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How police and media portrayals demonize Black victims of police violence


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: How police and media portrayals demonize Black victims of police violence

  • ‘Safer to leave them there’: Why non-evacuation of prisoners during hurricanes is a political decision

  • Ohio state rep: If police tase or shoot a child, she probably acted ‘stupid,’ or was a ‘punk.’

  • Trial of police officer who killed Laquan McDonald begins today

  • Judge overturns murder conviction of man in prison for 14 years for death of child

  • South Carolina officials don’t see the humanity of people in prison

  • Ex-police chief who ordered officers to target Black people in false arrests pleads guilty

  • No indictments in killing by campus police

In the Spotlight

How police and media portrayals demonize Black victims of police violence

On Thursday, a week after Botham Jean was killed in his own apartment by an off-duty Dallas police officer, Fox 4 News reported that police had found marijuana in Jean’s apartment while executing a search warrant. That fact, irrelevant to the question of why Officer Amber Guyger had, by her own admission, killed Jean, was also reported by other news outlets. The search warrant that police obtained for Jean’s apartment authorized a search for, among other things, “any contraband, including narcotics.” Speaking to the Washington Post, Lee Merritt, an attorney for Jean’s family, said, “It’s not surprising but it’s telling. It’s telling that in a homicide investigation they went looking for drug paraphernalia. … There could only be one purpose for that. The only purpose is to look for information to smear the dead.” [Meagan Flynn / Washington Post]

Merritt also pointed out that “[Jean] was not only never convicted of a crime, he was never even accused of a crime, never arrested. It took a white Dallas police officer to break into his home and shoot him to death for him to become painted as a criminal.” [Meagan Flynn / Washington Post]

And while police made the search warrant affidavit for Jean’s apartment public—on the day of Jean’s funeral—they have not released the search warrant affidavit for Guyger’s apartment. Matt Schweich of the Marijuana Policy Project told the Huffington Post, “A small amount of personal marijuana is irrelevant to this tragedy. It’s as relevant as a six-pack of beer.” He also questioned the decision to not release the warrant for Guyger’s apartment: “If an innocent victim’s privacy is to be invaded through the release of a search warrant, then at the very least the perpetrator’s privacy should be invaded in the same manner.” [Carla Herreria / Huffington Post]

As Merritt said, the attempt by the police to present Jean as criminal and by extension somehow responsible for his own death, or less worthy of mourning or outrage on his and his family’s behalf, was not surprising. It was part of a long tradition of law enforcement efforts, through the media, to demonize victims of police violence. See also Our Aug. 2, 2018 newsletter examined the ways crime reporting adopts police narratives and distorts readers’ perceptions.

The day after outlets reported the  story about marijuana in Jean’s apartment, Gene Demby of NPR’s “Code Switch” wrote on Twitter about the 2000 police killing of Patrick Dorismond in New York. “The killing of Patrick Dorismond has been on my mind a lot the last few days,” Demby wrote. Dorismond, “a member of a prominent Haitian-American musical family,” was killed by plainclothes NYPD officers. He was unarmed. Demby, who goes by Jawny Mathis on Twitter, writes that it was “already an ugly, horrific mess—an example of the routine excesses of policing that Black and Latinx people were subjected to—before Rudy Giuliani, the mayor, weighed in.” Giuliani ordered the police commissioner to release Dorismond’s sealed juvenile records and then appeared on Fox News to say that he “would not want a picture presented of an altar boy, when in fact, maybe [he] isn’t an altar boy.” [Gene Demby / Twitter]

The officer who shot and killed Patrick Dorismond was not indicted. Returning to Botham Jean’s killing, Demby says, “No mayors this time, and an indictment, as well. But the valorization of the police also means the concomitant demonization of the people they destroy.” [Gene Demby / Twitter]

A 2016 study, discussed by Meagan Flynn in the Washington Post, looked at the “demonizing process” in the media that follows the deaths of unarmed Black men in law enforcement interactions. The authors looked at the cases of five men—Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin; and Freddie Gray in Baltimore—and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who were all either fatally shot by police or, in Gray’s case, died while in police custody, between 2014 and 2015. The study focused on portrayals of the victims in news articles published in the first 30 days after each death. Articles routinely focused on the victim’s behavior immediately before his death, presenting it as suspicious, or discussed past arrests, even when they did not lead to convictions. After Tamir was killed, the media went so far as to report on his mother’s old drug charge. And after Darren Wilson fatally shot Brown in 2014, police emphasized allegations that Brown had tried to steal cigars from a convenience store shortly before he was killed.  [CalvinJohn Smile and David Fakunle / Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment]

The study’s authors write that even when individual reporters are not consciously racist, “White privilege and other forms of privilege allow journalists and other media outlets to report on these cases the way they do, without self-reflection of how the words, images, and storylines are disseminated. These narratives play a role in the initial assumption of the victim and can shift the perspective of how these victims are viewed.” [CalvinJohn Smile and David Fakunle / Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment]

Stories From The Appeal

Prisoners from the Brevard County Jail work to fill and load sandbags before Hurricane Irma in Meritt Island, Florida, in September 2017.  [Brian Blanco/Getty Images]

‘Safer to Leave Them There.’ How the politics of storm preparation reveal whose lives matter and who gets left behind. [Kate Aronoff]

Ohio State Rep: If Police Tase or Shoot a Child, She Probably Acted ‘Stupid,’ or Was a ‘Punk.’ Representative John Becker doubles down on his recent comments about the tasing of an 11-year-old for allegedly shoplifting. [Melissa Gira Grant]

Stories From Around the Country

Trial of police officer who killed Laquan McDonald is underway: Jason Van Dyke, who killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014 in Chicago, is now on trial for murder. Van Dyke, who is white, shot Laquan, who is Black, 16 times, including after the teenager fell and lay on the ground. The judge had denied the defense motion to move the trial out of Cook County. Van Dyke’s trial jury includes only one Black person. The last time a Chicago police officer was found guilty of murder for an on-duty shooting was in 1970. [Mitch Smith / New York Times]

Judge overturns murder conviction of man in prison for 14 years for death of child: On Friday, an Illinois judge ordered a new trial in the case of Randy Liebich, finding that his trial attorneys failed to adequately represent him at his 2004 trial when they did not challenge medical testimony presented by the state about the death of 2-year-old Steven Quinn. Liebich, who had said he acted to prevent Steven from choking, was found guilty of inflicting brain injuries that led to Steven’s death. Judge John J. Kinsella said that, had the trial judge heard testimony that older abdominal injuries most likely resulted in the child’s death, there is a “reasonable likelihood” she would have acquitted Liebich. The medical examiner who had been the prosecution’s witness at Liebich’s original trial testified at the hearing this year that evidence she only saw after the trial caused her to revise her opinion of how serious the brain injuries were. [Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch]

South Carolina officials don’t see the humanity of people in prison: Brian Sonenstein writes in Shadowproof about the connection between the three-week national prison strike and the decision by South Carolina officials not to evacuate people in prison before Hurricane Florence. “The strike’s ten demands were not flashy or new but rather basic affirmations of their humanity,” he writes. The decision by South Carolina officials is another example of how incarcerated people are seen as other. “It’s not that prisons in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas overlooked evacuation plans for hurricanes. It is that city, county and state governments in these states do not feel there will be a political cost if they do not evacuate prisoners.” [Brian Sonenstein / Shadowproof]

Ex-police chief who ordered officers to target Black people in false arrests pleads guilty: A former Florida police chief who once bragged about his department’s perfect clearance rate in burglaries has admitted that he ordered his officers to falsely arrest two men and one teenager for a series of unsolved break-ins. Raimundo Atesiano, who led the Biscayne Park police department, pleaded guilty in federal court on Friday to conspiracy to deprive the three of their civil rights, and now faces two to two and a half years in prison. The three police officers who carried out the arrests on Atesiano’s orders and falsified arrest affidavits had previously pleaded guilty. The false arrests included that of a 16-year old, and a man who went on to be sentenced to five years in prison for two of the burglaries and was subsequently deported to Haiti. The man’s conviction has since been reversed. [Jay Weaver / Miami Herald]

No indictments in killing by campus police: A grand jury declined to indict two university campus officers who killed Jason Washington in Portland, Oregon, in June. The campus officers shot Washington, a postal worker and Navy veteran, while he tried to break up a fight outside a bar. Portland State University police officers began carrying guns three years ago despite significant opposition to the decision. The university student union is calling on the university to stop allowing campus officers to carry firearms. [Shane Dixon Kavanaugh / The Oregonian] See also The July 13, 2018, edition of the Pacific Northwest newsletter looked at how Washington’s killing reignited the efforts to disarm campus police officers.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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