OPINION: When police can’t see a man’s humanity, things can’t help but turn bad

There are people who still insist that the shooting of Rayshard Brooks wasn’t murder, that it isn’t the same as what happened to George Floyd.

I say they’re wrong. I say it’s worse than what happened to George Floyd.

Police in Minnesota had eight minutes, 46 seconds to decide whether Floyd’s life mattered. Atlanta police officers had more than 40 minutes to make that decision from the time officer Devin Brosnan first approached Brooks.

In that time, the police learned that Brooks was a father, that he was planning a birthday celebration for one of his daughters, that he drove to Wendy’s because he was hungry. That he was within walking distance of his sister’s home. He was inebriated and had fallen asleep in the drive-thru.

It sounded like the sort of conversation you might have with a stranger in the airport or at a bar. I didn’t know Rayshard Brooks, but in just the few minutes I watched his exchange with Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, who answered a call to assist Brosnan, I liked him. I liked Rolfe.

We can’t know everything we need to know about either of these men in a 30-minute exchange, but by sharing bits and pieces of ourselves, we build connectivity and trust.

It can happen even between an officer and a Black citizen. That’s what I thought was happening with Rolfe and Brooks.

Assuming what I learned from Psychology 101 still holds, it takes a mere seven seconds to make a first impression.

RELATED | Why it’s time to put ‘we’ ahead of ‘me’

We categorize each other based on how someone looks and sounds. How we view a person is influenced by implicit biases that we may or may not be aware of, like giving special preference to those with physical beauty or more easily trusting a person who has a baby face.

As University of Sheffield philosopher Jennifer Saul describes it, these “are unconscious, automatic tendencies to associate certain traits with members of particular social groups, in ways that lead to some very disturbing errors: We tend to judge members of stigmatized groups more negatively, in a whole host of ways.”

The more we talk, the more we’re apt to experience a sense of freedom that allows us to be true and authentic. Through an appreciation of each other, we are willing to compromise. And if we’re really present, if we forget about ourselves, we connect in a way that allows us to empathize with the other person.

Here’s the problem. We tend to get attached to our initial impressions of others and find it very difficult to change our opinion, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I hear from readers all the time who point to Black-on-Black crime to explain away police brutality.

They’d have us believe crime is symptomatic of the persistent lawless behavior of Black people.

They couldn’t be further from the truth, yet the racist mythology reinforces public implicit association of Blackness and criminality every time such statements are uttered. This stereotype further entrenches the false narrative that Black citizens don’t share the same moral standards as white society.

When then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted the day after a Black activist was attacked at an Alabama campaign rally “Whites killed by blacks 81%,” it didn’t matter that this was a baldfaced lie — the overwhelming majority of white people killed are killed by other white people — it reinforced the white supremacist narrative of Black people as dangerous.

You have to wonder how much of this was at play when Brooks and Rolfe met two Friday nights ago.

Deborah J. Cohan, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, told me that cases like this reveal the complex interplay between ideological oppression, institutional oppression, and interpersonal oppression.

“There is the idea that one person or group is of more value than the other and thereby has the right to control and dominate, and this becomes embedded in our institutions, and acted out in interpersonal interactions and relationships,” she said.

The police are paramilitary, Cohan said, trained to treat the enemy in as objectified a way as possible. Dehumanization becomes embedded in the process.

“This demands a disconnection from the humanity of the other person, in this case Brooks, as well as disconnection from oneself,” Cohan said.

But listening to the exchange between Brooks and the officer, I was sure they’d made a human connection. Except for what happened next, it looked like the making of a friendship.

RELATED | I’m tired and I can’t breathe either

Some people saw the same thing and thought Brooks was simply trying to talk his way out of trouble.

We will never know because Rolfe and fellow officer Devin Brosnan weren’t willing to give him a pass.

As they began handcuffing Brooks, a struggle ensued, he took one of the officers’ Tasers, then broke loose and ran, firing the Taser but apparently missing Rolfe.

While in pursuit, Rolfe, now charged with felony murder in connection with Brooks’ death, fired three times. Brooks was hit twice and died of gunshot wounds to the back.

I imagine Brooks thinking of his little girl in that moment, regretting he wouldn’t be able to celebrate her birthday with her.

I heard Burke County Sheriff Alfonzo Williams tell CNN’s Brianna Keilar that Rolfe was “completely justified” in using lethal force against 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, that to say otherwise sends the wrong message to Black kids.

“We’re telling them that it’s OK, that they can run from the police, that they can take a weapon from the police, they can fight with the police, and point their weapon at the police, and expect nothing to happen,” Williams said. “That is the wrong message to send to Black youth.”

I don’t know one Black parent who has told their Black kid to run from or fight the police. The talk, instead, goes something like this: Don’t resist police. Don’t talk back. Be respectful.

They know if they do anything else, they could be killed and the police will get away with it.

How do they know this? 400 years of history.

Williams, who is Black, said there was “nothing malicious or sadistic” about the way Rolfe and Brosnan behaved.

In other words, if you put up a fight, if you run, police have every right to shoot you and allegedly kick you for good measure without consequences.

That right there. That’s the wrong message to keep sending to police officers.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.