Exceptional Benevolence: How Our Justice System Has Always Functioned to Protect Killer Cops and Maintain the Myth of Good Whiteness
On September 6, 2018, Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant, was murdered in his own apartment by an off-duty Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger. Guyger testified that she thought she was in her own apartment and that Botham Jean was an intruder. On October 1, 2019, Guyger was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in solitary confinement. She will be eligible for parole in five years.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Allison Jean talks about her reaction to the court’s decision,
“Well, first of all, I looked forward to a conviction, and she got it, a conviction of murder…the sentence of ten years, I respect the jury’s decision. My son was much more valuable than ten years. But there’s nothing that I could do about it. I think it sends a message to America how people are treated, how victims are treated, but more so, I think in making America a better place there must be some reform of the various systems that we saw coming out of the trial. We saw the corruption coming out of the Dallas police department, the testimony of the Texas ranger, and the entire city.
Unfortunately, this is not the first call for reform.
46 years ago on July 24th, 1973, a Dallas police officer, Darrell L. Cain, murdered 12-year-old child, Santos Rodriguez. After reports of a burglary, Cain and his fellow officer Roy R. Arnold, were “investigating” when they took Santos and his brother, 13 years old at the time, away from their home for an impromptu interrogation.
Filmmaker Byron Hunter grew up in Dallas and created a documentary called Santos Vive, which details the tragic murder of Santos Rodriguez.
The “about page” on the site explains that Santos was killed “… in the front seat of a Dallas Police car with his 13-year old brother seated next to him. News of Santos’ death was broadcast nationwide, and sparked riots and demonstrations in Dallas in 1973.”
A newspaper clipping from the New York Times in 1973 reads, “Handcuffed Boy, 12, Shot Dead In Squad Car by Dallas Officer.”
Cain pointed the gun at young Santos’ head in an effort to intimidate and force the boy to take the blame for the burglary. Cain later confessed that Santos’ last words were, “I’m telling the truth.” As soon as the shot was fired, Cain and his fellow officer, exited the car quickly, apparently in shock. Cain thought he had unloaded all of his bullets before playing “russian roulette.” This extremely heinous and deplorable act is the result of a system that gives unrestricted power and a sense of Godliness to those with a badge, convinced they get to decide who lives and who dies. Officer Arnold, witnessing this grotesque scene in which a cop held a gun to a child’s head, should have intervened to prevent such an unjust and traumatic event from playing out.
Santos’ older brother, David, sitting in the car with handcuffs, was left in the car as soon as the shot was fired. He sat for ten minutes watching his brother die, telling him, “You are going to be alright.”
The entire community was shocked and Santos’ death remains in the consciousness of Little Mexico today.
There is no justification for taking the life of a 12-year-old boy, or for this level of trauma and violence to be inflicted upon these young brothers. This was a targeted event in which there was no just cause for taking two young boys from their home for this kind of brutal intimidation. All of this just because there was a reported theft of some change from a soda machine.
Valtierra Hinojosa, 66, was in the community at the time of Rodriguez’s death. She was an activist and recent Southern Methodist grad. She recalls,
“I just couldn’t believe that a child had been killed in that manner. It was unbelievable. It was like our Trayvon Martin, way before Trayvon Martin.”
The Dallas News reported that two days after Santos’ death the investigation found that the boys’ fingerprints didn’t match any at the scene of the crime. Santos Rodriguez was born on November 7, 1960. He would have been 59 years old this year. His brother David, still currently lives in Dallas. Darrell Cain, the officer who killed Santos Rodriguez, died on March 17th, 2019, at 76 years old. In our society, killer cops get to live long lives while young children of color are at risk of dying before they even enter high school at the hands of those who are supposed to “protect and serve.”
There were no serious consequences for Cain. He was arrested, charged with murder, arraigned, and then released on $5,000 bond. And this wasn’t the first time Darrell Cain abused his position as a police officer. Two years prior to killing Santos Rodriguez, he killed 18-year-old Michael Moorehead. Cain and fellow officer, Jeffrey L. Kirksey, found Michael Moorehead and 26-year-old relative burglarizing a restaurant. There are recorded statements from witnesses who said Moorehead was on the ground pleading for the officers to not kill him. No charges were ever brought against the officers.
In Little Mexico, community members have always been wary of the police. Sol Villasana, a Dallas attorney who grew up in the neighborhood recalls,
“There was constant harassment and stories of people being taken to the Trinity River bottom…cops harassed my dad and me, too.”
Corruption and cops go hand in hand, and unfortunately, the call for police reform has proven insufficient to prevent police brutality and unnecessary police killings.
In 2014 after Michael Brown’s death, Forbes reported on the lack of accountability that police officers face when they have committed murder, harassment, or other kinds of brutality:
In Philadelphia, an inquiry was recently completed on 26 cases since 2008 where police officers were fired from charges ranging from domestic violence to retail theft, to excessive force, to on duty intoxication. Shockingly, the Police Advisory Committee undertaking the investigation found that so far 19 of these fired officers have been reinstated. Why does this occur? The committee blamed the arbitration process.
In one recent case, a Philadelphia police Lieutenant was caught on camera punching a woman in the face during a parade because he mistakenly believed she threw a beer on him. You can see CNN coverage of the incident in the video below. Following the incident the officer was fired, but then reinstated after arbitration. He retained his Lieutenant rank.
The Atlantic details the history of corruption, excessive police violence, and force that runs rampant throughout police departments across the nation.
Amber Guyger and police officers who kill innocent people or use excessive force are not anomalies. This is a predictable pattern, history repeating itself, and a product of a system that is inherently set-up to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality, as sociologist Alex S. Vitale writes in his book, The End of Policing.
“The problem is not ultimately in policing techniques and procedures; it is in the increasing reliance on the police as a form of social control to buttress a system of corporate capitalism that has turned the working poor into modern-day serfs and abandoned whole segments of the society. Government no longer makes any attempt to ameliorate racial and economic inequality. Instead, it criminalizes poverty. It has turned the poor into one more cash crop for the rich.”
We don’t need more jails or police. We need to abolish jails and police and build mental health facilities, and transition to a society that relies on restorative justice practices instead of militarized, trigger-happy police officers. Modern policing does not solve the issues of poverty, houselessness, and it does not protect communities or make them stronger. Policing targets poor communities of color by criminalizing minor infractions through the “broken windows” policy. This policy, which was supposed to reduce serious crimes by cracking down on low-level offenses, actually created more problems, and led to the tragedy of Eric Garner’s death in 2014. Garner, had been a horticulturist at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, and was choked to death by police officer Daniel Pantaleo for selling cigarettes on a street corner.
Hedges makes a good point: What is the purpose of our police and criminal justice system if officers can get away with murder and killing innocent people while refusing to hold Wall Street banks, corporations, and oligarchs accountable for the crimes they have committed against our global economy and ecosystem? Crimes that disproportionately impact communities of color? This is no accident.
In The New Jim Crow, Michele Alexander writes,
“The system is better designed to create crime, and a perpetual class of people labeled criminal. … Saying mass incarceration is an abysmal failure makes sense, though only if one assumes that the criminal justice system is designed to prevent and control crime. But if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control — specifically, racial control — then the system is a fantastic success.”
Amber Guyger receiving ten years with eligibility for parole in five, a hug from the judge and sympathy from her colleagues, is not justice being served, but a visual representation of the power of white supremacy, as well as white woman tears. Let us not be fooled anymore by this guise of the “good, innocent white woman,” which rests on the opposite trope of the “scary, threatening, intimidating Black man,” — a trope that led to the murder of Botham Jean.
Not only does our society need to disillusion ourselves from the idea that social problems will heal themselves through more arrests, court proceedings, punishments, and prisons, but we also need to heed Professor Eddie Glaude’s words in his interview with MSNBC:
“America is not unique in its sins as a country. We’re not unique in our evils, to be honest with you. I think where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them. And the legends and myths we tell about our inherent, you know, goodness to hide and cover and conceal so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence…
There are communities that have had to bear the brunt of America confronting — white Americans — confronting the danger of their innocence.”
The myths and legends Glaude is talking about is the myth of manifest destiny, the myth of “freedom and justice for all,” the myth that we live in a meritocracy, the myth that the police are here to protect when in reality as Vitale writes:
They were created by the property classes to maintain economic and political dominance and exert control over slaves, the poor, dissidents and labor unions that challenged the wealthy’s hold on power and ability to amass personal fortunes…The fundamental role of the police has never changed.
The goodness Glaude is speaking of is our refusal as White Americans to contend with our complicity in the systems of policing, redlining, reservations, and other manifestations of oppression that exist today. It’s how we justify our place in the hierarchy of our society. We tell ourselves it’s because we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. We white Americans want so desperately to believe in our goodness, on an individual, systemic, and institutional level. But as Glaude urges, we need to “confront the danger of [our] innocence.” Our belief in our inherent innocence is what keeps the cycle of killer cops going. Our belief in the inherent innocence of our justice system, that there can be “good” policing, is what continues the cycle of oppression, abuse, and genocide of communities of color and Indigenous peoples.
Amber Guyger’s conviction was not an example of justice being served, but an example of how police, especially white women police officers, are given special treatment because we are so invested in this idea that police officers are these omnipotent beings. White women police officers know well the power that their position of omnipotent power holds, especially when their tears are thrown into the mix. We saw this with Betty Shelby, an officer who murdered an unarmed, Black father, Terrence Cruncher, two years ago on September 16, 2016.
All proper court conduct went out the window for Amber Guyger, as S. Lee Merritt, a dedicated civil rights activist and trial attorney, who runs a practice focused on victims of police brutality, hate crimes, and corporate discrimination, explains in an interview with Anderson Cooper,
“What we saw on the trial of Amber Guyger is really what, if you’ve been paying attention, you expect to see. You expect to see law enforcement treated differently than other criminal suspects. And from the moment that Amber Guyger went into Botham Jean’s home, and pulled that trigger, she was treated differently.”
Merritt describes how Guyger was not put in handcuffs at any time after she killed Botham Jean, even though she admitted to shooting him, which is enough for probable cause. Instead, she got hugs and handshakes from the Dallas Police Association president, Mike Mata. “Her partner, who she was involved in an inappropriate relationship with, was sending text messages back and forth with her during the time that this incident was happening…those texts were then subsequently deleted,” Merritt explains that this is destruction of evidence. Leadership within the Dallas police department also instructed a subordinate to cut off bodily camera footage and dashcam footage, which is another example of destroying evidence. “That was just how this investigation started,” Merritt says. “So, there was a long line of corruption after the shooting.”
The politics of whiteness play out in such a way that white women are always afforded sympathy, empathy, and compassion even when after we murder someone. In response to the court’s sentencing of Guyger, Merritt writes on Instagram,
“10 years isn’t ‘nothing,’ but it also isn’t enough. Constitutionally, our system is designed so that the punishment apparatus of the American legal system is often disproportionately cruel to Black folks and exceptionally benevolent when it comes to white women.”