Kim Potter, a 26-year police veteran who killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop that began with an air freshener and overdue plates, resigned from the Brooklyn Center police department, and has been charged for that killing.
I don’t know how to feel about that. Not that I’m upset to see her go or arrested. I’m not. It’s just that even though it is heartening to know she won’t be patrolling the streets any longer, I don’t know if this gets us closer to justice or further away. It’s hard to know what justice looks like these days. Or even what the word justice means.
Had we an actual criminal justice system, and if Potter’s former boss was correct that she “accidentally” shot Wright, her “mistake” would be a powerful point of mitigation for how the public should view her. An accidental shooting doesn’t make a killing any less tragic, but accidents—even horrific ones—do happen, particularly in stressful situations on stressful jobs. It’s why we don’t court martial every soldier who kills an innocent person during an exchange of gunfire in a war zone (though we should care more than we often do about those on the other end of American bullets and bombs).
It’s why on some level I began making a distinction between Potter’s actions and the actions of Derek Chauvin, the man currently on trial for the killing of George Floyd. If Potter’s act was a mistake, Chauvin’s was premeditated murder by a man who seem quite comfortable perched atop Floyd’s neck as life escaped Floyd’s body. Apart from, before the killing of Wright, the Brooklyn Center police department was considered a model of reform. One mistake, no matter how tragic, shouldn’t upend years of work.
But every time I try to get to maintain that level of nuance, I come across men like John Kennedy, a Republican US senator from Louisiana. During the Chauvin trial, and in the aftermath of the Wright killing and an egregious abuse of energy by police throughout a traffic stop in Virginia, Kennedy decided to take his talents to Fox News to dispense this gem: “If you hate cops just because they’re cops, and you don’t know anything about them, then next time you get in trouble, just call a crackhead.”
He said that as a chyron saying “Dems use strategy to push radical agenda” shared the TV screen with Kennedy’s face. What he said was so dumb, so reckless, so amoral, it’s hard to find just the right words to describe it. And yet, that man is a lawmaker who has been charged with helping lead the country through times such as these.
He isn’t alone. I’ve encountered people online and in person who openly argue that Floyd was the cause of his own death; that the Black US soldier who was pepper-sprayed by a cop for no good cause was at fault for not more perfectly complying—even though he literally held his hands high and through the driver’s side window to illustrate his compliance—that the criminal behavior of Black people is the cause of all this mess, not the police. Kennedy dipped his toe in that as well, telling Fox News that minority communities have higher crime charges. He tried to melt his phrases with a fast “due to poverty,” but the message he was sending was clear.
Lawmakers are supposed to be knowledgeable about complex topics, or at least know how to pretend to be. Kennedy can’t be bothered to be either. Black people are targeted more by police even when you account for crime and poverty rates. Police shootings do not correlate well with the amount of crime in a given area. That’s why Kennedy’s message was as clear as that of Tucker Carlson, host of cable news’s top-rated political show, who has been putting a bow tie on the white supremacist conspiracy “replacement theory” while claiming it has nothing to do with race.
And that’s what’s underlying just about all of this, how we view anti-Black racism and white supremacy or deny their existence. It’s why many white people will continue defending the likes of Carlson, because he doesn’t say explicitly that he doesn’t hate Black people and is supposedly in favor of Dr. King’s dream. It’s why true policing reform is so hard to come by, because the subtext is that Black people deserve what we’ve been getting and that cops are good people. It’s why it is hard to even contemplate what a just justice system should do with officers like Potter who make “mistakes” that cut lives short and send fear and anguish throughout an entire area.
As long as we don’t grapple with the underlying racism that still connects dark skin and crime in too many American minds, there’s little chance we’ll be able to move forward together. But, frankly, I’m not sure I want to move forward together with people who refuse to acknowledge even that.