fired his gun after Mr. Castile appeared to be complying with orders.
Mr. Castile was stopped reportedly because the officer claimed he looked like a robbery suspect, but many people believe this was a case of racial profiling.
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asked: “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?”
It is this backdrop that we need to evaluate what happened on Picnic Day. Because for me, reading the commentary in this community, too many people are evaluating the scene through their own eyes, rather than through the eyes of young people of color.
A critical question that is going to have to be determined is whether the individuals knew that these were police officers when the fight started. People will of course argue, as Bob Dunning has on multiple occasions, that you can’t kick a regular citizen in the head either, but that ignores a lot of context here.
But leaving that point aside for the moment, understand that key portions of the complaint are premised on the fact that they “knew or should have known” that these were police officers. The main assault charge, as well as the resisting arrest charges, are specifically dealing with conduct against police officers.
However, one key point here is that the young men have said that if they had known they were police officers, they would not have fought them because they would have feared, as young black men, being shot. That fear is pervasive and it is universally felt.
Given the national climate – that seems like a pretty reasonable fear.
A second point that is critical here is going to be the self-defense claim.
It is worth discussing the law here briefly.
Self-defense according to the law has a three-part requirement. First, the individual had to reasonably believe that he or she was in danger of great bodily injury.
Second, he or she had to reasonably believe that immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger.
And third, he or she had to use no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.
Again, I think this is going to hinge at least partly on whether the jury believes that the defendants knew or should have known that these were police officers performing their lawful duty. The defense is going to have to attack both parts of that – the identification issues will be laid out, but the lawful duty aspect may be equally important.
Moreover, I think the defense is going to have to challenge who started the fight. It’s harder to claim self-defense if the defendants threw the first punch – even if the defense can show that the officers were overly aggressive in their approach.
Further, the defense is going to have to argue that the actions by the defendants were reasonable in an effort to defend themselves. Again we have that word “reasonable,” and again I would submit that there are racial components to what is reasonable.
In count three for instance, Deputy DA Ryan Couzens alleges that Steve Ramos was engaged in his officer’s duties when three of the defendants attacked him. Alexander Craver, they allege, “choked” Officer Ramos from behind while Elijah Williams punched him in the face, and Mr. Craver continued to choke him while Defendant Angelica Reyes repeatedly kicked him in the head.
However, Mr. Couzens doesn’t mention in the complaint that Sgt. Ramos had Ms. Reyes in a headlock and that both Mr. Craver and Mr. Williams may have believed they were acting in defense of Ms. Reyes. By the way, the law allows for an act of self-defense to be based on a belief that turns out to be false. They may or may not have seen Ms. Reyes’ initial interaction with the officer which led to the headlock.
Self-defense is going to hinge heavily on what actions you believe to be reasonable in defense of what the defendants might have seen as an attack.
The third point here is the possibility or even probability that at some point the defendants realized that they were dealing with police officers. That is again where the national political climate comes back into play. The experience of white members of the community suggest that, when you are approached by a police officer, you immediately comply and if you haven’t done anything wrong, you will go on your way.
But that is not the experience of many people of color, and in particular young, black men in society. Mr. Castile was not doing anything wrong when he drove down the street and yet he ended up shot and killed – even as it appears he complied with the officer’s commands and informed him of his firearm.
Mr. Cain was not doing anything wrong when he crossed the street, and while he did challenge the police officer to a fight (he was already frustrated by the encounter at this point), the officer was wrong to oblige.
Imagine, there is a group of people standing on the street at a party when a van, unmarked, does a U-turn coming directly toward some in the crowd. Words seem to be exchanged, and a fight breaks out. And it’s a mutual fight.
It all happens in a matter of a few seconds. Even if you eventually realize that these are police officers, the individuals – given the context of our times – are no longer likely to give the approaching men the benefit of the doubt. They have every reason at this point to believe they are fighting for their lives.
If we simply evaluate the Picnic Day incident through our own prism, we miss the context through which the defendants likely saw the events as they unfolded.
People have mistaken the notion that race plays a role in this encounter to mean that the individuals were singled out because of their race – when more likely race plays a role in this encounter in a much more subtle but still fundamental way, as in it shapes our perception of what happened, and it shaped how the individual actors chose to respond to a very rapid escalation of a conflict.
—David M. Greenwald reporting