Stop Criminalizing Black Victims of Police Brutality

by Altheria Gaston

In a more equitable world, 19 year-old Christian Taylor of Arlington, Texas would be preparing for his fall semester at Angelo State University. After spending the night in jail for [allegedly] breaking and entering and destruction of property/vandalism at a car dealership on August 7, 2015, his parents might have bailed him out and perhaps scolded him for his seemingly erratic actions. In a few years, after graduating from college, Christian might have looked back on this incident as a stupid episode performed by an immature, reckless teen. But this world is far from equitable, and instead of this hypothetical situation, Christian’s family gathered with hundreds of loved ones a couple days ago for his funeral.

We can imagine a similar hypothetical situation for Sandra Bland, who, ideally, would be excelling at her new job at Prairie View A&M University after rebounding from a minor traffic violation on July 10, 2015.

And for Eric Gardner. And for Michael Brown. And for the many unarmed African-American women and men who died after police encounters with mostly White police officers. Oftentimes, myopic people, both new Blacks, other people of color, and Whites, focus on the alleged illegal activity of the accused (i. e., stealing from a convenient store, selling cigarettes on the street, breaking and entering, etc.) and insensitively blame them for their own deaths. They accuse us who insist that officers are held accountable for their actions of overlooking the suspects’ actions. While I concede the alleged violations and illegal activity of the suspects, often caught on video camera, I question the responding actions of those who are supposed to protect and serve. I adamantly stand against the murder of unarmed Black suspects for the three following reasons:

  1. Black suspects are subjected to excessive force by White police who claim self-defense. Too often, encounters between Black people and White police officers end in a Black person’s death, even when the Black person is unarmed. In showing the disproportionality of unarmed Blacks killed by police, The Guardian claims, “32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25% of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15% of white people killed. These numbers are problematic, begging the question, “Why are unarmed Black people disproportionately killed by police?”
  2. The punishment (death) doesn’t fit the crime. What if Michael Brown stole items from the convenient store? Sure his actions would be illegal, but this petty crime shouldn’t have resulted in his death. When police officers shoot unarmed suspects, they act as judge, jury, and executioner, thereby cheating the suspects out of due process.
  3. By demanding open and unbiased investigations after a Black suspect’s death, we are making it clear that police officers are not beyond reproach-that their arresting actions should be transparent to the public. In essence, we want officers to be accountable for their actions.

I am tired of being afraid to log-in to social media or to watch the news for fear of hearing about another Black life loss after a police encounter. These deaths send a strong message, whether intentional or not, that Black lives continue to be devalued in the US, and, as a result of this lack of regard, we are denied justice. We speak against this narrative with a counter-narrative: Black lives matter just as much as the lives of White suspects.

Ethan Couch is a White teenage boy who killed 4 and injured 2 when he drove drunk in December 2013. According to prosecutors, three hours after the crash, tests showed Couch had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit. Couch was convicted and sentenced by a Texas judge to 10 years probation—NO JAIL TIME! So no hypothetical scenario is needed here. Couch made a horrible mistake, he was arrested and tried, and is likely home with his family after time at a treatment facility. Ethan Couch got for a much more severe crime what Christian Taylor deserved for his minor offense--to continue his life beyond his mistake. 

That’s why my focus is on this broken system instead of solely on the actions of the accused. No matter how “good” we try to be and how diligently we obey the law, until we eliminate the institutional racism of the criminal justice system, Black people will always be victims of police violence and mischievous boys like Christian Taylor won’t get justice.

Photo: a katz /

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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