The death of John Crawford III, which has failed to compel the level of outrage and media attention of the shooting of Mike Brown in Missouri, is still under investigation. What we do know is that Ronald and April Ritchie reported seeing a man in Wal-Mart with a gun, and that Crawford was holding an MK-177 BB/pellet rifle when the police arrived. He was shot to death still holding it. Rumors abounded immediately after the story broke detailing possible explanations for the police department’s actions. Some reports claim that the man holding the gun was loading it, others say that Crawford failed to drop the weapon when he was ordered to do so. The mother of his two children, who was on the phone with Crawford when he was killed, reported him saying “It’s just a toy” before he was shot. We don’t know which (if any) of these played a role in the police officer’s actions.
What we do know is that Crawford was in a store that sells BB/pellet rifles, in a state where Open Carry laws would permit him to carry an air rifle, a real rifle, or a handgun. Given the number of Open Carry demonstrations that have been happening in stores and restaurants around the country recently, one would think that this would have had the same outcome as all of those other incidents. A police officer would approach, ask for ID, and–upon being close enough to see that Crawford was holding an air rifle similar to the ones sold in the store–the officer would explain the misunderstanding and walk away. That’s what has happened with Open Carry demonstrators in Ohio and other states.
So what was different about Crawford? There was that 911 call allegedly claiming that he was loading the pellet rifle and pointing it at people, but there isn’t evidence that anyone complained to store management or security. Nor did anyone beyond the caller and his wife seem to particularly notice Crawford. And while there have been store shootings in other places, the profile of those shooters has not been a Black man talking on a cell phone and browsing while he strolled around with the weapon. If it was the set up for a robbery, it was a poor one, as Crawford was nowhere near the registers or even the electronics department. So, why (aside from the admittedly inflammatory and erroneous) call didn’t the responding officers approach Crawford as they would have anyone at the dozens of Open Carry demonstrations?
The answer can probably be found in the racial makeup of the average Open Carry demonstration, and in the Scary Black Man myth that has been part of the American fabric since at least Reconstruction. Crawford is but one at least three Black men who has been shot in several days by police officers who assumed that they were a threat. He’s an anomaly, inasmuch as he was at least carrying something that looks like a weapon. But like so many others shot while holding cell phones, wallets, or locks, what Crawford was holding wasn’t a threat to anyone. His three children will grow up without him, another woman present at Wal-Mart that day died of heart failure that seems connected to the shooting, and for what?
Once again, the police didn’t live up to their mission to protect and serve the community by killing an innocent unarmed person. In fact in this case, as in so many others, the greatest danger to the community were the police officers who used violence in a nonviolent situation.
The Second Amendment right to bear arms has always applied unevenly. Many of the gun control laws currently being protested by Open Carry advocates have their roots in legislation passed to prevent the Black Panthers from carrying openly in California and other states. If all citizens have the right to bear arms, then the outrage at John Crawford III’s death should be coming from Open Carry groups in Ohio as well as from his family and friends. We should be having a national conversation about what it means to see a Black man holding a toy gun in a store that sells them, and calling the police instead of speaking to him. We should be talking about the damage done to community relations with police every time one of these incidents happens, and with no consequences for the officers involved. Or in this case, for the people who made a phone call that escalated a mundane interaction into a fatal one. If our goal is to turn the myth of a post-racial America into a reality, then it is time to have those hard national conversations about the all the ways in which racist imagery and narratives inform and influence perception. John Crawford III is dead because the idea that he could be completely innocent never even occurred to the Ritchies. There’s nothing post-racial about this America, there’s just the same old lethal racism.