Indicting the Culture that Killed John Crawford III
Back in 2014, I wrote an article about a man named John Crawford III. He was 22 years old when Ohio police shot and killed him while he shopped at a Beavercreek Walmart. When he was killed, he was holding a toy gun which was also merchandise available for purchase in that very same store.
When I wrote that story, I was angry. In fact, I was livid. While I was incensed that police had killed yet another unarmed Black person doing something as mundane as shopping for groceries, I was simultaneously furious at the caller Ronald T. Ritchie, who incited the altercation to begin with. It has taken nearly two years but it seems now that man, who I argue is single-handedly responsible for Crawford’s mistaken identity escalating to a police altercation, will be punished for his actions.
The only remaining question is: how do we get rid of the culture that empowered Ritchie to make the call in the first place?
News broke recently that an Ohio judge has found enough probable cause to charge Ritchie for making false claims to police about Crawford’s behavior on that fateful day. Later reviews of the emergency calls from Ritchie showed that, not only was he lying about Crawford pointing a rifle at children, the events he was describing never even happened. And, while the inevitable blame for Crawford’s death resides squarely with the Beavercreek Police Department, it is clear Ritchie was instrumental in leading the inept officers toward an innocent shopper who he claimed would “go violently.” Essentially, Ritchie made up a story about Crawford and the police were so incapable and disinterested in doing actual police work that they killed Crawford based on a prank call.
For me, this is where I turn to cultural explanations and move beyond individual instances. There has to be a reason Ritchie thought to exaggerate the events he was (and was not) witnessing. There must be structural mechanisms which set the entire system of confrontation in motion.
I can’t find anything to explain it better than White Fear. We live in the era of social norms and legislation like “Stand Your Ground” and “You see something, say something,” both artifacts of enduring White fragility, a constant worry (despite statistical improbability) that a scary Black person will harm an unassuming White person.
There is no doubt that White Fear – a tangible and predictable facet of United States society – guides many of our individual actions in the public sphere. For folks who find themselves on the margins of society, White Fear is all the more prescient, sometimes even dictating where we get to work, eat, travel, spend time with friends, etc.
For many White people, who often have no friends or family members of color, they use images from movies, verses from popular songs, or entertainers from their favorite sports to create myths about Black people. Having rarely interacted with real Black humans, these formulaic, stereotypical, and hyperbolic images trigger their predispositions about race, welfare, deservingness, violence, crime, and a host of other factors they can project onto their imaginary Black assailants. And, when they come into contact with actual Black people, it isn’t the people before them that they see. Rather, it is the myth, the story, the farce, the Ghost of the Imaginary Past which stands in place of real Black humans. So, really, we aren’t fighting for humanity here. We are struggling to be seen. Like, really seen. But, the veil of White Fears works as a permanent obstructor of interracial vision.
The culture that created the cops who killed Crawford is the same culture that emboldened Ritchie to lie to police dispatchers. It is the same culture that turned Michael Brown into a snarling demon right before Darren Wilson’s very eyes. It is the same culture that transformed Renisha McBride into a looming, ominous figure descending upon a home for illicit purposes. The culture of White Fear and it’s preeminence in daily life shapes so much of our discourse and interracial dealings. In far too many situations, it is the lens through which human interaction in the United States takes place. Yet, so many people still refuse to acknowledge its ubiquity.
While the news that Ritchie may actually see the inside of a jail is heartening, it won’t be what he deserves. Nor will it be sufficient in healing the family that will never be the same all because of his fanstastical phone call about an imaginary Black shooter.
What must happen though, is we must begin to situate and understand our interactions as necessarily linked to and through the fears of Whites. Their fears of becoming average, their fears of not owning all the things, their fears of extinction, their fears of, well, everything. Until we take stock of how White Fear acts as a unifying principle for the largest subset of the US population, we won’t understand our culture. More importantly, we will continue to see these highly publicized issues of violence against Black people as sporadic when they are actually par the course.
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