(ed. Originally published December 10, 2013 – here!)
Four days after I got out of the LA County Jail, released on my own recognizance after a brief three day stint there, an unarmed 19-year-old was shot and killed by the police a few miles North in Pasadena. Other than the shared setting, however, there are precious few other similarities between the killing of Kendrec McDade on March 24, 2012 and my own first, truly adversarial experience with law enforcement. In fact, the stories are neatly defined by one stark contrast: I am a white male and Kendrec McDade was not.
There are significant differences in our cases in addition to ‘race’, to be sure. Yet many of those very differences serve to amplify a disturbing similarity between McDade and an ever-growing list of brown and black men felled by police gunfire around the country in recent years. An unarmed McDade “fit the profile” of a suspect in a reported crime and allegedly “reached for his waistband” while he ran from police – three distinct details that, when combined, seem to invariably precipitate the use of lethal force by police in America. If you are of color, unarmed, and dare to move when someone pulls a gun on you, you can be legally murdered in the United States of America by police and other vigilantes.
None of these three factors played a part in my arrest, of course. As one who presents as a white male, I hardly ever “fit the profile.” With the decimation of the labor movement, there is also far less of a historical impetus for a white guy to ever run from cops any more. By and large, the police – as an institution – are entirely trusted by white folks like me. Finally, at 33 years old – well passed the baggy pants style I admittedly once modeled – I now also almost never have to “reach to my waistband” to pull my own pants up. In fact, I can hardly be bothered to run at all.
So common has the “reached for his waistband” trope become in officer-involved shootings of late, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department acknowledged it openly in their September, 2011 semiannual report. There they noted that over a six year period, “waistband shootings are increasing, making up about one-third of all hit and non-hit shooting cases in 2010,” and that “approximately 47 percent of all waistband shooting suspects were confirmed to be unarmed.”
The report also alarmingly revealed that during the same period a staggering 90% of suspects shot by deputies were black or Latino. So the question is, then, why are police officers and deputies making seemingly standard practice of shooting black and Latino men who are fleeing from them? Further – are they cynically manipulating this “reached for his waistband” mantra in order to indemnify themselves from accountability? In the sordid, near-genocidal realm of so-called “officer involved shootings,” or “OIS,” the suggestion that a victim “reached for his waistband” is becoming the ‘Twinkie Defense’ that actually works.
This theme would play out again later in the summer of 2012 in nearby Anaheim when Manuel Diaz, 25, fled from a police ‘stop and frisk’ in a working class neighborhood there. It was alleged in the media, though not attributed to any specific source, that Diaz “threw something on the roof of the [apartment] complex” during the pursuit. Other than that, there wasn’t even a passing mention of violence, menace, or the mere hint that Diaz ever posed a threat to anyone, let alone the officer who killed him. All Manuel Diaz did that summer day was run away.
It seems patently outrageous, then, that such clearly non-threatening behavior could justify Officer Nick “Buckshot” Bennallack then firing the two fatal shots to Diaz’s back and head that killed him that day on Anna Drive. After all, running away from something is about as non-aggressive as you can get, isn’t it? But Diaz – a latino victim the Anaheim police and media had no problem maligning over and over again as a “gangmember” – allegedly “reached for his waistband” while he ran. Thus, after merely two weeks of paid leave, Officer Bennallack was back on patrol.
The murder of Diaz seemed outrageous to neighbors, too. They emerged from their homes immediately after the cold-blooded, daytime execution to get answers from the Anaheim Police Department. What these residents – primarily women and children – got instead of answers, however, were bean-bag rounds, rubber bullets, and even a vicious mauling by a K-9 unit at the hands of the same civil servants who so steadfastly claim to “protect and serve.”
Yet as I emerged from jail on March 20, 2012 – I didn’t know any of this. In fact, these two tragic incidents hadn’t even happened yet. Kendrec McDade and Manuel Diaz were both still alive, mostly unknown to anyone outside their respective communities. With the exception of McDade’s high school football glory and Diaz’s quiet reputation in his neighborhood, they were just regular guys like me. Except they weren’t white like me. So, if I was aware of the epidemic of police shootings under suspiciously similar circumstances in America – or what that might soon portend for me – it was only in the theoretical realm. “Cops lie,” or so I had been told.
I knew who Mark Fuhrman was – I watched the OJ Trial between bong rips and keg stands at high school house parties in the suburbs. But it isn’t about “one bad apple,” no matter what they say. If an orchard in this US produced this many deadly “bad apples,” it would’ve been razed to the ground long ago. No – I would soon learn that “All Cops Are Bastards.”
I’d read about ‘throw downs’; planted evidence, including firearms, conjured by police officers to make stronger cases. I’d even had encounters myself with undercover cops while selling dime bags of weed – but with a combination of luck and privilege – I had managed to avoid their wrath. I had never really experienced the depth of police duplicity firsthand. That quickly changed, of course, but only after I resumed political organizing after a decade of committed-but-quiet self-destruction.