By now, it’s become all too familiar: The disturbing footage of a Black man being brutalized by a white police officer. The public outcry. The rush to judgment. The twists and turns, the newly discovered facts, the endless slogging of accusations that cast doubt on whether we can ever know what really happened.
The riots, the looting, the escalating violence. The promises of change, of reform, of justice.
And then, it happens all over again.
The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is the latest event to unfold in this pattern. The viral cellphone video depicts a horrifying scene: an unarmed Black man walking calmly toward his vehicle. Police officers follow, guns raised. As the man leans into the vehicle, one officer grabs his T-shirt and fires seven shots into his back at close range. The car horn blares as the man slumps against it.
Following the video’s release, riots erupted. Kenosha County declared a state of emergency. The National Guard was deployed. Peaceful protests continued despite the looting and unrest. The situation took an even darker turn as a right-wing fanatic opened fire on protesters, killing two and wounding one.
The difficult questions
Like the George Floyd tragedy and others before it, the Blake shooting shines a spotlight on racial injustice. And it raises a slew of difficult questions.
Does it matter that Blake wasn’t complying with the police officers’ orders? Does it make a difference that Blake had a warrant out for his arrest on charges of felony sexual assault, domestic abuse and trespassing? Do those facts justify shooting someone in the back seven times at arm’s length?
The vastly different stories
Even the facts surrounding the shooting are difficult to discern, despite the 20-some-second video of the shooting (and a second blurry, chaotic cellphone video that emerged a few days later). The videos don’t shed light on what happened before the encounter escalated. And the accounts differ drastically.
By the family’s telling, Blake had been trying to break up a domestic dispute and was merely trying to check on his kids in the car. The police were the aggressors. Blake’s fiancé claims they even threatened to shoot her as she begged to get her kids out of the vehicle.
The police union paints a much different picture. They claim Blake had been holding a knife, refused to cooperate, put one of the officers in a headlock, was Tased twice and “forcefully fought” with the officers. The family’s story, they claim, is fiction. Instead of “White police officer shoots Black father seven times in the back as his kids look on,” the headlines, in their view, should read something like “Armed felony suspect sustains nonfatal injuries in shooting following scuffle with police.”
The bigger context – and the bigger question
Those facts – and the uncertainty surrounding them – are part of a much broader context. And they raise a much bigger question: Would Blake still have been shot if he were white?
The protests aren’t about the questions and uncertainties that remain in this case; they’re about the answer to that one big question. For many who have experienced firsthand the systemic injustice and subtle racism that persists in our country, the answer is a resounding no.
As for the facts, now begins the long, slow wait for the justice system to sort them out. By that time, it will likely be old news, and history will already have repeated itself with another incident of white-on-Black police violence.