Last week’s police killing of Daunte Wright, taking place against the backdrop of the Derek Chauvin murder trial, helped turn an already tense climate in and around the Twin Cities into a political tinderbox.
The bodycam video of the shooting reveals how Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter aimed her gun at Wright, shouted “Taser! Taser!” before firing a single shot that killed him. The Brooklyn Center Police Department claims this was a tragic accident, something backed up by the officer’s surprised reaction after discharging her weapon. Officer Potter has since resigned.
Wright’s senseless death underscores the meaning behind the phrase “Black Lives Matter!,” a provocation and challenge to American society in a world that sanctions Black death. Armed police officers detained Wright during a traffic stop, where they found out he had a warrant on him for misdemeanor marijuana possession. He owed $346 in unpaid fines. The cops pulled him over, according to his distraught girlfriend who watched him die, because air fresheners were hanging from his rearview mirror. The police department would later say expired license plates were the reason for Wright’s traffic stop, something that most states have been forgiving about because of the pandemic.
Now, Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis has been the site of protests in defiance of Governor Tim Walz’s curfew order. Governor Walz called on state legislators to pass criminal justice reform before it was too late.
For Daunte Wright it is already too late.
The words “defund the police” have become a Pandora’s box in American politics, attacked by those on the left and right as going too far in seeking a solution to the never-ending series of public executions of Black folk by the police and, at times, vigilantes.
Daunte Wright should be alive.
President Biden expressed sympathy for Wright’s family “and the trauma that Black America experiences every day.” Yet, the president also claimed that “there is no justification for violence,” in contrast to peaceful protest. These laudatory words miss several larger points, most profoundly the fact that police violence, far more than sporadic instances of looting, scar American communities from the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs to the east and west coasts.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously proclaimed that riots, at their core, represented “the language of the unheard.” Black anger in Minnesota and around the country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police is based on more than a century of law enforcement and White vigilante violence against African Americans.
The condolences offered by former President Barack Obama and First Lady
Michelle Obama, while laudable, are not enough. It is way past time to end the continuous legacy of violently racist policing in America and begin to shape a new world, one that does not profile, discriminate, and kill Black bodies at traffic stops, grocery stores, or playgrounds. While it is too late for Daunte Wright we can save Black lives in America by ending our blind allegiance to systems of law enforcement unable to recognize Black humanity in whatever form it appears.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He’s also a professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin.