Bucks guard Sterling Brown is lucky he wasn’t killed by Milwaukee police
And the sad thing is that most black people watching the footage of his arrest felt lucky too
If there is anything no longer in doubt, it is that Milwaukee officials were right to worry about “community” reaction to video footage of Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown being arrested back in January.
“I definitely have concerns after watching that video,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said on Monday.
In footage released by the Milwaukee Police Department on Wednesday, body camera footage shows Brown, who was selected 46th overall in the 2017 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers before being dealt to the Bucks, exiting a Walgreens on the city’s south side in the early hours of Jan. 26. Before entering the convenience store, Brown illegally parked his car across two handicapped parking spots and a police officer was waiting by the car when Brown returned to his vehicle.
In the video, the tension between Brown, who is black, and the officer, who is white, feels immediate. The officer, while asking for Brown’s driver’s license, also instructs the Bucks player to step back. An order he makes clearer by pushing the 6-foot-6 guard backward. Brown asks the officer not to push him, and the situation escalates as the officer asks, “You don’t see the issue here?”
And it is right then that anyone watching the video knows this isn’t going to be a quick parking ticket.
Within minutes of the officer first encountering Brown, three additional police vehicles arrive at the Walgreens parking lot, bringing at least six more officers as backup. While speaking with a few of the officers, Brown’s hands go into his sweatshirt (he had his hands in and out of his pockets minutes earlier when the car alarm went off repeatedly) and an officer yells, “Take your hands out of your pocket, now!” and before Brown can react, he is swarmed and tackled by five of the officers. As Brown lay on the ground, one officer yells, “Taser! Taser! Taser!” and the next thing you hear is Brown growling in pain as jolts of electricity flow through his body.
It’s a difficult scene to take in. The police rushing Brown and jumping on his body as he tries to tell them that he’s not a threat. It’s like a pride of lions circling an antelope, ready to devour its prey. It’s not the grainy cellphone and bodycam videos we’ve grown accustomed to, the videos of Eric Garner gasping for air because he can’t breathe, 4-year-old Dae’Anna Reynolds consoling her mother as Philando Castile lay dead in the front seat, or Laquan McDonald’s body convulsing on the ground after he was riddled with bullets.
But it’s disturbing. It’s sick. It’s heartbreaking. It makes you want to cry, vomit and scream all at once. If you were given no context for the video, didn’t know the ending, you would be sure that Brown was going to be shot to death. Because we’ve seen this many times before: the yelling of officers, the collision of bodies, the all-too-familiar “I don’t want to die” tone in Brown’s screams.
Only after the stun gun was used does an officer recognize who Brown is. Not that he is a human being, but a professional basketball player for the hometown team.
“I look familiar, don’t I?” Brown responds.
The arrest and use of a stun gun on Brown joins a long and inglorious history of black men (and athletes) being profiled, accosted and sometimes killed by agents of the state for committing the crime of being black in America. In the past decade, alongside the rise of Twitter, there has been a growing conversation surrounding police violence and its deleterious effects on the African-American community.
But in an era of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, Brown’s tale is different for three reasons: he’s famous; he lived to tell his story; and with Wednesday’s release, he possesses visual evidence to combat the police narrative of “my life was in danger.” Within days of the arrest, Milwaukee Police Association president Mike Crivello blasted Barrett for not providing a “statement of support” for the officers who arrested Brown. Crivello, in his self-professed “non-investigated opinion” said Brown “looks to be 100% in the wrong” in the incident. We now know that not to be true.
Three days after the incident, after investigators reviewed the matter, including the officers’ bodycam footage, the police announced that charges would not be filed against Brown. In a statement on Wednesday, Milwaukee police chief Alfonso Morales said he was “sorry this incident escalated to this level” and added the officers involved in the incident “acted inappropriately” and were “recently disciplined.” Morales refused to answer questions at a news conference. (Brown said in a statement that he will “take legal action against the Milwaukee Police Department to continue forcing change in our community.”)
This marks a change in tone for a city and a police department that long operated along a thin blue line that seemed to prioritize blue lives over black.
A draft of a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report found that the Milwaukee Police Department instituted a de facto quota system for traffic stops (African-Americans are more likely to be stopped by police than white Americans despite being no more likely to break a traffic law), did not possess a clear internal investigation policy and lacked diversity among its officers.
Given those findings, combined with the facts that Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in America, is one of the worst cities for black Americans, economically, the worst city for African-American children to grow up in and is home to the ZIP code with the highest incarceration rate in the country, there is no surprise that five police officers tackling a black man for a parking infraction had city officials reaching out to community leaders in fear of citywide unrest.
Brown’s arrest didn’t end with the Bucks guard losing his life, but the incident was yet another one that enforced the deep distrust of law enforcement by Milwaukee’s black population. In August 2016, Sylville Smith was shot directly in the chest by a Milwaukee police officer after Smith had discarded his firearm; a year later the officer was acquitted of all charges. In 2017, Jerry Smith Jr. was shot in the abdomen and head by officers after they claimed, incorrectly, that the unarmed 19-year-old matched the description of a man with a gun; the officers involved have not been charged or cleared in the incident.
These events happened after 2014, when Dontre Hamilton had the police called on him after a Starbucks barista noticed him asleep in a nearby downtown Milwaukee park. Hamilton, who had been treated for schizophrenia in the past, was fatally shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer who approached him in the park. The officer was never charged in Hamilton’s death.
But the most egregious example of the fraught relationship between black Milwaukeeans and the police was the case of Frank Jude Jr.
In October 2004, the 26-year-old biracial man was severely beaten by a group of all-white, off-duty Milwaukee police officers after he was accused of stealing the wallet and badge of one of the officers. Jude had two fingers bent back until they snapped, a pen inserted into both of his ear canals to the point of bleeding, and a knife put to his throat. An on-duty officer who responded to the beating even joined in, stomping on Jude’s head as he lay on the ground. According to court documents, an officer told Jude’s friend, who is also black, “N—–, we can kill you.” During a state trial, three of the officers were acquitted of all charges. The wallet and badge were never found.
These instances have led to wide racial disparity in how Milwaukee residents feel about local policing. A 2014 study found that 82.3 percent of white respondents were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the Milwaukee Police Department. For black respondents, only 62.5 percent felt that way. Fifteen percent of black respondents were “not at all satisfied” with the Milwaukee Police Department, nearly three times the proportion of whites (5.3 percent). White people overwhelmingly believe in the police; black people don’t.
Based solely on Brown’s celebrity as a professional athlete, what happened to him will resonate around the country, at least among black people. Most can’t relate to his $4 million contact, but almost every African-American has an “[insert here] while black” story, whether it be barbecuing in a public park, moving into a predominantly white neighborhood or driving a fancy car (Brown was driving a Mercedes the night he was arrested). Brown isn’t even unique among athletes when it comes to escalated interactions with law enforcement.
Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner, just nine days after the Rodney King verdict was announced in 1992, had pistols and shotguns pointed at him by Los Angeles police officers after being pulled over on a busy street. In 1984, Los Angeles Raiders running back Marcus Allen had a gun drawn on him by a police officer after being pulled over for putting the wrong license plate on his Ferrari. “A black guy driving an expensive car — he couldn’t possibly afford that, it must be stolen,” Allen told Sports Illustrated. Retired tennis player James Blake was tackled by a New York police officer in 2015 because he matched the description of a man accused of the violent crime of credit card fraud. Fred Weary, then an offensive lineman for the Houston Texans, was pulled over near the team’s facilities in 2006 because, according to a police report, Weary was “looking very suspicious.” Weary was then shot with a stun gun after pushing one of the officers and was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest. That charge was later dismissed due to insufficient evidence.
What happened to Brown is the story of the black experience. He was accused of something, but instead of the situation remaining calm (i.e., a ticket being written for a parking violation), it was escalated to the point of sanitized electrocution by those sworn to protect and serve.
There’s an extraordinary level of cognitive dissonance necessary to think a 22-year-old black man (Brown turned 23 in February) who has lived in the era of Charleena Lyles and Trayvon Martin and Korryn Gaines would willingly try to fight an armed police officer when he: 1) doesn’t have a weapon and 2) knows what normally happens in these situations.
“Situations like mine and worse happen every day in the black community,” Brown said in a statement. “Being a voice and a face for people who won’t be heard and don’t have the same platform as I have is a responsibility I take seriously. I am speaking for Dontre Hamilton of Milwaukee, Laquan McDonald of Chicago, Stephon Clark of Sacramento, Eric Garner of New York, and the list goes on. These people aren’t able to speak anymore because of unjust actions by those who are supposed to ‘serve and protect’ the people.
“The common denominator in all of these situations has been racism towards the minority community, the abuse of power, and the lack of accountability for officers involved. The lack of repercussions for the police officers involved in so many of these cases is offensive. This is a slap in the face to the victims’ families and communities.”
Stokely Carmichael understood this when he said, “I am black. I know that. I also know that while I am black, I am a human being. Therefore I have the right to go into any public place. White people didn’t know that. Every time I tried to go into a place, they stopped me.”
At the end of the day, Brown was lucky. Not lucky that he was racially profiled. Not lucky that he was assaulted by agents of the government. Not lucky that he was a professional athlete, thus giving the Milwaukee Police Department no choice but to release this video, sending the story beyond the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to the homepage of ESPN.
He was lucky that, unlike Oscar Grant, the Milwaukee police officer grabbed his stun gun rather than his service weapon.
Stop and consider this: Brown was lucky that he wasn’t killed by the police.