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In Phoenix, Arizona a 67-year old white man mixed anti-anxiety medication with alcohol and then got behind the wheel of his car. He struck another car but didn’t stop as required by law. He was apprehended only because another motorist followed him and called police. When the heavily medicated driver finally encountered police he used his knee as a weapon to strike one of the officers in the thigh. He was found to have a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit. He was charged with extreme drunken driving, hit and run, and suspicion of assaulting an officer. His name is Glen Campbell and he is still alive.
In Cincinnati, Ohio a 41-year old black man passed out near a White Castle. A 911 call sent paramedics to the scene who then called police to say that the man was agitated. When police arrived he struggled with them but he had no weapon and posed no serious threat to anyone. His name was Nathaniel Jones and he is now dead.
What I know about Cincinnati is not altogether positive. The city is just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. Its proximity to a slave state made it a magnet for escaped slaves and slave catchers as well. Toni Morrison fictionalized the true story of an escaped slave who killed her children in Cincinnati rather than see them returned to slavery. The result was her novel Beloved. Harriet Beecher Stowe met many former slaves while living in Cincinnati and became inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Modern day Cincinnati is rated as one of America’s most livable cities. It may well be livable but it is still very conservative. A friend of mine worked there at the Procter and Gamble headquarters and often said that few blacks were employed there, even in blue-collar positions. As she put it, blacks weren’t even hired to sweep the floor. My parents are both native Ohioans. My mother coined the term “up south” to describe her home state. My father tells the story of going to see a Reds game as a boy and buying ice cream with his brother. After making their purchase they were ordered to eat outside. It isn’t an occurrence associated with northern states, but as my mother says, Ohio is “up south.”
Jones is the latest in a long line of black men killed by the police in Cincinnati. The city endured three days of rioting in 2001 after the death of another unarmed man. The events that have played out since his death have been all too predictable for Cincinnati and the rest of the nation as well. His killing is on video but what appears to be proof of murder is disputed nonetheless. Black residents vent their anger at community meetings. The victim’s family calls for calm. Ministers call for protest. Officials advise against reaching conclusions yet declare that the police acted properly. Nathaniel Jones’ relatives, like other survivors of police brutality victims, will probably get monetary compensation from a lawsuit, but not the satisfaction of a guilty verdict from a criminal trial.
News reports begin with the same sentence. “Nathaniel Jones, a 350-pound black man who died in police custody…” Only the obese are despised as much as black people. However, given the perversity of American values we should not be surprised that rates of obesity are increasing. Stomach reduction surgery is all the rage and there is now a market for super sized coffins. Yet Jones' weight has become a rationale for his death. He weighed 350-pounds? No wonder he is dead. A big black man? Case closed. Mayor Charles Luken said that the officers acted properly. "It appears that the police responded appropriately and consistent with their training. They'd been attacked with a deadly weapon – a 400-pound man."
Watching the video is a painful experience. The viewer knows that a killing is taking place. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to video voyeurism in our society that I wonder if the murder of Nathaniel Jones was all that shocking to most viewers. In the digital age we have witnessed police beatings, murders, shootings, and child abuse. How can we forget that the riveting footage of Rodney King’s beating was of no help whatsoever in the criminal trial of the officers who assaulted him?
Mr. Jones was killed by police first, and the media afterward. The old maxim that we should not speak ill of the dead doesn’t apply to black people in general, it never applies to black people killed by police. Bill Cunningham, a Cincinnati-based conservative talk radio personality was allowed to give supposedly expert testimony on the famously unbiased Fox News network. He had this to say about Jones: “I'll bet you a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts this guy died of congestive heart failure, because he weighed almost 400 pounds.” Not one to leave an insult unturned, Cunningham gave this all important information describing Jones as "…unemployed, had two kids he didn't support. Previous criminal record." Cunningham lied about Jones not supporting his kids, but he certainly creates a rationale for murder. A black, fat, deadbeat dad, and drug user certainly deserved to be killed.
Speaking of insults, the coroner said that Jones' death was a homicide but added, "This word should not be interpreted as implying inappropriate behavior or the use of excessive force by police." Jones suffered from heart disease and high blood pressure. The autopsy also indicated that he had used cocaine and PCP on the day of his death. But all the while straddling the fence the coroner says, “Absent the struggle, Mr. Jones presumably would have gone on his intoxicated way." Only the death of a black person at the hands of police could be explained by such ludicrous double talk. Someone dies after being beaten by police, the autopsy says that the beating caused the death, but the death isn’t a homicide. I call it Rodney King logic.
One of the most heart breaking outcomes from this case was the realization that Jones suffered from narcolepsy. He may have fallen asleep in public and then become agitated upon being awakened by the paramedics because of his condition. A friend knew that Jones suffered from some sort of sleep disorder and realized that the best way to wake him was to make a noise and then step away from him.
I once heard someone say that when black people call the police they are between the devil and the deep blue sea. Al Sharpton has spoken of the black community’s fear of both the cops and the robbers. Even when we need the help of law enforcement the apprehension that someone will end up dead is always present in our minds.
I have a suggestion for ending police brutality. The cops who arrested Glen Campbell should create a presentation for police officers all over the country. It should be called “The Perp Doesn’t Have to Die.” They can tell their law enforcement brethren how they arrested a suspect who was under the influence, left the scene of an accident, and assaulted a cop. And most importantly, they can show how they did it without killing anyone.