Almost five years ago, neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, igniting a nation-wide conversation on race relations; Zimmerman was acquitted on July 13, 2013, on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense.
In response to Trayvon Martin’s death, three queer black women began using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. That movement grew into a controversial international network of disparate chapters and groups working to improve the visibility of the black community. The hallmark of the movement has been widespread protests in the wake of police shootings.
The use of lethal force by police officers has been the subject of frequent debate, as many criticize inadequate training in peaceful de-escalation and conflict resolution, as well as a lack of non-lethal tactics available to or used by officers. In media within the United States, this conversation is often racially charged–stemming from the disproportionate killing of black Americans by police.
The nation has seen shooting after shooting, with at least 963 people killed by police in 2016 alone. 233 were black. The US was shaken by repeated stories like those of Alton Sterling, held down and shot multiple times after selling CDs, who may or may not have been holding a gun, or Alfred Olango, who was shot after his sister called 911 requesting psychiatric aid. Olango’s childhood friend had died some days before. Police attested that Olango had assumed what they believed to be a shooting stance while holding an object in his hands, but this was later found to be a device for vaping.
The Valley is an overwhelmingly white community, and as such, it’s difficult for some SLVHS students to understand the experience of African-Americans. A black resident of the San Lorenzo Valley community explained her perspective: “….as an African American, from a young age you are taught that you don’t get the Disney princess, the athlete, the president– with this, it feels like ‘you don’t get the justice’. It’s more about the reason these people are being shot. The one thing I don’t agree with is riots… That is not representative of black people as a whole. You’re just taught as a kid that the police, the media, even other non-black people just aren’t working for you. But you’re not conditioned to want to fight them… You’re always thinking ‘how can I look less black so that I’ll get respect?’ Whether it be in the workplace, at school, on the street…The issue isn’t that people hate the police or hate white people, but you’re taught that you ‘can’t have these things’. It’s 2017, I think we can have these things.”
More white citizens are killed by police than black in any given year, but this is due to the fact that the population of the US is demographically more white than black. According to the database of police shootings assembled by the Washington Post, though 62% of the US is white, they make up only 49% of those killed by police. 13% of the population is African-American, but make up 24% of police shootings. As the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery notes, “that means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers…unarmed black Americans [are] five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer.”
Some conservative outlets have noted that the most recent useful data on crime from the FBI, which is from 2009 due to federal lags, suggests that black Americans commit a disproportionately high rate of violent crimes, and therefore areas with mostly-black populations are likely to have more violent crime. However, the 2014 FBI crime report data suggests that the rates of police killings were not correlated in any way to the rates of violent crime in any given city. Regardless of criminal activity, black citizens are still subject to disproportionate amounts of police force when compared to white citizens.
Locally, two recent deadly shootings by police were both of men– one white and dealing with mental health issues, and one asian and struggling with drug use.
32-year-old Sean Arlt was shot and killed on October 16th of last year after approaching officers wielding a rake. The 911 call that had summoned police to the scene alleged that Arlt had been attempting to break into the house and threatening those inside. In the wake of his death, some family and community members objected to the use of lethal force– responding officers noted that multiple tasings had no effect. Arlt had struggled with mental health issues, as did 25% of those fatally shot by police officers in 2016. His death has raised questions about the effectiveness of mental health services in Santa Cruz.
On November 22, 15-year-old Luke Smith was fatally shot in the midst of a struggle with a police dog. He was acting under the influence of LSD. Before the confrontation with police, he had stabbed his father and uncle multiple times with a knife, then fled his home. He climbed a fire truck at the scene, then ran from pursuing officers, refusing to drop his knife through the use of tasers and sponge round shots. He was shot twice.
Police use of fatal force has drawn criticism, and the groups that suffer most– ethnic minorities, those with mental health issues– are speaking out, as these shootings are evidence of deeper flaws within the justice system, and support systems in at-risk communities.
By: Kahlo Smith