It is unimaginable — and yet, somehow, perfectly believable — that an unarmed Black man was shot and killed by police after a routine traffic stop just 10 miles from the site of Derek Chauvin’s trial in the death of George Floyd.
It is unimaginable — and yet, of course, all too believable — that 20-year-old Daunte Wright would be killed in suburban Brooklyn Center, after being stopped because his car’s license plates had expired, just as the prosecution in Minneapolis was resting its case and the defense was set to begin.
Chauvin’s lawyer is faced with the task of trying to convince at least one juror that it wasn’t Chauvin’s knee that killed Floyd, a knee that stayed in place after Floyd stopped breathing, a knee that stayed in place after Floyd’s heart stopped beating, a knee that stayed in place despite a crowd begging Chauvin to stop.
We’ll hear again that it was drugs or a bad heart or a distracting crowd that killed Floyd and not, as all the medical experts and the police-training experts and the brutal video tell us, the nine minutes of unrelenting pressure of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck.
Jurors are told not to read the newspapers, not to watch TV news, to somehow avoid social media, but it would be difficult for jurors not to have heard that another death of a Black man at the hands of police has led to a community already on edge to be pushed near a breaking point. More cries for police reform. More protests. More tear gas. More looting. More police lines. More military vehicles on city streets. More of all we’ve seen before, too much more.
The bizarre nature of Wright’s killing — that the cop seemingly meant to fire her Taser and instead fired her pistol after Wright attempted to elude arresting police and drive away — complicates the story, but doesn’t change the tragic ending.
It turned out that Wright had a misdemeanor gun warrant out against him, which is why he was in the process of being handcuffed and arrested. According to the video that police released, Wright panicked and tried to drive away. It appeared the cop, Kim Potter, a 26-year police veteran, panicked and somehow mistook her gun for a Taser. She yelled “Taser! Taser! Taser!” and then, “Holy shit, I just shot him!” after, well, shooting him.
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The Brooklyn Center police chief called it an “accidental” shooting. Was it an accident or was it something far worse? Over the years, this confusion has happened a very few times. And because it has happened, even if rarely, police across the country have put in safety regulations that, if followed, make it very difficult to confuse a gun for a Taser.
But it did happen. And so did a traffic stop for expired tags when the truth is that many people these days are driving with expired tags because of a backlog caused by the pandemic. And so we’re left to wonder why it was that Wright was stopped in the first place. And how the stop could have ended with him dead. Meanwhile, Potter and the police chief, Tim Gannon, have now both resigned.
There’s another story, one that happened 1,300 miles from Minneapolis, that seems to explain everything. The story took place in Windsor, Va., a small town about 30 miles from Norfolk, last December, but it broke just a few days ago because a lawsuit was being filed. No one died in this story. But when they play the video on cable TV news, they warn that what we’re about to see is disturbing. And they’re right. It is very disturbing.
You’ve probably seen it. There’s police body-cam video. There’s more from Lt. Caron Nazario’s cell phone.
It was a traffic stop. The cops turned on the flashing lights, and Nazario, as he tells it in his $1 million lawsuit, looked for a lighted place to stop. He drove for about a mile on a dark road, using his blinker to indicate he was turning into a gas station. He is Black and Latino. Getting to a well-lit place seemed prudent, especially in the days after George Floyd’s death, especially since he had no idea why he was being pulled over.
The cops thought, they would say later, that Nazario was driving without a rear license plate. The car was new and it had a temporary plate taped to the rear window. You can see it in the videos.
But the cops, who could hardly have missed the temporary plate at the lighted gas station, came with guns drawn, voices booming, demanding Nazario get out of the car. Nazario, dressed in military fatigues after a weekend of drill, asked what he had done. He didn’t get an answer. He got barked orders. His hands were up. There was nothing that seemed dangerous about him. But for demanding to know why he had been stopped, Nazario was repeatedly doused with pepper spray.
And as he told the cops and you can hear on the video, Nazario, who had signed up to defend his country, was “honestly afraid to get out of the car.”
And one of the cops replied, “Yeah, you should be.”
Yes, he definitely should have been. And that one exchange explains so much about where we are today. When Nazario, afraid to get out of the car, asked again what was going on, one cop said, “What is going on is you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son.”
The lightning line is a slang reference to an electric chair. Seriously. But when they pushed Nazario to the ground, handcuffed him and then began to interrogate him, the cops learned pretty quickly that they had made a grievous mistake. So how did they respond? According to the lawsuit, the cops threatened to ruin Nazario’s career if he didn’t keep quiet.
Nazario filed suit anyway. The cop with the pepper spray was fired, but not until the video had gone viral. Virginia, which has recently passed comprehensive police reform, is now investigating what has gone wrong again.
Nobody died in that case. But it’s still a tragedy. And meanwhile back in Minnesota, tragedy is piled upon tragedy, and, as the world watches, protesters take to the street and many of us turn back to the Chauvin trial and wonder, yet again, when we’ll find justice.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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