One night when I was a teenager, my eldest brother surprised me by taking me out to get dinner at my favorite restaurant Chi Tung, an Asian fusion joint that’s a staple of Southwest Chicago dining. Considering I only ever ended up at Chi Tung after some major event like a graduation or a baptism, this was a real treat for me, so much so that I didn’t immediately pick up that my brother was being uncharacteristically taciturn during the drive over. After we were seated and put in our orders, we chatted for a few minutes until our dishes arrived.
I only managed to get a couple of bites into my meal before my brother stopped me, with a look I’d never seen before or since etched on his face. He hesitated, then said that the reason we were eating out was because he wanted to talk to me about something really serious. Naturally, my mind and heart started racing in tandem, but I didn’t have long to wonder before he asked, in a low voice, why our sister had told him that I’d said I wanted to start using drugs.
I stared at him blankly for a couple seconds, and then laughed — not nearly as much as I should have, in hindsight. Even umpteen years later, when it comes to me and drug experimentation, I still couldn’t be more of a square if I took over a decade to develop and release a video game sequel.* But I knew exactly what conversation he was talking about, and I told him that I didn’t say that I wanted to start using drugs; I’d said that I wished that I already was.
For his sake then, and for yours now, I offered the following explanation:
Like most teenagers, I clashed with my parents, and we had been going through a particularly rough patch at the time of my pseudo-pharmacological outburst. My memories of my younger self’s personality are too acute for me to pretend that I was an angel by anyone’s standards, but in terms of toeing the straight-and-narrow, I liked my numbers. I brought home good grades, and I didn’t get into trouble. But I felt like I was always on tenterhooks with my parents, and that even the most minor slip-up like using the wrong word in conversation or talking too loudly was something that could and would drag us into an unnecessary confrontation.
And after one of our customary cross-generational dust-ups, I told my sister that I wished I was a Bad Kid. The kind of kid that after-school specials were written about, the kind of kid that haunted the nightmares of Disney Channel viewers, the kind of kid that got the kind of serious trouble that might warrant the involvement of the police — even by Bad White Kid standards. And so the kind of kid that, for the admittedly narc-y purposes of this discussion and at the risk of summoning the Ghost of Reagans Past, might get caught up in and caught with drugs.
Because, as I bitterly explained to my brother, if I was going to feel like I was a Bad Kid, I wanted to at least have had the fleeting satisfaction of doing whatever Bad Things Bad Kids do. If I was always going to fight for my parents’ trust, I wanted to know that I’d already done something to show myself unworthy of it. If I was going to be punished, I wanted to know that I had done something worthy of the degree of punishment. Basically, picture a pubescent and unnecessarily dramatic cross between Shylock, Tyrion, and Elphaba, and there I was, simmering in righteous indignation.
His fears assuaged that I wasn’t actively preparing to cross over into a life of juvenile delinquency, my brother reacted predictably to play peacemaker. Yes, our parents could be incredibly strict, and yes, it sucked, but it came from a place of love, he reassured me. They wanted what was best for me, and as the baby of the family, he sheepishly added, I was probably picking up the slack for the various slip-ups that he and our siblings had left littered in their wake. But my parents didn’t actually think I was a bad person, nor were they trying to treat me like one. It was a generational and culture clash, nothing more.
The lesson fell on deaf ears. And once it became clear that I was in no mood for the soft sell, he didn’t press the point. With an uncomfortable subject hanging in the air between us, we did the only thing we could — we ignored it, as men once did. He complained about his job, I complained about school, we both complained about the Bears, and I was left to silently wonder how what I’d actually said had gotten so badly garbled in translation as to set this whole night into motion in the first place.
But hey, at least I got some Chi Tung out of it. Would that all of my misunderstandings were so profitable.
That isn’t a story about my relationship with my brother or my other siblings (good), my parents (good, and a damn sight better than it was then), or with Chi Tung (great food, affordable prices, try the hibachi if you have the time, grab a youtiao even if you don’t).
It is a story, like many are this week, about policing in America, and the people who unduly lose their lives at their hands.
If you’re reading this now, in late April 2021, it is a story about Adam Toledo’s death in Chicago, a story about Daunte Wright’s death in Brooklyn Center, and a story about George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. If you’re reading it in the future, it could be a story about some other person of color tragically unaware of how their story will end, or a story about some child of color yet unborn whose story has yet to be written. It may even be a story about myself. And if, by some fluke of a megalomaniac who has collected the seven Chaos Emeralds and is now warping the fabric of space-time itself, you are somehow reading this in the past, it is a story about a list of names that I am tired of recounting.
(By the way — I’m not saying that megalomaniac is Tom Brady, but I’m not not saying it, either.)**
It is a story about the mistakes that every person on that list of names, and every person who will join them, made that supposedly justifies their own slaughter, as every other Twitterer with a blue checkmark will be all too happy to tell you. Passing a counterfeit bill. Having expired registration. Moving too quickly. Running. Walking. Being too big. Being too young. Having an arrest record. Knowing someone with an arrest record. Holding something vaguely gun-shaped or dark colored. Losing your composure. Using your last breaths to beg for more air.
It is a story about how, as Starfleet’s greatest captain tells us, that even if you commit no mistakes, even if you stay in your lane, even if you comply, you can still lose everything.
And it is, ultimately, a story about the police mistakes that led to these people’s deaths. Because they must always be mistakes, you understand, and it is the height of heresy to suggest otherwise.
It was a mistake that caused Derek Chauvin, a nineteen-year police veteran, to kneel on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and not realize that he might be causing irreparable harm. It was a mistake that caused Kim Potter, a twenty-six year police veteran, to mix up her Taser for her handgun and not realize which was which until after she’d fired the wrong one and killed Daunte Wright. It was a mistake that caused Eric Stillman, a comparative neophyte compared to Chauvin and Potter but still a five-year veteran, to fire in a split-second on a thirteen-year-old boy who’d made the fatal error of complying with his order to drop the gun he’d been holding and show his “fucking hands” after doing so.
Mistakes, mistakes all.
Mistakes that entitle all three to a vigorous defense in court, to due process, and to a presumption of innocence until their guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Foundational American rights that, thanks to their mistakes, three people were denied.
We all, and I invite you to finish the timeless cliché with me, make mistakes. It is our own track record of mistakes, we are told, that should keep us from judging others’ too harshly — “let he who is without a stone house cast the first glass,” or something like that. In the grand scheme of the cosmos, we are told, the purpose of our mistakes is to teach us how to avoid making them in the future. We fall that we may rise, we fail that we might succeed.
And just as we learn from our own mistakes, we are told so too are we supposed to learn from each others’.
It’s because of that last cliché that I no longer care to hear about the mistakes that police officers made when they kill people. Because when you pay attention long enough, these seem much less like mere mistakes and much more like willful ignorance.
This is not the first time that a police officer restrained someone by the neck for resisting arrest, and continued applying pressure until they died as their comrades did nothing to prevent it. It is not the first time that someone being choked to death sputtered out that they couldn’t breathe, and that those pleas were used as posthumous evidence against them that they could. If the murder of Eric Garner was a mistake, one would imagine that it is a mistake that Derek Chauvin would have learned from and taken pains to avoid.
He did not, and so George Floyd is dead.
This is not the first time that a police officer opted to use violent, if not necessarily lethal, force to restrain a civilian resisting arrest. And it is not the first time that, in their haste, they failed to verify that the weapon in their hands was a Taser, and not a gun. If the murder of Oscar Grant was a mistake, one would imagine that it is one that Kim Potter would have learned from and taken pains to avoid.
She did not, and so Daunte Wright is dead.
This is not the first time that a child, a child, was confronted by a police officer who shot them almost immediately. It is not the first time that a child with what appeared to be a gun in their hands was given less than a second to comply with the officer’s orders to disarm themselves before being fired on. If the murder of Tamir Rice was a mistake, one would imagine that it is one that Eric Stillman would have learned from and taken pains to avoid.
He did not, and so Adam Toledo is dead.
If these were mistakes, they wouldn’t keep happening. If these were mistakes, we wouldn’t keep hearing the same excuses, the same defenses, the same pseudoscience, the same justifications, and the same focus on the shortcomings of the slain, not on the people who slew them or of the systems that cover for them, time and time again.
We wouldn’t have to hear about why a police officer’s fear for their life will always trump a civilian’s fear for their own. We wouldn’t have to hear about how the crowd surrounding George Floyd bears more responsibility for his death than the officer kneeling on his neck, how Daunte Wright’s choice to slip his restraints is more responsible for his death than a police officer confusing her gun for her taser, how the shortcomings of Adam Toledo’s parents bear more responsibility for his death than an officer’s decision to shoot an unarmed child.
And if these were mistakes, then when Army Lt. Caron Nazario told police officers that he was afraid to get out of the car during a traffic stop, then they would not have answered, “Yeah, you should be,” before proceeding to assault him.
It is sitting with all of this that makes me remember that night in Chi Tung with my brother all those years ago, and how utterly disorienting it is to be feel like a monster when you have done nothing to deserve it.
How disorienting it is to know that part of your birthright is a state-sanctioned sword hanging over your neck that is one police officer’s supposed mistake away from dropping. To know that if the worst comes to pass, then the vultures will not wait for your body to turn cold before they descend upon your past for the slightest scrap of evidence of past misdeeds to justify your death. To know that order trumps law, that peace trumps justice, that property trumps life and liberty. To know that demonstrations against police brutality evidently warrant less preemptive security measures than a white nationalist mob plotting to storm the halls of the Capitol while Congress is in session.
And how with every new “mistake,” it gets harder and harder to block out the voice in the shadows of your soul that whispers that if your country will only ever see you as a monster anyway, there’s little to be gained in not playing the part.
As I write these words, the jury in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial is deliberating over its outcome. The verdict might be rendered within minutes, hours, or days.
I don’t know what that verdict will be, and I don’t care.
If Derek Chauvin is found not guilty, I defy anyone of any persuasion who can say with a straight face that they are surprised. And if he is found guilty, it will be little more than a strategic sacrifice by the blue wall of silence to preserve those still sheltering behind it, not a sea change heralding its downfall. What happens in the moments to come will not matter.
Because if it mattered, if George Floyd’s life and more specifically the manner in which it ended mattered, if all of the protests it sparked mattered, if all of the commercials and kneeldowns and photo ops and hashtags and those damned black squares mattered, his death would have been the last of its kind. Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo would still be alive, or, at the very least, not have millions of people excusing the circumstances of their deaths. Instead, the story goes on as it always has, as anyone who was honest with themselves last summer knew it would.
When it comes to police killings in America, the greatest mistake that those at the greatest risk of suffering them is to continue taking it on faith that these are indeed, mistakes.
And that is a mistake that I will never make again.
*When you’re writing about something this depressing you have to make your fun.
** Like so.