On Sunday, our hearts were broken again by yet another report of a Black man shot and killed by a police officer. Daunte Wright, 20 years old and father to a young son, was killed when police pulled him over for a traffic stop just ten miles from where Derek Chauvin’s trials were occurring for the murder of George Floyd. His girlfriend was in the passenger seat beside him. As he was pulled over, Daunte called his mother, who later told reporters her son was stopped for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.
The police ran his name and found there were “outstanding warrants” against him. When he made a move to get back into his vehicle, there was a tussle in which he was shot by a female officer who claims she was reaching for her Taser and grabbed her gun instead. Her identity is undisclosed at this time. The officer is recorded on bodycam saying, “Oh shit. I just shot him.” Daunte got back into his car, and made it several blocks before crashing. Despite the effort of medics, he died at the scene. His girlfriend suffered no major injuries.
The questions being tossed about by our leading figures and by the news media ask about the integrity of the officer’s claim that she was reaching for her Taser and shot Wright with her gun entirely by accident. “The question is: Was it an accident? Was it intentional?” President Biden asked at the White House. “That remains to be determined by a full-blown investigation.” “How easy is it to confuse a gun for a Taser?” reads the headline of a CNN article by Holly Yan.
These are questions that I cannot answer. I do not know if Daunte Wright’s murder was accidental or intentional. I do not know how easy it is to confuse a gun for a Taser. But I do know that those are not the questions that it is high time white America and white American lawmakers started asking. What we should be asking is this:
Why do we still have police officers with guns roaming the streets and patrolling Black men and women when headline after headline report the loss of yet another Black life at the hands of the police? Why is a system that is founded in the upholding and enforcement of slavery still an American institution today? What does it say about our police force when a Black man who is pulled over for a traffic stop is so scared for his life that he calls his mother in case he can never speak to her again? What does it say about our police force that they once again proved his fear correct in the most bitterly cruel way? When will our lawmakers and officials acknowledge that white America and the police have an entirely different relationship than Black America and the police? And how do we change this truly, concretely, permanently?
We need alternatives to the police system in America. We do not need these alternatives in a few years or in a decade, we do not need these alternatives “soon, but not now.” We need them at this moment, and we need to acknowledge that the lack of these alternatives is killing people—specifically people of color. Because the simple truth is that the police system in America is not “broken.” The system is working exactly as it was designed to.
Policing in the South began as “slave patrols.” Police were meant to force those who were enslaved to carry out their duties, and to return those who escaped from slavery. Long after slavery was abolished, the police system has continued to contribute to the marginalization of the Black community. The prison industrial complex benefits off of mass incarceration as a source of cheap or unpaid labor. Because of police over-patrolling Black and Brown neighborhoods, a disproportionate amount of Black and Brown people are sent into jails to contribute to the prison industrial complex.
And over and over again, we see Black people being brutalized or murdered at the hands of police officers. Every time, it was an “accident.” Every time, the police never intended to kill, the Black man was simply “threatening.” Every time, the eruption of pain and anger from the Black community is framed as violent, excessive, and uncalled for. These are not isolated incidents. This is a system of oppression.
In Denver, Colorado, the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program has recently been instilled as an alternative to policing. Health care workers are dispatched with police when calls are sent in circa mental health crisis or drug abuse. Throughout the first six months of STAR, over 700 calls have been responded to by healthcare professionals. In not one of them was an arrest made.
An additional note to readers—while I am actively learning to stand in allyship with the Black community, I am writing this as a white person. There are an uncountable number of Black activists working against these systems of oppression, and Black voices that actively speak about their experiences with racism and policing. I encourage readers to learn more from these other sources. Now as much as ever, we must be learning by seeking out Black voices and listening to Black experience.