Why Did a Black Man Get Gunned Down in Walmart for Carrying an Unloaded Air Rifle?
A month later, the death of John Crawford III at the hands of police continues to make no damn sense.
Photo via Flickr user Chris Devers
On Wednesday, prosecutors released security footage from the Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart where 22-year-old John Crawford III was fatally shot by police on August 5. Also on Wednesday, a grand jury decided not to bring charges against Sean Williams, the officer who killed Crawford. This all seems depressingly normal: A black man is dead for little or no reason, everyone agrees it’s a very, very sad thing, and you can’t help but think that he wouldn’t be dead if he were white.
The August 5 incident began when Crawford picked up an air rifle in the store and aimlessly fiddled with it as he spoke on a cell phone to his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to him, police officers Sean Williams and David M. Darkow were on the scene after responding to a call from a man named Ronald Ritchie, who told 9-1-1 a black man was waving a gun and pointing it at children. The full surveillance footage does not match up with that account, and Ritchie has now changed his story. The final two minutes of footage show Crawford being seemingly unaware that police were there, as he chats on his phone. And police in turn gave him no time at all to drop the rifle before shooting. Crawford’s last words—heard over the phone by his girlfriend—were “It’s not real!”
Currently, Crawford’s death is being treated as a tragedy by the authorities, but a mostly unavoidable one. According to the grand jury, the cops responded appropriately considering what they heard from dispatch—who, Williams’s report says, told them that Crawford was waving around a real gun. Even if Crawford failed to obey their “repeated commands” to drop the weapon, however, the surveillance footage shows that he didn’t have any time to do so before the cops opened up.
Though the grand jury declined to bring charges, the Department of Justice is now investigating Crawford’s death. But precedent—such as the time 13-year-old Andy Lopez was shot by cops in California for holding a fake gun, and the officer who killed him was not charged with anything—suggests that the shooting was indeed “reasonable” according to the standards by which police shootings are officially judged.
It’s hard not to wonder what’s to blame here: Ritchie’s inaccurate 9-1-1 call, hyped-up fears over active shooters, the Walmart employees’ leaving an unpackaged air rifle out on a shelf. But while we’re breaking down the tragedy piece by piece, we should ask the question Albert Butler asked on the Root last month: “Ohio is an ‘open carry’ state. So even if Crawford were carrying a real, fully loaded rifle, why would that raise any alarms? How could that possibly be a reason to kill him?”
Whether you like it or not, in many places around the country it’s legal to walk around brandishing a gun. And if you want to preserve that right—and gun rights in general—you should be outraged about Crawford’s death. The NRA should be all over this cause, just as the group should be praising the Huey P. Newton Gun Club and their armed protest. In America, you shouldn’t be a police target if you’re black; neither should you be one if you are legally carrying a gun.
Now on to the rest of this week’s bad cops:
-The authorities in South Carolina released dashcam video Wednesday of a state trooper shooting a man after asking him to show his license. The September 4 incident took place in a gas station parking lot after Levar Jones was pulled over for not wearing a seat belt. In the video, Jones can be seen getting out of his car, then trooper Sean Groubert shoots him four times as he reaches back into the vehicle for his ID. Jones raises his hands into the air as Groubert fires his final shot, a disturbing echo of the “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” gesture made by anti–police violence protesters in Ferguson. Thankfully, Jones will be OK—or as OK as you can be after being shot—though he suffered a hip injury from one of the bullets. He can even be heard in the dashcam video speaking to the trooper, saying “What did I do, sir?... I can’t feel my leg. I just grabbed my license, I don’t know what happened.” Groubert’s conduct was so staggeringly over the top that he has already been fired, and faces up to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault and battery.
-On Tuesday, video of New York Police Department officers throwing a pregnant woman onto the ground belly-first was released by a local police watchdog group. The Saturday incident, filmed by a bystander, allegedly started when the cops stopped by the woman’s 17-year-old son, John Lemos, for possessing an illegal knife. The boy’s mother objected to her son being arrested and yelled, after which a cop put her on the pavement, straddled her, and allegedly Tasered her in the stomach. The unborn babe is fine, but the woman reportedly had a burn on her stomach, and now has a summons for disorderly conduct. Lemos, who received several facial contusions during his arrest, was charged with possessing a weapon and resisting arrest.
-A federal judge decided that Anderson County, Tennessee, sheriff’s deputies do not have immunity from a civil rights lawsuit over an invasive 2010 drug search. Back then the officers, under the watchful eye of a doctor, medically paralyzed Felix Booker in order to conduct a cavity search for cocaine. They found the drug, but the search was thrown out for being unconstitutional (and also probably for being incredibly horrific and terrifying). With this court ruling, Booker’s lawsuit against the cops and the doctor will be allowed to move forward.
-Speaking of lawsuits: A 51-year-old woman who was shown on video being punched repeatedly by a member of the California Highway Patrol in July has reached a $1.5 million settlement with police. The puncher, Daniel Andrew, will be allowed to resign instead of being fired for hitting Marlene Pinnock about 15 times then tossing her into a psych ward.
-Several witnesses told the local media that on Monday, El Paso, Texas, police prevented three men from rescuing a woman trapped in her car, which was stuck in a drainage canal. The woman, 64-year-old Constance Manzanares, had drowned when ambulances came an hour and a half later. It’s understandable that police would be concerned over bystanders wanting to risk their own lives to rescue someone, but threatening people with arrest if they tried to help (as the reportedly did) seems downright bizarre.
-Our Good Cop of the Week this week is Pittsburgh detective Jack Mook, who is the sort of person who shames the rest of us through kindness. Mook owns a nonprofit gym to help kids get off the streets and recently completed the process of adopting an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old who he met there. Can someone make a TV movie about Mook? It’ll be like season four of The Wire except everything works out in the end.
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