American Tragedy

Honesty is not an option. It is a duty.

I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t. I’d deliberated a bit, considered not watching the footage. In the end, I decided to watch the short uncensored bodycam footage of 13-year-old Adam Toledo's final moments.

The officer wearing the cam, Eric Stillman, had rolled up not thirty seconds prior to respond to a shots fired report. Toledo was racing away on foot with 21-year-old Ruben Roman, whose fingers carried residue from the freshly-fired gun in his hand. Roman had taken shots at a passing car while Toledo stood by and flashed gang signs. In less than three minutes, the teen would be holding the gun himself.

The footage is dark, grainy and shaky. Stillman is shouting, breathing hard. He barks repeated verbal commands for Toledo to drop the gun and show his hands. Which Toledo does. Then Stillman shoots once, center mass.

It’s the next part that I really wasn’t prepared for. The part where Stillman rushes forward while calling for an ambulance, then says, “Look at me. Look at me look at me. You alright? Where you shot?” The part where he puts Toledo on his back and we can now see in close-up how skinny the little punk is, how lost he is in the sweatshirt with bright block letters saying “JUST DO IT.” The part where we see the sweatshirt pulled up, low-riding jeans exposing his Hanes boxers. The bullet’s mark is pixeled out, just off the edge of the frame, but we hear Stillman describing it in adrenaline-charged tones as a sucking chest wound. “Stay with me,” he says. “Stay with me.”

As medics take over, Stillman gets up and walks away to wave down newly arriving officers. Behind him, we see CPR being applied, hear the medics trying to speak to the boy. But it’s already too late. Footage from another officer’s body-cam later captures Stillman slumped against the fence, shell-shocked, tugging a baseball cap down over his eyes.

From our beds, from our couches, phones in hand, we go back to the pivotal moment and hit pause. We rewind a second or two, but we’ve gone too far. We rewind just one second, still too far. Sitting in our beds, in our armchairs, we have to hit pause-play-pause-play in rapid-fire to catch the exact moment, the precise fraction of a second in which Toledo whirls around with hands up, hands that we can see clearly are empty.

We’ll never know exactly what Stillman saw, or thought he saw. We’ll never know exactly what went through his mind in that split second before he pulled the trigger. But this much we can know: He will pay for this night his whole life long.

It will be a month this coming week since the incident, though the footage hit the news only recently. It entered a cycle already abuzz with hot takes on the more recent shooting of Daunte Wright by officer Kim Potter, which followed eerily on the heels of the guilty verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial. Both Wright and Toledo were immediately added to the list of “Black and Brown bodies” whose deaths have been judged police murders in the wake of George Floyd.

For Esau McCaulley, writing in the New York Times, this is a matter of course. All three cases cluster together in his mind as “reminder[s] of our country’s deep racial injustice.” How could they not? They are all encounters between “people of color” and the police.

McCaulley goes on in this way for the rest of the op-ed, displaying a studied refusal to show any nuance or make any distinctions whatsoever among these cases. Even setting aside the question of whether Floyd strictly died because of Chauvin or died because of an OD and subsequent cardiac arrest, no sober compare/contrast can put Chauvin’s 9-minute act of deliberate callousness in the same category as Kim Potter’s split-second fatal misfire. As in Toledo’s case, the tragedy was over almost as soon as it had begun. Potter’s error was profoundly careless, to be sure, and all the more excruciating given that she is a many-year veteran of the force. But are we really meant to believe that she was moved subconsciously to draw her gun by the invisible hand of white supremacy? Are we really meant to believe that deep down, she just wanted to kill a Black boy that day?

But there’s the rub: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I said this over a year ago on a podcast with Douglas Murray, reflecting on the Amber Guyger case: It is profoundly misguided, if not downright obscene, to reduce individual human beings to avatars of their respective races. If you can watch the footage of Adam Toledo’s death and see only “White man kills Brown boy,” or in Wright’s case “White woman kills Black boy,” may I suggest that not only do you lack basic common sense, you have forgotten what it means to be human.

The irony is that as tragic accidents and split-second misreads are elevated to the level of murder, the resulting white noise will obscure a cogent analysis of how true police reform should proceed. The hysteria can even reach such a fever pitch that wholly justified, clean-cut shoots like the recent death of Ma’Khia Bryant are thrown in the mix. Indeed, so clean-cut was this case that it inspired even Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo to undergo a magical transformation from hacks to reporters for two minutes. For two minutes, they remembered that a gun is as good or bad as the man using it, that police officers actually do have a bloody hard job, and that it is actually possible to do said bloody hard job well. (For perspective, someone on Twitter recently shared this harrowing clip of two very courageous, humane cops nearly being overpowered by a suicidal knife-wielding man, who was able to put one in a headlock even after eating several bullets.)

But, as the George Floyd case proved, police abuse is also a present reality. It was an important datum in a broader, disturbing pattern of aggressive, callous, capricious police behavior. The list of similar victims is long, some black (Eric Garner, Philando Castile), some white (Daniel Shaver, Tony Timpa). The question we must then ask honestly is this: Is racism the one-size-fits-all problem? And is more “bias training” the one-size-fits-all solution?

This is a fair question even if one believes (as I do) that racist policing isn’t a myth. Many of us know someone who’s been stopped and frisked on a DWB (Driving While Black). I know I do. If you’re reading this, you probably do too. But the question at hand is not “Does there exist such a thing as racist policing?” or “Do there exist racist cops?” The answer to these questions is yes and of course yes. The question is whether racism is the most useful analytical rubric for the data before us. I would maintain the answer to this question is no.

This is not an answer that lets cops off the hook. On the contrary: I believe the underlying systemic issues are too profound to be neatly summed up as “racism.” Yes, police can be biased against minorities. They can also be biased against the poor. They can also be biased against the addicted. They can be biased against the mentally ill or the autistic. Historically, they can be biased against the homosexual, or the prostituted. In the final analysis, they can simply be biased against the non-police citizen who fails instantly to genuflect with hands raised and “comply” with every verbal command. This was horrifyingly on display in the cases of Shaver and Timpa, both white men who died in confused terror, begging for their lives, their killers indifferent at best and mocking at worst. As John McWhorter writes, in a clear-headed (though unfortunately titled) Substack article, numerous other such cases could be cited that would ring no bells, because they don’t happen to fit the narrative flavor of the day.

When minorities encounter the police, typically several of these factors are at work. In Floyd’s case, Chauvin may have despised him as a black man, but perhaps in those minutes Chauvin also despised him as a poor man, an addicted man, a pathetic and weak and unattractive man. Such things are unbound by the color of a man’s skin. And as long as sinful human nature is what it is, as long as power corrupts, such things will bring out the worst in some (but not all) into whose hand has been given power to enforce the law.

In still other cases, it may even be murkier than straightforward prejudice of any kind. It may be a certain physical response that has been drilled into the officer through hours of training, through hours of messaging that when in doubt, he should err on the side of making sure he’s the one who gets to go home at night. Some such judgment calls may be tragic but understandable, as in the case of Adam Toledo. For others, like the cop who shot Philando Castile dead as he was fully compliant and reaching for his ID, there is no excuse.

What, then, might truly effective police reform look like? If not “bias training,” then what? Perhaps training on a wider variety of de-escalation techniques would be of value, particularly in cases where victims are disoriented and “non-compliant,” but unarmed. Perhaps a top-down shift in attitude, a corrective to the unspoken caste system where police preside as sheepdogs and ordinary citizens are looked down on as dumb, stubborn sheep. A more consistent reminder that the sheepdog’s role is to protect and serve, not to despise. Perhaps. Perhaps something else. But then there will always be those for whom the messaging never penetrates, like the Chicago officer who accosted and assaulted 16-year-old autistic Oscar Guzman, days after the roll-out of expanded training for how to deal with autistic subjects.

I do not have the answers. I do not have the solution for this, our American tragedy. If I claimed to, I wouldn’t be a writer. I would be a hack.

Meanwhile, I grieve for all needless loss of life. I grieve for a fatherless underclass whose lost boys are being raised by wolves. I grieve for a police system where would-be sheepdogs learn to act more like wolves themselves. I grieve for the ragged good cops who will spend decades reliving a three-second nightmare. I grieve for a broken media that, with rare exceptions, appears functionally incapable of making any sense of any of this in a fair, objective, humane fashion. I grieve for a church divided, unable to grieve together, unable to communicate across partisan political lines.

We do pray for mercy. We do pray for justice. We pray for wounds to be healed and hearts softened, until the day when all faith is made sight and all tears are wiped away. Until then, honesty is not an option. It is a duty.