Please help us change this culture of death

White folks: The murder of Rayshard Brooks presents an opportunity for you to ask yourself — To what extent have I been swallowing a needlessly violent cop culture that’s been fed to me for my entire life?

The Brooks shooting, and incidents like it, can be more difficult than the straightforward torture and murder of George Floyd. It’s easier to rationalize an unnecessary death of someone who was fighting police if you need to make yourself feel better about our absurd approach to law enforcement in the United States, or if you just need to believe that cops are mostly good people who are there to protect us. 

Brooks was acting like a guy who had a couple of beers or something. Still, he was totally compliant with officer requests, and even friendly, for almost 30 minutes of the stop.

When cops tried to cuff Brooks, it appears as though he fought them. The reasons why are unclear, and unimportant. In the course of that struggle, he grabbed an officer’s Taser and ran with it. Officers knew he wasn’t armed with anything else. On the bodycam footage, you can see officers patting him down at the beginning, and during the struggle, they’re yelling: “hands off the Taser!”

On the video you see Garrett Rolfe, the now-former Atlanta cop who murdered Brooks, giving chase through a Wendy’s parking lot. Brooks turns around to fire the Taser in Rolfe’s general direction. They are about a car length away from each other when Rolfe, who was chasing with his own Taser, moves his Taser to his other hand and pulls his gun with his right hand. Rolfe shoots Brooks three times.

What I’ve seen is people saying: “Well, if he pointed a weapon at them, then I can understand… police have a really tough job… they have to make split-second decisions… who knows who he could have hurt with that Taser?”

If you’re asking these questions, or if you’re uncomfortable with the word “murder” used throughout this piece, or if you’re otherwise struggling to see a way to give Rolfe the benefit of the doubt, you have a problem. It’s a problem that many of us have. It’s a problem that people of privilege, who have never had to worry about police violence, have to work to train themselves out of.

Your brain has been bathed in police violence for so long that you think it’s perfectly normal. You think it’s somehow reasonable for a cop to kill a 27-year-old father — end his life, forever and ever — because there was a remote possibility that he might Tase someone. You’ve been taught that this is a justifiable killing, even though it would not have happened like this in virtually any other industrialized nation.

It’s not justifiable. It’s murder. 

Sure, there may be courts, mayors, legislatures, and even juries who justify it anyway. Cops get away with murder all the time. We’ve learned to give them a blank check if there is even the slightest provocation from a citizen during an arrest. Police never get prosecuted for violent crimes, and anyone who’s been watching our shitshow of a justice system for more than the last three weeks knows that.

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There are also no civil consequences at all for cops who kill. They keep their badges in most cases. Cases against them are very difficult to win, and the best you can get is some money for a grieving family out of an insurance company; individual officers aren’t hit in the wallet. In lawsuits, courts say exactly what naive bootlickers say in Facebook comments on local news stories, but they just dress it up a little nicer: “Cops have to make difficult decisions on the spot. This is tragic, but the decedent should have been compliant.” And so on.

When a disturbed man wielding a flagpole was murdered by police in Louisville in broad daylight a couple of years ago, everyone was like, “ahh, that’s too bad, but what can you do? The guy had a flagpole!” I once cross-examined a SWAT commander who said they had to use an army of masked men to break into a house in the suburbs and beat up a 60-year-old grandmother because they “didn’t know who could be in the house.” 

And the courts let them get away with this shit. Federal courts are so permissive that there is a whole line of cases saying that if someone is driving a car, then a cop is justified in killing them. After all, that car is a deadly weapon. No telling what they could do with it! We have been force-fed a diet of that kind of thinking for so long that it has made all of us sick to varying degrees.

So, at least until this moment in American history, it has been almost universally accepted that if someone pulls any kind of weapon, cops know that they can kill that person, 100% for sure, no questions asked, and get off free and clear — no criminal consequences, no civil liability, maybe a little administrative vacation at worst. It’s a dangerous job, for sure, so we’ve decided to give cops every benefit of the doubt.

Listen to me: That is fucked up. You are fucked up if you think that way. I am fucked up because I have watched this kind of thing way too many times and said, “Eh, it will never go anywhere in court.” We are all fucked up for thinking that way for so long.

If we are to have a police force that is going to be out policing anything and everything under the sun — DUIs, jaywalking, weed, murder, busted taillights, domestic disputes, dog bites, everything — then cops are going to run into resistance. They’re going to get into scuffles. They’re going to encounter drunk people who shoot at them with Tasers. They will even encounter lethal force, especially when they go charging into someone’s home in the middle of the night. They must — they must — be able to deal with those situations without immediately resorting to capital punishment. The default button cannot be “kill” in every circumstance.

The whole reason for this rant is that I’m actually hopeful, for the first time in almost 20 years of activism, that there’s going to be a change. When the officers involved in Brooks’ murder were instantly fired, and Atlanta’s chief resigned, that meant something. That would not have happened even five years ago. 

So, if you’re in the streets or otherwise agitating: keep it up, it’s working. And if you’re still not sure if Brooks’ murder was justified, please, please, please keep thinking about it. Please help us change this culture of death that so badly needs changing. Please be a part of this with us.

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.

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