Academic journal article Social Justice

On the Epidemic of Police Killings

Academic journal article Social Justice

On the Epidemic of Police Killings

Article excerpt

This essay seeks to clarify conceptually the common structure uniting many of the incidents in the recent crescendo of police killings of people of color, going beyond their shared racist framework. In tandem with the "new Jim Crow" that Michelle Alexander describes, these killings pertain to the role of the police as the selection mechanism enforcing a new color line. The author focuses on the killings of Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Trayvon Martin, and Troy Davis. When connected by their common threads, these killings reveal aspects of the cultural structure of racialization in the United States. The essay concludes by looking at the politico- legal goal of this epidemic of killings.

Keywords: police impunity, police killing, psychology of racism, structure of racialization, Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford, Trayvon Martin


On October 9, 2012, Officer Masso of the Oakland (California) Police Department was exonerated by an internal investigation for having killed Alan Blueford on May 6, 2012. He had chased Blueford around the block, pushed him to the ground, and then shot him. Blueford was a black teenager who had been standing with some friends on a street comer when three police officers approached them out of the night. Blueford ran. (1) Three bullets entered his body with an upward trajectory, according to the coroner's report, meaning that Masso was standing over him. One bullet passed upward through him and grazed the inside of his arm. Therefore, his arm was raised in a signal for surrender. According to one witnesses to the shooting, Blueford cried out, as Masso shot him, "I didn't do anything." But Masso fired four times. The fourth bullet hit Masso's own foot. At first he claimed that Blueford had shot him, but no gun was found. Nevertheless, he stated that he felt threatened by Blueford, and reacted. That was enough to exonerate him.

A parallel story unfolds on the opposite coast. In Florida on February 26, 2012, a man named George Zimmerman got out of his car, followed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin who is talking on his phone to a friend, and shot him. (2) Zimmerman had called the police and told them he had seen Martin and was concerned. (3) Though the police told him not to do anything, he followed Martin anyway. He was so obvious about it that Martin cried out, "Why are you following me?" Zimmerman then shot Martin once in the chest, killing him.

When the police arrived, Zimmerman claimed self-defense. The police declined to arrest him at that moment. They said there was insufficient evidence to determine whether it was self-defense or not. It was of no consequence that a man lay dead in front of them. Three weeks later, a photo emerged of Zimmerman with his face bruised and his nose bleeding. At the time, this photo would have been evidence of his having been attacked. (4) The police, however, said they had no evidence, indicating that they did not have that photo on the night of the killing. Had the blood and bruises of that photo been in evidence on the night of the shooting, one can only imagine the spectacle the press would have made of it, denouncing what this black guy had done to a respectable citizen. (5) On July 8, 2013, a jury acquitted Zimmerman of both the murder and manslaughter.

The parallel is structural. A police officer or a self-appointed vigilante follows a young black man, shoots and kills him, claims he felt threatened, and that he killed in self-defense. He is then exonerated for the crime. The root of the term "exoneration" is honor. But in these cases the concept of "honor" becomes twisted. What honor is there in killing someone who has already been overpowered? That is especially so when one is acting in an official or semi-official capacity (Zimmerman notified the police of his pursuit). Two unarmed black men are dead without recourse or due process. This common structure marks a form of event that has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. …

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