Last Saturday, Walter Scott was driving his Mercedes in North Charleston, S.C., when he was pulled over by police officer Michael Slager for driving with a broken taillight. Scott had a complicated life, as many of us do. He was employed and engaged; he owed back child support; in all likelihood he really didn’t want to go to jail. When Slager approached, Scott ran.
There is video of what happened next. Our first clear view is of Scott twisting his doughy body away and moving—half-sprinting, half-waddling—from Slager through an abandoned, grassy lot. Initially, the scene is almost comical. Scott's legs have 50 years' worth of wear on them, and appear to have but 50 yards' worth of running in them. For a brief moment, the video takes on a familiar quality, like something from an episode of Cops. Instead of pursuing, though, Slager, 33, draws his handgun and fires seven times. After a pregnant pause, Slager shoots once more. Around 30—less? more?—feet into his desperate dash, Scott falls to his knees, and then onto his belly, and sprawls facedown beneath a tree.
Only then does Slager move again, walking toward Scott.
“Put your hands behind your back now!” he orders. Scott doesn’t comply. When the officer gets to the body, he handcuffs Scott’s arms behind his back, then stands up, like he’s forgotten something. He first walks, then jogs back to the spot from where he shot, and picks an object off the ground. As a second officer approaches Scott, speaking into his walkie-talkie for a medical kit, Slager ambles back over, then drops the object on the ground next to the dead man.
"This just doesn't sound right," Scott's surviving brother, Anthony, would later say. "How do you lose your life at a traffic stop?"
On Tuesday, Slager was charged with murder after a cell-phone video of Scott's death was released. Thanks to technology and chance, we now know a lot about Scott's final seconds. He was executed. It's right here:
For as long as there have been white people and black people and brown people in America, white people have slaughtered black people and brown people. Over the years, the techniques have changed slightly, even as they've bled into each other. Slavery was slaughter, just as hanging and dragging and beating and hacking are slaughter, just as electrocuting and poisoning and shooting are slaughter. But whatever the method, whites have slaughtered minorities, and there is no reason to think they won't continue to do so.
The killings of minorities by police are instructive in this regard, not because all policemen are violent racists or murderers (the vast majority are neither) or because they are personally responsible for killing large numbers of black and brown people (they aren't), but because they are agents of the state, and so their actions, and the consequences they face, serve as a sort of index of the public will.
We know things about this sort of killing. Last year, ProPublica published a study concluding that black teenage boys are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers. (The findings have since been debated, but all agree that the disparity is enormous.) Mapping Police Violence reports that in March, 36 black people—one every 21 hours—were killed by cops. In big towns and small towns and cities across the nation, minorities are being killed by the very men and women sworn to protect and to serve them.
Police have the latitude to kill citizens, and are only rarely convicted of any wrongdoing for doing so. In South Carolina alone, where Slager killed Scott, officers have shot at citizens on at least 210 occasions over the last five years without a single one being convicted of breaking a law. It's a victory in itself that Slager was charged with murder, but he was charged only after video was uncovered of the officer shooting a black man in the back.
And that's important, too: the video. Thanks to technological advances, there's an entire grisly genre of police officers shooting and often killing unarmed people of color—usually men—that's just as available and accessible as porn and puppy videos. We bear witness to cops blowing away people who look like us.
Here's Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, being shot to death in Pasco, Wa., on Feb. 10:
Here's 12-year-old Tamir Rice being shot to death in Cleveland on Nov. 22:
Here's LeVar Jones, 35, being shot in the hip at a gas station in Columbia, S.C. on Sept. 25:
Here's video from Wal-Mart surveillance cameras of John Crawford, 22, being shot to death in Beavercreek, Ohio, on Aug. 5:
Here's Eric Garner, 43, being choked to death in Staten Island, N.Y., on July 17:
Witnessing all these shootings and killings creates a constant state of terror within minorities, not altogether different from the effect larger populations feel witnessing passenger planes flying into buildings, or gunmen cutting their way through schools and shopping malls, or children blowing themselves up in cramped bazaars. The issue doesn't involve absolute numbers; it involves the effect of knowing that at any time, your number could come up.
The difference is that when the Boston Marathon is bombed, or people fly planes into buildings, or an aggrieved loner goes on a killing spree, we, as a society, pursue justice to the very ends of the earth, if only to sleep better at night. When killer cops rarely, if ever, even step foot in court, let alone get convicted, the absence of immediate justice or punishment leads to an unaddressed fear. It's a fear of ubiquity; a fear that the carnage can be easily replicated, virtually anywhere, by virtually anyone; a fear that our lives don't matter.
This fear is a virus that eats its way through a population, because the affected people despair, resigned to the fact that they're dehumanized and that there's a decent chance that nothing they do or have done even matters. It doesn't matter that Scott had just reunited with his brother, or that he liked to dance, or that he was getting engaged, just as it doesn't matter that you're someone's mother, or someone's son, or went to college, or have a career, or a gaggle of loving friends, or a sweet tooth. Your very essence is stripped until you're no more than a demon in baggy shorts, a shadow beneath a hoodie, a slab of brown skin.
Police do lots of things, much and maybe most of it laudable. One thing they do consistently and consistently well is engage in what amounts to state-sanctioned terrorism against American citizens, paid for by American tax dollars.
So why do we allow it?
Before anyone but Slager and his secret videographer knew just what had left Scott lifeless, South Carolina's Post and Courier led an article on the incident with this:
A North Charleston police officer felt threatened last weekend when the driver he had stopped for a broken brake light tried to overpower him and take his Taser.
That's why Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, fatally shot the man, the officer's attorney said Monday.
Slager thinks he properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force, lawyer David Aylor said in a statement.
Later in the piece, the reporter contrasted the two men:
[Scott] has been arrested about 10 times in his lifetime, mostly for failure to appear for court hearings and to pay child support.
The only indicator of violence in his past came with his first arrest in 1987 on an assault and battery charge.
Slager, 33, served honorably in the military before joining the North Charleston Police Department more than five years ago, Aylor said.
He has never been disciplined during his time on the force, the attorney added.
Then the video of the killing surfaced. Slager's lawyer, David Aylor, announced today that he would not represent the officer. This afternoon, Slager was fired from the force. A Slager defense fund was rejected by GoFundMe, only to be picked up by Indiegogo. As of this publishing, less than $200 has been raised.
It certainly feels like maybe, this time, an officer will have to answer for the murder of a citizen. If so, it will be a rarity. There's a reason so few of the policemen who kill are punished, just as there's a reason why Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, and even neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman were exalted by many as heroes after killing unarmed minorities.
These aren't rogue agents, committing senseless crimes. They're bullets, fired from guns whose triggers other people pulled.
And this, most of all, is why a continual and ongoing if statistically rare type of slaughter qualifies as a kind of terrorism. The actions of police represent the will of the government; the will of the government represents the will of the people; the actions of police, it follows, are the embodiment of political opinion. We can talk about Michael Slager, but he was, if almost certainly unwittingly, a tool. The issue is who wields him.
As long as there have been white people and black people and brown people in America, the slaughter of black and brown people has been used as a form of control. For centuries, on a population level, the racial majority has voted and lobbied to give agents of the state more power to act without sanction, to militarize, to kill. Functionally, this has enabled them to wage war on behalf of the majority of the public; to express hatred and fear and aspire to power through campaigns of terror and carnage.
The slaughter of black and brown people is, in this light, a political act, political violence enacted for political purpose against a civilian population to raise fear and obtain compliance. That Slager probably never thought of things in these terms doesn't matter; what does is that he was trained and given incentives in line with the interests of a particular class intent on preserving its power. The violence he enacted is a kind that keeps one class of citizens terrorized and fearful of random violence for the benefit of another. It's meant to keep that class in line and intact, even as the sands of time shift and racial minorities slowly crawl toward majority status. It's little different from what we've seen in India, or Israel and Palestine, or Ireland—a dominant class using the instruments of power against a subjugated one.
It is, in essence, the final expression of an idea. Unlike people, ideas are impossible to kill.
Art by Jim Cooke