As the country held its breath in the minutes leading up to the release of the guilty verdict to the cop who murdered George Floyd, another white cop in Columbus, Ohio, named Nicolas Rearden killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a sixteen-year-old Black teen. He shot her four times in the chest. The parallels with the discussion about the meaning of the Chauvin verdict struck poignantly, interrogating what justice looks like in relation to the system of policing itself. A number of bodycam videos of her killing were promptly released to show the fact that Ma’Khia was holding a knife when she was shot and appears to be lunging at another individual. This simple fact is being used to distract from the questions of violence and racism and the structure of the police. Instead, we are presented with a narrative that this is “an unfortunate tragedy” of a cop “making difficult decisions in difficult circumstances.”
The degree of ambivalence I have encountered in conversations around the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant is disappointing. Fox News is going to Fox News, but some people who I know as progressive people on the left have taken this line. “Let’s not compare this to George Floyd,” I heard someone say, “because she had a knife.” “What did you expect him to do?” “She could have killed the other girl had he not acted.” All of these comments are made with an acknowledgement of this being a tragedy, rather than the frothing racism of right-wing commentators. This point of view is still misguided, and I’d like to show why by sharing some of my experience.
For almost eleven years of my life I have worked in group homes with young people Ma’Khia’s age and older, mostly Black. Most of these young people have had extensive histories of trauma, much of which is related directly or indirectly to the structural institutions of racism and poverty. This trauma manifested in difficulties managing the normal stressful situations and difficult emotions that everyone encounters to different degrees. This meant near-daily crises in which I and the people I worked with had to intervene.
In these many years, I have had to intervene in more fights than I can count or remember. These at times can be quite intense, and we have had to engage with violent and aggressive youth with a whole manner of things used as weapons: rocks, sticks, bricks, chairs, pool sticks, broken glass, bottles, fire extinguishers (my least favorite), and, yes, knives. Yet we were able to handle the situation and minimize or stop the violence with basically no major injury as a result of our intervention. We did this with a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the funding and resources that this country’s police departments have.
Of course, sometimes it was dangerous; that came with the territory. I once got my tooth knocked out by getting elbowed in the face trying to break up a fight. But guess what? No child was shot four times in the chest. The very idea that people are debating whether or not the cop’s actions were justified in the situation is bullshit. The very idea that cops should deal with these situations should be challenged, and luckily it is. One of the results of last summer’s rebellion has been a huge shift in consciousness around questions of policing and its utility.
My experience is not even that unique. There are social workers, nurses, and teachers all around the country who have similar experiences to mine. To me, whether or not this cop’s actions were justified is not even a debate, but rather the consequence of the political horizons constrained narrowly to a status quo of policing that is racist, violent, and careless. We need to imagine something different. This is not only easier to picture now, it’s already being done. One example of this is the fight in Chicago to get a fully funded and police-free Treatment Not Trauma program for mental health responders. This is just one piece of a vast variety of ways police should be defunded while we ultimately struggle to completely disband, disarm, and abolish the institution.