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The words ‘I thought my life was in danger’ allow police to kill black people without fear of reprisal

When the police officer assumes the power of the slave master

A slave master, four centuries ago, could avoid legal sanction for using lethal force against his enslaved property by simply saying the latter opposed correction. “I was disciplining my slave, who then resisted.” Utter those magic words and the state would level no punishment if the master committed homicide. A police officer, now, can avoid legal sanction for using lethal force against a person by simply saying the latter made the officer fear for his or her life. “I stopped someone on the street, and I then thought my life was in danger.” Utter those magic words and the state will level no punishment if the officer commits homicide.

Black folk, always the victim in the first context, also bear the brunt of these legal realities in the second. Thus, because of these magic words, black people living today, during police encounters, have the same right to life as did a stolen African in the 17th century.

My mind conceived this historical analogy while stewing in the misery produced by the acquittal of St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who snatched away the life of Philando Castile, a black man. During a traffic stop for a busted taillight, Castile, after informing Yanez he had a firearm, reached for his identification per Yanez’s request. Yanez told him not to pull out his firearm. Castile replied, “I’m not pulling it out.” Yanez next fired his gun seven times into the white 1997 Oldsmobile, killing Castile, as his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter sat inches away as a man they loved breathed his final breaths while bathing in his own blood.

Yanez, on the witness stand during his trial, uttered those magic words: “I was scared to death. I thought I was going to die. … I had no other choice.” He, therefore, walked out of Ramsey County courthouse a free man, a jury acquitting him of second-degree manslaughter and other lesser offenses. Castile’s family, though, left shedding tears, a melancholic scene that recent events have forced to replay on an endless loop, most recently when former Milwaukee officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was acquitted for killing Sylville Smith, despite the incident being filmed.

Much of the outcry about these verdicts has focused on how they reveal that racial oppression molests every aspect of our criminal justice apparatus, how the system operates as intended when it never punishes cops who kill black folk. Although this conversation must hurtle onward, we must also situate these fatal occurrences in historical context, dramatizing how harrowing the black plight continues to be. We achieve this by reckoning with a brutal truth — during police encounters, black folk have as much agency over whether they will ever lay eyes on their loved ones again as their enslaved ancestors did when being punished by their masters.

The Virginia Colony, in 1669, enacted a statute permitting the killing of an enslaved person who resisted an owner’s corrective punishment. The reasoning behind the statute appalls current sensibilities: “[I]t cannot be presumed that propensed malice,” the statute stated, “should induce any man to destroy his own estate.” Since an owner, in other words, would not lay waste to his own property because of evil intentions, the state should presume the owner acted properly when such killings occurred. Other colonies, because Virginia was the first and most influential colony, followed suit, passing similar laws. This meant something horrifying for the enslaved throughout colonial America — the law allowed an owner to kill them if the owner’s story fit a specified narrative.

So, too, can police officers kill when their stories fit a specified narrative, the I-feared-for-my-life narrative. Officers can use deadly force when reasonably believing their lives are in peril. The Supreme Court wrote, in Graham v. Connor, the situation “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Because prosecutors and jurors presume officers behave properly, a presumption that slave owners enjoyed too, whether they get charged or convicted turns more on their ability to recount a convincing tale than on the surrounding facts.

American society transmits explicit and implicit messages about black people’s inherent dangerousness, making us susceptible to believing a black person posed a threat in most any scenario. Cops understand that should an ordeal with a black person turn deadly, their ability to utter the magic words inoculates them from punishment, a scary fact that black folk understand all too well.

The police officer, like the slave master before him, has been allowed by the state to dispense summary justice. If white people feared, like black people do, that their lives were subject to the decision-making of an easily frightened or malicious officer, changes would surely be instituted. To prevent the next Philando Castile or Sylville Smith, black folk need allies willing to wield arms in the battle to strip the magic from words.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.