The Benefit of the Doubt

Let’s try some experiments. First, read the official story of Korryn Gaines, the 23-year old woman who was killed by the Baltimore police on August 1st. If you don’t want to click on the link, here it is:

The officers intended to serve arrest warrants on Gaines and a man. Gaines was wanted on a bench warrant for failing to appear in court on charges related to previous cases of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest following a traffic stop in March “and numerous other traffic offences,” according to Johnson. The man, who has yet to be identified, was wanted for assault.

Officers repeatedly knocked on the suspects’ apartment door, identifying themselves as police and announcing their intent to serve arrest warrants, Johnson said. The officers said they did not receive a response, but could hear the sounds of a man, woman and crying child from inside the apartment. After waiting five to 10 minutes, the officers obtained a key to enter from the landlord.

When an officer opened the door, he allegedly saw Gaines sitting on the floor pointing a long gun at him. Police retreated to the hallway and called for tactical personnel.

At this point, the male suspect attempted to flee the apartment with a 1-year-old child but was apprehended, Johnson said. Other residents were evacuated from the building.

For the next several hours, officers attempted to negotiate with Gaines who remained inside the apartment with the older boy. Throughout this barricade, the woman repeatedly pointed her long gun at officers and made threatening remarks, Armacost said.

According to Armacost, at 3 p.m. Gaines directly pointed the gun at a tactical officer and said: “If you don’t leave, I’m going to kill you.”

An officer fired his weapon, with the woman returning two rounds, Johnson said.

Police then fired again at the woman, striking her multiple times and killing her. The five-year-old was also shot during the exchange of gunfire.

What was your first reaction? Was it, “She shouldn’t have pointed a gun at the police?” Was it, “She should have surrendered?” Was it, “It’s going to be hard to defend this?” Because I’ll be honest- those were my first reactions. I thought to myself, how can you point a gun at a police officer and not expect  to die?

Now for phase two of the experiment. Try to imagine that Korryn Gaines didn’t deserve to die. Try to imagine that pointing a weapon at a police officer is a crime, yes, but not a capital offense. Imagine that simply saying to a police officer, “I’m going to kill you” is not something which you should be killed for.

Was that difficult? Was it hard to accept that a person shouldn’t be killed for making threats, or even for pointing a gun? It was difficult for me. It took reading the words of my friend Candy Cornball on Facebook before it really sank in. I’d become so used to the idea that police officers can and will kill you that I blamed the victim for being killed. Of course the police are going to shoot you. That’s what they do, to men, women and children for far less than pointing a gun. Not only have I accepted the reality of lethal force from the police, but I excused it in order to make sense of it.

That’s cynicism. That’s cowardice. That’s a lack of empathy that I’m ashamed of. That’s me, someone who allegedly writes about and cares about racial justice and policing and all of the wonders and terrors of being black in America, failing. Fortunately, there are people who are ready to remind me that yes, this person too deserves your love and your tears. That we are innocent until proven guilty. That we deserve to have due process. That it is not okay to respond to a woman with a gun and a child by shooting first.

The final part of the experiment is for you to give Korryn Gaines the benefit of the doubt. Can you do that? Put aside whether she deserves it or not. Can you just give her the benefit of the doubt? Can she have the presumption of innocence, fragility and victimhood that we dole out to so many other people? Would it help if we changed the headline? If you were told that her social media accounts were scrubbed after her death? Does it help if you think about her son watching her mother die while bleeding out from his own gunshot wound?

I’m sorry that I failed you, Korryn. You did not deserve to die over a disorderly conduct warrant, no matter how many times we’ve been told that you did, by violence visited upon us time and time and time again.

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